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Home » Andy's Observations » At the Intersection of Belfast and Saint Louis Park, Part 2

At the Intersection of Belfast and Saint Louis Park, Part 2

You can find Part 1 here.

As is the case with all posts on this blog, the following is the opinion of Rev. Andrew Meyers and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members of Laurel Presbyterian Church, its session, or the Presbyterian Church (USA).

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. – Ephesians 2:13-14

In Northern Ireland’s captial Belfast there are walls which still separate Catholic neighborhoods and Protestant ones, walls with gates closed every evening and opened every morning that can be closed should violence erupt again. These walls are called, “Peace Walls,” apparently for the notion that they keep the peace should war break out. Someday I hope the Peace Walls will come down. This will be the mark that the country torn apart by war and sectarianism has truly healed.

In the midst of the changes going on in the PC(USA) some ministers and elders now known as the Fellowship have called for the establishing of “new Reformed body” within the denomination but separate. They call for new presbyteries based more on theology than geography, for a renewed focus on new church developments and congregational mission, and developing leaders for the church in this new time. This would give more of a sense of unity in the midst of calls for schism. We would still be under one denominational flag, we would still have pensions and property, we would still even have collegial relationships with friends. As a friend of mine noted, it would be like having Catholic orders – separate theological emphases all in one church. I believe the Fellowship is honestly attempting to find a way forward given the warring factions which have engulfed the PC(USA) over the past three decades, and I give them credit for that

From my perspective the Fellowship is proposing to build a set of peace walls within the PC(USA). The walls are designed to safeguard the theological purity of each side while allowing nominal unity of the body. They would act as the Belfast walls act, with gates that keep marauders from one side from invading the other should our verbal and theological debates flash again. The pro-gay ordination justice crowd would be happy (at least in their part of the denomination) and the anti-gay ordination Biblical crowd would get what they want (at least in their part of the denomination). Everybody wins, or at least everyone can co-exist. Again, the Fellowship is trying to find a new way forward that most can live with and I think this at least deserves consideration.

But. Yes, there’s a “but.” Peace walls indeed contributed to stopping the violence in Belfast’s most explosive neighborhoods. As the BBC noted in 2009, however, “For people living in the shadow of a concrete wall topped with fencing the peace they bring can help cement divisions rather than heal communities.” And fifteen years after paramilitaries stopped their campaigns, the council of the city of Derry is proposing to build a new peace wall in response to rising sectarianism.

Peace walls should not be confused with reconciliation. And the church is called to reconciliation as well as preserving truth and doing justice through the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. As the Confession of 1967 (at this time maybe the least popular of all our confessions) states:

To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community. This community, the church universal, is entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and shares his labor of healing the enmities which separate men [and women] from God and from each other.

The walls built around presbyteries in the coming years should this proposal gain purchase will not come down easily. I get the feeling that for folks with vested interests on both sides of this debate that they don’t want the walls to come down easily. They’ve worked too hard and invested so much that to give up now would seem like capitulation to the enemy.

Yet just as much as we seek to speak the truth and as much as we seek to do justice, we are also called to do reconciliation. So if we are to erect walls between ourselves through the forming of non-geographic presbyteries, I would pray that they would be temporary and permeable.

Temporary non-geographic presbyteries would allow for us all to put down our weapons of verbal warfare and move together in areas of common concern such as mission, evangelism, and social witness. By moving away from constant debates about sexuality we might find see the grace of Christ at work in the whole denomination once again. Separation though should not permanently relieve us of the call live out the reconciling power of Christ. Christ broke down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles as Paul mentions in Ephesians 2, and as such we are made “fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19). We are called to break down the walls of hostility we have built up over these past decades – not make them permanent.

Permeability in science is defined as the capability of something to permit the flow of something else through its spaces. Permeable presbyteries would indeed have boundaries for membership and theology. Permeable presbyteries would also regularly interact with others with whom they disagree not in a spirit of debate over a particular motion but in relationship and discussion about the issues that affect us all. In a covenant relationship defined this way, we will not cut ourselves off from one another but hopefully provide a safer space with which to have hard conversations, and even harder transformations.

If we cannot agree that these new governing bodies (or councils should the new Form of Government pass) are both temporary and permeable, then I will not support their creation. I cannot in good conscience build walls of separation and hostility in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ without the concurrent confession that their existence is due to our sin and failure and that repentance will require their eventual destruction.

No matter where we may go in these coming days, let us seek to follow the Shepherd and Bishop of Souls in the work of proclaiming his Gospel so that we may be able to do that which Paul asks of the Ephesians: “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. …Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (4:25, 32).

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