Byron C. Bangert

June 28, 1998

Exodus 40:16-17, 34-38; Mark 6:7-13

After I had arrived last Sunday night in Princeton, New Jersey, and had gotten settled in, I went out looking for a phone so I could call my father. It was Father's Day, you may recall. After describing to him briefly my adventures of the preceding days, he asked me about the major issues that came up at our denomination's just-completed General Assembly. I mentioned the catechisms, the question of funding of the National Network of Presbyterian College Women, and maybe another issue to two before he interjected that he didn't know much about these issues that I was mentioning, but he had certainly heard about what the Southern Baptists had done at their annual convention out in Salt Lake City just a couple weeks before.

I am profoundly grateful that nothing quite like what the Southern Baptists had to say about women and their role in society came out of the 210th General Assembly meetings! By comparison to the Southern Baptists, and even by comparison to the other three General Assemblies I have attended, this one was tame and uneventful. That is, by comparison. In reality, I think a number of very important actions took place that reveal what is happening in our denomination and what our future life together may hold.

The election of a Moderator, which always takes place at the very beginning of each Assembly, is often a harbinger of things to come. The election of Douglas Oldenburg, formerly a pastor in Charlotte, NC, and currently President of Columbia Presbyterian Theological Seminary, came as no surprise. I had even predicted to a correspondent from the ATLANTA CONSTITUTION who was not particularly familiar with our Presbyterian ways that it would take a second ballot, as it did. An absolute majority is required for election. The only surprise, to me, was the weak support for Richard Hutchison, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Ft. Wayne, who garnered only 54 of 532 votes cast. On the second ballot, most of his support went to Oldenburg, with the more conservative candidate, James Mead of Tacoma, Washington, picking up only one vote. A couple days later Oldenburg named Mead his Vice-Moderator. The choice of Oldenburg was a choice for the most well-known of the candidates. Perhaps also for the "favorite son." And probably also for the middle of the middle of the road. On the surface at least, that is where this Assembly tended to be.

Potentially the most explosive issue to be faced by this Assembly was the question of ordination as it relates to gay and lesbian persons in particular, and in connection with what we have known as Amendment B (now G-6.0106b in our Book of Order). The Presbytery of Milwaukee, before it was known whether this past year's proposed replacement Amendment A would pass, had adopted an Overture calling for the simple removal of Amendment B from our constitution. Leading up to the Assembly, however, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick had called for a sabbatical on any new amendments to the Book of Order pertaining to ordination. Prominent leaders identified with the Presbyterian Coalition, which had supported Amendment B and opposed Amendment A, and the Covenant Network, which had supported Amendment A against Amendment B, had joined in this call. Moreover, all three Moderator candidates had also expressed their support for such a sabbatical, and all three renewed their support in their remarks prior to the election. So it seemed very unlikely that the ordination issue would become the hot issue that it has been at many other recent Assemblies.

I sat in on the Church Orders and Ministry Committee for several hours as it considered the Milwaukee overture and several other related overtures and commissioners' resolutions. Despite the call for a sabbatical, the overture had its passionate supporters and well as its passionate opponents, along with those who simply did not want to put the Church through another year of debating the ordination issues. I believe there were 47 members in the committee, and I believe all but 2 of them spoke regarding Overture 98-37, as the Milwaukee overture was numbered. The final vote was 21 in favor, 26 opposed, with no abstentions-a much closer vote than could have been predicted. At every General Assembly there are both Youth and Theological Student Advisory Delegates, who have voice without vote in the plenary sessions of the General Assembly. These Advisory Delegates have both voice and vote in the committees, however. And although these delegates have tended in recent years to be more conservative than commissioners as a whole, in the Church Orders and Ministry Committee they happened to be among the most passionate and articulate supporters of the Milwaukee overture. Having failed by a close vote in committee, I wondered if perhaps the overture's supporters would bring a minority report to the whole Assembly. They did not, however, and so the committee's recommendation to disapprove Overture 98-37 was passed with little further debate.

