Comings and Goings is a blog written by Theology, Worship and Education Director Charles B. "Chip" Hardwick as he travels throughout the church. God is on the move out and about in the world, working to redeem all things in Jesus Christ. As we join this mission, by the power of the Spirit we see God on the move. This blog contains glimpses of how Chip finds this to be true in his comings and goings.
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Last week I made a quick stop in Texas to participate in a congregational forum at First Presbyterian Church of Houston. (I had planned to fly directly from Charlotte to New York on the night of the forum, but my host Rev. Andrew Stepp convinced me that Houston was right on the way!)
The congregation is a large, vibrant community of faith which is on the conservative side of the denomination. Like other similar churches, it is wrestling with its future, and how it can best join Christ’s mission to the world: by remaining within the PC(USA), or by joining another denomination. However, the discernment process it has designed is, by far, the most helpful that I have ever seen.
I noticed immediately from the church’s website that the Session and staff had made available even-handed information which seeks to give out information, rather than to convince the congregation to vote one way or the other. All too often in situations like these, the congregation is simply given one-sided perspectives which seek to lead members to the same conclusions as the pastor and/or Session. The materials from First Pres did not suggest a preconceived conclusion, and rather sought to clarify both perspectives from the most positive and careful point of view. (Click here to view these materials and other information about their process.)
The event in which I participated had a similar feel. I was grateful to speak alongside my friend Rich Kannwischer, pastor of the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in California. The topic was whether or not there had been “theological drift” in the PCUSA. But rather than it feeling like any type of debate, the room (as you can see in the picture to the left) was set up in concentric circles, and both Rich and I sought to be clear and persuasive, but encouraging at all times. The coordinators hoped that we could model a spirit of reconciliation between us, and I pray that we were able to do that. (Choosing who spoke first using rock, paper, scissors might have helped set that tone!) The moderator of the event (who does not attend the church) was wonderfully non-anxious and worked hard to draw out what we were saying so that the more than three hundred attendees would have a better idea of what we were trying to say in the first place.
As we both spoke, people seemed very engaged. It was very difficult for me to tell who among the audience was in favor of leaving, and who was in favor of staying. In conversations before and after the event, I was also unaware. The difference from other similar events at other churches (where people practically introduce themselves to me by saying whether they are “pro” or “con” about staying within the denomination) was marked.
The whole process is far broader than this forum and the documents on the website. I encourage you to reach out directly to the church by clicking here if you are interested in learning more. I was so grateful to see a church which was striving for unity even among strong differences of opinion. We Presbyterians do not believe that all Christians must be in the same denomination to experience the unity Christ wants to give us, but we do believe that working toward reconciliation, even when we disagree, is one way to show gratitude to our Savior who prayed that we would be one the night before he headed to the cross. First Pres’ discernment process honors Christ, and I’m grateful that I got to see it up close and personally.