Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Making Certain Fewer People Can Join Your Church

The General Assembly Committees will be working into the night finalizing their recommendations for their reports to the plenary which will begin Wednesday afternoon. I am hoping for the defeat of one of the recommendations coming from the Committee on Church Polity.

It is the addition of membership vows. Now we already have conditions for membership in the Book of Order. This addition would require people to respond in a rote way to a specific question by the session. Here is the text:

“2. Membership Vows
“At the time member-candidates present themselves to the session for reception into membership, whether by profession of faith, transfer of letter, or reaffirmation of faith, the following question[s] shall be addressed to the member-candidates for their answer as indicated. Sessions may make the determination, on an individual basis, to exempt certain persons from answering these specific questions due to physical or mental disability. In such a case, appropriate alternative questions and their presentation should be devised, still meeting the requirements of G-5.0101a.
“Who is your Lord and Savior?
“Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.
[Other questions are recommended and may be used, such as:]
“Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
“I do, by God’s grace.
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?
I will, with God’s help.
“Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, share in its worship and ministry through your prayers and gifts, your study and service, and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
“I will, with God’s help.”

Following this ritual the candidates may then spin twice, click their heels three times, and curtsy.

In addition to treating adults like five year olds, this little exercise has a subtext. Every overture that comes to the General Assembly has a story. This one comes from Mission Presbytery where this overture originated.

Mission Presbytery is the home of Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church. This is a progressive congregation that strongly advocates for social justice and encourages freedom of thought. It doesn't treat adults like children.

They welcomed into membership journalism professor at the University of Texas, Robert Jensen. Take time to read his saga, Finding My Way Back to Church and Getting Kicked Out: What It Means to be a Christian Today. Do take time to read this insightful statement. You may be moved by his candor and his faith and disturbed by what happened to him and the congregation as I was.

Dr. Jensen, despite his reservations regarding dogma, was joyfully received into the membership of the church. He even thought out where he was in matters of theology:

  • On God: I believe God is a name we give to the mystery of the world that is beyond our capacity to understand. I believe that the energy of the universe is ordered by forces I cannot comprehend.

  • On Jesus: I believe Christ offered a way into that mystery that still has meaning today.

  • On the Holy Ghost: There are moments in my life when I feel a connection to other people and to Creation that rides a spirit which flows through me yet is beyond me.

  • I believe that Holy Spirit can only be nurtured in real community, where people make commitments to each other. I have found that community in St. Andrew's. I have tried to open myself up to our pastor's teaching, to the members of the congregation, and to the church's work in the world.
  • Sounds like a thoughtful person to me. I would be glad to have him join my congregation. St. Andrews thought so too and welcomed him.

    Now get this. This happened. Really.

    The Presbyterian Right in that presbytery didn't think Dr. Jensen should be a member of St. Andrews and took the congregation to church court! Really. Believe it. Dr. Jensen writes about that saga as well in the above statement. I haven't kept up with where St. Andrews is in the church court process, but the overture from Mission Presbytery regarding membership vows is in response to this situation.

    Now there is nothing wrong with the language in the recommendation. It comes from the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. I have used this language myself in welcoming members on occasion. If a new member found this language helpful to them in articulating their faith, I would be glad to use it again.

    That isn't the point. The Book of Common Worship is a liturgical resource. It is not part of our constitution. Its purpose is to enhance the articulation of one's faith, not to enforce specific language upon people. It is a worship resource not a manual of dogma.

    While this recommendation seems harmless enough, and many Presbyterians could in good conscience answer these questions or go through the motions whether they could or not, this recommendation is not about honoring Jesus or building up the church.

    It is about adding a weapon to the arsenal in order to hassle progressive, thoughtful congregations and their members. They don't want gays. They don't want freethinkers. They want robots who will do what they are told. They will use all the ecclesiastical weaponry at their disposal in their attempt to stop progressive congregations from growing.

    Think carefully about this one, dear commissioners. Once something gets in the Book of Order
    , it is tough to get it out. There is no need for this recommendation. It is a wolf in sheep's clothing and it will only be used for mischief.


    1. I could only allow myself to become a member of a church if I were allowed to make statements such as those by Dr. Jenson. Too bad so many folks think otherwise.

    2. Interesting. I happened to attend a fairly progressive Presbyterian church last Sunday, and they welcomed several new members as part of the service. All the members were asked to respond to a set of questions or repeat something, I think in unison (I don't exactly remember the details of the ritual), and as I sat there I wondered whether I could feel comfortable standing in front of a congregation and repeating a particular statement of faith like that. I didn't know how much of the process at that church was standard for all congregations.

      In any case, what happened to Jensen was a travesty. I am reminded of a quote from the book by Peter Rollins "The Fidelity of Betrayal":

      "Here the scandal of Christianity is that it offers a view of God, not as a master, but as a servant. In the Gospels we learn of God as one who comes in weakness to overthrow the religious powers. We should then always be sensitive to the subtle ways that our own thinking can act as a power that excludes and oppresses. Once we identify those whom we exclude, then we can seek them out and allow them to subvert our own ideas."

