Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Making Certain Fewer People Can Join Your Church

The General Assembly Committees will be working into the night finalizing their recommendations for their reports to the plenary which will begin Wednesday afternoon. I am hoping for the defeat of one of the recommendations coming from the Committee on Church Polity.

It is the addition of membership vows. Now we already have conditions for membership in the Book of Order. This addition would require people to respond in a rote way to a specific question by the session. Here is the text:

“2. Membership Vows
“At the time member-candidates present themselves to the session for reception into membership, whether by profession of faith, transfer of letter, or reaffirmation of faith, the following question[s] shall be addressed to the member-candidates for their answer as indicated. Sessions may make the determination, on an individual basis, to exempt certain persons from answering these specific questions due to physical or mental disability. In such a case, appropriate alternative questions and their presentation should be devised, still meeting the requirements of G-5.0101a.
“Who is your Lord and Savior?
“Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.
[Other questions are recommended and may be used, such as:]
“Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
“I do, by God’s grace.
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?
I will, with God’s help.
“Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, share in its worship and ministry through your prayers and gifts, your study and service, and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
“I will, with God’s help.”

Following this ritual the candidates may then spin twice, click their heels three times, and curtsy.

In addition to treating adults like five year olds, this little exercise has a subtext. Every overture that comes to the General Assembly has a story. This one comes from Mission Presbytery where this overture originated.

Mission Presbytery is the home of Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church. This is a progressive congregation that strongly advocates for social justice and encourages freedom of thought. It doesn't treat adults like children.

They welcomed into membership journalism professor at the University of Texas, Robert Jensen. Take time to read his saga, Finding My Way Back to Church and Getting Kicked Out: What It Means to be a Christian Today. Do take time to read this insightful statement. You may be moved by his candor and his faith and disturbed by what happened to him and the congregation as I was.

Dr. Jensen, despite his reservations regarding dogma, was joyfully received into the membership of the church. He even thought out where he was in matters of theology:

  • On God: I believe God is a name we give to the mystery of the world that is beyond our capacity to understand. I believe that the energy of the universe is ordered by forces I cannot comprehend.

  • On Jesus: I believe Christ offered a way into that mystery that still has meaning today.

  • On the Holy Ghost: There are moments in my life when I feel a connection to other people and to Creation that rides a spirit which flows through me yet is beyond me.

  • I believe that Holy Spirit can only be nurtured in real community, where people make commitments to each other. I have found that community in St. Andrew's. I have tried to open myself up to our pastor's teaching, to the members of the congregation, and to the church's work in the world.
  • Sounds like a thoughtful person to me. I would be glad to have him join my congregation. St. Andrews thought so too and welcomed him.

    Now get this. This happened. Really.

    The Presbyterian Right in that presbytery didn't think Dr. Jensen should be a member of St. Andrews and took the congregation to church court! Really. Believe it. Dr. Jensen writes about that saga as well in the above statement. I haven't kept up with where St. Andrews is in the church court process, but the overture from Mission Presbytery regarding membership vows is in response to this situation.

    Now there is nothing wrong with the language in the recommendation. It comes from the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. I have used this language myself in welcoming members on occasion. If a new member found this language helpful to them in articulating their faith, I would be glad to use it again.

    That isn't the point. The Book of Common Worship is a liturgical resource. It is not part of our constitution. Its purpose is to enhance the articulation of one's faith, not to enforce specific language upon people. It is a worship resource not a manual of dogma.

    While this recommendation seems harmless enough, and many Presbyterians could in good conscience answer these questions or go through the motions whether they could or not, this recommendation is not about honoring Jesus or building up the church.

    It is about adding a weapon to the arsenal in order to hassle progressive, thoughtful congregations and their members. They don't want gays. They don't want freethinkers. They want robots who will do what they are told. They will use all the ecclesiastical weaponry at their disposal in their attempt to stop progressive congregations from growing.

    Think carefully about this one, dear commissioners. Once something gets in the Book of Order
    , it is tough to get it out. There is no need for this recommendation. It is a wolf in sheep's clothing and it will only be used for mischief.