The 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) in Pittsburgh kicked off today as it should — with worship of the Triune God. Generally speaking, it was harmless enough, as far as denominational worship services tend to go. The music was excellent, everyone seemed well-rehearsed in their parts, the liturgical dancers (how could GA worship happen without some?) were appropriately graceful. But something seemed missing, at least to me. After pondering this for a bit, I’ve concluded: what was missing is faith in the triune God and His gospel.
I’m not a died-in-the-wool liturgist, but I’ve never been more grateful for the Reformed eucharistic liturgy. Had it not been for the epiclesis (prayer of consecration where the saving acts of the Triune God are remembered and praised, particularly the atoning sacrifice of Christ), for the reading of 1 Cor 11 to remind us of the meaning of the bread and wine, for the appropriate musical selections to focus us on Christ during Communion, one would have been hard-pressed to find anything distinctly Christian in the rest of the service (apart from the hymns). But most disconcerting to me were the opening “festivities”, the subChristian sermon and the “performance” of the sacramental liturgist (of course, this last critique is highly subjective, but it is my sense nonetheless). Let me address these in turn.
No one who has paid attention to General Assemblies in the past decade could fail to know that the symbol of the rainbow has been commandeered by the pro-gay left of the church to symbolize the inclusion of all (all the colors of the rainbow, so to speak). Commissioners to past GAs have “flown their colors” by wearing knitted rainbow scarves or stoles or other similarly marked attire. Never has the Office of the General Assembly in the past tipped their hand as to support or opposition to this “rainbow movement.” Today, however, leading the formal procession down the center aisle to begin the celebration of GA worship, coming even before the procession of the cross, were two liturgical dancers dressed in white, each wearing a rainbow stole and waving streamers on poles also in the color of the rainbow. As the procession continued, these dancers took their place at either side of the cross on the stage, and as the procession came to an end, they joined their stoles together and draped them over the arms of the cross. I was, to use the British term, gobsmacked. Could the GA leadership really be so brazen in their belief that homosexual behavior has now been normalized in the PC(USA) that they no longer need to hide their embrace of this position? After the service, I asked one GA friend about this, and he assured me that he was equally shocked, but was pretty sure this was not something the GA leadership had known anything about, since the worship services are developed by the local presbytery. He believes that the worship planners were thinking innocently of the covenant promise of God given to Noah in the sign of the rainbow, and were completely ignorant of what the symbol has come to signify within the PC(USA). This might be a bit more believable if the service had had anything to do with Noah, or with God’s covenants in general, but such was not the case. On top of all this, the table at which the Moderator sat while delivering her sermon was draped with a rainbow-colored cloth. It takes a lot of faith to believe this is not what it looks like. In the end, either the GA staff was highly negligent or incompetent in their planning of the details of this opening service, or they are firing an opening salvo to let everyone know where this Assembly meeting is headed as we debate, among other things, gay marriage and the attempt to invoke gay ordination. Time will tell.
Cynthia Bolbach is our outgoing GA Moderator. I like and respect her, and believe she has brought great natural wisdom and common sense to the church in her role these last two years. I disagree with some of her views, particularly on the acceptability of homosexual ordination and on the good health of the PC(USA), but she has been fair and open in her dealings with those who disagree with her. Unfortunately, she is not well-schooled in Reformed theology, and it showed in her sermon today. She preached on the text of Mark 2:1-12, as she has many times in the last two years. In this message she focused on the four individuals who brought a paralyzed man to Jesus by tearing a hole in the roof of the house Jesus was in and lowering him on a stretcher into Jesus’ presence. What troubled me were her words (as best I can recall them), “Risk-taking disciples are the heart of the gospel.” Her diagnosis of the church is that, though sick, it is not as sick as she once thought, and her prescription for its return to full health is that it needs its members to become risk-takers. Now, of course, it would be a great thing if all members of the PC(USA) were to become risk-takers for Christ, willing to bring people to Christ come what may. But this is not the heart of the gospel. Jesus is the heart of the gospel. Yet in Cynthia’s message there was almost no mention of Jesus, except as the one to whom disciples should bring people. The commendable work of true disciples as risk-takers is not the heart of the gospel; it is the natural result of discovering in Jesus the Savior and Lord of all. The gospel is all about Jesus, not about how effective we are in taking risks for him. If Presbyterians are not already risk-takers for Christ, simply encouraging us to become risk-takers will not bring transformation. But if we become so transfixed with the glories and attributes and promises and mercies of Jesus Christ that we believe him to be the answer to all human needs and yearnings, and the one to whom all creation should direct its worship and love, then we are more likely to want to risk our own resources, reputations, safety and friendships in the quest to bring people to Jesus for his honor and for their salvation. The problem with Cynthia’s message, in my mind, is that she was offering a solution of human works to a spiritual problem — if only we would get up our courage and take risks to work out our denominational problems, then the church would get back on track. But the problem is that as a church we do not know Jesus, the Jesus of history, the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus of orthodoxy. Until we take our eyes off ourselves and what we can do to heal the church, and turn them onto the Sovereign Head and Lord of the church, we will never be or become anything more than a broken, human construct. May the Spirit open our eyes before the PC(USA) implodes upon its vacuous heart.
Lastly, and most subjectively, I was troubled by our outgoing Vice-moderator’s “leadership” of today’s eucharistic liturgy. He seemed to be more inspired by the sound of his own voice and the timing of his delivery than by the profound truths he was mouthing, as if what really should impact us as worshipers was his performance of the liturgy than the depth of spiritual reality into which we were brought by the Spirit through Word and Sacrament. What was missing for me was any sense that our liturgist was anything more than a Hollywood actor reading his lines for the adulation of his audience. I could easily be wrong, misled by my own prejudices. I hope that is the case. May it truly be so.
I’m sure that many commissioners here felt the opening worship service was wonderful. Perhaps I’m overly jaded; certainly I’m overly critical. But my prayer is that if indeed the spirit of this 220th GA is lacking in faith in the triune God and His gospel, God the Father will move mightily to bring us to repentance and restored faith in His grace made manifest in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
More to come tomorrow!