Some of you may be interested to know that the Commissioner appointed to moderate the Church Orders and Ministry Committee was Carol McDonald, a minister on the staff of the Wabash Valley presbytery-the same Carol who consulted with our session last fall regarding our needs for a second ministry staff position. In previous years I have watched other committee moderators deal with ordination and sexuality issues and have been terribly disappointed with how they have conducted their committees. Carol, on the other hand, provided superb moderator leadership to a diverse committee dealing with highly emotional issues in a way that did not alienate committee members or manipulate their decisions. The one disappointing thing about this committee, from my perspective, was its recommendation against adoption of Overture 98-37. The committee did add a comment to its action, however: "It is our hope that dialogue can, will, and must continue on this topic." The comment was accepted by the Assembly without objection.

If anything was accomplished by the debate over Amendment A this past year, it was to make clear that the issue regarding ordination of gay and lesbian persons in particular and the application of ordination standards in general will not go away. In other years, I heard impassioned appeals by commissioners to dispose of this issue and put it behind us. I heard none of that this year. On Monday I attended the luncheon sponsored by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, the organization that supported passage of Amendment A. Seventeen former moderators of the PCUSA have endorsed the Covenant Network's call for a more inclusive church, and most of them were in attendance. So were about 450 others. A primary focus of this organization is to work for the replacement or removal of G-6.0106b from our constitution. There are other organizations, of course, that will be working to keep things as they now are.

The other committee where I spent my time prior to the plenary meetings was the Catechisms and Confessions Committee. On Monday morning I joined a number of other observers in speaking to the committee during open hearings. I spoke on behalf of one of the overtures before the committee, namely the call from the Presbytery of Utah for a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. The existing translation is not a strict translation, nor is it particularly accurate. Why any controversy surrounding this little-known and little-used catechism? Of all the existing translations in English, only the one now in our Book of Confessions makes reference to "homosexual perversion." None of the other Confessions, in fact, say anything about homosexuality, and this one would not if it were an accurate translation. After hearing various testimony, the committee voted by a wide margin to explore the need for a new translation. The Assembly, however, voted down the committee's recommendation and then also voted to disapprove the original overture that had called for a new translation.

I also addressed the committee regarding two proposed new catechisms that have been prepared by a Special Committee of nine. The two catechisms have been named "Belonging to God: A First Catechism," and "The Study Catechism." Neither is proposed for inclusion in our Book of Confessions as yet, but rather for study and further revision. The First Catechism is intended for elementary age use. The Study Catechism comes in two versions, a Full Version and an abbreviated Confirmation Version. In the two minutes that was allotted me I spoke against their adoption in their present form. These new catechisms are not well conceived. They neglect a preponderance of the biblical witness. They are not inclusive of the breadth and diversity of theological understandings that belong to the Reformed tradition. Parts of them might prove useful, but taken as a whole they fail to express the richness of Christian scripture, tradition, theology, and faith. Several others also spoke against their adoption, and perhaps an equal number spoke in favor.

Far more significant to the committee's action, however, was the presence of four or five of the members of the drafting committee, who were given ample time to explain and advocate for their work. Over the period of a day or so, the committee made a number of relatively minor changes-most of them improvements--in the catechisms as proposed. Then, in a matter of minutes, they voted down a substitute motion from one of their members who had written an alternate set of documents because she was so distressed by what the Special Committee had prepared. In the end the committee strongly recommended adoption of these catechisms to the Assembly for use by the church "in its ministries of teaching and worship." The Assembly would later concur.

At one point during the Catechisms and Confessions Committee's deliberations, Johanna Bos, professor of Bible at Louisville Seminary, who (as some of you may remember) preached the installation sermon for our former Associate Pastor, Cynthia Cochran-Carney, was given time to speak about the Study Catechism. She spoke passionately against it, and against the First Catechism as well, expressing her grief at what her Church was preparing to do. As you will have gathered by now, I share that sense of grief.

In an Assembly with little high drama, perhaps the most dramatic moment came on Friday night at the conclusion of the report of the Assembly Committee on Health and Educational Issues. Earlier the Assembly had voted to withdraw sponsorship and funding to the National Network of Presbyterian College Women. Debate had been extensive and passionate. A substitute motion to refer consideration, and thus preserve funding for the time being, had been narrowly defeated. A later dispute had arisen over an overture that called for increased funding of the Network, an overture ruled moot by the Moderator in light of previous action. A vote to uphold the Moderator's ruling was passed after further debate. With the conclusion of the Committee's report at about 10:30 on Friday night, a group of women college students went down to the front of the Assembly, and others of us joined hands encircling the commissioners, to give witness to our support for this Network. The college women invited all present to join them in singing "This Little Light of Mine." As a result of that action and other personal testimony on behalf of the Network, Vice Moderator James Mead-who was also a commissioner--moved to reconsider the action that had earlier been taken against the Network, an action he had supported. This was the second or third motion to reconsider on this matter, and it was the only one to pass. The next morning, after more impassioned debate and testimony, the Assembly approved Mead's motion to refer action to a 7 member committee of the General Assembly Council, to include the Moderator and himself, with funding to be continued in the interim.

