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Peace, Unity, and Purity Redux: What Theological Diversity Might Look Like Now

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by John Wilkinson

Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

— W-4.4003 g. Book of Order, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

 

The year 2001 seems like a very long time ago in so many ways. George W. Bush was president. The top five TV shows were Friends, CSI, ER, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Law and Order. The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl and the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series. And there were, of course, the horrific events of September 11, with continuing implications and trajectories.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was a different enterprise then as well. Larger, for one thing. More members and more congregations. (That’s an observation, not a commentary!) It’s much too soon for a historical analysis of that moment, but we can certainly remember it as a time of conflict and contention. We sparred in church courts and on the floors of presbyteries and General Assemblies about theological matters and their polity implications. The issues were twofold: 1. our Christology – our thinking about Jesus Christ; and 2. our understanding of human sexuality as it related to our ordination practices. In each issue were embedded biblical arguments, theological arguments, polity arguments, and views of culture and power.

In the midst of a particularly fractious moment, the 213th General Assembly called for the establishment of a theological task force. Its charge:

“The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church is directed to lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century, using a process which includes conferring with synods, presbyteries, and congregations seeking the peace, unity, and purity of the church. This discernment shall include but not be limited to issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards, and power.

“The task force is to develop a process and an instrument by which congregations and governing bodies throughout our church may reflect on and discern the matters that unite and divide us, praying that the Holy Spirit will promote the purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

I was privileged to serve on that task force, serving then as one of its younger members, a local church pastor with an interest in church history, and one who had been active in the ordination debate while seeking to build bridges with those who disagreed. Serving on the task force remains a highlight of my ministry, both for the relationships forged and the work we did.

Both our process and our product offered, I hope, something for the church at that point and as it moved forward. People still comment to me very positively about our work. I am grateful for that. We took relationship building seriously. We prayed and worshiped together continually. We engaged in extensive Bible study. We discerned – holy cow did we discern! All of that mattered greatly. (In fact, when people point to our experience, I remind them that any group can do that – pray, worship, study, and, in fact, it’s easier to do in geographic proximity over a period of time than flying to Dallas every so often!)

We produced a report – adopted unanimously – that recommended several ways for congregations and presbyteries to renew their covenantal partnerships. All of those were widely embraced. We also recommended a new authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order. In shorthand that was called “local option,” but it really sought to reaffirm the duties of sessions and presbyteries to apply ordination stands in particular settings. I like to remember that there were members of the theological task force supportive of and opposed to new ordination practices, yet all of us supported that recommendation. It passed as well at the 2006 G.A., but with a divided house following rigorous debate. (Here’s our report.)

It is now sixteen years after our work began and eleven years since we issued our final report. Much has changed. Ordination and now marriage seem to be settled matters. The most recent General Assembly offered very little debate on the issues around which the task force gathered. Many congregations have departed our denominational family with perhaps more in the pipeline. The culture is at a different place as well, though what had felt like a consensus also feels like it is perched on an uneven surface.

Part of our work as task force members was to itinerate across the denomination, visiting presbyteries, synods and congregations, and sharing our report. It was a great privilege and a wonderful learning opportunity. People of all stripes showed up, and regardless of what they felt about the report, and in particular recommendation #5. I could tell how much passion and energy and love they had for their church. That hasn’t changed, even though the forms and faces have.

I remember one visit in a particular, which pivots to the point of this blog entry. It was in a neighboring presbytery from where I live, so I could make the drive and back in one day. After my presentation and an extensive Q and A period, a minister approached me, in his 40’s or so. He expressed appreciation for my presence and for the work of the task force. Then he said this to me: “You know, I am a conservative pastor serving in a conservative congregation in a largely progressive presbytery. I know I will be on the losing side of most votes we take. I can live with that. What I really want to know is whether there is a place for me in this presbytery, and is there a place for my congregation?”

Is there a place for me? Is there a place for us?

I told him that I certainly hope so, that our report sought to make space for those who disagree. But I also acknowledged that no report, no Book of Order provision, could guarantee that deeper response. Only the quality of relationships and the spirit with which our polity is engaged in any one context can establish that place, can make that space.

