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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

So Who ARE We Anyway?
January 17, 2019

Identity theft is one of the most egregious attacks one can suffer, with residual effects lasting for years. Our risk of suffering such a blow has skyrocketed with the advent of internet-based financial dealings, though anyone who holds savings or makes transactions with anything other than cash is at risk. And of course, if you keep much cash on hand, you are at higher risk for more old-fashioned forms of theft.

Theft is one thing. Giving away your identity is even worse. Whether we give it away consciously or by sheer indifference, the result is the same. I fear we have given away much of what constitutes our unique identity as Presbyterians, our Presbyterian DNA, mainly through benign neglect of nurturing it. It is still there, thanks to a rich heritage of forebears who wrote prolifically of their understanding of who God is, who we are, what God has done for us, and what God requires of us. But we have allowed that wisdom to collect dust on the shelves, rather than mining its treasures for all they offer.

This is not a uniquely Presbyterian problem. Loss of denominational identity is reflected in the reality that denominational loyalty is at an all-time low, with denominational affiliation having become one of the lowest factors in how people decide which congregation to join. In a recent publication, the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life provocatively suggests that what defines our religious affiliations today is an eight-point typology of religious engagement, rather than particular denominational or theological commitments.

As we know all too well, not only individuals, but entire congregations are sometimes eager to change denominations in order to find what they perceive as a better fit for them. Not only for the world beyond our walls, but even for those within our fellowship, there is scant awareness of, let alone appreciation for, the riches that deck our Presbyterian heritage.

I was privileged a few years ago to participate in an official ecumenical dialogue group the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) engaged with another large denomination. We explored each other’s theology and polity in depth, emerging with much greater appreciation for one another than we had known before. One of the things they highlighted as one of the most important things they discovered in us is how our theology shapes our polity. Their polity is pragmatically based, and they came away from our conversations committed to working toward theologizing their polity more intentionally.

Frankly, this caught our PCUSA contingent by surprise. We are so accustomed to our polity being theologically grounded that we had no idea how important or unique that might be.

To put it another way, using the formulation above, what God requires of us (our way of conducting our life together, which includes our polity) flows naturally from our sense of who God is, who we are, and what God has done for us. Our Book of Order opens with a paragraph entitled “God’s Mission.” Of course it does, we might think. Where else would we begin? The very fact that we begin our polity this way underscores something critical to our DNA, and we take it for granted to our peril. If we were consciously faithful to our identity, we would conduct no substantive polity conversation without beginning with the question, “Where is God in this picture?”

I belong to a Facebook group called “Happy to be a Presbyterian.” Many of us are indeed happy that God has seen fit to locate us in this spiritual family, but can we say why? Even our President is happy to cite his Presbyterian roots as his religious identifier. I know many good people who are proudly Presbyterian, but would have a difficult time offering any theological account for that.

Twenty years ago a Presbyterian pastor published a book entitled Presbyterians: People of the Middle Way. He argued that essential to our core identity is the practice of taking mediating positions between opposing sides, as we do in organizing ourselves somewhere between a hierarchically-driven church and a congregationally-based church. He is surely right in many ways, and I know congregations that have found his book a fine guide for new member classes. Yet we need more than a general identity as a church inclined to locate itself somewhere in the middle of the pack. The writer of Revelation had little use for a church that is neither hot nor cold. (Revelation 3:15-16)

What do we embrace with passion and what do we tenaciously resist? Where are we ready to stand firm for who we are and who we are not? I intend this year in these letters to offer a broad-ranging review of our Presbyterian identity, not to repristinate some glorious golden past or to embrace all it offers uncritically, but to afford us a reliable map to navigate the challenges that lie ahead of us. I am persuaded that our tradition offers some of the best tools to interpret our world and shape Gospel proclamation accordingly. I hope when all is said and done we will be even more “happy to be a Presbyterian!”

Yours in seeking to be true to our calling,

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

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