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Ecumenical & Interreligious Relations

Ecumenical News, June 3, 2015


Ecumenical News

In the Midst of Differences: Avoiding Division

By The Rev. Robina M. Winbush,
Associate Stated Clerk and Director of Ecumenical Relations

In 1999, after almost forty years of dialogue to heal centuries old divisions between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ entered into a full communion relationship commonly referred to as the “Formula of Agreement.” Different emphasis and understandings during the European Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century led to condemnations and anathemas that needed to be addressed and healed. The “Formula of Agreement” and its theological foundation, A Common Calling,invited the four churches to employ the discipline of “mutual affirmation and admonition” to address issues of theological concern between the churches.

The working principle of “mutual affirmation and admonition” allows for the affirmation of agreement while at the same time allowing a process of mutual edification and correction in areas where there is not total agreement. Each tradition brings its “corrective witness” to the other while fostering continuing theological reflection and dialogue to further clarify the unity of faith they share and seek. The principle of “mutual affirmation and admonition” views remaining differences as diverse witnesses to the one Gospel confessed in common. Whereas conventional modes of thought have hidden the bases of unity behind statements of differences, the new concept insists that, while remaining differences must be acknowledged, even to the extent of their irreconcilability, it is the inherent unity in Christ that is determinative. Thus, the remaining differences are not church-dividing. (A Formula of Agreement Between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ as printed in the Book of Order, p. B-3)

In 1999, the different ordering of ministries within the four churches was not determined to be church-dividing and the Formula of Agreement allowed for these differences to be respected. Only one of the four churches had permissive ordination standards that allowed the ordination of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) Christians. However, by 2010, only one church did not have permissive ordination standards for LGBT Christians. This created a significant challenge and opportunity within the Formula of Agreementrelationship. Would we remain together as four churches in full communion or would pressures within one of the churches force them to withdraw? At least two of the churches who recently adopted more permissive standards were facing challenges and schisms from within their churches.

Utilizing the discipline of “Mutual Affirmation and Admonition,” representatives of the Formula of Agreement churches came together with ecumenical partners (from the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ], the Christian Reformed Church, and the Moravian Church—Northern Province) to engage in dialogue around the subject of “Scripture and Moral Discernment.” How do we utilize Scripture in the church’s moral discernment, not only about matters of human sexuality, but also matters of economics, war, environment, etc.? It was a critical conversation in ecumenical listening and respect that rejected assumptions about one another, but struggled to understand and respect the different outcomes in our churches. It was a dialogue that allowed us to affirm together center principles in reading and studying Scripture as well as how we discern God’s will in addressing difficult moral issues.

It may have been easy to “write each other off” and break the relationship we had worked hard to build. Instead, we did the harder work of daring to dialogue, believing that our differences did not have to divide us and trusting that in the fullness of time our unity would be deeper and our witness stronger. Is the conversation over and have all the issues been settled? Not by a long shot. There is still much work to be done. The task is not to give up on each other or the work of God in all of us.

You’re invited to read and study the report (PDF) of the dialogue and find ways to use it in your own context with ecumenical partners.


The Confession of Belhar, PC(USA)’s Newest Confession

By Ruling Elder Matilde Moros, PhD

When, finally, the votes were tallied and it was official that toward the end of April 2015, three-quarters of presbyteries in the PC(U.S.A.) had voted to approve including the Confession of Belhar in the Book of Confessions, I wept. I wept for joy as the church voted to accept a gift from the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa (URCSA), a denomination formed from the union of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa. The confession was given by our South African sisters and brothers as a gift; yet we have taken our time to learn to say thank you.

The Confession of Belhar, written in a particular place and at a particular time, becomes the first confession to be adopted by our church from the margins of global power in the global south. This part of the world, and of the Church, is large and growing. In fact, the majority of the world’s population and of the world’s Christians now live in the global south. Only once before has the Book of Confessions included a faith statement from Africa—the Nicene Creed. The Confession of Belhar differs from the Nicene Creed in that when the Nicene Creed was formulated at the Council of Nicaea, that city was a global economic and theological power. So with the inclusion of Belhar, the voices of people from the margins are now included in our Book of Confessions.