      He also writes, "Instead of forming churches that emphasize belief before behavior and behavior before belonging, there is a vast space within the tradition to form communities that celebrate belonging to one another in the undergoing and aftermath of the miracle, a belonging that manifests itself in communally agreed rituals, creeds, and activities. In the midst of all this these communities can also encourage lively, heated, and respectful discussions concerning the nature and form of belief."

      Peter Rollins has it right. Those who would exclude Dr. Jensen are simply the modern examples of the very kind of exclusive religious exclusiveness that Jesus opposed.

    3. Things change quickly. The committee just revisited this issue and changed their recommendation. It is now no different than what we already have. Folks can express their faith in their own language.

      A curtsy is still optional.

      Now it reads:

      “2. Membership Vows
      “After new members are examined, affirming their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and are received by the session, whether by profession of faith, certificate of transfer, or reaffirmation of faith, they shall be presented to and welcomed by the congregation during a service of worship where they shall make a public profession of their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, as do confirmands (W-4.2003a,b,and c)."

    4. So, Snad, you are still ok to join us! You would be anyway and regardless!

      Good stuff. Thanks for Peter Rollins quotes. Right on.

    5. To sound like a broken record, I'm always wary of anything that smacks of "fundamentals". Yes, I believe that the basic definition of a Christian is the confession that "Jesus is Lord"; however, establishing a "right thinking" precedent for membership is dangerous. If anything, we need to tell churches to explain Presbyterian theology and polity better to prospective members, so they can make an informed, conscientious decision about whether to join.

    6. Um, John, those vows are the baptismal questions. They or something very similar have been the baptismal questions since the 4th century.

      Last time I checked, membership in a Presbyterian church requires that you be baptized first. New members who join and haven't been baptized yet are normally baptized on the same day as joining. Thus, every new member has either answered those questions Yes at some point in life, or else her parents said Yes on her behalf (if she was baptized in infancy.)

      There's nothing wrong with faithfully attending and participating in a Presbyterian church even if you aren't totally ready to commit yourself to the Christian faith. Noe Valley Ministry has a special category of belonging called "Companions on the Way" to honor those folks. But if you want to be a full member of a church, you need to really mean it. I don't particularly see the problem here.

    7. Hey Heather,

      Thanks for push back.

      The point is somewhat moot as the GA changed the proposal to what I copied in a previous comment.

      The Book of Order, requires the general concepts to be affirmed, rather than the specific questions.
      I am thinking of w-3.3603.

      As I wrote in my post, I have no objection to using these specific questions. What is done at Noe Valley is fine with me.

      There are many ways to affirm these concepts without the specific ritualized language.

      Further, the original overture wanted to require sessions to ask people this ritual during a session meeting, not at worship.

      The movement, to me, is about repeating rote formulas rather than allowing folks the freedom to articulate these concepts in their own words.

      Of course, as I wrote in the original, there is a story behind all of this from the goings on in Mission Presbytery. It is about building larger, reinforced walls to keep out rather than to welcome.

      A larger question, I think, is what Dr. Jensen asked, what does it mean to be a Christian today?

      Is it about repeating formulas? Is it about building walls of doctrine? Is it about making sure everyone who doesn't wear the same color or say the same formula is out of the club?

      Or is it about exploration, struggle and freedom about that to which this phrase "Jesus is Lord" points?

      Jesus is quoted as saying something interesting:

      ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

      Now we could interpret that statement a lot of ways, including debating whether or not Jesus even said it!

      But, I read it as a criticism of formula and ritual that takes the place of doing justice and following Jesus.

      In regards to what happened (or is happening at St. Andrews), I would trust the congregation that they were welcoming people who were interested in the doing and in the struggle more than the repetition of formulas.

      My hunch is that this is a conversation the church could be having for quite some time. I hope so, anyway!

    8. Hi John,

      Thanks for the thoughtful response.

      I know the story from Mission Presbytery. Rev. Jim Rigby is a friend of mine--actually, we sang songs together at the last GA in Birmingham. I think what happened with Jensen is an example of the amazing things God does in leading someone back from atheism--how wonderful that Jensen got from atheism to the point where he wanted to join the church, despite certain conceptual reservations. Jim made the right choice from a pastoral point of view. It's still an exception to the rule and, as the ordination exam in polity loves to ask every candidate, there are always going to be times when the pastoral thing to do involves bending or breaking a rule.

      That said, I have a deeper question for you: Do you believe that liturgy is only dead formula, ritual?

      As for me, I don't. I find liturgy to be very powerful. Worship is much more than concepts plus ethics. The sacraments mean something, they aren't just head games meant to remind us of cerebral concepts. Wedding vows do something, they don't just call attention to a relationship that'd be more or less the same before and after the ceremony. We learn and sing hymns and psalms together as a way to praise God together in one voice, not because we're brainwashed little robots.

