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ECCLESIAL IDENTITY AND ECUMENICAL DECISIONS IN THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.).

PRECIS

Ecumenism is never an abstraction; ecumenical work always prods particular churches to make specific decisions about distinct proposals. The decisions of a particular church are not generic responses to theoretical possibilities. Distinctive elements of ecumenical proposals elicit decisions that grow out of a church's ecclesial identity; they may also remind a church of neglected aspects of its ecclesial identity. Recent ecumenical decisions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) provide insight into the relationship between ecclesial identity and ecumenical decisions.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) understands itself as a particular expression of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. For this reason the church's Book of Order articulates a strong ecumenical commitment, beginning with the acknowledgments, "The unity of the Church is a gift of its Lord," [1] and "Visible oneness... is an important sign of the unity of God's people. It is also a means by which that unity is achieved." [2] The church's constitution understands the relationship between the church's God-given unity and its obvious division in a way that mandates vigorous ecumenism:

[W]hile divisions into different denominations do not destroy this unity, they do obscure it for both the Church and the world. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), affirming its historical continuity with the whole Church of Jesus Christ, is committed to the reduction of that obscurity and is willing to seek and maintain communion and community with all other branches of the one, catholic Church. [3]

Church documents sometimes express pieties that are confined to neglected pages, but the commitments of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are lived Out in ecumenical engagements locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. These commitments are not confined to abstract affirmations, for they are discernible in patterns of engagement in ecumenical dialogues and generous participation in ecumenical councils and agencies. Indeed, the scope of the church's ecumenical commitments and engagements leads some internal critics to speak of the Presbyterian Church's "ecumenical promiscuity."

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)'s commitment to the search for the visible unity of Christ's church is not a recent phenomenon that merely reflects contemporary institutional enthusiasm; ecumenical commitment has always been a central element in the Reformed tradition. Our forebear John Calvin deplored church division, believing it to be the bitter fruit of sin. Schism within a church and separation among churches were considered unfaithful and a hindrance to the gospel. Calvin's deep conviction about the unity of the church in each place was coupled with fervent hope for the unity of the church in all places; he understood that a united church in Geneva, separated from evangelical churches in Germany or England, was not a faithful witness to the gospel. Calvin wrote to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, "This other thing is also to be ranked among the chief evils of our time, viz., that the Churches are so divided.... Thus it is that the members of the Church being severed, the body lies bleeding." [4] Not content with bemoaning division, Calvin suggested that, "[t]o put an end to the divisions which exist in Christendom, it is necessary to have a free and universal council." [5] Indeed, his eagerness for a council of unity led him to the exuberant pledge that, "could I be of any service, I would not grudge to cross even ten seas, if need were, on account of it." [6]

Calvin's heirs have not followed his lead in all matters, but his ecumenical impulse has endured through the centuries. From the outset, expansive ecumenism has been a deep feature of the ecciesial identity of Reformed churches, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). That is why some recent Presbyterian actions have appeared puzzling, particularly to those who are accustomed to the denomination's leadership in ecumenical initiatives. Alongside actions that deepen ecumenical engagement are actions that seem to retreat from ecumenical commitment.

In recent years the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has said a resounding "No" to constitutional amendments enabling Covenant Communion within COCU (the Consultation on Church Union/the Church of Christ Uniting) and an enthusiastic "Yes" to the Formula of Agreement for full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. The church's ecumenically oriented understanding of its Christian, Reformed, Presbyterian identity led it in two different, seemingly discrepant directions: overwhelming rejection of COCU and nearly unanimous embrace of full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. These apparently contradictory decisions may have an underlying coherence, however. The ecumenical "No" as well as the ecumenical "Yes" may have brought toward self-consciousness certain aspects of Christian, Reformed, Presbyterian identity that had only been implicit in the church's life.

