“Presbyterian” was in the news on Tuesday and Wednesday. Articles were in the NY Times, Washington Post, the Associated Press and the New Jersey Star Ledger. People heard about us on NPR and the BBC. For most the news went practically unnoticed. But, for those of us whose name is “Presbyterian” the news was inescapable.
When Dwayne and I showed up a few minutes early for choir rehearsal on Wednesday, the conversation was already in the air. The men’s choir was rehearsing first, so, although, I was invited into the conversation, many of the men walking in knew me only as “Dwayne’s wife.” I was interested in the reactions of old, young, new and not-yet Presbyterians as they walked into the sanctuary and joined the conversation about gay marriage in the PC(USA). That this was still an issue, was a curiosity for some. Others were just quiet. One shrugged. Another seemed visibly uncomfortable. But, what really caught my attention, was the comment from one man who identified himself as one of the elders of the congregation: “What does the presbytery say? I’m sure we’ll do whatever the presbytery tells us to do.” And then the follow-up, “leaving it up to the pastors and the session is really a cop-out. The Bible is clear, right?”
In Texas we were Presbyterians in the Bible Belt; Southern Baptist Christianity permeated every assumption about faith in the neighborhood, in the schools, in government. Here, in this part of New Jersey, we breathe the air of Catholicism. This elder had grown up Catholic. Through further conversation between him and Dwayne, I heard this elder’s longing for something decreed and theologically vetted. I had the impression that he really longed for the Pope to walk into the room with all the authority of the apostle Peter to tell him what was right, what was true, what was real. Towards the end of the conversation, the elder asked me if I was from the presbytery. “Yes,” I said, “I am the General Presbyter.” “For Monmouth?” “Yes, for Monmouth.” And that was it. I could feel the discomfort. This middle-aged woman in jeans, a gray fisherman’s knit sweater and a hand knit scarf was nothing like a bishop, and certainly not the pope.
That’s a good thing. Believe me. Although my egocentric fantasies often start with, “if I were pope …” or if I were “queen of the universe” … the stress of being General Presbyter is more than enough for now. And, after all, I don’t believe in monarchy, dictators or the papacy. I believe in the Holy Spirit working through the hearts and minds of everyday followers of Christ. I believe in well-educated teaching elders balanced by faithful (and also educated) ruling elders. I believe the value of our faith comes, not through our well-vetted answers, but through our seeking together and the continual revelation of Christ in our midst.
There is not a church that is a better example of how the Spirit can constantly push us to new horizons and new decisions and new relevancy to a culture dealing with shades of gray. The vote in Palisades Presbytery on Tuesday night, may have been the vote that pushed the numbers into the majority, but it wasn’t the “deciding” vote. Decades of discussion, conversation, Biblical study and interpretation, prayer and difficult decisions were all part of our “vetting” this decision. It’s not one book, or one scholar’s opinion, that is authoritative. And it’s certainly not an ignorant following of culture, rather it’s the prayerful vetting of interpretation that goes beyond literalism and seeks to uncover the Christ-principles that inform our decisions. Could we be wrong? Absolutely. And that’s why there’s grace, and that’s why we keep listening to the dissenting opinion. We keep listening because Jesus keeps speaking.
We don’t have a General Assembly that makes decrees of what’s right or what’s wrong, what’s true or what’s false. We have a history of faithful followers making their best decisions for the time in which they live. We have a process, an authoritative process, but not a pope.