Some Presbyterians think I'm a bit bonkers for feeling this way, but I enjoy covering meetings of Pittsburgh Presbytery. Amid all of the reports and budgets is evidence of a community of faith at work in local neighborhoods and around the world. At Thursday's meeting members wrestled with budget woes, but also celebrated a 20-year mission partnership with Presbyterians in Malawi that has resulted in clean water programs and improved medical care in Africa, but also in evangelistic outreach and deeper cultural understanding in Pittsburgh.
But the message most critical to the presbytery's own health came from the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, pastor to the presbytery, to prepare the largely conservative body for possible changes to church law that would allow local option on gay ordination. The presbytery has already lost several congregations that believed
the denomination was headed in that direction.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) and its predecessors have fought for 40 years over whether the Bible absolutely forbids all same-sex partnerships. The denomination forbids the ordination of anyone who isn't either faithful in heterosexual marriage or abstinent in singleness. The denomination's general assembly has persistently passed legislation to repeal that standard, but the repeal efforts have never been ratified by the nation's presbyteries. Pittsburgh has consistently voted against ratification – the most recent tally was 163-80. Other presbyteries are still voting.
In a letter to the commissioners at this week's meeting, the Rev. Sorge wrote that the repeal of the so-called "chastity and fidelity" provision appears likely. That would leave decisions over whether or ordain or hire gay clergy in the hands of regional presbyteries and congregations.
If that happens, "Some things will not change. Each presbytery and [congregation] will still have full rights and every obligation to determine whether candidates are fit for service as its officers. None will be forced to ordain anyone they believe unqualified for office. There is no 'right' to ordination for anyone; only those who demonstrate a call from God that is affirmed by the community should be ordained," he wrote.
"It has always been the responsibility of ordaining bodies to ordain only those whom they believe God has called to ministry. May we become stronger rather than weaker in seeking the mind of Christ regarding those whom he has chosen as elders and pastors to lead the church."
At the meeting he preached on a passage from Philippians that repeatedly calls Christians to have "the mind of Christ." He didn't mention the debate over whether gay ordination can be acceptable by biblical standards, but spoke of divisions in the church.
"The key theme in Philippians is that God desires us to walk together in love rather than be torn apart by disputes," he said.
He proposed that being like-minded in the biblical sense doesn't fundamentally mean doctrinal unity or agreement about the way people live their lives. It means "a life of deferring to each other. . . just as Jesus gave up his life," he said.
Church should not be an exercise in dominance by those who hold the power, he said.
"Imagine turning to our neighbor at the time of a critical vote in presbytery and asking, 'But how would you like me to vote?'" he asked, to chuckles from the commissioners.
Christian community should be shaped "not by who wins votes, but by outdoing one another in loving each other," he said.
Also at the presbytery meeting, commissioners heard from the Rev Sandra Strauss of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, who urged them to hold discussions in their congregations about the death penalty. The Presbyterian Church (USA) opposes capital punishment, as does the Pennsylvania Council of Churches.
She acknowledged that many church members disagree with that stance, but said that it's important to raise the issue despite volatile emotions surrounding it.
She referred to the biblical account in Genesis, in which one of Adam and Eve's sons killed the other.
"Cain's crime cried out to God from the blood and soil of the ground. But God's response to the first murder was not to put Cain to death," she said.
"We believe there is no place for vengeance and retribution in the criminal justice system because we believe that every soul is redeemable."
The Pennsylvania Council of Churches has resources to help congregations start discussions, she said. "Disagreement can be healthy if . . . it leads to constructive, productive dialogue around the issue," she said.