June 2, 2016—Presbyterians talk a lot about being a connectional church, but we don’t always say what this means. Does this mean that we have a big fancy computer network that links up all our congregations across the country? Since our national church website has about 100,000 pages but I can’t ever find anything, probably not! Does being connectional mean that we play games of Connect-4 or connect-the-dots whenever we get together? No, I don’t think so. Does our connected status mean that we have to keep talking to each other no matter what? Well, that depends, really…
As much as we talk about being a connectional church, no form of the word “connection” is ever used in the Book of Order to describe the form of our Presbyterian government. We are described as “missional” (F-1.01), “ecumenical” (F-1.0402), “confessional” (F-2.01), “Reformed” (F-1.0303), and even “constitutional” (F-3.04), but never connectional. While it is truly very much part of who we are to be a connectional church, I think we might actually be using the wrong word!
Rather than describing ourselves as “connectional,” the Book of Order describes at length the relationships between the different councils of the church. We do not just connect to one another—we relate to one another. Through these relationships, we participate in the life of the whole church. The act of one part of us is the act of all of us, and so we are connected and related to one another as Presbyterians whenever any of us act: “The councils are distinct, but have such mutual relations that the act of one of them is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate council” (F-3.0203).
The relationships across the church are on great display these days. Sessions and presbyteries across the country have been hard at work developing overtures to our General Assembly in preparation for its meeting this summer (see G-3.0202 and G-3.0302). We have just seen the product of many hours of work from our clerks of session, presbytery stated clerks, and national staff in compiling the statistical reports that help us understand more about who we are as Presbyterians and help us to produce the best possible resources to support the ministry going on in our midst (see G-3.0202f). And nearly eight hundred commissioners and advisory delegates are preparing to gather in Portland, Oregon, this month to do the work of this part of the church in the gathering of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
But we are called to make our relationships about more than overtures, statistics, formal relationships (like those described between sessions and the presbytery at G-3.0202, G-3.0303, and G-3.0307), or even our shared name and system of government. The relationships that make us a connectional church are rooted in our common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and our common mission to be a part of God’s work of unveiling God’s kingdom in our midst.
When our connections and relations forget our shared mission, God calls us to find our center once again. God invites us to return to this core of our life together in our congregations, our sessions, and our presbyteries so that we might not miss out on all the incredible things that God is doing in our world.
As we gather as a church in the coming weeks for our General Assembly to celebrate the connections and the relationships that we share, I hope and pray that we will be reminded that we are more than just a connectional church. We truly are related to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, united in our common mission to bring hope and new life to our world in these fearful days. May God inspire us as we journey together in connection and relationship to join God’s work of making all things new!
Andy James is the Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone in Queens, New York, and the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of New York City. He is one of the founders of LiturgyLink, an online collaborative space for sharing liturgy, and a 2005 graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary. Find and follow him on Twitter and Facebook and at www.bluedrift.com.
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