In a church named for its system of governance, it is not surprising that the process for Presbyterian decision-making is complex. In the cases of COCU and full communion, long-standing Special Committees recommended affirmative actions to the churchwide General Assembly. The General Assembly approved the recommendations, sending them to the church's 173 presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes. Approval by these regional assemblies, composed of equal numbers of elders and ministers of the word and sacrament, was necessary in order to incorporate enabling amendments into the church's constitution. The presbyteries voted against COCU, 66-104, and for the Formula of Agreement, 170-3.

The vote for full communion seemed predictable, although the margin of approval was surprising. However, the vote against COCU appeared to many to be a denial of Presbyterian heritage or even a betrayal of other COCU churches. However, beyond the surprise, disappointment, and even anger may come a realization that the church's decisions were expressions of certain underlying aspects of Presbyterian identity.

1. The COCU Decision

Presbyterian refusal to enact constitutional amendments that would have enabled the church's entrance into "covenant communion" with eight other churches is widely attributed to two issues: rejection of bishops, and rejection of COCU's bureaucratically elaborated structures. While both anti-bishop and anti-bureaucracy sentiments played a part in the church's decision, they lie on the surface of two deeper features of Presbyterian self-understanding. These deeper features must be understood if the church's decision against COCU is to make sense within and without the Presbyterian family.

A. Bishops and Elders

There is little doubt that an entrenched anti-episcopal history was at work in the debate over COCU. American Presbyterianism was defined by the history of the Scottish church's century-long resistance to domination by a royally controlled episcopacy. The enduring power of this heritage is evident as many contemporary Presbyterian ministers and members favorably compare our governance by "representative democracy" to the "hierarchy" of episcopal systems and the "anarchy" of congregational systems. Presbyterianism embodies an entrenched suspicion of bishops, particularly when they are understood as (in COCU's words) "pastoral overseers" and "administrative leaders."

Even so, Presbyterians might have been able to adopt an ecumenically acceptable form of episcope had COCU not been perceived as a denigration of the Presbyterian office of elder. The problem came with COCU's explication of the ministry of "presbyters." On the face of it, COCU's discussion of the function of presbyters is unremarkable. Presbyterian terminology may differ at points, and different emphases maybe given, but ministers of the word and sacrament are clearly recognizable in COCU's list of eight functions. The difficulty is that the Presbyterian Church has two kinds of presbyters: ministers, traditionally called "teaching elders," and elders, traditionally called "ruling elders." It is worth noting that the historic understanding of the "ruling" of elders has less to do with managerial governance than with "ruling out" or "measuring" the work of ministry, the fidelity of communal and personal lives, and the progress of the gospel in the church. Elders' responsibilities for measuring the word of God, sacraments, and discipline place them squarely within presbyterial functioning. The ministry of elders is evident in their essential responsibilities in the celebration of baptism and eucharist.

The Presbyterian Church understands elders as necessary participants in the church's ministry of word and sacraments, but COCU relegated elders to the generic category, "ministers of governance," who were to be "recognized" but who were not included in the "reconciliation of ministries" as were "real" presbyters. This dismissal of the ministry of "ruling" elders was more than COCU's indifference to a Presbyterian idiosyncracy. The presbyterial partnership of elders and ministers is, at its heart, an expression of the Reformed conviction that ordered ministry must represent the ministry of the whole people of God. Thus, pastors cannot function in isolation from so-called "laypeople" who exercise ministry on behalf of and for the sake of the whole congregation.

Introduction of bishops, combined with the perceived denigration of elders, resulted in the Presbyterian judgment that COCU represented a clericalism inimical to Reformed self-understanding. Half of those who voted on COCU were elders who did not look with favor on COCU's relegation of their ordered ministry to generic "governance." The other half who voted were ministers, those most likely to be suspicious of bishops. Presbyterian ecumenicity was not that strong!

