This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

PCUSA General Assembly - Day Six

At the beginning of the Assembly, the then Vice-Moderator, Byron Wade, made the comment: “We are in a strange and foreign land,” and that we cannot look back. This was basically Phyllis Tickle’s point as well. Whether the assembly gets this or not I can’t tell. There are signs….

Christian Universalism.

“The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people. This one living God, the Scriptures say, liberated the people of Israel from oppression and covenanted to be their God. By the power of the Spirit, this one living God is incarnate in Jesus Christ, who came to live in the world, die for the world, and be raised again to new life. The Gospel of Jesus Christ announces the nearness of God’s kingdom, bringing good news to all who are impoverished, sight to all who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor upon all creation.”

This is the opening paragraph of the Proposed New Form of Government, which got approved last night. It drew some fire at the plenary for its “universalism,” especially in the first sentence. One commissioner expressed disappointment that the proposal does not explicitly allow for an affirmation of hell. I’m serious.

Is the first paragraph “universalistic”? If so, is universalism necessarily contrary to the Christian faith?

Christian universalism is not something dreamed up by liberals in contradiction to Scripture. It is a strong current within Scripture and which has always had a place in Christian tradition. Granted, its place has usually been in the minority. But it has been there. It maintains a continual presence in Christian tradition because it shows up in Scripture, and is a result of theological logic. For example: Romans 5:18, “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” If “all” means, well, all, then we have universalism. Furthermore, accepting the theological propositions that God is both good and omnipotent, then nothing can ultimately stand in the way of God’s will, which is the redemption of all creation.

The church has not yet formally and explicitly affirmed this as a basic principle of orthodox faith, preferring to balance such passages with other passages that talk about things like the separation of “the sheep from the goats,” meaning that only some are saved. (The nadir of that view was in the “double predestination” of classical Calvinism, which basically has God creating bad people simply for the fun of torturing them for all eternity.)

But Christian universalism has a long and venerable history, and includes theologians as prominent as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Karl Barth.

It may be that the theologies being developed now in the Great Emergence are going to have more use for universalistic sources and readings of Scripture, than for the more exclusive passages that have held sway since the inception of Christendom in the 4th century. Not just because people today find the hellfire-and-damnation thing hard to swallow. But because, with Christendom finished, there is no pressing reason to have hell to hold over people’s heads to inspire them to conform to the social order.
Hopeful Signs.

Hopeful signs from the Assembly today:

1) Presbyteries are urged to “establish maximum terms of call, with the proviso that congregations providing calls that exceed the maximum would contribute an amount that matched the overage to a presbytery fund to be used to support pastors in congregations of that presbytery unable to afford its minimum terms of call.” The imbalance between what ministers get paid in large churches and what they get paid in small churches is an obscenity. This starts to redress this problem.

2) A related travesty was the cap on pension dues payments that has been given to ministers making large amounts of money. This basically shifted pension and medical premiums from large, rich churches, and adding to the burden of small, poor churches. Today, this cap was finally repealed. Now wealthy churches have to pay the same 31.5% of TES into the pension/medical plan as everyone else.


The Assembly voted to send to the presbyteries for ratification a replacement of the controversial paragraph that inserted "chastity and fidelity" into the Book of Order as part of the ordination standards. But the vote was surprisingly close, given how the committee went. Now we limp into the ratification phase with an uninspiring 53-46% vote.

I have heard that some who actually supported the measure voted against it because they were afraid it was too much for presbyteries to deal with at one time, what with Belhar and the new Form of Government already approved. Whatever.


The Assembly then wandered into dementia by refusing, sort of, to face the issue of same-sex marriage. They chose instead to give us two documents to "study" for two years, I think.

The Archpriest.

I have this minor supporting role at the Assembly this year of being an "ecumenical host." This means I am supposed to keep an eye out for two Ecumenical Advisory Delegates. One is a priest from Minsk named Father Hardun. He was asked to bring greetings from his church to the Assembly tonight. In the course of his remarks he gave some mildly critical commentary on the Assembly's actions on moral issues.

Father Hardun’s remarks show one really significant difference between the Eastern and Western church. What we call “progressive revelation” is not part of their understanding as it is for us. The Orthodox are more interested in maintaining, keeping, and guarding the “deposit” of faith intact and unchanged. He even expressed the view that the Holy Spirit a) never changes, and b) is always consistent, and that goes for our moral life as well. The idea of God "doing a new thing" is pretty foreign to many Orthodox, if I understand them right.

It remains to be seen how the Orthodox deal with the issues of the Great Emergence. At the same time, Emergence Christianity incorporates much that derives from Orthodoxy. I have found a lot in Orthodoxy that has provided a creative yet authentic way out of the impasses we face in the theology of the Western church. But an understanding of the Holy Spirit as static, completed, changeless, and always consistent is probably not going to fly with Emergence Christians.

Indeed, it is this progressive revelation thing, leading to periodic paradigm shifts almost by design, that keeps the Western church engaged with its social context. This may be the reason why, as Tickle observes, these 500-year "rummage sales" seem to be a particularly Western/Latin phenomenon.


Today's preacher at Morning Worship referred in passing to the situation in the Gulf of Mexico as a “natural disaster.” Hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes, and tornadoes are natural disasters. What we have in the Gulf is NOT a natural disaster. It is a corporate crime and atrocity of the first degree.

It is good that Bruce Reyes-Chow chose young people as preachers for Morning Worship. But what we have received so far has been mostly safe and predictable sermons that don't really address either the texts or the crisis we face, let alone what to do about it.

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