Special to The Layman
I have spent my professional life learning to hear and to communicate, sometimes with people who cannot communicate normally at all, and I’ve learned how tricky communication can be. The one seeking to communicate has a message in mind, but the message must move through a prism of social and personal context and is similarly received through the prism of the hearer’s experience. As a person interested in truth and in the faithfulness and future of the church, I wanted to hear the message of our Moderator Neal Presa when he came my presbytery, and want to attempt to faithfully convey his message as well as my perceptions of the way his message was received by the audience.
Owning my perspective is important to acknowledge. I have been a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for over 20 years and have watched with consternation as the church has drifted away from orthodoxy. I attended the 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh (2012) and was present when Presa was elected moderator. Since that time, I have also followed the constitutional discussion that arose from the controversy surrounding the election of his vice-moderator. So, I was happy to learn that Presa would be holding a town hall meeting in my area on May 2, 2013.
After talking to friends and family about our concerns in the denomination, I carried with me questions to ask Presa on behalf of those who could not make the meeting. As the evening progressed, I realized that Presa has a wealth of thoughts and ideas to share with members of the PCUSA, and so I began taking notes. Friends requested copies of the notes, and so I decided that it might be worthwhile to share what I – one ruling elder – took from that meeting. Maybe what I heard is not what Presa intended, and maybe my impressions are not accurate, but possibly even my misperceptions are instructive.
The meeting was held in the sanctuary of a local PCUSA church, and opened like a reunion of PCUSA and seminary insiders. Of the approximately 30 people who attended the meeting, I estimated that only about 10 of us were “regular” people (meaning non-clergy and non-presbytery staff). The feeling of being out of place in an exclusive club gave me a real sense of disconnect, although Presa himself was warm, witty and engaging.
He opened his remarks by describing a bell-shaped curve that illustrates the natural course seen in the demise of a denomination and which is marked by consecutive phases of “acknowledgement,” “anxiety” and finally “advent.” He felt that members must move through these phases, and warned that refusal to acknowledge necessary change or failure to move past anxiety into advent will spell missional death. Presa said mission occurs where we have advent, and the Holy Spirit will take us to that place when we have left our anxiety behind. Apparently recognizing the anxiety felt by PCUSA members over declining membership, he admitted that five churches per week are leaving the PCUSA for other denominations, and this statistic was surprising to me. He reassured the group that this type of loss has been present for the past 50 years, and such a loss pattern is typical of a denomination in decline which is changing due to changes in the world.
Rather than dwelling on internal problems and declining numbers, Presa’s real passion and focus is what he terms “unity with difference.” Unlike the “unity in diversity” we’ve heard about for the last few years, unity with difference is based on Ephesians 4 and Ephesians 1 (i.e. there is one redemption, we are already elected, blood has already been shed; we are already united in the body of Christ, and according to Presa, we just need to “live into it.”) He urged us not simply to tolerate differences, but rather to “dignify” difference so that we can understand each other and how we have come to our respective conclusions on various issues. He tied this model of dignifying difference to his Filipino cultural roots where families have large feasts and parties that last for hours and where, although there might be family “drama,” everyone stays at the table, everyone is fed, and everyone leaves with food to take home. This was a powerful metaphor for Presa in his desire for Presbyterians to “come to the table and learn how to fight,” so that we truly engage each other rather than hiding behind Roberts Rules of Order.
Throughout the meeting, I felt that Presa was concerned about the division in the PCUSA and is aware of the deep divide over issues such as marriage, ordination and orthodoxy. The moderator emphasized his concern that we in the PCUSA have been living under what he calls “a hegemony of a dictatorship of rules,” that hides from us the fact that “we are a church in reformation,” and need to “recover and recalibrate our shared heritage of gather-send-gather-send” in which the people of God gather at the table and then send each other out with the Gospel. This sharing of the Gospel message is incumbent upon each of us regardless of “which side you’re on,” and he believes that no one is excused from Christ’s call on us because “all who are in the household of faith – all are created in the image of God, and we must see each other in this way.” “The alternative,” he said, “is violence.”