On the surface the issue was bishops. Beneath the surface, the issue was the depreciation of elders. None of this was a matter of Presbyterian purity warding off infection from an alien organism, however. The COCU-generated discussion of bishops and elders revealed the underside of our own church practice. In COCU's reduction of elders to "ministers of governance," Presbyterians saw reflected our own reduction of elders to congregational "boards of directors," exercising petty management of organizational business. Too often, contemporary Presbyterians view the office of elder as a three-year term on the church's board rather than as an ordered ecclesial ministry. The question for Presbyterians, then, is whether we will be able to see ourselves clearly in COCU's mirror and then take steps to recover what we have nearly lost -- genuine partnership of ministers and elders in a presbyterial ministry of the word and sacrament.

B. Bureaucracy and Theology

COCU's proposal for "covenant communion" among the nine churches entailed establishment of "covenanting councils" at national, regional, and local levels. These councils were to order the sacrament of Holy Communion, enable joint ordinations, give spiritual oversight, pursue inclusiveness, pursue fuller embodiment of the threefold pattern of ministry in the churches, provide opportunities for common baptisms and ordinations, encourage unified action in the service of justice, and provide for shared decision-making.

The relationship between COCU covenanting councils and Presbyterian Church sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly seemed vague in the COCU proposal. While it was clear that covenanting councils would only have the authority granted to them by member churches, it was not at all clear how authority was to be understood with regard to different issues in different judicatories in different regions and localities. It seemed clear that member churches would have to devote considerable time and energy to the development of appropriate structures of unity within the Church of Christ Uniting.

Many Presbyterians viewed all this as adding one more bureaucratic layer to an already complex system of governance. Monthly meetings of church sessions, committee-driven presbyteries demanding time and people, synods lurking in the wings, the General Assembly looming over everything ... and now covenanting councils at three levels! It was all too much. The culture's anti-institution, anti-bureaucracy mood was underlined by Presbyterian impatience with its own institutionalized bureaucratic structures. COCU appeared to be an organizational relic from a bygone era.

On the surface, the issue was bureaucracy. Beneath the surface of Presbyterian distaste for the prospect of elaborated organizational structures lay the apprehension that the theological basis for COCU was so thin that it could not support the weight of the Church of Christ Uniting. The theological basis for covenant communion is contained in The COCU Consensus. The Consensus did not claim to be a complete exposition of Christian doctrine but only an expression "in the matters with which it deals" of apostolic faith, order, worship, and witness. It was intended to provide a "sufficient theological basis" for proceeding with the covenanting process. Thus, on the basis of The COCU Consensus, COCU declared that "it is now evident that an essential core of theological agreement exists and continues to grow ... in matters of faith, worship, sacrament, membership, ministry, and mission." [7]

COCU's claim was greater than its own documents demonstrated, however. Detailed discussions of sacraments and ministry were not matched by explications of theological conviction regarding central elements of Christian faith. COCU's discussion of "The Faith" identified the sources of faith--scripture, tradition, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, worship, mission, and inclusiveness--but not the substance of the faith. COCU assumed that a core of theological agreement existed concerning, for example, the Trinity, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church and world, the meaning of salvation, and so on. This core was never identified or discussed, however. Was COCU's "core of theological agreement" so firm that it did not need to be set forth or so fragile that explicit theological affirmation would reveal significant differences among the churches?

Reformed Christians have always taken theology seriously. Moreover, we have affirmed doctrine's centrality to ecclesiology. While the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is generous in recognizing other churches as communions in which the word of God is faithfully proclaimed and the sacraments are faithfully celebrated, its theological and doctrinal requirements for "covenant communion" with other churches are more demanding. In any event, Presbyterians were unwilling to embrace more bureaucracy coupled with less theology.

The surface issue was the weight of COCU organizational structures. Beneath the surface, the issue was the lightness of COCU's theological affirmations. Presbyterians cannot claim the high ground of theological precision and purity, disdaining mere institutional structures, however. The discussion of bureaucracy and theology revealed the underside of our own church practice. In spite of a recent General Assembly's wistful declaration that "theology matters," Presbyterians have squandered a rich theological heritage. In dealing with difficult ethical and theological issues, polity is no longer a last resort but a first instinct. Presbyterians have experienced our own acceptance of "theology lite" and our own enthusiasm for organizational fixes to every problem and issue. Again, the question for Presbyterians is whether we are able to see ourselves in COCU's mirror, taking steps to recover what we have lost: a recognition that the Christian community is gathered by the gospel, not arranged by bureaucratic engi neering.

