Rev. Ruth Houtby writing in the Record two years ago shared her impressions of the 136th General Assembly in Sydney, N.S.: “Is our vision so limited? Are we so fraught with worry and control that we are unable to act? What are we trying to preserve? When do we let the Holy Spirit set a new course? Do we allow the movement of the Spirit among us at assembly?”
After last year’s assembly in London, Ont., Rev. Glen Davis expressed these thoughts in the Record: “If there was one issue at this assembly that defined the struggle that we find ourselves in as a denomination, it was the lack of a comprehensive vision for the church, which prevents us from setting clear priorities and leaves us stuck with a national structure that claims to give priority to the needs of congregations but is built on an anachronistic Christendom model that is no longer suitable in a post-Christendom era.”
These are identity crisis statements, and there are many others just like them across the pages of this magazine from over the years, capturing an institution in flux. We are not the church we once were, for a myriad of reasons, the greatest of which is simply that the Spirit is not static. For many years now we have been poking away at this change. Four years ago we re-affirmed the uniqueness of Christ; to say, we’re not sure where we’re headed but let us not forget our roots. Three years ago we began conversation around the role of laity in the church. Last year we asked for a renewed vision statement. All dramatic attempts to address a growing anxiety.
But something happened this year that gives me hope. I can’t put my finger on what it was, but there were two moments that capture that sensibility. Both of these moments were organic, bubbling from the assembly floor; neither was planned ahead of time. One involved taking time during a business meeting to reflect on the message that was coming through the pre-business worship.
Worship at General Assembly is always powerful, but for some mysterious reason what commissioners were experiencing in worship this year—around the assembly theme of On the Edge, based on Joshua 3:1-17—was intersecting with what they were doing the rest of the day. (You can read Rev. Dr. Emily Bisset’s inaugural sermon on the theme at presbyterian.ca/webfm_send/7063. The others were also fantastic; hers is the only one available to read.)
Bisset captured the anxiety of the church and its longing: “As a denomination, we are on the edge. God is on the move. The burning question for us as we go about our business … is what … possibilities lie before us, if we were willing to get our feet wet, and take that first step?”
The other moment perhaps responds to Bisset’s question, and also echoes Houtby’s and Davis’s concerns from previous years. Rev. Dr. Clyde Ervine received an ovation from the assembled for making a motion for the church to give “priority to the reimagining and renewal of congregations.” (His preamble can be found in the minutes at presbyterian.ca/webfm_send/7076.)
Stopping to pray, to worship, to reflect, and then to affirm the importance of congregational deve-lopment for the future of the church, is a turning away from anxiety to an affirmation of basic principles. It is not mired in ideological warfare. Ervine calls it “a radical reorientation of our priorities.” But, I think of it as a bold step towards the vision we have been seeking. We are in Christ; sisters and brothers who gather to praise. Everything else—community, justice, theology, mission, money—flows from what teaching elders, like Bisset and Ervine, ruling elders, like half the commissioners at assembly, and other laity, like me, do every day, especially on Sundays.