There is a lot more to be said about these and other matters, but not enough time to say them here. You may wonder, why so much concern about funding a group of college students? The issues have to do with theology. They have to do with control. They have to do with who gets the money that Presbyterians give as general mission support. I do not wish to be negative about our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). There are many good things happening in it, and there are many good people who make up this denomination and its leadership. While I would have preferred that Richard Hutchison be elected moderator, both Doug Oldenburg and James Mead performed their duties very ably and graciously. While I would have wished that the Milwaukee overture had passed, there may be greater wisdom in taking a sabbatical on further action regarding ordination and sexuality issues. While I do not favor the new catechisms, it was hardly any surprise that they were widely approved. The reality is that our Church is in the midst of a theological crisis, and the greatest disservice I could do would be to tell you I went to General Assembly, had a good time, learned a lot, brought home a lot of fine and useful resources-all of which is true-but not tell you that our denomination has some serious problems facing us now and for years to come. The National Network of Presbyterian College Women, for example, tends to be supportive of our denomination's position on abortion, a position that regards abortion as a morally serious matter but is also supportive of choice. Presbyterians Pro-Life and those who agree with them were visibly in support of the call to cut off funding. The Network also acknowledges theological diversity and supports the value of faith exploration. Many of the opponents called for a stricter adherence to certain traditional Christian values and teachings. The controversy over this Network was illustrative of many other less visible controversies where the fundamental conflict is one of profoundly differing perspectives on how we are to understand and express our Christian faith.

There is increasing interest in our Church about the catechisms and confessions because there is increasing pressure to draw boundaries, to identify the terms on which one can be considered Christian-and therefore the terms on which one cannot be considered so. Our Reformed theological heritage is being narrowly appropriated, partly to deal with the uncertainties and ambiguities that accompany our pluralistic society, but thereby to justify a greater legalism and moralism on matters that have divided us. Many people who come to General Assembly are not commissioners, nor are they sent by their local churches as observers. They come as members of special interest groups. Some of these groups are fairly loosely organized and not very well funded. Others--particularly those on the so-called "religious right"--are highly funded and well organized. A good bit of this funding appears to come from outside the Presbyterian Church, though this is hard to document. The Presbyterian Lay Committee, for example, submits no financial reports and is in no way fiscally accountable to the Church. A number of these special interest organizations not only had booths on the floor of the Exhibit Hall, but also special rooms and events for courting the support of sympathetic or unsuspecting commissioners.

When I go the General Assembly, I get the Presbytery to appoint me as a correspondent so I can have access to the press room. One afternoon I was sitting next to Robert Mills at the table reserved for us correspondents. Mr. Mills is Associate Editor for THE PRESBYTERIAN LAYMAN. We were observing the Assembly proceedings as one of the committees made its report. Between us he had put down a computer-generated sheet of paper with the names of every member on the committee whose report was being acted upon: last name, first name, Presbytery, and then a column headed "Rating". I don't know just what that "rating" column was all about, but I noticed that ten of the commissioners in the committee had been given a rating, and that the ratings ranged from 1 to 7. On one particular action Mr. Mills, who was busy typing on his laptop as events unfolded, asked me the name of a particular speaker. I declined to tell him, fearing that this person and her remarks would be used and abused, as so many others are, to advance the LAYMAN's political agenda.