Is there a place for me? Is there a place for us? Those questions abide.

We are in a very different place as a church and as a culture, very different in so many ways. I pray, in our congregations and in our presbyteries, that we can find a place for those who disagree with us on important theological matters. “Agreeing to disagree” is the shorthand way of affirming a core Presbyterian principle, engrossed even in our ordination vows. How we do that in congregations and how we do that in presbyteries, in all of our relationships as Presbyterian followers of Jesus – in 2017 and beyond – will go a very long way to ensuring our health and vitality and position us for renewal and service.

Eleven years ago, the Theological Task Force concluded its report with these words: “To be one is not to say that we will be the same, that we will all agree, that there will be no conflict, but as the church listens to Jesus pray, all its members are reminded that the quality of our life together – our ability to make visible the unique relationship that is ours in Jesus Christ – is compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.”

That affirmation makes theological diversity as a manifestation of unity not just a good idea, but a confessional mandate. How we make it visible and real in 2017 is a challenge whose daunting nature is only surpassed by the graceful possibility of the opportunity.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

Diversity, Hospitality, and the Face of Poverty

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by John Wilkinson

The Reverend William Briggs died this July at the age of 86. Bill Briggs was a Presbyterian minister born in Pennsylvania, whose distinguished ministry was lived out in Ohio. Among other things, Bill served with my dad as the minister for community outreach at Central Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio, a medium-sized, county seat congregation.

Bill Briggs was the first exposure I really had as a kid to a vision of the church’s mission beyond its walls. In this case, his ministry was extensively with the Appalachian poor who dwelled throughout southeastern Ohio. Bill Briggs worked hard at an important task, dismantling the boundaries and blurring the lines between those with means and those without in that very economically diverse community. He remains a kind of iconic role model for me.

Our Confession of 1967 states that: “The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is in different to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.” (9.46 c., Inclusive Language Version)

Read that paragraph over several times. Though 50 years old, it could have been written this very day, with its political and cultural analysis and its theological clarity. That phrase in particular, “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance,” convicts us, does it not?

There is no doubt in my mind that among the important discussions about equity and justice, the church is called to have a sustained conversation and hatch a rigorous action plan to combat “enslaving poverty.” Our political and economic worlds ignore it. The church is not sure where to begin, let alone what to do. This is a confession – it is not as if I have a clear plan as well. I simply know the gospel mandate and the demands of our confession and ordination vows.

In Rochester, New York, we discuss the “crushing concentration of poverty” that has educational implications and racist underpinnings. Black and Hispanic people in our community, and particularly children, fare worse than white people in nearly every measure of quality of life. Even with blue ribbon panels and significant public money going to the effort, the needle moves barely, if at all. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. Do we believe that? And if so, what are we doing about it?

But in a blog series about diversity, the question takes on even deeper meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation.” That was true racially. It certainly remains true economically, and perhaps even more so.

Along with every other form of diversity, what would it look like for the church to pursue economic diversity? What would it look like for rich and poor to co-exist in the life of a congregation, so that those surface differences would remain just that?

It’s a difficult challenge. Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, where I am privileged to serve, seeks to address the despairing impact of poverty through housing and hunger ministry, through educational ministry in public schools, through direct service and efforts to change the economic status quo. Yet as important as those programs and efforts are, they rarely take the next step of engaging the poor in the journey itself.

Our presbytery recently closed a congregation called Calvary-St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. We are attempting to resurrect mission and ministry in its former building. What I loved about Calvary-St. Andrew’s was that it was one of the few congregations I’ve ever experienced where there was no distinction in participation and membership between those with financial means and those without. No distinction. That caused people to recalibrate expectations all over the place. And such recalibration was very good.

What would it look like for more of us – congregations in rural settings, in suburban and urban ones as well – to embrace the vision of seeking true economic diversity? Can we imagine and envision it? Can we move beyond whatever barriers that we’ve constructed within our own spirits and within our own congregations?

