In this my second entry in my PCUSA General Assembly journal, I turn to committee deliberations. As I think I have mentioned, I was assigned to the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee. When I received this assignment, I was somewhat ambivalent, neither pleased nor displeased. We would not be discussing the “hot button” issues, and for that, I was both disappointed and relieved. But, I am nothing if not Presbyterian, owing my very Christian existence to what in 1983 became the PC(USA), and probably could rightly be accused of a sort of snobbery when it comes to Protestant Christian denominations. So, ecumenism? Me?
Well, as it turns out, yeah! There is merit to engaging with our Christian brothers and sisters in dialogue and action where no issues of deep conviction compel us to act separately. This is included in a document from the 1950’s conference in Lund, Sweden, that has come to be known as the Lund Principle, and that was recommended in an overture. We dealt with 11 overtures, reports and recommendations involving these interactions. One, in which the behavior of the Evangelical Presbyterians was studied, the reports of the EPC “recruiting” congregations of the PCUSA to disassociate with the PCUSA and connect with the EPC were determined to be mostly unfounded. We heard inspiring reports from the newly formed World Communion of Reformed Churches, in which the body moved from a loosely allied group of Reformed Churches to a covenented body of Reformed Churches! This represents a much strengthened bond among our brothers and sisters of the Reformed tradition. Hopefully, Calvin would be proud!
We then moved into the three overtures that would serve as the “meat” of our discussions. We reviewed recommendations and an overture involving two reports, or papers, one involving Christians and Jews, and the other about Christians and Muslims. We heard impassioned pleas from Middle Eastern Presbyterians who bemoaned their exclusion from the deliberative process that went into the composition of these reports. Simply put, they were hurt and resentful that these reports were written without their input, yet understanding that the reports' publication would have direct impact on the day to day lives of Palestinians, whether Jew, Christian or Muslim! The Presbytery of San Francisco had made overture to General Assembly, asking that the two reports not be forwarded, but be retained for further study. Our committee delved into each of the papers, ultimately forwarding for approval the paper involving Christians and Muslims, but referring the paper on Christians and Jews back to the Office of Theology and Worship and Interfaith Relations for further input from the Middle East Presbyterian Caucus and any other stake-holding group. (“Stake-holding is my characterization).
Why did we “split the baby”, as it would seem that we did? It’s actually pretty simple. The recommendations accompanying the paper on Christians and Muslims presented it as an introductory study; a well written first step requiring and inviting further input and interaction among the groups. In fact, the recommendations directly addressed that need. On the other hand, the paper on the Christians and Jews was presented as a completed document, and we were concerned about the absence of input from the Middle East Presbyterian Caucus in the paper’s composition. So, in summary for this matter, we agreed with the portions of the San Francisco Presbytery's recommendation that the document involving Christians and Jews was not ready for widespread use, but disagreed that the paper on Christians and Muslims needed to be retained. We felt it was ready for use as introductory material and “conversation starter”, and therefore removed it from the San Francisco overture.
It is important to remember that Jews, Christians and Muslims trace their origins back to Abraham. It is vital to remember that Ishmael also benefits from a covenant with God; and we recognize (I hope) that the Jews’ status as the “Chosen People” was not “trumped” by the covenant in Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is also important to remember that all have claims on the land area roughly defined as Palestine, where the nation state of Israel was established in 1948, but where Palestinian Arabs had been living for hundreds of years. Some of these Arabs are Christian - - and many, perhaps most, of the Christians are Presbyterians! And yes, many of the Palestinian people are Muslims. Palestine has no world recognition as a nation with land and borders. As we know, the land is but one point of contention, but it is a huge problem; one that has often degenerated into violence and bloodshed, with outright warfare breaking out several times in the past fifty-plus years of my life. The two papers were written from different perspectives, with the Christians and Jews paper focusing primarily on the similarities between our faiths, while the paper on Christians and Muslims highlighting the areas of disagreement between us.
Am I still ambivalent on the subjects of ecumenical and interfaith relations? No. It is possible to engage, individual to individual, and group to group, in the spirit of welcome and with the intent to understand each other. One might think of it as a step toward the ultimate family reunion as descendents of Abraham!