Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Report to the Presbytery June 28, 2011

Living into Amendment A in Three Movements.

Movement One: The Briggs Case

In 1874 Professor Charles Augustus Briggs started his career on the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York City teaching in the area of New Testament. At that time Union Seminary was affiliated with our Presbyterian Church. In 1892 his teaching sparked a whirlwind of controversy and disciplinary action in our Presbyterian Church. The problem was that Professor Briggs was teaching a controversial new approach to biblical interpretation which we call the historical critical method. He learned this method of biblical interpretation in Germany when he was a graduate student at the University of Berlin. Under the surface of the Briggs case there is a strong stench of anti-German racism. Disciplinary charges were brought against Briggs in the Presbytery of New York for approaching the interpretation of the New Testament in a way that was thought to be contrary to the Westminster Confession. Briggs was convicted, the case was appealed to the Synod, the Presbytery’s action was overturned, the case was appealed to the General Assembly. The General Assembly upheld the Presbytery of New York and Briggs’ ordination in the Presbyterian Church was removed, since he refused to give up his teaching position. But by this time the Seminary itself was supporting Briggs, and the whole affair escalated into action against Union Seminary. Because of the General Assembly decision, the Seminary broke all official relationships with the Presbyterian Church, becoming an independent theological seminary, which is today affiliated with Columbia University. The no-longer Presbyterian, Professor Briggs was retained on the faculty at Union Seminary and had a long, prolific career as a New Testament scholar.
Fast forward with me about eight decades. In the 1980s I was a student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary which continues to be affiliated with our Presbyterian Church. My professor of New Testament was Ulrich Mauser. My professor of Old Testament, a wonderful mentor of mine and also the preacher at my Ordination Service, was Eberhard von Waldow. Think about that: Mauser and von Waldow. Now what nationality do you think they are? Indeed both Professors Mauser and von Waldow were born and educated in Germany. While on the faculty of Pittsburgh Seminary, they immersed their students, including me, in the historical critical method of biblical interpretation. We were taught to take seriously the cultural, historical and linguistic context of the Bible.
As I reflect on the Briggs case I find that history to be sad. Given the culture and theological commitments of the church at that time, it probably could not have come out any different. But I wish we as a church were big enough to listen to Professor Briggs. In fact, what he was teaching and preaching has become foundational for our Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church believes that the Bible must be interpreted. Our pastors, in their theological education and in our continuing commitment to study Greek and Hebrew, are taught the tools and methods by which we interpret the Bible. We interpret the Bible. We believe that the Bible must be interpreted. What I am saying is not at all controversial or debated today. This is the air we breath; we all know this. If we believe that the Bible must be interpreted; we must also believe that there may be different interpretations of the Bible. This is a belief with which we truly need to make peace.

Movement Two: The Fundamentalist Modernist Controversy
In the 1920s our Presbyterian Church moved into a bitter season of conflict which was complex, multi-faceted and nasty. In order to be brief, I need to jump to the end of the story. But in some ways the Fundamentalist Modernist controversy has never ended and we are still living with it. Nonetheless there was a formal end to the Fundamentalist- Modernist controversy with a report that was overwhelming received and appreciated: the Special Commission of 1925. There are two conclusions of the Special Commission which define the church we are today.
In a nutshell, without discussing any of the personalities involved, the essential issue at the heart of the Fundamentalist Modernist Controversy was the desire of the General Assembly to define five specific points of theological doctrine as absolutely essential. In fact, the General Assembly has approved these five points of necessary theological conviction several different times prior to 1925.
But the Special Commission of 1925 clearly articulated what has always been, what was then, and what continues to be the practice of the Church. The General Assembly cannot define the theological doctrines of the church without the approval of the presbyteries. We have always lived in this tension between a unified, national voice spoken by the General Assembly and the many local voices and convictions spoken by the presbyteries. We are always going to live in this messy place which is a tug of war between the presbyteries and the General Assembly, and between presbyteries themselves. It is exactly in that messiness, in that tug and pull between these different councils and between different convictions that we seek to discern the will and way of God and move the church forward. In my opinion, one of great gifts of being Presbyterian is that we learn to live with, and I hope, embrace this deep discernment. We have never had and we will never have a General Assembly, or a Book of Order, or a council of bishops, or, God forbid, an executive presbyter that is going to precisely define the way we should act or our theological convictions. We are going to figure it out and continue to figure it out in the beautiful and awkward dance of the General Assembly, the presbyteries, and our congregations together.
The Special Commission of 1925 also expressed a significant spiritual conviction which I wish was more important and more practiced in our common life. The Commission in 1925 called us to a principle of toleration. Here is a direct quote from the Special Commission of 1925, an age long before the use of inclusive language: “Toleration does not involve any lowering of the Standards. It does not weaken the testimony of the Church as to its assured convictions. It does not imply that support is offered to what may be regarded as a brother's error. But it does mean that in the spirit of Christ, patience is exercised by the body of the Church toward those deemed to be at fault in some of their beliefs, remembering our own proneness to err, in order that by the manifestation of such graces, and by prayer, together with fidelity in our own witnessing, all finally, may be brought to see eye to eye in a fuller apprehension of the truth, and led into a convincing compliance with the Master's new commandment that His disciples should love one another.”