II. The Formula of Agreement

The Presbyterian decision to enter full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ) is more easily analyzed. To begin with, the Formula of Agreement was not burdened with COCU's deficiencies. Although the E.L.C.A. pattern of ministry includes bishops, Presbyterians were not asked to adopt that pattern, nor were Presbyterians expected to relegate elders to quasi-ministerial status. Moreover, the Formula of Agreement did not call for elaborated structures of ecclesiastical governance. Full communion was perceived by Presbyterians as the faithful ecclesial communion of faithful churches, rather than as an imposed pattern or an additional bureaucratic burden.

Yet, Presbyterian enthusiasm for full communion with the E.L.C.A. had a more positive basis, growing from the Formula's initial affirmation that the churches "recognize each other as churches in which the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered according to the word of God." The Formula of Agreement provides for modest structural arrangements among the churches, including recognition of each others' ministries, orderly exchange of ministers, and establishment of appropriate channels of consultation and decision-making. Yet, these features are far less important to Presbyterians than the authorization and encouragement of "the sharing of the Lord's Supper" and commitment to "an ongoing process of theological dialogue in order to clarify further the common understanding of the faith and foster its common expression."

Eucharistic and theological sharing are the positive elements that drew Presbyterians into heartfelt approval of the Formula of Agreement. Cynics sometimes suggest that Presbyterians embraced full communion because, unlike COCU, it did not call upon the church to change anything. Since eucharistic sharing and theological dialogue are old Presbyterian values, it has been insinuated that the church can adapt effortlessly to new or renewed partnerships with Lutherans and other Reformed churches. However, these disenchanted assessments fail to go beneath the surface to detect Presbyterian hope that certain attenuated features of Reformed identity will be strengthened by full communion with Lutheran sacramental and confessional life.

A. Eucharistic Sharing

Presbyterians are in the midst of recovering sacramental life. Thirty years ago, most Presbyterian congregations observed "quarterly communion." Four times each year, ministers solemnly intoned words of institution, elders marched stiffly while distributing little trays of bread and wine, the organ droned dolefully, and members communed silently and privately. The development of The Worshipbook in the late 1960's began a process of reclaiming the fullness of word and sacrament in Lord's Day worship. The Book of Common Worship (1993) consolidated earlier gains and provided rich resources for further appropriation of the sacramental tradition of the church catholic.

Renewal of sacramental practice has been accompanied by the reappropriation of a thoroughly Reformed sacramental theology that has its source in Calvin. Eucharistic theology and practice now feed each other as the church experiences a means of grace that deepens union with Christ. Currently, most Presbyterian congregations celebrate the Lord's Supper monthly with a full eucharistic liturgy accompanied by the communal speaking, singing, and moving of the faithful.

Because of renewal of the church's sacramental life, Presbyterians can understand full communion as far more than a casual agreement by individuals to share a ritualized common memory. Full communion draws its life from the churches' shared communion with their one Lord, which creates their communion with one another, yet there is more. Beneath Presbyterian affirmation of the Formula of Agreement's authorization and encouragement of eucharistic sharing lies our hope that full communion will deepen our corporate and personal recovery of sacramental life. The past thirty years have seen a revolutionary change in Presbyterian liturgical and sacramental theology and practice. However, we understand that full recovery of "sacraments rightly administered according to the word of God" has not yet been achieved. How can the Lutheran experience of renewed sacramental practice inform our ongoing recovery? How can our reappropriation of Calvin's sacramental theology be deepened by rediscovery of Luther's? How can share d eucharistic theology and practice enrich our theology and practice of baptism, and how can baptismal renewal shape our understanding of confirmation and the meaning of membership?

