The Presbytery of Ohio Valley* met yesterday, at Camp PYOCA. The times I’ve been there in the past, I was taking little girls to summer camp, or picking them up, so attending a meeting of “the wider church” there with a hundred or so grown-ups was a different experience. But the famous cinnamon rolls were the same.
The first words on the docket were a reminder of the purpose for which the presbytery meets:
The presbytery is responsible for the government of the church throughout its district, and for assisting and supporting the witness of congregations to the sovereign activity of God in the world, so that all congregations become communities of faith, hope, love, and witness. As it leads and guides the witness of its congregations, the presbytery shall keep before it the marks of the Church, the notes by which Presbyterian and Reformed communities have identified themselves through history, and the six Great Ends of the Church. (from the Book of Order of the PC(USA) G.3-0301)
The work of the presbytery is always conducted in the context of worship. The Moderator calls the meeting to order with a call to worship, and the order of the day proceeds to include all the subsequent elements of Reformed worship. So we prayed and sang and prayed a prayer of confession together, and had the Word proclaimed (by J. Herbert Nelson, II, the Stated Clerk of the denomination, which was fortunate for us), and then in the space we think of as “responding to the word” came all the business of the meeting, and then communion.
The prayer of confession at this gathering was taken from Race, Reconciliation and Reformation:, Opening and Closing Liturgy from the PC(USA) Big Tent, St. Louis, MO, 2017:
O Lord our God, you call us to proclaim the gospel,
but our proclamation lacks credibility.
You call us to be reconciled to you and one another,
but we are content to live in separation.
You call us to seek the good of all,
but in our love for order we uphold oppressive structures.
You call us to fight pretensions and injustice,
but we sit idly by, endangering human welfare.
Reconcile us to you, O God, by the power of your Spirit,
and give us the courage and strength to be reconciled to others;
through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior. Amen.
And then we always have an assurance of pardon, which is itself an article of faith, in this case:
L: Praise to the living Christ, hanged on a tree, yet risen in the morning!
Christ scatters the sin from our souls as the mist from the hills;
Let us welcome the grace of Christ in our hearts
to begin what we do, to inform what we say and to redeem who we are.
P: Amen. Thanks be to God.
Maybe because of some things I have been reading lately, this prayer of confession, in particular, reminded me that liturgy shapes us, forming our consciousnesses and our consciences.
The words we use in liturgy, like the words we use in hymnody, become in a real, concrete sense the Word that creates us as the Christians we are, whatever Christians those are.
There are things Christians who have been shaped by this liturgy and liturgy like it will be very unlikely ever to say, it seems to me.
They just won’t feel true. Not “in our bones” true, anyway.
In the same way that Christians who have learned from a child “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” do not find it easy to believe that Jesus really does not love them, or some of their friends. It just can’t help sounding like some kind of mistake.
So, for instance, Christians who have been shaped by this liturgy and liturgy like it will, we know from experience, be willing to have many, lengthy conversations, for years and decades and even centuries, about what, concretely, “social justice” means. But to say it is not the mission of the church? I suspect not.
[*] The presbytery in this “synodical, connectional” system fills a role that is analogous, in some ways, to that of a bishop in an episcopal polity. It consists of all the ordained Teaching Elders in the district along with all the Ruling Elder Commissioners, one from each congregation, who represent the lay people of the congregations. We Presbyterians take our deliberative bodies seriously; we believe the Holy Spirit is actively at work in and through the deliberations of those deliberative bodies. I’m not a member of presbytery, so I don’t usually attend these meetings. This time I had a special reason. But more of us probably ought to attend, just to observe, considering how educational, and also inspirational, it is.