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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Reaching Across the Aisle
November 7, 2014

This week I was privileged to make a presentation to the annual meeting of the North American Division of the Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) Church. For the past several years, I have been part of a formal dialogue between representatives of our two churches. The group has met annually to learn about each other’s doctrines and practices, and to discover what we share in common even as we honestly probe our differences. It has been a richly joyous experience for all of us in the dialogue group, who have become fast friends. Earlier this year an SDA representative came to our General Assembly and reported to the PCUSA all that the dialogue meant to them; this week another member of our team, Barbara Wheeler of Auburn Seminary, and I reciprocated at their annual assembly. We felt extraordinarily welcomed by our hosts; in fact, they responded to our remarks this week with a standing ovation, something unprecedented for me!

Why do we sometimes more readily affirm and collaborate with folk some distance away than we do with people nearby? Presbyterians have historically been leaders in ecumenical efforts to bridge the chasms between churches long separated, but sometimes we have found it far harder to reach across the aisle to those with whom we share most things in common. Sometimes we are more inclined to assume the best of strangers than we are of our own family members.

I am delighted to be part of the leadership of Christian Associates, the ecumenical table in southwestern Pennsylvania that includes Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Salvation Army, African Methodist Episcopal, Seventh-Day Adventists, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Presbyterians...and the list goes on. We meet as a full council four times a year, while the bishops and executives meet monthly for table fellowship, prayer, study, and mutual encouragement. We are all far richer for taking the time and making the effort to work together.

Last year Christian Associates hammered out a covenant of mutuality to which its members then unanimously agreed – a rule governing how Christian Associates members speak about each other. Later, our presbytery’s Executive Committee acted to affirm this rule for how we in Pittsburgh Presbytery speak about our brothers and sisters in other denominations. Here is that covenant:

Out of love for the Church of our Lord Jesus, and in order to promote a positive witness to the world;

  1. When we speak privately to each other, we will be honest, speaking with candor and love;

  2. When we speak publicly about each other, we will avoid bearing false witness, but will interpret each other’s words and actions in the best possible light;

  3. When we speak formally for each other, we will use words that we have agreed to use together; and 

  4. When we choose to speak together to the Church and to the world, we will strive to speak in such a way that others may hear the voice of Jesus in the words we use.

I invite us all to read this carefully, and then to ask ourselves: If we are prepared to make such a commitment in how we talk about Christians whose faith and practice may differ significantly from our own, what prevents us from being likewise committed to speaking in this way of brothers and sisters who are close at hand? Are we as prepared to reach across the aisle within our own household as we are to reach across the ravines that have separated us from people of other traditions?

And so I offer a modest proposal for the way we conduct ourselves within our own family: That we commit to being as kind and generous to our nearest kin – in our household, in our congregation, in our presbytery, in our denomination – as we are prepared to be with those who live, work, and worship at a further distance from us. Will you join me in making that modest commitment?

Reaching across the aisle,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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