In a time of great change and declining financial resources for churches, my denomination has set up a committee to draft the 2014 national budget, and that committee decided to survey Canadian Presbyterians as widely as possible to help them in their task. They have asked the question “What are the programs and projects that bind us together and fulfil not just what is required but what truly makes us Presbyterian in Canada today?” I think they are pretty inspired to ask such a question, and it inspired me to respond. Here, below, is my answer. It is a bit on the earnest side, I’m afraid, but I post it here in the hopes that it might spark some discussion. And, who knows? Maybe some other Canadian Presbyterian might read this in the few hours before the survey ends and rush to get in an answer of their own.
Dear members of the 2014 Budget Sub-Committee,
First of all, thank you for this opportunity to join the conversation about dreams and hopes for the future of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. Thank you also for the reminder that good stewardship requires making the effort to discern how to apply the resources which God has given to us so that they might best support our efforts to follow the way of the Lord. Not that I wish you difficulty, but would it not be a good sign for the church if you get so many submissions that it takes you quite a long time to consider them all?
Your question is not an easy one to answer, for naming the programs and projects which connect and define us means delving into the essence of what it means to be Presbyterian in Canada. Thus, in my attempt at a reply, I am going to interpret the notion of projects rather broadly: it is easier, I think, to look at the wider overall endeavours which mark the Canadian Presbyterian effort to be faithful to God. Some of these will be very wide indeed and, I am afraid, probably will not contribute to simplifying your task of making judgements on particular lines in the budget. But I do hope these reflections might provide at least a little food for thought along the way.
1. Polity. Strictly speaking, what makes us Presbyterians in Canada is the project of our polity, as unexciting as that may sound. The endeavour to listen for God and respond in General Assemblies, Synods, and Presbyteries in addition to congregations and as individuals marks off our specific way of thinking about being church. And yes, we sometimes grumble about our system, about endless meetings and about how long it can take to get anything done. “Polity” is so close to “politics” that we can be reticent about owning it as a defining characteristic. However, our polity provides us with some tremendous strengths and insights. All of our structures demand relationship within community. We are called to make decisions through paying attention to one another; we are encouraged to respect each voice among us as equally belonging to a child of God. By having most of our decision-making bodies split evenly in membership between clergy and laity, we seek to spread power and authority throughout the group. The way that we attempt to be church together underlines the necessity of fellowship and, beyond that, friendship. Because of the significance of our polity, whatever strengthens both participation in and the functioning of General Assembly, Synods, and Presbyteries is indispensable.
One great challenge for our system is that it requires a high level of engagement at all levels for it to work properly. Participants need to be committed to attending to one another’s concerns and to creating a climate in which deliberations are not monopolized by only a few influential voices. People need to have the tools which will allow them to participate and share their gifts without fear. Any projects which help to provide those tools—the Elders’ Institute, for instance—deserve wholehearted support. Similarly, anything which comes up which might help ministers prepare to be good participants in Presbyterian polity, to attend to everyone around, and to think theologically about the system would be welcome.
2. Education and Theological Reflection. But facilitating participation in the governing structures of the church does not exhaust the importance of engagement, learning, and reflection: they are intrinsic to Christian discipleship as a whole. The Holy Spirit needs to shape us to follow Jesus along the way of the Lord, and that formation is mediated through so many sources. Other people model faith for us. We wrestle with scripture, doctrine and tradition. We get inspired by the world around us, the books we read, the films we watch, the art that takes our breath away. Our participation in congregational life—everything from worship services to cleaning up after potluck suppers—helps to form what we think and do about the call to love God and our neighbours. Our Reformed traditions have emphasized the significance of teaching and learning for all people in the church. In Canada, we have woven many programs into the work of education and they bind us together; not just the provision of resources explicitly labelled Christian education, but the work of the Archives to keep our memories alive, the efforts of the Presbyterian Record to inform us, offerings in the way of continuing education, and more, all contribute to shaping us as Canadian Presbyterians. Yet we cannot stop there. Teaching and learning is inseparable from the work of addressing life theologically. We learn to make connections to the stories and themes of our traditions, to find and make meaning out of the everyday; out of the heart of our trust in God, we are prompted also to question both what happens around us and, perhaps even more so, our own understandings. Certainly, theological reflection is supported by the best work of the denomination’s national committees and colleges. However, as theological depth is so necessary for thinking through what God’s peace might need and desire in our circumstances, I urge that we will be bound together better when theological inquiries are strongly supported. If we believe that Canadian Presbyterianism has something worth adding to the art of thinking theologically at all, we should foster the theological voices of those who might share more widely the insights which God reveals locally.