Expanding on his view of the centrality of the Gospel, he asked, “What is the purpose of preaching?” He talked about his professorship and his teaching, and said that even his preaching students don’t know the answer to the question. He explained that the purpose of preaching is the Gospel (followed by a long discourse on the Hebrew and Greek roots of “gospel”), and the Gospel tells us to “live a life worthy of freedom because of what the King has done in freeing us. This was clearly an issue about which Presa is fervent, and he continued in a heightened tone, saying, “We can debate the political issues and pontificate pro-this and pro-that but if you aren’t caring for the widow and orphan and those sold for sex trafficking, we’re just going around the periphery.” Continuing, Presa said, “If we’re just fighting over this issue and that issue, we need to proclaim what King Jesus has done – NO ONE CAN DISPUTE THAT! IT’S THE GOSPEL!” (Emphasis to indicate just how passionate he got on this point.)
There was ample time in the meeting for question and answer, and “regular” people in the audience were clearly hurting and looking for answers. It was poignant to hear older Presbyterians asking the moderator to “do something” to stop the relentless assault on Scriptural authority and Biblical marriage which have resulted in the loss of a generation of Presbyterians. One man asked, “How many votes do we have to take over the homosexual issue before it’s finished?” going on to point out that, as a denomination, we have been voting on this for 50 years, and it “never gets resolved.”
The questioners echoed Presa’s concern that, rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue, we hide behind procedures. One questioner lamented that many members of the PCUSA do not know what is going on in Louisville or what deep issues are being debated, saying, “no one talks about anything. It just goes to a committee and we never hear anything else.”
In response, the moderator returned to his exhortation that people talk among themselves pointing out “both sides” are to blame for our impasse. He told us that, “the better way (to be Christians together) is a faithful presence, a faithful presence is better than standing on a soapbox,” and added “I’m not in favor of interest groups; we need the Holy Spirit to convert the whole church – both sides.”
I sensed that he has a great heart for the needy, the hurting, and the lost in the world as he asked us what difference it makes if an overture wins 51/49 at General Assembly if “people go hungry.”
Whether the questioner asked about same-sex marriage, abortion, homosexual ordination, or departure from Scripture, Presa clearly saw the problem as being two sides wrangling over scraps while the Gospel is being ignored, and took great pains to reiterate that “both sides” must come to the table and declare the “glory of the Gospel,” despite our “differences.” In fact, preaching the gospel was a topic that seemed to energize and illuminate Presa, and he dedicated a significant amount of time to describing how we “live faithfully in the tension,” declaring, “that’s what the Reformed tradition has always been – since Pentecost – I say this as a theologian!” He went on to say that “there have been multiple controversies over the centuries. The people of God are certain about certain things, and uncertain about others.” Despite controversy, he encouraged members to stay in the denomination, saying, “It doesn’t matter the vote! No matter what it (i.e. the vote) is, I’m not moving one bit because I’m saved in Jesus Christ.”
In Presa’s opinion, he sees no Biblical or theological reason to leave the denomination with two exceptions: 1) the confessions are vitiated and “completely discarded,” or 2) if anyone is compelled not to preach the Gospel, and said that the “day a judicial action compels me to do otherwise, then I’ll leave.” Otherwise, he is concerned that we are being judgmental, and asks if we “dare label a fellow disciple?”
I had an opportunity to engage Presa over my concern about the PCUSA’s complicity on abortion. Although he had stated earlier that we should treat each other with dignity and eschew violence, I believe that he sees the abortion issue as purely a political concern, rather than a Biblical one and he once again pointed out that “both sides” are to blame for the impasse over abortion policy. He said that people on “the other side” are just as passionate about a woman’s right to choose as pro-life advocates are about God’s sovereignty over human life. Further questioning by me on the nature of evil elicited the following response: “Evil is any force that contravenes or contradicts the radical love of Jesus Christ.”
Presa sees much to celebrate in the PCUSA. He mentioned a litany of good news including:
- Community Fellowship Presbyterian Church in New Braunfels,
- his meeting with Presbyterians in Cuba who offered to be a “neutral ground” for PCUSA and EPC or ECO to meet,
- the upcoming YAD reunion this summer,
- a children’s hospice in Osaka, Japan,
- a meeting of “both sides” (including FOP board members) over three days in December 2012 during which both sides acknowledged they were brothers and sisters in Christ, shed the caricatures they had of each other, they talked together
- he sees great hope in the 1001 new worshipping communities where the idea was that “where two or three want to gather, we will support you anywhere – to pray or sing songs or talk about God,” with funding available through the presbytery.
Overall, my impression was of a very nice, sincere man who truly loves the gracious forgiveness of Jesus Christ, and who is comfortable with evangelizing the atoning blood of Christ for our sins, but not comfortable with orthodox principles.