Our Presbyterian process requires order, proper discussion, and voting. Twice this confession was approved by the General Assembly for study, in 2010 and 2012. Twice it went to the presbyteries for their votes. Twice there were discussions, some of which included demonstrated fears of what this confession actually might mean for our church. Such discussion is precisely what our system of governance is in place to do, to allow for dissent, and for support to be heard. The Confession of Belhar emerged in a time of schism and division among Christians. We in the PC(U.S.A) know schism as well–both historically and currently. Division among theological perspectives and ideas of God, and the pain of separation, have hurt our church and caused damage to our witness. So, the Confession of Belhar has much to say to us in our current life. The Grace with which we may confess the imperfection of our attempt to be faithful is at the center of the three parts of this confession: Unity, Reconciliation, and Justice.

We give thanks for this gift because it comes from a context and a time in which the extreme racial violence and hatred of apartheid were ultimately defeated. We give thanks for the faithful response and confession of a Reformed sister church, which proclaimed that in all times, but especially in the midst of such despair, Jesus Christ is Lord! Time and again, we know that the church fails in its attempts to be faithful to scripture and to how God leads us, reflecting instead the society in which it is to be a faithful witness. As such, the call from within the church should not be to mirror society in all that ails it, or only to prophetically stand against the illness of systemic injustice and for justice in society. The call from within the church, to situations of racial violence, division, and hatred outside and inside the church, should be to seek justice, by way of unity and reconciliation. Rather than brushing over this sin and bypassing the difficult work of confession, the gift of Belhar helps us look inward, seeking the Kingdom of God, following Jesus as we go deeply through the sin of racism and confess it as sin. Then God’s gift of salvation, transformation toward a more inclusive and participatory church and world, a Kairos time, can be accepted as the gift for a Kairos people.

We may now profess that the nature of Christ draws us out of separation, that racial superiority theories and systems do not have a place in the church of Jesus Christ, that the authority of the church is not any one group of theologians or congregants, but Christ. The triune God continues to lead, the Holy Spirit continues to move through us and among us toward an understanding that defies all human logic. This is not a call to unity forced on us; rather it is a call to reflect on the causes of division. Just as apartheid was a legal system, we in the U.S.A. have also created a nation under legal separation and brutal dehumanization of large portions of our population. Today as a nation, we experience equality under the law, but absolute segregation with regard to justice. The Confession of 1967 called us to work toward justice in our society. We now know that segregation happens not only in society, but also in the church. The Confession of Belhar calls us to work within the church to achieve racial justice. The system of racial segregation has very serious repercussions. In our time and for the future of our children, the systemic violence we see weekly of disregard if not disdain toward children, men, and women in this nation who are considered racial minorities creates deep damage. A system that theologically justified the buying and selling of people into enslavement is an abomination to our God. Such a system continues its legacy of supremacy and privilege, and our church benefits from such a privilege, as it has for centuries. It is no coincidence that racialized minorities are also in minority numbers on our membership rolls. It is no coincidence that our theological institutions and our theologies do not reflect the perspectives of the breadth of God’s people, in all its fullness. It is no coincidence that we avoid our own reflection when the hard work of antiracism must happen, as God is leading us to do. Those who weep for joy today, have also wept for a generation of deep pain, remembering how our church entered its long waited reunion around the time this Confession of Belhar was being born in South Africa, without an acknowledgement nor apology to the church itself for the racism implicit and complicit in the theological and social schism that led to our own 19th century separation.

Our church schisms of the past have been caused by idolatry. Three-quarters of the votes led to large numbers of Presbyterians separating from the larger body rather than unite as a church over theological issues, choosing rather to argue about who was most Christian. The system of idolatry that has permeated through racial segregation in the society and our church is also the idolatry that the Declaration of Barmen condemned, a unity forced by way of error, rather than the unity bound by the Word of God. Today we may confess along with the witness of the saints that Jesus Christ alone is Lord, and as he prayed, God’s is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory forever! Amen! Welcome Confession of Belhar! The gift of unity rather than error, reconciliation rather than separation, and justice rather than injustice, is a gift of transformation.