3. Attending to Our Context. The broad project of being Presbyterian in Canada finds us united by geography and history as we seek to address our particular situation and specifically Canadian issues. God did not make us to be abstractions (though we might use abstract thought to help us make models and understand) but as concrete, locally embodied persons. We cannot give up on relating to what is around us. Thus we are bound together by our efforts to minister to all Canadians, not just our own members, not just to Christians. In a pluralist and multicultural country like Canada, we function as Canadian Presbyterians when we support ecumenical and interfaith relationships, not just to understand our neighbours, but to join with them in the project of making the world a better place. As a Canadian religious institution, it is important to reach out with love in at least both official languages (and so we should encourage efforts to translate resources into French) but even that does not go far enough—we also need to be open to the languages and cultures of others, of those who join us from Presbyterian traditions elsewhere in the world, of those peoples whose ancestors were in North America long before English was spoken on the continent, and of those who are other and will always remain different. Thus one mark of being Presbyterian in Canada is the work of reconciliation, responding to past injustice with our own penitence, as in the ongoing response to residential schools. As Canadian Presbyterians, we also are bound together by efforts to engage with specifically Canadian culture, with Canadian arts, literature and music. Encouraging creativity connects us to the conversations happening around us. More narrowly, in our devotional life, this means that having our own creative resources—liturgies and worship books, hymn books and social justice handbooks and more—and supporting the production of new ones link us together and are necessary for addressing the present day. I know that resources are not cheap to produce, but if we give up on them, we close down avenues for expressing the gifts which God has given, and have less to offer that people could not get elsewhere.
4. Response to God. None of this is in order of importance, as can be seen by this return to the idea of our response to God in the fourth instance. All our project of responding to God binds us together and makes us who we are. This response comes in our worship, our praise, our prayers, our listening for God’s word, the sign of water in baptism, the acceptance of the bread and the cup at communion. It comes as we work to transform the world into a place where the oppressed can stand freely, and the poor can give widely, and the sick are comforted and the lonely know companionship. It comes in the friendships forged at the edge of sanctuaries, when we stop to talk together at the door, or over tea and coffee, or on the way somewhere else. We hear God’s call; we strive to follow, to turn towards the people God asks us to love, and to help each other as we go. This is all woven together. To me, emblematic of the connections are the Advent liturgies provided by PWS&D. They link so many of our congregations together in speaking and praying the same words. They come out of liturgical creativity. They teach us what it means to serve and to seek justice. They point to possibility.
I have a confession to make. I am a Canadian Presbyterian, but I have not spent a great deal of time in Canada lately. I have been away, studying, living elsewhere. So you may want to disregard all of this. But I remain a Canadian Presbyterian, shaped into the person who I am in large part by the PCC. I remain a minister of the church, too. When I went to Scotland to study, and to other places, I have carried that spiritual home with me; it forms the work that I do as a theologian and minister wherever I am. So I offer this as someone who watches the PCC with great interest from away, and hope that it is helpful.
You have quite the job to do. You ask a serious question, and I understand that you are trying to figure out what Presbyterian priorities should be in order to help you draft a budget in days of great change and uncertainty. Still, I worry that we Canadian Presbyterians are not opening our eyes wide enough. Why stop at what makes us Presbyterian? We run the risk, not only of looking nowhere beyond our backyards, but of never even going outside. Yes, as I hope the rest of this letter shows, I believe that our traditions as Canadian Presbyterians have many gifts to offer. However, that we are Presbyterian has grown out of people trying to be faithful Christians in a particular time and a particular place a lot more than it has grown out of people trying to be Presbyterians. Like most trees, our roots still need fresh water. I fear that obsessing over our identity will rob that identity of the very vigour it needs to grow and remain vital. In the end, if we preserve our Presbyterian nature only at the expense of giving up on joining others in God’s work of peace and hope, well, we might remain Presbyterian, but it won’t mean very much at all.
May God bless you with wisdom in your task.
So, over to you reader. Be merciful.