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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

General Assembly
Saturday, July 7, 2012

General Assemblies are a lot like presbytery meetings in some respects. One such similarity is that some items of business take way longer than the time docketed, while others just blaze on through. Yesterday’s action at GA demonstrated this in spades, as just two items –  issues of divestment from Israel (a failed attempt to have GA rescind the previous day’s action rejecting divestment) and the nature of marriage – dominated most of the day. Since these were two of the most controversial issues before the assembly, moderator Neal Presa saw fit to let the debates continue at length before votes were taken. The assembly remained convened well into the wee hours of this morning as it raced to complete the remainder of its business.

Perhaps the most closely-watched matter before GA, the issue of same sex marriage, was debated for several hours before the assembly voted 338-308 against the committee proposal that marriage be redefined in our Book of Order, from being a civil contract between “a man and a woman” to being “between two persons.” The assembly concurred with the committee in rejecting a proposal to grant Presbyterians permission to conduct same sex marriages in places where such marriages are legally available. Subsequently, a substantial majority of the assembly voted that presbyteries be directed to engage in a serious two-year study of the nature of Christian marriage, expressing fervent desire and commitment that God’s rule will prevail among us.

Conducting this study will be far from easy. Some of us already have strong convictions either in opposition to or support of same sex marriage, while others are less certain. Increasing numbers of states permit same sex marriage, while most churches do not, creating tensions that the church must address, whether or not we are voting on changing our official definitions and policies. I believe our chances of exercising real spiritual discernment are much better when we’re seeking the Lord’s will not because we are arming for a vote, but simply because it’s what God calls us to do.

As with other matters of controversy, with this issue the church needs to go deeper into God’s Word even as it seeks to be more open to the move of God’s Spirit. Word and Spirit always belong together in God’s economy. Without the Spirit opening up to us God’s new way, “the letter kills” (2 Corinthians 3:6); and without being anchored by a sure faith rooted in God’s Word, we will be tossed about by every wind that blows upon us (James 1:6). We must ever “test the spirits” by the Word (1 Peter 4:1), yet not “quench the Spirit” by being unteachable (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

Might our struggles over close votes on difficult matters be part of the larger challenge always before the church, to be fully attentive to both Word and Spirit as we seek God’s will and way? When it comes to Word and Spirit, it’s never either/or, but always both/and. Sometimes we privilege one over the other (and that to our peril). Both are equally and fully needed.

And so today the 220th General Assembly draws to a close in the same way it started eight days ago, with a service of worship. For the hundreds who have poured boundless energy into hosting this sweltering assembly, it will certainly be a relief to have it over. But it will also be bittersweet, as we have found great blessing in hosting our brothers and sisters over the past week. Accolades about our hospitality have been loud and constant wherever I have turned – friends, we have done our city and our presbytery extraordinarily proud! In so doing, I believe we have also pleased our Lord.

Special kudos go to our COLA executive committee and sub-committee chairs, who did an amazing job preparing and deploying our army of amazing volunteers for their hosting duties. I invite you one last time to go to the COLA website to see the amazing range of awesome work this team did. While you’re there, check out the brand new posting of the spectacular welcome videos on “walking, running, and soaring” that were shown at the opening plenary. May we go forward living abundantly into our GA theme, walking and running and soaring in our Lord’s hope!

Grateful to be in this ministry with you,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Click here for the directory of archived letters.