10 November 2006

presbyterians still together

Six months ago today, in a text entitled "Presbyterians & Presbyterians Together," a cross-section of Reformed and Presbyterian pastors, leaders, academics, and other laypersons committed themselves to bearing witness to the ongoing vitality and missional effectiveness of a Reformed understanding of the Christian faith, particularly as we come together with all our variations in doctrine, emphasis, and practice and across denominational boundaries.

My own understanding of the evolution and intent of that document is explained in some detail elsewhere, but I would like to add a couple of additional thoughts at the present.

Folks occasionally ask me whether or not I think the document is making any practical difference. Given that there is no organization or sponsoring institution working on some kind of "implementation" (assuming that even makes sense), it is naturally difficult to figure out what differences, if any, such a document might be making.

I do think the witness of nearly 300 individuals, confessing their past and present failures, and committing themselves to Reformational teaching borne up in charity and grace, is itself remarkable and encouraging. And I pray that such a public witness on the part of these individuals, including myself, will continue to bear fruit as we conduct ourselves with appropriate Christian humility in our relationships and in our theological discourse - even if we all fall short, many times over, of the ideal we espouse.

I also think the document has had an overall positive role in nudging our public conversation as theologically orthodox Reformed Christians in a constructive direction, bringing various issues more out into the open so that ongoing patterns of community and institutional disfunctionality can be named, addressed, and reformed through the message of the Gospel (and in this connection, see Anthony Bradley's thoughts and ensuing discussion and further posts on some aspects of that disfunctionality). Moreover, among those who came together in common purpose as signatories, some new relationships have been forged and our conversation continues in many different ways, to the benefit and health (I hope) of our local churches, ongoing ministries, and wider institutions.

One area of disappointment I have felt is the difficulty in bridging denominational divides, even within the narrow sphere of Presbyterianism and close sister communions. Perhaps the overt confessionalism of the "Presbyterians Together" document or parochial nature of some of the issues it mentions have had the effect of limiting its currency. One document obviously can't do everything, even if it is a step in the right direction. I do think growing cooperation between Reformed churches of various traditions, confessions, and emphases remains a front-burner issue for our witness and mission (not to mention the importance of wider circles of cooperation, especially on the local level). And I hope we can continue to find creative ways to make that happen.

The other question I'm sometimes asked is whether I worry that documents such as these have a tendency to exclude as much as they include, cutting off opportunities for dialogue or positioning certain responses as a priori problematic or uncharitable.

I think I understand that concern and, yes, I do worry about it. But I've said from the beginning - and I think others share this viewpoint - that there are all kinds of reasons why someone might not want to sign the document and that those reasons need to be respected and heard and allowed to occasion discussion of what they tell us about ourselves and our relationships with one another. "Presbyterians Together" is not, as I read it, a manifesto or an ultimatum, but rather a personal testimony and witness of where a number of us find ourselves as we sojourn within the context of a Reformed understanding of the faith, confessing our own shortcomings and seeking to do better.

Nor is the document an attempt to leverage any particular theological position or judgment automatically into the category of "uncharitable." The list of areas of diversity are, of course, aimed at issues that have historically faced our churches and continue to do so in the present. But, as such, their intent is descriptive rather than prescriptive, allowing that within any of those given areas there is always ongoing need for discernment, so long as the instruments of such discernment carry out their tasks in charity and patience, by careful listening, and from within the bonds of unity we all share in Christ. If there are some who are offended at the suggestion that Reformed doctrine is an open field with some fences rather than a pinpoint, then I'm not quite sure what to say beyond suggesting that we talk more about these incommensurable understandings of how theology functions.

In any case, on the occasion of this six-month mark, it's worth noting that people are still more than welcome to add their signatures to "Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together" (more have signed even in the past several weeks). From there, we can continue to commit ourselves to bear the kind of witness embraced by signing and seek to encourage one another in that witness.