Movement Three: The Book of Confessions
In the 1960s our Presbyterian Church made a transformative decision. We approved the Confession of 1967 and created our Book of Confessions. Up to that time the Presbyterian Church had one authoritative Confession of Faith, the Westminster Confession. Today there are now several generations of pastors, including me, who have grown up with and have been formed in the theology of the Book of Confessions. I believe the theology of the Book of Confessions is beautiful and correct; this is the way I was raised and educated. The theology of the Book of Confessions is the conviction that theological expression changes. Theological expression changes. As culture, historical context, political and social practices change over time so does theological expression. Thus the Scot’s Confession is different than the Barmen Declaration which is different than the Confession of 1967. The theology of the Book of Confessions is essential today.
But there was consequence to the approval of the Book of Confessions which I would like to address, as my final word. The Presbyterian Lay Committee was formed in 1965 in opposition to the Confession of 1967 and what was considered the dilution of the Westminster Confession. The Lay Committee started a modern phenomenon in the church of what I will call theological political action committees. And now there are many in our Church: The Lay Committee, Covenant Network, Presbyterians for Renewal, The Outreach Foundation, The Frontier Fellowship, the Witherspoon Society, Presbyterians Pro-life, etc. It looks like we have a new group forming called the Fellowship. I certainly respect these groups. My concern is not about the existence of these groups; I have no problem with that. But I believe there has been an unintended consequence. Because we now have many different theological political action groups all around the church, it seems to me that they have become the location for theological discussion. Thus, I believe, serious, deep, thoughtful and prayerful theological discussion has been sucked out of the presbyteries. We simply do not do it anymore. The Presbytery must get back into the hard work of doing theology. Let’s do theology together. Let’s do theology together as a Presbytery, not in small groups of like-minded friends. Let’s do theology together as a Presbytery, fully aware of the wild diversity in our midst. Let’s do theology together which is immersed in the Bible, which is inspired by the theology of our Book of Confessions, and which embodies a principle of toleration. Let’s do theology together. Amen!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Using Bonhoeffer for Prayer and Reflection

A resource for prayer and spiritual reflection
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Life Together.

Introduction: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran Pastor arrested, imprisoned and killed by the Gestapo in Nazi Germany. His writings, especially the books The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, have become enduring classics for the church. There is a new, English critical edition of Bonhoeffer’s works published by Fortress Press, including an Amazon Kindle electronic version. For an introduction to Bonhoeffer search on his name in Wikipedia.org. All quotations here are from “Community,” the first chapter in Life Together.

Bonhoeffer: Therefore, let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts. Let them thank God on their knees and realize: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.

How important is the community of Christians in your life today?
Consider in your mind and heart, and pray for the people who have been part of your Christian community throughout your life?

Bonhoeffer: Therefore, we may now say that the community of Christians springs solely from the biblical and reformation message of the justification of human beings through grace alone. The longing of Christians for one another is based solely on this message.

Bonhoeffer considers the message of justification through grace alone to be foundational.
What do you think this means?
What are the foundational convictions of your Christian faith?

Bonhoeffer: Now Christians can live with each other in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one. But they can continue to do so only through Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus Christ are we one; only through him are we bound together.

What is it that separates Christians from one another?
What is it that binds Christians together?

Bonhoeffer: It is essential for Christian community that two things become clear right from the beginning. First Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality; second, Christian community is a spiritual and not a psychic reality.

Bonhoeffer makes a striking distinction here between ‘ideal’ and ‘divine reality’ and also between a ‘spiritual’ and ‘psychic’ reality.

What do you think he means?
Do you agree?
Are these distinctions helpful for you today?

Bonhoeffer: Because God already has laid the only foundation of our community, because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive.