      Liturgy has much more power for justice, in the long run, than concepts, slogans or little speeches beginning with "You should..."

      A specific example would be the worship service More Light hosted last Sunday (the one for which you gave such nice comments on the sermon, thanks!) During that service we reaffirmed our baptismal promises, using a tune for the baptismal questions that a student of Patrick Evans had composed--we sang them, but the text was the same, with the addition of one additional: "Will you love your neighbor as you love yourself?"

      You should have HEARD the volume in that room as everybody sang at the top of their lungs "We do, we do, with God's help." These were people, many of whom have been told repeatedly that they can't really be sincere Christians, shouting their sincere Christian commitment as loud as they possibly could. It was real. It was empowering. It was not robotics.

    9. Hey Heather!

      Thanks! I am afraid I overstated in regards to ritual as such.

      You wrote:

      "That said, I have a deeper question for you: Do you believe that liturgy is only dead formula, ritual?"

      No, absolutely not. The More Light worship you described at General Assembly is exactly the kind of life-giving ritual we need. It is creative and created by the people in conversation with the tradition, not as a formula handed-down that they must repeat.

      That's my issue. Plus, the fact that the overture wasn't about worship, it was about examining people before session with a set of rote questions.

      I have used those questions in worship as well as other ways of expressing faith. But the words have to be meaningful to the worshiping community.

      I think what you did at GA in your worship is a model for the what the church can be, a celebration, using our creative gifts to inspire and challenge through the use of liturgy.

      You know the case with Jim Rigby and Dr. Jensen more than I.

      You wrote:

      "Jim made the right choice from a pastoral point of view. It's still an exception to the rule and, as the ordination exam in polity loves to ask every candidate, there are always going to be times when the pastoral thing to do involves bending or breaking a rule."

      Which brings up a question for me. Are rules for people or are people for rules? Or as Jesus put it, "Is humankind for the Sabbath or the Sabbath for humankind?"

      If the GA passed this thing and enforced it as some in Mission Presbytery want to do against St. Andrews, Dr. Jensen would have never been able to come close to the church.

      It is the openness that allows for the tradition to be life-giving rather than life-squelching.

      One more quote I remember and use often from Jack Rogers. We should think of our Confessions (or tradition if you like) as a birdbath rather than a birdcage.

      We become refreshed for freedom not imprisoned. Sometimes it is not easy to know whether we are building refreshing baths or birdcages for people.

      I objected to this overture, because I thought it was an attempt to build a cage in opposition to what the More Light services were doing in GA, building a life-renewing bath.

      Thank you for talking with me about this and for challenging me on things I can forget.

      OK, one more thing. I remember a conference with Walter Wink, in we shouted the Lord's Prayer at the top of our lungs.

      " Your kingdom come! Your will be done!" Same words, same formula, to be sure, but said in a way and in a context of liberation.

      That was empowering. And sometimes, we need to change the words, too.

    10. The church I attended the Sunday before last was not Noe Valley Ministry, but Seventh Avenue Presbyterian. I don't know if that church has anything like the "Companions on the Way" concept, but I probably wouldn't be interested in such a label for myself. I think I'd rather just be considered a visitor instead of being given some sort of official status as an almost-member. The real question, I think, is what it means for someone to commit to the Christian faith. If it is all about affirming some theological propositions relating to Jesus, then I'd rather not be part of that. To me, faith it isn't about affirming a proposition, but is something that is lived in community and spirit. And if the idea is that I can come along for the ride because I might see the light some day and learn to accept whatever propositions are required for membership, then I'd rather just sit on the sidelines and watch, because at least then it is clear that there are theological boundaries in place and my differences with the body of faith don't get shoved under the rug but instead are accepted as an uncrossable barrier.

      It's actually funny, because Seventh Avenue had an adult study class a while back (which I heard about but otherwise had no part in) involving a book by Spong. I was impressed by that, but after further reflection I realized that it didn't mean anything. I think that this is an example of how so many churches will flirt with theologically progressive authors but it is nothing but flirtation. In the end, nothing really changes, and a commitment to Christianity continues to be about affirming your adherence to a set of propositions.

    11. John,

      Ok, I get you now. :)


      That's a really important question and I'm going to be thinking about it for a long time. I'm torn because, on the one hand, these "propositions" are not overly precise--just the basic "do you believe?" and "do you promise to point your life in this direction?" We don't even ask people to say the creed. On the other hand, when people began following Jesus in the gospels, they weren't asked to affirm propositions of any kind about who Jesus was, they were just asked to follow him and be part of the new community he was creating.

      But then again to follow Jesus implies a belief at least that God was doing something important in him, a personal trust in him and a desire to go where he leads... which is what the questions ask.

      And if we're going to be starting a new church, here in Mass., among a lot of smart people all along the spectrum of faith and agnosticism... we need to get this right. I'd hate to see us miss out on people like you, by getting ourselves overly hung-up on things we don't need to be hung-up on.