Gathering Together at the Table

Photo by James Emery

At the beginning of October, the PC(USA) Middle Governing Bodies Commission will reconvene in Indianapolis. At this meeting we will finally engage each other about some of the more controversial aspects of our work. One of the issues that is looming for us—and being talked about throughout the denomination—is non-geographic presbyteries.

For those not familiar with this debate, there are many within the Presbyterian Church that would like to reshape the boundaries of our presbyteries based on theological and/or missional affinity, rather than the somewhat arbitrary geographic boundaries that we currently use. Presbyterians are tired of fighting about theology and polity, and this is one proposed way of easing the tension among our churches. According to this way of thinking, ecclesiastical relationships grounded in agreement on theology and/or missional priorities will allow us to focus more on mission than infighting.

I am deeply ambivalent about the concept of non-geographic presbyteries. Like many other progressives, I value the diversity of our church and I’m very skeptical about the ultimate value of creating situations in which we only associate and work with people that have beliefs and practices similar to our own. At the same time, I recognize that outside of our presbyteries and the General Assembly, this kind of association by affinity is largely happening already. And, I have listened sympathetically to conservative colleagues who feel that this may be the only way for them to remain in a denomination that they believe has gone very astray.

If I was forced to take a position on this right now, I would probably be willing to give non-geographic presbyteries a chance. I’m enough of an experimentalist to think that there is no harm in trying out something new. Could it really be worse than decades of protracted division and conflict?

Yet I am very fearful of losing one of the things that I believe makes our Presbyterian way of being church so compelling: our democratic polity brings diverse people together to seek the will of God as a community.

Earlier this week I helped serve communion at our presbytery assembly. The meeting happened to be held at one of the more conservative churches in our presbytery, a congregation that stands on the opposite side of various theological and polity debates from me and the other members of my congregation serving communion that afternoon. As members of our very different congregations came together to serve communion as members of a common presbytery, I was reminded why I think diversity within our presbyteries is important. As we gathered together to worship as a presbytery, we came from left and right to feast together at God’s table of grace. I believe that this is a powerful demonstration of what God’s kingdom is all about.

In an American culture as divided as it has ever been, in a world of conflict and violence, I would hate to lose this sign of hope in God’s work of reconciliation.

We all know that the world doesn’t pay much attention to American mainline churches anymore. If we were to find some way to live together amidst our differences and diversities, maybe the world would find something worth paying attention to.

Comments

  1. I find myself in the same place, not wanting to give up on the value of connections that aren’t based on perceived affinity, even connections that are based in practice on accrued acrimony, yet also not wanting to resist something different just because it’s different. It seems to me like this moment requires some hard-charging theological work on ideas like covenant and friendship and community.
    On a technical level, I want to view the geographic presbytery in a Program-Or-Be-Programmed light: it’s a technology devised by certain people in a certain time and place to do certain things. It was designed with certain biases, like a bias towards tasks of governance and a bias towards people meeting in the same place. The question that keeps coming back to me is this: does the geographic presbytery still do the thing it was designed to do, or do we need a new tool?
    It seems that trying to make geographic presbyteries do something other than the thing for which they were designed–i.e. migrating all presbytery business online–only misuses the tool. In some sense, it seems like a non-geographic presbytery is not just a different type of the same tool, but a new tool altogether.

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