A committee of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has approved a paper affirming the church’s commitment to interfaith relationships, while also commending two congregations and two individuals for outstanding ecumenical and interfaith service.

At its January meeting, the General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relationships (GACEIR) voted to recommend “The Interreligious Stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” for approval as a policy statement by the 221st General Assembly (2014).

Christine Hong, associate for interfaith relations in the PC(USA)’s office of Theology and Worship, says the statement is useful for Presbyterians at every level of the church. “It offers guidance for the practical and everyday ways we engage with people of different faiths and religious traditions in our communities.”

The statement also “offers a basis for self-reflection, so we can examine how we have navigated interfaith relationships in both helpful and unhelpful ways,” Hong adds. “It encourages Presbyterians to approach interfaith relationships from a place of humble witness.”

The document affirms the PC(USA)’s commitment “to work for the common good in society together with people of other faiths and interreligious bodies.” It recommends that the PC(USA) Book of Order be amended “to include a rationale for interfaith relations.”

The statement also directs the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) to participate in interreligious efforts aimed at meeting human needs and seeking peace and reconcilation; to help congregations and mid-councils share “existing models of interreligious relationship building”; and to “build capacity for strong and mutual interreligious relationships throughout its ministry areas.”

The statement was developed following a consultation of more than 65 church leaders, scholars, and interreligious experts last September in response to a request by the 219th General Assembly (2010).

In other actions at its January meeting, GACEIR selected two individuals and two congregations to receive Ecumenical Service Recognitions for 2014:

  • Central Presbyterian Church, Lafayette, Indiana (Wabash Valley Presbytery), led by pastor Rev. Bill Smutz and associate pastor Rev. Jeff Comer, for two creative programs. For five years, the congregation has been a partner in “Tippecanoe Taizé,” a cooperative effort of local churches from a variety of denominations. Last summer the church hosted “Faith of Our Neighbors,” featuring speakers from streams within Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) and from other world religions.
  • Chinook (Montana) Presbyterian Church, (Glacier Presbytery), led by its pastor Rev. Sherry Edwards, for joining forces with five other denominations to organize JUMP, which provides youth in this rural community a safe environment to learn about Christianity and grow in their faith while having fun.
  • Rev. Jose Luis Casal, General Missioner of the Presbytery of Tres Rios, for his more-than-40-year career nurturing ecumenical and interfaith relationships, often in an international context. Ordained to the ministry in Cuba, Casal lived for a few years in Ecuador and immigrated to the United States in 1994. He has served in leadership roles with a number of ecumenical organizations, including the Cuban Council of Churches, the Latin American Council of Churches, the Federation of Student Christian Movements in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Texas Conference of Churches, and the National Council of Churches.
  • Rev. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (National Capital Presbytery), known as “Mr. Interfaith” by many in his community, for his 35 years of service as executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, an interfaith coalition that includes 11 historic faith communities.

Lobenstine says he is grateful for the recognition and especially grateful that his work has given him “opportunities to connect with a lot of different faith communities.” The Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, he says, was one of the first-ever endeavors “to get Christians, Muslims, and Jews working together in a metropolitan area in a staffed organization.”

Rev. Jeff Comer, who led the interfaith effort at Central Presbyterian Church, says his congregation has learned a great deal from outreach to other religious bodies in the diverse university community of Lafayette.

“We can increase our understanding of other religions by approaching the people who live in our community,” he says. “By giving other faiths a respectful hearing, we come to a better understanding of our own faith.”

At its January meeting, GACEIR also voted to ask the 221st General Assembly to commend for study a paper from the World Council of Churches titled “Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.” The document looks at changes in the world today and their implications for the way churches practice evangelism.

Among the challenges the paper examines are “threats to the future of our planet”; global migrations causing a “shift of the centre of gravity of Christianity”; shift of mission leadership from the privileged to those “on the margins”; ideologies promoting unlimited growth, materialism, and individualism; our witness in “a world of many religions and cultures”; and divisions within the church.