A couple other actions I want to note. The General Assembly approved without dissent the unanimous recommendation of the General Assembly Council to appoint John Detterick the new Executive Director of the Council. If the Presbyterian Church has a CEO, this is it. Detterick will have his work cut out for him as he tries to preside over the major programmatic and administrative entities and agencies of the church. The Assembly approved the recommendation of the Peacemaking, International Concerns and Service committee to call on the United States government to make continued aid and military assistance to Israel contingent on Israel's fulfilling the terms of the Olso Accords. The Assembly defeated by one vote, 264-265-2, a minority report from the Committee on Christian Education and Curriculum Publishing to re-write the guidebooks for our church's new Human Sexuality Curriculum for Young Children to present what the minority claimed to be "a clear, consistent view of biblical authority." And the Assembly approved by a 50-vote margin the substitution of a minority report that rejected a proposal to distribute the "Euthanasia Study Materials" that the church has prepared for study and thus not to begin a process that would yield recommendations "for appropriate public policies on end-of-life counseling." Some of you who participated in my class a few years ago contributed to the process by which these materials were prepared. Our church is apparently not yet ready to face the real moral dilemma posed by euthanasia.

In view of where this Assembly seemed to come down, there was a certain irony in its overall theme, "Light for the Journey." There was not a lot of journeying, and there was not a lot of light. A theme more fitting might have been "Resisting the Light, Postponing the Journey." This morning's text from Exodus portrays the wandering journey of the Hebrew slaves in the wilderness. They had no permanent dwelling place. Their place of worship was a big tent, called a tabernacle, that they took with them whenever they pulled up stakes. Their movements were directed by a cloud that covered this tent whenever they were settled in, and that was lifted, or "taken up," whenever they were to move on. During the day, when the cloud covered the tent, it filled the tent with the glory of the LORD, and by night there was fire in the cloud, so that God's presence was unmistakable all along the way.

Perhaps the high point of this year's General Assembly came when Vice-Moderator James Mead, in making his motion to reconsider the action on funding the National Network of Presbyterian College Women, urged that we are called to be a "big tent" church. He did not have our text in mind, but the imagery is apt nonetheless. A "big tent" church is one that seeks to be inclusive of the concerns and needs and interests of all its members. A "big tent" church is surely also one in which God's presence is more likely to be manifest.

For the most part, the 210th General Assembly did little to manifest the glory of God. If there was a cloud upon us, it was a cloud of misunderstanding and mistrust, the cloud of those who seek a church less inclusive, more particularistic, more clearly and narrowly defined. I do not wish to sound alarmist, for alarmists themselves are often too narrow in their vision and in their sympathies. It is clear, however, that many people in our church are carrying a lot of baggage. They are not free to journey into the future, because they have not come to terms with the past and they find the present overwhelming. They would hardly dare to do what Jesus asks of his disciples in our text from Mark: to take nothing for our journey but a staff and the clothes on our backs, and thus to rely upon the hospitality of those we meet wherever we go. The world, as they see it, is too hostile a place for that. In fact, the church has already become too much infected by the world. Consequently, there is a lot of hunkering down going on.

I spent this past week at Princeton Theological Seminary attending the first week of that institution's annual Institute of Theology, which this year was titled, "Reclaiming Theology for the Church." One of our evening preachers, Timothy Njoya, an internationally known advocate for democracy in Kenya and a minister in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, proposed in his sermon an alternative task: "Reclaiming the Gospel for the World." Njoya claims that the Gospel is about God's governance [i.e., reign, or kingdom] in the world. The Gospel is not intended just for the Church, but for the world, and--indeed--the world may be more ready to hear the Gospel than is the Church. The Gospel does not belong to the Church, and the Church should not try to keep it for itself; the Church owes its life to the Gospel, not the other way around; the Gospel speaks both to the Church and to the real needs and problems of the world.

You see this difference in stance and attitude? Today many in our churches want to reclaim theology for ourselves. Whether this means the re-establishment of orthodox doctrine-as it does for some of the most influential of our church theologians right now-or whether it means the moralism and legalism of setting forth more clearly particular moral standards that define and delimit what is Christian, or whether it means withdrawing funding from programs of the church that express alternative theological perspectives and values and understandings, the aim is to make clearer the boundaries and the result is to make the tent smaller, more confining, less inviting.

We live in a time of uncertainty and ambiguity, of pluralism and diversity. It is going to be very hard to continue to be a "big tent" church in such a time. It is going to be hard to journey with confidence that God is with us in the world and not just in the church, not just among those of like mind and mission. Of course we can expect to be opposed and rebuffed on many occasions by those in the world who have no interest in, or tolerance for, the Gospel. But I remain confident that there are also those who are waiting for the Church to venture forth in new ways, and who will gladly receive us if and when we do. God give us more light for the journey. AMEN.