What confidence is this? That’s the theme for the German Protestant Kirchentag (Church Day) that will happen in Dortmund next week, Wednesday through Sunday. The theme question is a translation from the German version of 2 Kings 18:19. In the NRSV it’s “On what do you base this confidence of yours?”
In context, it’s a question the King of Assyria asks King Hezekiah of Judah. It’s a leading question. The answer is already clear. Hezekiah trusts in the King of Egypt for the security of Judah, and his own throne.
Assyria has already conquered the northern kingdom, called both Israel and Samaria. The King of Israel and his people are already unwilling guests of the Assyrian Empire. The storytellers are clear. Captivity and exile are punishment for not obeying God’s voice and transgressing the covenant. Judah is as guilty as Israel. The King of Assyria invites Hezekiah to accept reality.
The planners of the Kirchentag ask the same question. What is the basis of our confidence as Christians in the world today? Kirchentag is a big deal! It’s even advertised on trains! Tens of thousands of Christians from all over Germany, and around the world will gather to ask that question. We’ll ask it as we study and discuss major problems in our world today. We’ll concentrate on the environmental crisis and issues arising from migration of refugees, and immigration in general. We’ll worship. We’ll sing. Janet and I will be there to represent the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
I’ll have a lot to share when we get back. For now, I want to ask, “What is the basis of our confidence as Presbyterians in Canada today?” And is our confidence misplaced?
I believe we’ve missed an opportunity to risk putting our absolute trust in God. At last week’s General Assembly there was a movement of the Holy Spirit, through the hearts of mostly-silent and silenced people, toward inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in the church. A majority voted for a pathway forward to welcoming people who are excluded from leadership in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. A majority believe partners of the same sex should be married in their own churches. Sixty percent of us who were there surprised even ourselves!
My heart leapt, but only as far as my throat. I knew there would be hard work to come. I knew I would have to trust the church’s processes over the next year. But I believed the process worked last Tuesday. Surely it could work again!
Then the shouting started. Among other claims, the minority said they hadn’t been heard. They said people around them didn’t know what they were voting on. This went on and on. On Thursday morning we were offered a compromise. It passed. Here’s where my questions come in.
The very vocal minority almost got what they wanted. They managed to subvert the stated will of the Assembly. They played on the fear that is always an invisible, unacknowledged presence at every gathering of Presbyterians in Canada. We know our denomination is in decline. The church so many of us have known all our lives is already gone. We know that whatever future we may have won’t look like our cherished past. Raise the spectre of congregations or presbyteries leaving the PCC and many of us will do anything we can to prevent that.
Martin Luther, or at least one of my Lutheran professors, talked about misplaced confidence. That’s trusting anyone, or anything but God for our salvation, security, life itself. God asks Hezekiah, through the King of Assyria, “On what do you base this confidence of yours?” Hezekiah’s situation is just one more proof his trust has been misplaced.
When our confidence is misplaced, any perceived threat to the home of our confidence becomes an existential crisis. That’s why so many commissioners experienced the choice of the pathway to inclusion as a personal injury, and blamed others for hurting them.
It seems to me that the very vocal minority had no confidence in the body they were part of. Despite all that was said about the Holy Spirit’s presence and power, and all the prayers for guidance offered, they didn’t allow even the possibility that God might be at work among us. I believe they were confident that they were right. In that confidence they used every method they could to get their way.
I’ve concluded that they wouldn’t have achieved what they did if they hadn’t found others whose confidence was also misplaced. On Thursday morning I believe many commissioners demonstrated where their trust resides. It’s in the church. The PCC, shrunken but united. For a few crucial moments I found myself among them! For the sake of the church! I’ve since repented.
The visible unity of the church, which also means the survival of the PCC comes first for too many of us. The “Unity Paper” we studied last year affirmed that misdirection of confidence. I don’t believe institutional survival or denominational unity are first things. They’re secondary concerns at best. If we can’t entrust the things we value to God, then our confidence is in those treasures and not in God.
Who knows what would have happened if the pathway to inclusion had been approved, perhaps with a little fine-tuning? We’ll never know. It was amended to death. Those opposed to the church taking that pathway were confident. They knew! They predicted strife and division. We were bombarded with dire warnings and prophecies.
I’ll attach to this post a document that gives you exactly what came from General Assembly and will be sent to the presbyteries later this year. Each presbytery will say yes or no. Then the General Assembly next June will receive the result of the presbytery vote and attempt again to find a way forward.
I pray that sessions and congregations that have already come out in support of inclusion won’t turn back while we’re waiting for another year, another General Assembly. I pray that more sessions and congregations will go ahead and follow their hearts and consciences. Damn the rules! I pray my friends who have been told, once again, they’re only welcome in some parts of their own church will give their church at least another year. Don’t leave us now.
I pray for humility and courage. It takes courage to reroute our confidence to God. All of it. It means risking even the unity and survival of the church as we have known it. It means allowing the possibility that we may be wrong.
I’ve learned from experience, that last one always hurts. It also saves me from misplacing my confidence. Off to Germany next Monday. It’s one of my mother countries, though my roots are a bit south and east of Westphalia.
Was für ein vertrauen?