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Covenant Network draws nearly 600 to ponder Biblical authority and current tensions in the church

"Biblical Authority and the Church" is theme

The Covenant Network web site has their own report on the recent conference in Pittsburgh, and the full texts of the plenary addresses by Walter Brueggemann, William Placher, and Brian Blount, along with a printable tape order form. The texts of the sermons and of other papers will be posted soon.

by Doug King

The Covenant Network, which held it first gathering just four years ago with about 140 people present, attracted nearly 600 participants to its fourth annual gathering, held at East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. The meeting opened on Thursday evening, November 2, and closed just after noon on Saturday, Nov. 4. Two themes were sounded through many of the presentations and times of worship: First, that scripture provides the truth from which all of us live as Christians, but that our interpretations of scripture are never absolute. And second, that the strictures imposed on Christian freedom by Book of Order provision G-6.0106b must finally be removed -- and that people will need to work and organize and pray to bring that about.

The Rev. Robert Bohl, former Moderator of the General Assembly and one of the founders of Covenant Network, introduced some of the basic aims of the Gathering on Thursday evening. "We've come to hear one another," he said, "and because we want peace in our church. We are convinced that our church must welcome all people." Affirming that scripture is central to our faith and to our life as a church, he noted too that "it has been used as a weapon to assault others. I hope we will learn to talk with each other" instead of engaging in these battles. The church needs a balance between authority and freedom, and said, and "we are best as a church when liberals and conservatives can greet one another with civility."

Bohl also offered a brief word of regret at the absence of any "compelling leaders" in the Presbyterian Church today, suggesting that this is caused by the fact that "there are those who attack anyone who attempts to lead."

Bohl then introduced the Rev. Syngman Rhee, the current Moderator of the PC(USA), who explained the origins of the white gown he wears as Moderator, which was created for him by his wife, covered with signatures and words of greeting and blessing from hundreds of GA commissioners and others. "It's heavy," he added, "... heavy with the weight of the many people who care about our church."

Mentioning his recent visits to churches in Korea and the Middle East, he urged that "as we gather here over the next three days, may we continually be reminded that God has called us to proclaim the Good News -- and to build the unity of the Church."

As in earlier conferences, worship services provided a vital core to the whole gathering. The four preachers offered suggestive images for the effort to make our church more inclusive: a red tulip blooming in a field of white and yellow ones; coming home again; coloring outside the lines; learning to speak and to understand new languages. Click here for more on the worship services.

The first address of the conference was given by Dr. Walter Brueggemann, Professor of OT at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Speaking under the title, "Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection," Brueggemann offered just that -- some thoughts on the authority of the Bible in his own life, and the principles by which his own experience leads him to interpret the Bible.  Click here for a summary of his talk.

The second major address, by Prof. William Placher of Wabash College, was a theologian's look at "Struggling with Scripture." He emphasized that the truth communicated through the Bible is not always factual -- as Jesus' parables, for one obvious example, convey profound truth without relating events that "really happened." Noting that the real issue is not the authority of the Bible, but how we interpret it, he pointed to the important distinction between what is said in the Bible, and what is being taught; for example, he pointed to Paul's discussions of homosexuality as teaching not about particular behaviors, but about deeper issues of sin and righteousness.  Click here for a summary of his talk.

On Friday morning, Dr. Brian Blount spoke on the topic, "The Last Word on Biblical Authority." Blount, Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, emphasized the lively role of God's Spirit in communicating God's truth in our always-changing situations. While we often crave the simplicity of a clear "do-this-don't-do-that" view of the Bible, in fact "mature Christians put the Bible in second place. Life takes first place, for the Word comes in, and comes to life, in life itself." [More on this talk later.]


Workshops cover many topics

Workshops held on Friday and Saturday covered a wide range of issues, from "Preaching Biblically: Teaching the Bible from the Pulpit" and "What the Confessions Say about the Bible" to questions of polity, effective ministry with gay and lesbian members, and much more.

One workshop dealt with "Holy Unions -- Practical Guidance for Pastors."  Gene TeSelle provides a report.

Young adults gather, plan, and call for more participation

A pre-conference gathering for people under 40 was held on Thursday afternoon, and drew some fifty participants. According to the Rev. Beth Hessel-Robinson and the Rev. Heidi Calhoun, who helped plan the pre-conference, this new event was suggested at the Atlanta gathering last year by a few young adults who together asked for a voice -- and were invited to join the board.

The event featured a panel discussion, with older and younger participants, all speaking in response to four questions put to them by the planners. These included their views on what are the major problems in the PC(USA) today, and what gives them hope for the church. The panel discussion was followed by time in small groups, giving people time to get acquainted and share their own concerns.

Beth Hessel-Robinson noted that she received many e-mail notes in response to announcements of the event, with people saying things like "I need this!" and hoping for more such opportunities.

At the end of the "main event" conference on Saturday, a representative of the young adult group urged that Covenant Network make a point next year of asking each person attending to bring along a younger adult as well.



GA actions ratified (or not) by  the presbyteries   

A number of the most important actions of the 219th General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order.

We're providing resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest are:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which would remove the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.

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Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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