Inclusion Conference - News Traveling out beyond Minneapolis

By Ms. Wendy Fields, Christian Educator,
Valley Community Presbyterian Church

We are all the face of God. We all have gifts to share. Communities of faith are less when they pity rather than embrace individuals with physical and mental disabilities. The inclusion of individuals with disabilities into the life of faith communities does not happen with good intentions alone. Education, planning, and the commitment of clergy, professional staff and volunteer congregational leadership is needed. With this understanding, the Reverend Bebe Baldwin and Lynn Cox, members of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Disabilities Concerns Ministry, took on the task of planning a conference addressing the inclusion needs of children and youth with physical and mental disabilities fully into the life of faith communities. Under the guidance of Bebe and Lynn, planning for the conference began with a small group of individuals who shared a desire to see faith communities broaden their understanding of disability inclusion ministry. Bebe and Lynn recognized, through their involvement in the inclusion community and their faith communities, that this was not an issue for Presbyterians alone, but one that touched many denominations and faith communities. So when the time came to recruit individuals to help with the conference planning, the call was not limited to Presbyterians; the call was made to and answered by individuals from a variety of faith practices: Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, and Jewish.

people paintingThroughout the planning process, committee members brought concerns, ideas, and prayerful discernment to sculpting an event that would be accessible and meaningful to people from many walks of faith. From this ecumenical, interfaith planning committee came the conference, Welcoming Everyone’s Gifts: Equipping Congregations to Include Children and Youth with Disabilities, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on April 17 and 18, 2015. Thanks to a generous gift from the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Disability Concerns Ministry, the fee from the Friday evening, Saturday morning conference was $25 per person. This, we felt, would make the conference financially accessible for volunteers and staff from congregations of all sizes, a concern that we also felt was important to address.

More than fifty people gathered on Friday evening and Saturday morning to hear from leaders cover topics designed to offer practical tools and strategies to meet the challenges of clergy, staff, and volunteers seeking to include children and youth in the life of their congregations. We were graced with a keynote speaker and workshop leaders who were experts in the field of inclusion of people with disabilities and mental health issues and that came from both the Christian and Jewish communities.

Keynote speaker and educator, Cindy Merten, spoke on “Creating a Culture of Inclusion in Our Faith Communities” and “Tips, Tools, and Technology to Include Children and Youth in Our Faith Communities.” Artist and educator, Sally Narr, led participants in worship that included “hands-on” art accessible to all people. President of the American Association on Intellectual and Disabilities Religion and Spirituality Division and inclusion leader in the Jewish community, Shelly Christensen, and UCC inclusion advocate, the Reverend Jo Clare Hartsig, led the workshop, “A House of Prayer for All People,” which focused on welcoming without creating a separate worship service. “Children and Mental Illness: It’s Not the End of the World” was a workshop led by the Reverend Dr. Hollie Holt-Woehl (adjunct professor at Luther Seminary) and Nora Romness (pastor and mental health practitioner). In this workshop they shared practical ways of addressing mental illness as it presents for children and families in our congregations. The workshop, “All in a Circle,” focused on learning how to create a culture of inclusion by practicing relational skills that equip us to listen and to share from our hearts, and was led by Erin Pratt, program director, educator, and advocate. Attorney and parent advocate, Jennifer Miller, led the workshop “Apples and Oranges: Thinking About Individualization, Collaboration, and Creativity,” which considered the elusiveness of the word disability and the importance of adopting an individualized approach to children and youth within faith communities.

The conference closed with the sharing of fellowship and food, which allowed speakers and participants alike to break bread together and to continue to listen and to learn from one another. Thanks be to God!

Check out these valuable resources on worship and inclusion at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) website.


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