Paul wrote in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What if we simply extended that metaphor to say “there is no longer rich or poor…”

Bill Briggs modelled that vision for me long ago, and then lived that vision in his ministry. I am grateful for that witness. May we “raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living.” And having done that, may our congregations and communities reflect the true diversity and full hospitality that God dreams for us all.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

Transformation Through Tradition

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

John Wilkinson, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY, considers how tradition informs our present living. How can we access our great tradition in ways that are approachable and honest? What would such transformation look like? Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.

Engagement in Church and Community

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By John Wilkinson

At our staff meetings each week, we begin with going around the circle and asking people to share “one good thing” from the previous Sunday. It’s a great prelude for all that follows, not a magic corporate strategy but a lovely litany of faith and reminder of the ministry to which we are called.

I am not sure that anything is saving my ministry right now, other than Jesus! But I do know that many, many good things are giving my ministry energy and fueling my passion, for which I am very grateful. Here’s a list…

  • Worship. Worship. Worship.
  • A call to make a difference in public education in Rochester, New York and Monroe County, where concentrated poverty and inequitable access holds children back. Fortunately, through the Great Schools for All movement, we are making a difference in our community. It’s the good and hard work of organizing and coalition building, all very Presbyterian.
  • A transforming trip to Kenya in October, where five of us visited our partner congregation just outside Nairobi. We experienced extraordinary hospitality and learned so much about what it means to be the church. Plus, the sights and sounds of Kenya are indescribable.
  • Challenging and important conversations on race and racism that we are attending in our community and hosting in our congregation, led primarily by Facing Race, Embracing Equity (FR=EE) a local community organization.
  • Our Book of Order, yes, our Book of Order. We utilized a new provision in the Form of Government to transition an interim associate pastor to an associate pastor. We worked closely and cooperatively with our Committee on Ministry, who engaged this new process with great thought. Cheers to a new sense of adaptability for mission purposes!
  • Stewardship, yes stewardship. We are having creative conversations about faith and money and seeking ways to make Stewardship Sunday feel different than it traditionally has.
  • A Vision and Strategy team on which I am privileged to serve in our presbytery. We are working on what many presbyteries are working on, the difficult task of change in a fluid environment. We are putting a heavy emphasis on relationships and also reminding ourselves that a presbytery’s health is closely linked to congregational health and pastoral leader’s health.
  • The East Avenue Grocery Run. What began as a way to reframe a hunger walk and to raise money for our various hunger programs at Third Church has turned into an epic event with over 1300 runners and walkers and thousands and thousands of dollars raised for our hungry neighbors. A wonderful leadership team makes it all happen, meeting rarely. We’ve also involved local businesses and other community groups who normally wouldn’t connect with a faith group, but do for this. It’s been fabulous!

I know that all of the above are very contextual and personal, but if there are common denominators and transportable values, they reside in collegiality and collaboration, openness to innovate, and a heavy reliance on prayer. I am grateful indeed!


john wJohn Wilkinson is Pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By John Wilkinson

Photo credit: presbyterianhymnalproject.com

Photo credit: presbyterianhymnalproject.com

We dedicate new hymnals today.[1] They have been inflated to the proper air pressure, labelled, and placed carefully in the pews. Take a moment or two now or later to review the list of those honored or memorialized, as I have done many times in the last few weeks. It is a deeply moving exercise.

It’s a basic question that we don’t ask very often because we actually live out the answer every time we gather. What does a hymnal do? The first task of a hymnal is to do exactly what the title of our new hymnal suggests – Glory to God. If our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever, then the primary task of a hymnal is to help us glorify God.

That looks like many things. There are many forms of praise, and many ways to sing God’s praise. This new hymnal reaches back in the tradition where we can sing many of our favorites (including some not in the previous hymnal) and it also looks around and ahead to new traditions.

Our first singing tradition was Psalms only. We believed that anything written by humans was something akin to idolatry. We have evolved, thankfully. You can read the mission statement of the new hymnal on page 926. As we sing familiar hymns and sing new ones, from diverse cultures and experiences, pay particular attention to the many ways we praise, worship and glorify God, our central calling.

