From the Worldwide Faith News archives

How is the living God at work in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?

Date 21 Feb 2001 10:06:20

Note #6392 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


How is the living God at work in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)? 

by Leslie Scanlon
The Presbyterian Outlook
Reprinted with permission

"It may just be that the way God is present and at work in our church now is
by way of judgment," theologian Shirley Guthrie told a joint meeting of the
denomination's General Assembly Council and the Committee on the Office of
the General Assembly on Tuesday. "We're falling apart and we're enemies of
each other. You've got self righteous people on all sides arguing with other
self righteous people." And maybe "God is saying 'No' to what we are, and
these little trivial debates we're having in the church while hundreds of
thousands of people are starving to death," Guthrie said.

Guthrie, a retired professor of systematic theology from Columbia
Theological Seminary in Georgia, was brought to this meeting to give elected
leaders of the church a chance for some theological reflection on how to
work through differences, before they take on difficult questions involving
divisions in the church on such matters as homosexuality and religious
pluralism. Guthrie told the group he's been called too conservative by
liberals and too liberal by conservatives -- and he spoke of trying to put
aside preconceptions to find new ways to look for a living God at work in
the world, among Christians and others.

Guthrie told them that "it's not that the issues we debate are not
important. But could it just be that our little ways of debating are ways of
escaping what the big issues are." And maybe God is saying, as God did to
Israel at times, that "I'm sick and tired of listening to you and I'm not
even going to listen to what your prayers are anymore. Do justice!"

For much of his presentation, Guthrie spoke of themes he has outlined in his
book, Always Being Reformed, in which he writes of the Reformed tradition of
interpreting Scripture, the theology of the Trinity, and of the Christian
response to religious pluralism. In response to a question, Guthrie
indicated that he was not familiar with the remarks regarding pluralism that
Dirk Ficca, a Presbyterian minister and executive director of the Council
for a Parliament of the World's Religions, made last summer at the
Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference and which some have condemned as being
outside the bounds of the Reformed tradition.

But he did say that "sometimes both sides are wrong," and even when we stand
for something firmly "that doesn't mean I have to hate, despise or have
nothing to do" with people who hold different views. And "we get into
trouble when we reduce what Christian life is about to certain moral
issues," rather than focusing on "love God with your whole heart and mind
and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself, " and using that as a place to
start a conversation, he said.

Guthrie ended his comments, however, by remarking that "I don't have a great
deal of hope for our church. In a way I never have . . . It's been one
crisis after another," in the years in which he's been involved. But "I do
have a lot of hope in the God we confess," Guthrie said. "And so there may
be even hope for us."

                    Higher per capita proposed

At their first-ever joint meeting, COGA and the council also addressed a
number of financial and oversight issues, many of which will require formal
approval down the road from other entities. Among the items they discussed,
and voiced affirmation for, were:

*  COGA's recommendation that the per capita apportionment increase by 22
cents for 2002, rising from $4.98 per member this year to $5.20 in 2002.
That would produce a projected 2002 per capita budget of $14.6 million, up
from just over $14 million this year -- but still would require the
denomination to spend about $1 million of its reserves. The budget
projections assume a membership decline of 20,000 for the PC(USA) in 2001.

*  A proposal to reinstate an independent review process for the six
agencies of the General Assembly -- a proposal that would replace the
quadrennial review process of the agencies now in use. That process would be
based on models used in accrediting colleges and universities, using
"predetermined standards for review," a report on the proposal states. A
General Assembly would elect a review committee, "composed of people from a
broad spectrum," and the agency would conduct a self-study as part of the

*  A proposal for reviewing the PC(USA)'s relationship with ecumenical
groups with which it has partnerships. Devising a process of review was one
requirement the General Assembly Council insisted on last year before
providing $400,000 to aid the financially-troubled National Council of
Churches. That review process would include a self-review by the ecumenical
group, conversations with PC(USA) leaders who work with those agencies,
comments from other denominations involved the ecumenical group and an
effort to describe the impact group has on those who receive its services.

If an ecumenical partnership isn't bearing fruit, then it should be
reconsidered, and perhaps replaced with a partnership that could be more
productive, said Jeff Bridgeman, a California pastor and GAC member who was
one of those who called last year for a periodic evaluation of the
denomination's partnerships.

GAC division and finance committees will meet Wednesday and Thursday,
followed by GAC plenary sessions Friday and Saturday. All meetings are at
the Hyatt Regency in Louisville.

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