In its enthusiasm for full communion, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) senses the possibilities for very real, positive change in our liturgical life. Like Luther, Calvin asserted that the faithful church is marked by right preaching of the gospel and right celebration of the sacraments. The historic Presbyterian emphasis on strong biblical preaching has not been sufficient to compensate for a tendency toward sacramental minimalism. Full communion is an expression of Presbyterian hope for deepened fidelity in our own life.

B. Confessional Theology

Reformed churches have always been confession-making churches. In different times and various contexts they have believed it necessary to give testimony to their faith and action. In the sixteenth century alone, more than sixty confessions were produced by Reformed churches. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches has published a representative collection of more than twenty-five Reformed confessions from this century. This great variety is not a mere accident of history and geography, however. Reformed emphasis on the sovereignty of God leads to acute awareness of the dangers of idolatry, including the idolatry of creeds. Thus, Reformed churches rarely identify a particular time, place, or confession as the authoritative expression of Christian faith and life.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) expresses its understanding of the confessional nature of the church through its Book of Confessions, an authoritative collection of creeds and confessions from the early church (the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds), the Reformation and post-Reformation churches (the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Shorter and Larger Catechisms), and twentieth-century churches (the Theological Declaration of Barmen, the Confession of 1967, and A Brief Statement of Faith). The Book of Confessions is more than a historical archive; ministers, elders, and deacons take ordination vows promising to "receive and adopt" the confessions' essential tenets and to be "instructed, guided, and led" by the confessions.

Yet, Presbyterians now struggle with the place and function of confessions in the church's life, with the desirability of authoritative ecclesial teaching, and with the possibility of shared theology in a postmodern culture. The Reformed tradition generally and the Presbyterian Church in particular possess a rich inheritance of theological seriousness. Even so, many in the church think it necessary to repeat the mantra, "theology matters," as a way of making it so. Presbyterians, together with all other churches that are thoughtful about the ecclesial significance of scripture, tradition, doctrine, and theology, must discern how to be faithful churches of the word in a culture that reduces the gospel to personal experience and relegates theology to private opinion.

The Presbyterian Church is giving renewed attention to its confessions, the Reformed tradition, and the necessity of ecclesial theology. The church is also attending to the necessity of sustained catechesis, the renewal of spiritual disciplines, and the recovery by pastors of their theological vocation. Many Presbyterians hope that full communion with another church that is serious about its confessional basis will strengthen our own church's struggle for deeper fidelity to the gospel.

Presbyterian approval of full communion is an expression of hope that an ongoing process of theological dialogue among the churches will encourage and enhance theological dialogue within our church. Many Presbyterians also hope that experience with the Formula's "principle of mutual affirmation and admonition" will contribute to the development of "a trusting relationship" within our church so that we can live together "under the gospel."

III. Ecclesial Responses

Ecumenical proposals require ecclesial responses. Response always functions at several levels -- some of which are apparent, while others lie beneath the surface. The Presbyterian response to COCU expressed the church's conscious self-identity in its refusal of bishops and its rejection of additional bureaucratic structures. The COCU vote also expressed half-forgotten Presbyterian convictions, however. The church recalled its understanding of an ordered ministry embodying a genuine partnership of elders and ministers. The church recalled its understanding of a church formed by shared faith and common conviction rather than by organizational arrangement. The church also discerned its own departures from its tradition in its clergy-oriented devaluing of elders and deacons and its bureaucratic devaluing of theological standards. The question raised by the Presbyterian response to the COCU proposal is whether the church will be content with the assertion of surface identity or whether the church will strengthen its inchoate reappropriation of neglected depth identity.

The Presbyterian response to full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America expressed the church's conscious self-identity in its embrace of a church in which the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered according to the word of God. The Presbyterian response to the Formula of Agreement also expressed the church's hopes, however. The church hoped that the movement to recover centrality of the sacraments within full liturgical life would be assisted by Lutheran faith and practice. The church also hoped that Lutheran confessional theology would reinforce and enrich its own confessional basis. The question raised by the Presbyterian response to full communion is whether the church will be content to settle for mutual recognition and polite communion or whether the church will have the courage to live Out its hopes.

