Presbyterian Perspective on 2011


In the spirit of Advent, where the church year is made new again, I’d like to take some time to reflect on this past year in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I’ll use this post to reflect back on what was, and another later in the month to look forward at what could be.

I invite you to join in this reflection with me.

Think back to a year ago, December — Advent — 2010. Presbytery voting on Amendment 10A and the new Form of Government (FOG) had barely begun. There had been no NEXT conference or Fellowship declaration that the PCUSA is “deathly ill.” The adoption and implementation of what is now G-2.0104 and the new FOG were known, back then, only to the mind of Christ.

Now come back to this very day. What are we to make of all this as Advent begins a new liturgical year for the church?

It’s clear that a chapter in the life of the PCUSA is now closed and another has begun. Of course, we may have different interpretations of what it all means, as well as different feelings and different inclinations about what to do about the events of this year.

In the midst of all this, I hope we can share one Presbyterian perspective on the events of 2011: Our Presbyterian process worked.

For me the most astounding aspect of last year is that every single teaching elder in the PCUSA and an equal number of ruling elders had the opportunity to participate in the choices that were made by both voice and vote on the floor of their presbyteries. There is nothing comparable to this in the other mainline churches that are grappling with the same debates and concerns that we are.

We are called the Presbyterian church for good reason. Bishops have the ultimate authority in some denominations and congregations in others. None of them have quite the communal spirituality we do.

In the PCUSA, the presbyteries have the ultimate authority in the end. And at its best, every presbytery is a prayerful deliberative body of Christians who, together, come to know the mind of God and find ways to be the active body of Christ in the world. Every voice is important in this process. Every word uttered may be inspired by the Holy Spirit for the building up of the church and God’s beloved world.

My friend, Rev. Bebb Stone, once memorably said, “For Presbyterians, our process is our spirituality.” There’s a lot of truth in that and it’s one reason this past year had to touch deeply every Presbyterian heart.

Whether we look back with relief or with apprehension, we can rejoice in this spiritual process: The debates, table conversations, and group gatherings during 2011 brought us together as Presbyterians. And when the final prayer was said at all the presbytery meetings across the PCUSA this past year, I hope we made our way home with our spirits inspired by the way in which we had faithfully tried to serve God with our collective heart, mind, soul and strength.

That’s my perspective looking back on 2011 in the PCUSA. I look forward to hearing yours.


Reverend Janet Edwards

6 Responses
  • Silva Theiss on December 16, 2011

    I appreciate the “For Presbyterians, our process is our spirituality” quote very much. On the one hand, it is quite true and a profound expression of our process of discernment in cooperation with the Holy Spirit and each other.

    On the other hand, I cannot help but imagine the following conversation:
    Pentecostal: “When the Holy Spirit seizes us, we speak in tongues!”
    Presbyterian: “Ah. When the Holy Spirit seizes us, we have committee meetings.”

    Thank you for sharing your reflections!

  • Janet Edwards on December 16, 2011

    Dear Silva,

    You are very welcome and back at you with thanks for sharing your fun truth telling about us, Christians!

    You made me think of Paul in his letters to the Corinthians where he shares his reservations about speaking in tongues, primarily that other believers will not understand. I suspect that Paul would caution us Presbyterians as well, perhaps warning us to treat one another gently as we work long and hard together in groups.

    What do you see as the dangers presented by our Presbyterian place of “seizure by the Holy Spirit?”

    Peace be with you, Janet

  • Silva Theiss on December 19, 2011

    Dear Janet,

    It is lovely to have an excuse to think about spirituality during this “crazy busy” time.

    As you say, I think the danger with speaking in tongues is that it be taken for corporate spirituality when it is, in fact, as identified by Paul, personal spirituality. “ For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God… The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself.” Although it is well documented that the “tongues” spoken are not real human languages, I’m sure that it can be a transformative experience for the speaker. Indeed, I think one of its strengths must be that the speaker goes into it expecting it to be a transformative experience.

    And that, I think highlights one of the dangers of Presbyterian Process Spirituality – it’s hard to go into a committee meeting expecting transformation, or even open to transformation. I think we tend to expect it to be entirely a human enterprise. When there is potential for conflict we want to go in with our arguments and counter-arguments rehearsed, seeking to “win” rather than co-create with our fellows and the Spirit. “Well, that’s the way they’re going to be, so that’s the way we have to be.” The Spirit’s lively scheming gets squeezed out – or at least it has to be extra creative about squeezing in!

    Part of the problem may be that transformation/creation is exhausting. It requires a scary level of commitment and trust. It’s scary and draining and thrilling and elating, but only the scary and draining are guaranteed.


  • Donna on December 20, 2011

    One of the misconceptions about speaking in tongues is that “the speaker” controls it, and that is not the case at all. It is the Spirit within speaking to God, as the Spirit leads. The visitation is given to a willing and open vessel, not by choice on the person’s part, and it’s not something one can stop or muffle.

    Where Paul says, the speaker “builds himself up,” that means the speaker is strengthened by the experience. And not any interpretation that indicates that person is selfish. Rather, it is God visiting that person very intimately on matters that very likely only God knows about.

    It is confusing to others, and I would say, to the speaker as well, because the language or sounds or whatever utterance results, are not understood, because it’s not meant for humans to understand, only God.

    All I’ve ever seen of church meetings in the last several years, is personal political agenda, and rarely if ever vessels willing to empty themselves and let God move through them.


  • Janet Edwards on December 20, 2011

    Dear Donna,

    THANKS for your thoughts–they are extremely helpful and thought provoking for me.

    On the one hand, you point out a very real difference between speaking in tongues and the Spirit working within and through group gatherings. That is, the words shared and outcomes reached in a group are meant to be understood by everyone.

    On the other hand, there is a real similarity, as I have experienced inspired meetings, in that everyone who participates is strengthened by the end when the group closes with prayer and rises to disperse.

    Of course, I agree with you that many church meetings fail. I agree that one of the causes of that is the human unwillingness to empty ourselves so that the Spirit may blow through our souls and our shared time together. The question is how do we help people to grasp that this emptying is a basic task in a meeting?

    I look forward to your further comment.

    Peace, Janet

  • Donna on December 20, 2011

    Ask them to pray with those they disagree with?


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