This past Saturday was the first day of summer. As churches around the country held Vacation Bible School, youth retreats, and mission trips last week, representatives of the 173 presbyteries in the PC(USA) gathered for the difficult and invigorating work of discerning the voice of the Holy Spirit as it leads our denomination into the future. The 700+ commissioners to the General Assembly were a mix of clergy and elders, men and women, young and . . . less young from many different ethnic and cultural traditions. They are a beautiful picture of the PC(USA) as it exists all over our great nation. In my own experience as a General Assembly commissioner in 2012, I discovered that despite a variety of theological and political perspectives, everyone had the well-being of the church and the proclamation of the gospel at heart.
The decisions of this 221st General Assembly were likely to be controversial regardless of what action the commissioners took simply because some of the issues at stake are controversial in our national consciousness today. The commissioners voted to change the Book of Order so that it will define marriage as a “unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” In order to become binding this amendment must be ratified by a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries, a process which takes about one year. If ratified, this amendment will permit clergy to marry or bless same-gender couples and will permit church sessions to authorize the use of church property for such services. Neither clergy nor sessions will be required to marry same-gender couples. In a more immediate action, the commissioners also voted to approve an authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order that allows clergy freedom of conscious to “participate in any marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform,” according to the laws of the state. This interpretation is currently in effect and does not need further ratification. Both actions passed in the General Assembly with a strong majority.
At Sea Island, as in much of the PC(USA), there are mixed feelings about these two decisions. Some rejoice over what they perceive as a victory for justice and hospitality in the name of Christ. Others grieve a collapse of the church’s purity and holiness. Still others see unity as a primary concern and are fearful of further division. In many respects the disagreements are real and not easily resolved. We do not ask anyone to sacrifice their deeply held convictions; and we do not believe that ignoring one another is the only way forward. What we do ask is for each person to listen genuinely to their neighbors and seek the well-being of the community as a whole. We hope that everyone will continually study the Scriptures, the confession of the church, their experience, and their own heart for new and deeper understanding. It is my personal hope that our commitment to Christian love can be a beacon of hope not only for the broader church but also for a nation that is besieged by polarization and hatred. I have faith enough in Jesus Christ to believe that he can hold us together even when we disagree. I believe that our love for one another will keep us in community and encourage us to invite other into our family of faith. Finally, I am convinced that God is at work in our congregation and our denomination and that he will continue to use us for ministry and witness, as long as we continue to offer our lives in service.
As we carry out our present ministries and plan for the future of Sea Island, we will do so in a spirit of hope – not fear. We will remain faithful to Jesus Christ and to the PC(USA). Our commitment to the Calvinist priorities of worship, teaching, evangelism, and pastoral care remains unchanged. We will carry out the faith of the apostles as we teach, fellowship, pray, and break bread together (Acts 2:42). And we will do it all with love. May the prayer of St. Francis be our guide:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
Grace and Peace,