IV. Stepping toward the Future

The Eighteenth Plenary of the Consultation on Church Union gathered in January, 1999, in the face of Presbyterian disapproval that focused on concerns about episcope, covenanting councils, and the role of the ruling elder, [8] as well as the Episcopal Church's declaration that it was not ready to enter into covenant communion. [9] Unwilling to settle for failure, the Plenary recommended to the COCU member churches that they enter into a new relationship, "Churches Uniting in Christ" (CUiC), which is intended to express visible unity in things that are essential to the church's life.

The plenary report was forwarded to the 211th General Assembly (1999) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which approved resolutions authorizing entrance into the new relationship in 2002, even if some COCU member churches are unable to enter into the relationship at that time. The Assembly also approved the following nine "Visible Marks of Churches Uniting in Christ" as expressing the shape of the new CUiC relationship: (1) mutual recognition of each other as authentic expressions of the one church of Jesus Christ; (2) mutual recognition of members in one baptism; (3) mutual recognition of ordained ministry; (4) mutual recognition that each affirms the apostolic faith of scripture and tradition that is expressed in the Apostles' and Nicene creeds and that each seeks to give witness to the apostolic faith in its life and mission; (5) provision for the celebration of the eucharist together with intentional regularity; (6) engagement together in Christ's mission on a regular and intentional basis, especially a shared mission to combat racism; (7) intentional commitment to promote unity with wholeness and to oppose all marginalization and exclusion in church and society based on such things as race, age, gender, forms of disability, sexual orientation, and class; (8) an ongoing process of theological dialogue; and (9) appropriate structures of accountability and appropriate means for consultation and decision-making.

In accordance with the Presbyterian Church's Book of Order, these resolutions and the visible marks (together with their explanatory descriptions) were submitted to the presbyteries for their votes on whether or not to adopt the whole as a constitutionally authorized "Received Statement of Ecumenical Guidance." Discussion throughout the church and in the presbyteries was lively and thoughtful. Predictably, debate focused on visible marks (2) and (9), above. Most presbyteries were satisfied that "mutual recognition" was not "reconciliation" of ministries, so that the adoption of bishops and the depreciation of elders was not seen to be a clear and present danger. Most presbyteries were also satisfied that "appropriate structures' remained unspecified and would be sufficiently flexible. Further, provision for "an ongoing process of theological dialogue" acknowledged the need for continuing attention to central theological and ecclesial concerns, and CUiC's strong "Call to Christian Commitment and Action to Com bat Racism" encouraged deepened engagement in long-standing Presbyterian priorities. In the end, the presbyteries approved the "Received Statement of Ecumenical Guidance" by a vote of 123-48-2.

Most Presbyterians are aware that the affirmation of CUiC does not resolve all difficult issues but, rather, reaffirms the church's ecumenical commitment while establishing a process for explicit theological dialogue on matters of faith, ministry, and structures. Among the most vexing issues is, of course, the old problem of ministry. Even CUiC's more modest proposal for mutual recognition of ordained ministry, rather than reconciliation of ordained ministries, comes with acknowledgements both that this remains a sticking point for (at least) Presbyterians and Episcopalians and that special efforts are needed if the recognition/reconciliation issue and the issue of episcope are to be addressed.

The 212th General Assembly (2000) gave evidence that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is prepared to make those efforts. In a historic action, the General Assembly voted to enter a church-to-church dialogue with the Episcopal Church, focusing on possible means toward the reconciliation of ministries in the two churches. The General Assembly also voted to enter a church-to-church dialogue with the Moravian Church in America, with the aim of reaching understanding of each church's ministry of oversight, as well as seeking agreements that could lead to establishing full communion between the two churches. The Presbyterian Church seems ready to grapple with episcope as a genuinely theological ecumenical issue.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in a position to combine renewed ecumenical engagement with renewed understanding of its own Reformed identity. In addition to the 212th General Assembly's overtures to the Episcopal and Moravian Churches, it also agreed to enter church-to-church conversations with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America. These conversations, together with an ongoing relationship with the Korean Presbyterian Church in America, will help the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to explore matters of faith, ministry, and ecclesiastical structures within the Reformed tradition at the same time that it is exploring these matters with the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and CUiC partner churches.