What do you believe is the foundation for Christian community today?
Do you believe you belong to such a Christian community?

Bonhoeffer: We are bound together by faith, not by experience.

Do you agree with this sentence?

Bonhoeffer: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Bonhoeffer begins the book Life Together with this Bible verse.
What comes to your mind when you read this verse?

Please pray for life together in unity.

Mark J. Englund-Krieger
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Carlisle
May 2011

Questions concerning Amendment A

Some Questions and Answers in response to the approval of Amendment A
The Change in Ordination Standards of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

What has happened?
In July 2010, the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved a proposed amendment (10-A) to the Book of Order, part of the PC(USA) Constitution, regarding ordination standards. As with all constitutional changes, Amendment 10-A required ratification by a majority of the PC(USA)’s 173 presbyteries (regional bodies) for it to become part of the Book of Order. Now a majority of our presbyteries have approved Amendment 10-A.

What will change?
The following provision that is currently in the Book of Order (G‐6.0106b) will be changed:

Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W‐4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self‐acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

The new language (Amendment 10-A) will read:

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G- 14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

What does this mean?

• A person in a same-gender relationship can be considered for ordination as deacon, elder, or Minister of the Word and Sacrament. The ordination standards have changed from “living in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” to “joyfully submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

• All other church wide standards for ordination remain unchanged. (There was never a prohibition against a person being ordained based on sexual orientation, as long as that person was celibate.)

• Ordaining bodies continue to retain the right and responsibility to determine their own memberships. A congregation continues to elect their deacons and elders and the session examines them for suitability of office. Likewise, presbyteries examine individuals for suitability to be ordained as ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

What will remain the same?
Ordaining bodies have always had, and will continue to have, the right and responsibility to determine their own memberships; and our church continues to affirm that all those called by God to ordained office acknowledge that Jesus is Lord of all and Head of the Church.

What’s next?
Amendment 10-A will take effect on July 10, 2011 (one year after the adjournment of the last assembly). Already, the change has energized many conversations at all levels across the PC(USA) about how we can best enable the gifts of those called to service in Christ’s church and have mutual respect for each other’s integrity. In addition, sessions and presbyteries will review their processes for examination.

May congregations now ordain people who are openly gay?
The previous standards were never based on a person’s orientation, but on their behavior. The new standards do not list specific behaviors that automatically exclude someone for consideration for ordination. Each examining body is responsible to look at all possible factors to determine if someone is being called into ordained ministry.

What practical changes will we see?
If Pastors, elders, and deacons who are ordained in one area move to another location, they shall be examined according to the standards of that ordaining body before being able to take up their office. Those standards may or may not conform to the standards that were used by the body that originally ordained them.

Is the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians mandated?
No, it is not required, but it is no longer prohibited by specific Constitutional language.

Will a congregation be required to change anything?
A congregation cannot be forced to ordain or receive pastors or elders or deacons of whom they do not approve. The congregation retains the right to determine who will serve as officers.

May a congregation or presbytery continue to uphold the old standards?
Yes, as long as the standards used are applied on a case by case basis. The authority for ordaining elders and deacons is fully vested in the local congregation. The authority for ordaining Ministers of the Word and Sacrament is fully vested in the presbytery. The new language calls the ordaining body to be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying ordination standards to individual candidates.

May a congregation or presbytery now ordain or install a sexually active homosexual?
Yes, if after a thorough examination, the congregation or presbytery believes the person to be called by God to serve as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, elder or deacon and not to be living in violation of the church’s ordination standard, its Confessions, or Scripture.

Is a presbytery required to receive, by transfer of membership, an ordained sexually active gay or lesbian minister?
No, each presbytery determines which ministers to receive into its membership.

May questions about a candidate’s sexuality be asked or are such questions forbidden?
All questions are allowed during an examination. The acknowledgement of being sexually active outside the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman does not automatically disqualify a person from being ordained.

Is a congregation required to call a pastor who is openly gay or lesbian?

How will this change influence Presbyterian World Mission?
We do not want to lose our relationship with our global partners, mission personnel or with the advocates of World Mission throughout the United States. We know we are better together and we celebrate the work we do on behalf of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. We always remember that we serve at the invitation of our global partners. We have always taken into consideration that our partners in other places in the world might have differing views on who is suitable for ordination, or who is suitable to be appointed as a mission co-worker. We always work appropriately in a collegial way with those partners.

Gathered and edited from a variety of sources.
Mark J. Englund-Krieger
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Carlisle
May 2011