Following a longstanding tradition of speaking to issues in the life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that touch the basic commitments that shape the church’s shared denominational life, the Office of Theology and Worship has released a ‘white paper’ entitled “Our Challenging Way: Faithfulness, Sex, Ordination and Marriage.”
The paper comes months after the 221st General Assembly (2014) took significant and controversial action on the church’s understanding of Christian marriage.
Authored by Charles A. Wiley III, coordinator for the Office of Theology and Worship and the Rev. Barry Ensign-George, associate for Theology, the paper is intended to help Presbyterian leaders and congregations interpret the General Assembly’s actions in the light of the historical, theological, denominational, and cultural contexts.
“One aspect of the vocation of our office has been to try to reflect theologically on what is going on in the PC(USA),” said Wiley. “We do so not by taking a particular ‘side’ but by reflecting on the best of our tradition to see what insight may emerge in a conversation between the pressing issues of today with the deep wisdom of our forebears.”
In 2001 — during a time of conflict and unclarity over what the denomination affirms about who Jesus Christ is — the office of Theology and Worship issued the paper “Hope In the Lord Jesus Christ,” with the goal of underlining the basic, central affirmations made in the PC(USA)’s Constitution about Jesus Christ.
In the months following the 220th General Assembly (2012), the office issued “Constituting Us” in an effort to affirm the constitutional standing and effect of the Book of Confessions and to affirm that the church’s confession of faith and its polity are related in complex ways.
“Our Challenging Way: Faithfulness, Sex, Ordination and Marriage” follows in that rich tradition. It draws the conclusion that the PC(USA) has in effect “decided…not to decide” in the matter of ordination, as it pertains to sexual relationship, and, most recently on the issue of same-gender marriage.
With regard to the General Assembly’s actions — both its Authoritative Interpretation allowing pastors to conduct a same-gender marriage service where the laws of the state allow, and in its proposed amendment to the Book of Order, which would change the definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people” — the paper states that “as a denomination we regard both understandings of the Word of God…opposed as they may be — as equally faithful.”
The Rev. Jerry Andrews, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in San Diego — while in agreement with the basic language of “deciding not to decide” — said that the paper’s assertion that the PC(USA) is affirming two faithful ways forward is “a bit of an overstatement.”
“It’s not as if the office of Theology and Worship persuaded the General Assembly to try to figure out a way to go forward, they got stuck with it,” Andrews said. “Barry and Charles have apparently been given the assignment of making lemonade of lemons. That they have been given lemons may not be as clear to others as it is to me, an evangelical.”
Even so Andrews said that the office, with this paper, has done a “good and serviceable thing for the church,” by arguing “let’s not decide against one another, which frankly serves me, and other evangelicals.”
“It’s fair to say that this paper has done a great job of helping us to think about the General Assembly’s decisions in other than the obvious ways, where somebody won and somebody lost, where some will stay and some will go,” he said. “Those things are also true.
The other truth, Andrews said, “is that there is a PC(USA) and it will go forward. On what basis will it go forward? What room will there be for each other? Tolerance is an appropriate word here, while at the same time the church will probably continue on some level to test the center that holds us together.”
Echoing the theme of tolerance in his response to the paper, the Rev. Mark Douglas, professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary, focused on the familiar complaint that the church has lost the ability to agree.
“More likely, the church hasn’t learned how to disagree,” Douglas said. “Maybe creating a more capacious space for disagreement can be the starting point for learning how to live with each other. I’ll admit that I would be more confident about this approach if I saw more evidence of productive disagreement in our increasingly polarized society. We’ve not been well trained in disagreeing, after all.”
That said, Douglas continued, “I also recognize that the church has been disagreeing with itself since Peter and Paul and yet, in its own partial and halting way, it still reveals something of the Kingdom of God. Maybe documents like this become a way we can be salt and light for the world — or at least our current body politic.”
Wiley said that he and his colleague are neither polity experts nor are they people who can predict the future. “We are theologians who believe that many of the challenges we face as a denomination have deep ecclesiological implications,” he said.
“Who are we as the church? What is our shared mission? What is the nature and strength of our relational bonds in the body of Christ as we face divisive issues? ‘Our Challenging Way’ is a reflection on what kind of church we are choosing to be.”
Ruling Elder Marsha Zell Anson, general presbyter/stated clerk of Glacier Presbytery and a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, said that she is grateful that Wiley and Ensign-George published the paper.
“They point out that it’s important to value the dignity of those with whom we disagree, acknowledging that they too are faithful Christians,” said Anson. “I commend the paper to everyone’s reading. It is packed with wisdom, faith, love, and hope.”
The paper is also available in Korean and will soon be available in Spanish on the “Our Challenging Way” webpage.
A discussion guide for engaging the paper is currently in development and will be posted on the webpage as soon as available.