Faith does not need to push the river because faith is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing. We are in it.
According to the countdown app, which despite my better judgment I check each morning, only 15 days remain until the grand gathering of the Presbyterian clans known as General Assembly convenes in Portland, OR. My service as a parliamentarian to each G.A. since 1994 has afforded me a bankside perspective from which to observe longitudinally the flowing river of our denominational life. In the midst of the roiling, muddy cultural cataracts of the 1990s and early 2000s, the competing narratives of restoration and transformation have continually buffeted the PCUSA ark, and although somewhat calmed in recent years, will churn the waters of this year’s G.A. as well.
Our brothers and sisters advocating restoration carry deep memories and longings, out of which spring persistent concerns about what we have lost. Their narrative streams mark membership declines, waning cultural influence, diffused denominational power, a muffled voice of Biblical witness, and blurred moral clarity as indices of our loss. As they urge the PCUSA to faithfully discern God’s sure and constant leading, they espouse an ethos of preservation that values presbytery sovereignty above a larger G.A. federation, reliance upon delegated councils rather than more diverse boards and committees, and antecedent definitions of identity that express fidelity. For these faithful friends, the PCUSA river has leapt its banks, haphazardly eroding its once-clear ordered boundaries until its flow would be ultimately stanched. Their mission is one of retention, recovery and restoration.
In contrast, the prophetic gaze of those who lift up transformation arcs forward, focusing on what we can collectively become. With Amos they would let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream. Such an ethos necessitates not only intentional collective and inclusive demographic and cultural change, but also leans theologically more toward a needs-based collective salvation instead of the more conventional Biblical concept of personal salvation. Concerns about social justice, they maintain, should propel us to value and respect those who are Other, to prioritize the stewardship of the resources God has provided, to serve the least in our midst. Their mission is one of reconciliation, inclusion, and transformation. And so these streams of our denominational waters clash and roil.
Yet, dear friends, we have perhaps missed the larger point: we share the same river. This human river, comprised of many tributaries, holds the power to irrigate our spirits, to open us to one another across ideological, theological and denominational boundaries, and to carry our loving, faithful witness to the ends of the earth. We may speak different languages, view life through different theological frames, and live very different lives, but the deep waters of life and love, of faith and witness, swelling to the surface, inexorably pull us toward each other. This is the power of grace. This is the promise of hope. This is the practice by which we let go, by which we allow God to be full-sized, mysterious, omnipotent, self-sending. The river is flowing. We are in it.