One Person’s Opinion
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Psalm 133 (NRSV)
This was the eighth time in the last twenty five years that I have attended the Triennial Gathering of Presbyterian Women. But, from the moment I walked into the “Great Room” to begin setting up the VOW exhibit booth, I sensed something different – something new; something pleasant and attractive. A clean, refreshing breeze seemed to be blowing through the hall.
Before I go on, let me set a context for what follows by reminding you that Voices of Orthodox Women was born nearly thirteen years ago on the heels of a PW triennial Gathering. Among the reasons for founding VOW was the need to redress the grievances of some of PW’s more “mainstream” members, and to find ways to “push back” at what we perceived as efforts illegitimately to distort and skew the historic faith of the church. Therefore, even though we have individually remained faithful members of PW, VOW’s corporate relationship with the national PW organization has sometimes been difficult. This time, however, we encountered what we must assume was a studied effort by the PW Coordinating Team to create a more welcoming culture for all attendees – especially during the plenary sessions and corporate worship. And, for this, they deserve both our gratitude and respect.
How, specifically, was this PW Gathering different from the seven others that I have attended?
To answer that question, I want to focus on the Gathering’s plenary sessions. Twice a day, the community gathers together en masse. Everyone is there, and more than anything else, it is a time to worship and to listen to the Word of God and to think together about several of the justice issues that are confronting our world. During the remainder of the day, an attendee might choose to participate (or not participate) in a variety of forums, and workshops on a whole range of subjects, but in the plenary participants and presenters congregate as the body of Christ.
In the past, VOW has been critical of the plenary sessions to the degree that they have intentionally used singing and group dynamics to promote ideas to which the average Presbyterian Woman would most likely never assent if those ideas were presented in a less emotionally charged environment. Listening critically and thoughtfully is hard work – especially in the evening when weariness begins to settle in – and not infrequently the PW leadership abused the situation.
But this time it was different. The individuals chosen by the PW Coordinating Team and Staff to lead the plenary meetings were less ideological and political than ever before. Their job was to bring us together in worship, and they did their job well. Let me give you some examples.
1. The ordering of worship during the Gathering was faithful to our biblical, confessional and constitutional standards as Presbyterians. With very few exceptions, the words and flow of the Gathering’s liturgies fell well within our theological boundaries.
2. The music was glorious. Tracy Keenan, senior pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Columbus Ohio, led us in singing both traditional and contemporary hymnody. Dave Powers (pianist, keyboardist and vocalist) accompanied Tracy. Together, they helped us experience our unity in Christ as we “rejoiced” together. Beyond that, there was a Churchwide Gospel choir made up of attendees to the Gathering. Their voices blended in praise to God. The expression on their faces was one of pure joy. Saturday night’s opening plenary began with the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Sunday worship began with “Lift High the Cross.” Over and over again, the hall was filled with the sounds of women raising their voices in praise to the Triune God, and that praise set the tone for everything that followed.
3. During worship, Scripture was read from “authorized” translations such as the New Revised Standard Version, rather than from the troublesome Inclusive Language Lectionary.
4. The “Interpretation of God’s Word” – what we usually call preaching – was led by a variety of gifted women, and was generally faithful to the text of Scripture. Their preaching was powerful, and the Spirit was clearly at work. On the other hand, a few of the Gathering’s preachers, should they have preached their sermons before the Committee on Preparation for Ministry on which I serve in the Presbytery of Plains and Peaks, would have been gently reminded that to make their sermonizing an opportunity to push their own political and theological agendas is to use Scripture as a pretext. But, in all fairness, this is a common problem that is not unique to a PW Gathering, and unfortunately one that crosses the entire theological spectrum.
5. The Commissioning of missionaries was another high point for me. It is particularly appropriate, it seems to me, that Presbyterian Women, who have historically been at the forefront of mission support in our denomination, should be able to participate in this moving event, and to join in celebrating both individuals and families who are responding to God’s call to serve in this particular way.
6. Justice Issues have always been front and center at PW Gatherings. As anyone who has ever attended a Gathering will tell you, their stated purpose is not to send women away “feeling good,” but rather to challenge them to take concrete Christian action. In the past, however, issues have often been addressed in a politically partisan manner that has usually tended to create more heat than light. As I suggest in my footnote about forums and work groups, this tendency has also prevented the airing of a variety of legitimate perspectives.
One issue that is always present is gay ordination. There is constantly the message, sometimes veiled and often not so veiled, that ordination is a right of every baptized member. That was certainly true of this year’s Gathering. And, some of the attendees were clearly unhappy with the results of the latest round of presbytery voting on “fidelity and chastity.” But, for the most part, it appeared that the majority of attendees affirmed both our current ordination standards and the process by which they have been put in place. There was a small group that applauded any statement affirming gay ordination, but even this was expressed appropriately. And, it certainly never dominated the entire atmosphere of this Gathering.
For the most part, the variety of justice issues presented to this Gathering could be supported by women across the theological spectrum. To name a few: human trafficking; the serious and complex challenges facing us in terms of immigration; and domestic violence. I appreciated the information and the level of knowledge of most of the presenters on these issues. My biggest disappointment was the presentation on global warming. The presenter on this issue, who has been chosen to write the next Horizons Bible Study on Revelation, was certainly passionate about her topic, but she did not present one shred of scientific evidence for the position she holds. I respect folks like Sally Ride and Desmond Tutu, who she used as experts on the subject of human caused global warming – but, let’s be honest, neither of them is a climatologist.
In conclusion, it appeared that a majority of the women at the Gathering were first time attendees. The first day, as we shared meals or just visited in hallways, I talked with women who were anxious and apprehensive about what the next five days might hold. They had been warned by their friends that this could be a difficult conference, one often not welcoming of more traditional points of view. Frankly, I shared some of the same concerns. As I said earlier, this was my 8th Gathering. But, as I leafed through the program book and entered the first plenary I began to relax. Others I had talked with also became less anxious. It is not that any of us agreed with everything that was said. But, it was clear that we were moving and living among sisters in Christ.
The theme for this year’s Gathering was “God will do wonders among you.” May it continue to be so among this part of the worldwide Body of Christ that we call the Presbyterian Church (USA).
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! “