The future is not guaranteed, but the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has an opportunity to unite renewed discernment of its own theological and ecclesial heritage with renewed commitment to the visible unity of Christ's church. Rediscovery of the partnership of ministers and elders in a presbyterian ministry of the word and sacrament could lead to new relationships with episcopal communions and even new possibilities for Presbyterian episcope. Renewal of Presbyterian engagement with its deep theological understanding of the church's life could cultivate ecciesial rather than bureaucratic approaches to ecumenical structures. Recovery of sacramental life could bring about a new Reformed appreciation of the ecumenical centrality of baptismal recognition and eucharistic sharing. Reinvigoration of the confessional nature of the Presbyterian Church could encourage genuinely theological ecumenical exploration of the apostolic faith of scripture and tradition.

Ecclesial identity shapes ecumenical decisions. Diluted identity leads to weak decisions, whether a church adopts or rejects an ecumenical proposal. When a church embraces its deep ecciesial identity, it may discover resources that enrich ecumenical conversation, deepen ecumenical commitment, and create new ecumenical possibilities.

The same General Assembly that called for dialogue and conversations with the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church, and two Cumberland Presbyterian Churches also adopted a new Ecumenical Vision Statement for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). One paragraph of the statement expressed aspects of Presbyterian identity, while also setting directions for Presbyterian ecumenical decisions:

As an expression of the one catholic and apostolic church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has never been able to live in comfortable detachment from other churches. Instead, we search for diverse patterns of the visible unit of Christ's church, seeking concord in essential things: faith, sacraments, mission, and ministry. Such forms of communion are both signs of the church's unity and means by which the church's unity is achieved.

Joseph D. Small (Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.]) has been Coordinator for Theology and Worship for the Congregational Ministries Division of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY, since 1993, and also Associate Director for Theology, Worship, and Discipleship beginning in 2000. From 1988 to 1993, he was Associate Director of the Theology and Worship Ministry Unit. He previously served as pastor in Rochester, NY (1983-88), and in Westerville, OH (1975-83). He was an administrator for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, serving as admissions director (1968-70), dean of students (1970-72), and director of church studies (1972-75), following an associate pastorate in Towson, MD, 1966-68. He has a B.A. from Brown University, an M.Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a D.Min. (1981) in theology from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He has published God and Ourselves: A Brief Exercise in Reformed Theology (Presbyterian Publishing House, 1996) and six monographs; more than twenty articles in Reformed and ecumenical journals; several curriculum resources, including videos; and a monthly column for Presbyterian Survey, 1989-94. He is a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and of the Pentecostal-Reformed International Dialogue.

(1.) Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Book of Order, 1999-2000 (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, 1999), G-4.0201.

(2.) Ibid., G-4.0203.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) John Calvin, letter to Thomas Cranmer, April, 1552, in Jules Bonnet, ed. and tr., Letters of John Calvin, vol.2 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, n.d.), pp. 345-346.

(5.) John Calvin, letter to the Reformed Churches of France, December, 1560, in ibid., vol. 4, p. 158.

(6.) Calvin, letter to Cranmer, p. 348.

(7.) Churches in Covenant Communion: The Church of Christ Uniting (Princeton, NJ: Consultation on Church Union, 1989) p. 16.

(8.) Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Report to the 18th Plenary Meeting in Response to Churches in Covenant Communion: The Church of Christ Uniting," in a special issue on "Consultation on Church Union: Proceedings of the Eighteenth Plenary," Mid-Stream 39 (January/April, 2000): 25-29.

(9.) "Episcopal Church Report on COCU," Mid-Stream 39 (January/April, 2000): 19-22.
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Author:Small, Joseph D.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
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Date:Jan 1, 2000
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