But a hymnal does other, related things. It is a kind of theological text book. It helps us understand and ponder what we believe – about God, about the world, about humanity, about the church. Think about your favorite hymns and think about what they are teaching you – overtly or indirectly. About the life of Jesus. About the nature of God. About grace, sin, hope, peace, love, faith. Throughout the year, as we choose hymns, we seek ways to connect what we have heard from the Bible and what we have engaged in conversation with the words we sing and the tunes that accompany those words. Singing the faith to learn the faith.

To expand on one aspect of that teaching and learning, a hymnal helps us reflect on what it means to be the church – who we’ve been and who we are. (See Hymn 404, “What Is This Place?”)

I hope you noted the simplicity of this description of who we are, and the continual “yet.” Yet. Yet we are a body that lives. Yet we are a body that remembers and speaks. Yet we are a body that breaks bread in order that we increase God’s justice and peace.

What does that look like? (See Hymn 301, “Let Us Build a House”)

The hymnal reminds us that our vision is to build a house of love where all are welcome. And the key reminder of that remains in that title – Glory to God – that it’s not us doing the building and it’s not our house. God is the builder and it is God’s house, where all are welcome because God welcomes all, just as God is the creator and it is God’s creation, just as God is the composer and it’s God’s symphony.

The hymnal becomes for us, therefore, a vehicle to glorify God. It becomes a resource book whereby we can learn and teach the faith. It becomes a symphony of comfort and inspiration and provocation. A blueprint for mission, a living, breathing strategic plan. We have others ways to do those things, and even other books. But this book takes special place because worship takes special place and music holds special place.

As I said when we dedicated our renewed space I will say about these hymnals – our task now, having dedicated them, is to wear them out, with our worship, with our praise, with our service, to sing the songs of our tradition and to launch new traditions to pass on to the generations that will follow.

We have good news to receive, and good news to share, and a ministry that builds community within and that reaches out beyond our walls. If this hymnal helps us do that, then thanks to all who provided for it, and thanks to God who welcomes us in and sends us out.

If this hymnal helps us do that, then the question “how can I keep from singing?” will find continual and joyful answer. (See Hymn 821, “My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep from Singing?))

john wJohn Wilkinson                  

Third Presbyterian Church

Rochester, New York

 

 

[1]Adapted from a sermon peached at Third Presbyterian Church on May 31, 2015 on the occasion of the dedication of new hymnals. The sermon itself included the singing of several hymns

 

What Is This Place: Visions of the Church in Glory to God

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter! Read more

5 Questions with John Wilkinson

We are launching a new series this month that highlights participants at the national gathering in Minneapolis on March 31st – April 2nd, 2014. Presenters, preachers, teachers, and leaders were asked the same five questions and their thoughtful responses may be found here every week. The goal is to introduce you to people you’ll hear from in Minneapolis and prime the pump for our time together. Hopefully, something here will spark an idea, thought, or question for you. We encourage you to reach out and initiate conversations that you can later continue in person. So without further ado …

5 questions 950x300John Wilkinson is Pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester NY. He came to Rochester in 2001 from Chicago. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy. He’s leading a workshop (along with Tedd Pulano) on Urban Presbyterians Together, A Model for Missional and Relational Ministry.

1. Tell us about your ministry context.

Metropolitan congregation, interesting combinaiton of tradition and innovation, vibrant, serving, growing, seeking

2. Where have you seen glimpses of “the church that is becoming”?

Our collaborative urban ministry that is addressing the challenges of public education in the city of Rochester

3. What are your passions in ministry? (And/or what keeps you up at night?)

Worship, collegiality, collaboration, urban ministry, the confessions, connectionalism, hymns

4. What is one thing you are looking forward to at the NEXT Gathering?

Connecting with colleagues and friends and gleaning new ideas for ministry

5. Describe NEXT Church in seven words or less.

Connecting, transforming, adapting, confessing, serving, worshiping, hoping