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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Staying in Balance: Freedom & Order
April 30, 2015

I will never forget a sermon I heard many years ago. The text was a familiar one that warms even the most stoic Presbyterian heart: “All things should be done decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14:40) Braced for the standard defense of good Presbyterian order that usually attends that text, I was unprepared for the preacher’s main point: “The text not only advocates for decency and good order; it also urges that ‘all things’ should be done!” Earlier in the chapter Paul enumerates some of these things: prophecy, tongues, interpretation, singing, teaching, and revelation. Each member of the church brings something to contribute to worship, for the benefit of the rest: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretations. Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Corinthians 14:26)

Yet this freedom for “all things” lives and breathes within a culture of order. One of the great Presbyterian insights is that good order gives space for genuine freedom; order is not the enemy, but the condition of true freedom.

This dance between order and freedom is always a lively one when it comes to how Presbyterians worship. Within Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions, worship order and content are consistent wherever people of those traditions gather to worship. A Catholic is virtually as much at home in worship in Borneo as in Brookline. On the other end of the spectrum, Pentecostals world-wide adopt local cultural idioms, from music styles to organizational patterns.

Presbyterians stand somewhere in the middle. We have liturgical patterns that we think important enough to include in our Book of Order, yet we do not require subscription to most of them. We publish denominational hymnals, but do not demand that churches use them. We commend joining our ecumenical partners in following the Revised Common Lectionary, yet leave to each pastor the freedom to select his/her own sermon text. We extol the virtues of a strong music program, yet leave each congregation the option of investing as little or as much in the music as it deems appropriate. The Book of Order mandates only three things for each Lord’s Day worship service: that Scripture be read and proclaimed, that prayer be engaged, and that there be opportunity for self-offering. (W-3.3100)

As a result, Presbyterian churches can feel very different from each other on Sunday mornings. We have music from Bach to Rock, formal and informal liturgies, robes and jeans, hymnals and slideshows, choirs and praise bands – sometimes all within a single worship service!

At last year’s General Assembly, our denomination’s Office of Theology and Worship was authorized to prepare and circulate for study a complete revision of the “Directory for Worship” in our Book of Order. That proposal is now available for review here, and I encourage all of us who will to review it and offer feedback as requested.

While our form of government applies to the whole church, its actual application varies considerably from place to place, because we believe that each part of the church has both the freedom and the responsibility to discern whom God is calling to serve in its ministries. There are limits to this freedom – we may call to service only those who are willing to affirm our ordination vows, and to undertake the preparation for service that our constitution stipulates.

Forty years ago, Pittsburgh Presbytery was asked to consider whether to ordain Walter Wynn Kenyon, a ministerial candidate who had publicly declared his belief that women should not be ordained. The presbytery decided that this was a matter on which we could grant freedom, so it voted to ordain him. That decision was appealed and eventually overturned by the General Assembly, which declared that opening ordination equally to men and women is essential to the life and witness of our denomination.

Recent denominational decisions granting latitude to ordain GLBT persons and to marry same-sex couples raise again the challenge of finding a way to maintain our historic delicate balance of freedom and order. Are we able to stay the course we have set upon, to be a community that agrees to continue walking together while we disagree from congregation to congregation, or presbytery to presbytery, on these questions? As we engage that challenge, I invite us to study together a very helpful paper on this topic recently published by our church’s Office of Theology and Worship, “Our Challenging Way.”

Holding together in dynamic tension our commitments to freedom and order requires us to extend generosity to people who differ from us on important matters. Can we be a community that, amid abiding differences of emphasis, culture, and practice, still displays the reconciliation effected by our Lord Jesus through his death and resurrection? Nothing less than the credibility of the Gospel we proclaim is at stake.

Yours in reconciliation,

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

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