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Thinking the Faith, Praying the Faith, Living the Faith is written by the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship.

Thinking, praying, and living the faith is at the core of ministry in the Office of Theology and Worship. In the following videos, learn more about what thinking, praying, and living the faith means to the leadership of the Office of Theology and Worship. Discover why it matters and what difference it makes in our lives, work, and worship.  

Charles Wiley  
Barry Ensign-George
David Gambrell
Christine Hong 
Karen Russell

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May 8, 2014

Unity, Confessions, and the Book of Order

What is the relationship between our confession of faith and our polity?  Why do we have a collection of confessions in our denomination's Constitution?  What role do they (could they) play in shaping our life together?  How can we be faithful to the commitments we've made in the two parts of our Constitution: first The Book of Confessions, and second the Book of Order?

My colleague, Charles Wiley, and I reflected on these questions in a brief statement that was published last fall: Constituting Us: Confessions and Polity in the PC(USA).  In December I was invited to reflect further on the relationship between our confession of faith and our polity as part of Moderator Neal Presa's Second Colloquium on Unity and Diversity.  I built my reflections around Constituting Us.  I added reflections on our Constitution as a lead-in to that document.  Following that document, I also added some brief reflections on how the relationship of the two parts of our Constitution might bear on actions at our upcoming General Assembly, especially as regards our discussion of marriage.  The result is Unity, Confessions, and the Book of Order: the Constitution of the PC(USA) and How It Constitutes Us.

Here's how it starts: "The relationship between the two parts of our Constitution - The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order - is an abiding, persistent problem . . "  Read more.


Tags: book of confessions, book of order, confessions, constitution, marriage, polity

  1. Barry: Thank you for thus calling our attention to the ongoing importance of the confessions. Very good. Jim

    by Dr. James C. Goodloe IV

    May 21, 2014

  2. Jim, Thanks for coming to this particular point. The commissioner who raised the point of order at the last General Assembly is, of course, you. This is a matter that matters, and you have focused our attention on it. So please give me some room to state this with a certain care. I am trying to make a point that is different than either the point of order, or the ruling on that point of order. The Book of Confessions is, we affirm the statement of the theological affirmations that constitute us (the PC(USA)) as a distinct denomination (at least, integrity requires officers of the church to make this affirmation in word and deed). As the Book of Order puts it: “In these statements the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do.” The verbs are all present tense. What makes us a denomination is not simply warm feelings about one another, it is not simply belonging to the same organization. It is our commitment to one another to live the Christian faith in a particular way, with particular distinctives and emphases. Anything that would reduce this part of our Constitution to little more than an attic full of heirlooms serves to undercut our what links us together. I wish that there had been clarity about this at the last General Assembly. At the same time, while confession of faith overlaps with polity, the two are not the same. There is room for the two parts of our Constitution to be out of sync with one another. But only for a limited time. But I don’t think we can specify in advance how long a “limited” time is. I think you lean too far on the short end of the scale when you say “some brief time.” At the same time, it cannot stretch over a long period of time without damaging the commitments we’ve made to one another When the two parts of our Constitution are out of sync, it suggests that our statement of who and what we are, what we believe, and what we resolve to do (in Part I) is in fact false – either pretty language that doesn’t have much to do with our actual shared life, or just an outright lie. In either case, what is at stake are the commitments we’ve made to one another; when the two parts of our Constitution are out of sync with one another a central part of our commitments to one another go out of focus, they become unsure. Our words to one another become fuzzy. Which is a failure of love: love does not obfuscate, just as it does not belittle that which constitutes us as one denomination. Hope this helps, Barry

    by Barry Ensign-George

    PC(USA) Staff

    May 18, 2014

  3. Barry: So, to be perfectly clear, basically you agree with the point of order raised by the commissioner at the general assembly in 2012 that it would be inappropriate to amend the Book of Order into conflict with The Book of Confessions. Conversely, you disagree with the advice of the chair of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, the advice of the stated clerk, the ruling of the moderator, and the concurring vote of the assembly that The Book of Confessions is merely a museum collection of historical artifacts of what the church used to believe, so that the Book of Order can be amended without consideration of what the confessions say. Perhaps the only distinction between the commissioner’s point of order and your essay is that you might allow some brief time of transition for amendments to Part I of the Constitution to catch up with amendments to Part II, whereas the commissioner’s point was that any such amendments would need to be done simultaneously. Am I understanding this correctly? By the way, I believe that when the ordination of women was approved, at least in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, we were governed by the Westminster documents, which do not disallow the ordination of women, so no conflict was created by that amendment. Jim

    by Dr. James C. Goodloe IV

    May 12, 2014

  4. Dr. Goodloe, What I'm trying to say in the final paragraph of my reflection is that changing the definition of marriage is significant, and runs against a view of marriage that is held throughout The Book of Confessions. Changing the definition of marriage is more than a matter of changing a few words or sentences in the Book of Order. It affects the commitments we understand ourselves to have made - commitments to and from one another. Honoring our shared life together requires addressing the conflict which would be set up between our constituting confession of faith and our polity. I hope that we will address that conflict more quickly than we managed to do in the case of the ordination of women.

    by Barry Ensign-George

    May 12, 2014

  5. Thanks, Jay, for your comment. I find myself wondering whether in this moment we need to be guided by Romans 12:10 - the part that says "love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor." Where could we be if we made spaces for one another in which we honor one another even in the presence of strong disagreement with one another? Not all legitimate differences of theological view can be accommodated within one denomination: the separate existence of the PC(USA) proves that, separated as we are even from sisters and brothers within denominations that are very similar to us (where our disagreements are over relatively small - but important - matters). But it could be that before moving forward in different denominational structures we would be willing to stretch our own denominational structures as far as possible. Were we to begin with honoring one another, it might help us stretch creatively and faithfully, in ways that meaningfully respond to one another's concerns.

    by Barry Ensign-George

    May 12, 2014

  6. Dear Dr. Ensign-George: Thank you for your recent writing, “Unity, Confessions, and the Book of Order: the Constitution of the PC(USA) and How It Constitutes Us.” I especially appreciate your insights into how the constitution “constitutes” us. That is what it does! Ignoring, belittling, dismissing, or destroying these documents would tend not only to make us non-confessional and post-constitutional but also and therefore to de-constitute us as a church. Do I understand correctly from the last paragraph on p. 8 that it is your position that while “some” minor conflict between Parts I and II of the constitution might be possible, changes to the Book of Order as substantive and massive as those contemplated in redefining marriage call for concomitant and perhaps even simultaneous revisions to all the related parts of The Book of Confessions? Thank you.

    by Dr. James C. Goodloe IV

    May 10, 2014

  7. Thank you, Barry, for framing Charles & your paper so effectively. Thanks especially for Part III; as I have said elsewhere,we will need to do the hard, loving confessional work for each other.

    by Jay Wilkins

    May 9, 2014

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