By Laura M. Cheifetz, Vice President of Church and Public Relations, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation
You’ve heard it! Our PC(USA) leaders are a black man, a white woman, a black woman, and a gay Latino man. Things will not be the same, ever again! Right?
A lot happened at the 222nd General Assembly. J. Herbert Nelson was elected to be the next Stated Clerk (our head of communion*), T. Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston were elected Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly, and it was the first GA for Tony de la Rosa in his position as Interim Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (he came on staff last year).
Of course, there are four other agencies of the church whose presidents are white men, but those named above are the most visible current faces of the PC(USA).
We’re not the first for most things in the ecumenical world. The Episcopal Church has had a white woman serve as Presiding Bishop (Katharine Jefferts Schori) and now a black man is Presiding Bishop (Michael Curry). The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has a white woman serving as General Minister and President (Sharon Watkins). The United Church of Christ previously had a black man as General Minister and President (Geoffrey A. Black). The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a white woman Presiding Bishop (Elizabeth Eaton). Good on them.
It’s our turn. This is the first time the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA) and any of our preceding bodies is a black man. I’m thrilled, as someone who thinks 2016 is pretty late for us to have found that people who aren’t straight white men can also be right for a high-profile call.
Representation matters. It matters for those of us who aren’t accustomed to seeing ourselves up front. It matters for people who are so accustomed to seeing themselves up front that they don’t even know what difference a representational change can make. It matters because diverse representation means we have taken the part of our faith seriously that says we are all created in the image of God. It means we are living into the constitution where it says the requirements for those “called to exercise special functions in the church” include “strong faith, dedicated discipleship, and love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord” (G-2.0104). Note it doesn’t say anything about gender or racial qualifications. Being church, one might think, would mean a faith so robust that we would fight for people who are traditionally underrepresented to have a path to leadership in the church, because God cannot be restricted to our favorite containers.
Whether it’s heads of communion or presidents of seminaries or political leaders, seeing someone in leadership who stands outside the norm is important. But representation isn’t the same as structural change. A black man, a black woman, a white woman, and a gay Latino man can’t save us. And adding the Belhar confession won’t save us, either.
I am not the first person to say this. I won’t be the last.
Representation matters. But representation is not our salvation.
Despite adding a significant confession to our church constitution, passing a revision to the antiracism policy, passing numerous racial justice policies, and having leaders whose faces and backgrounds represent different experiences, expertise, and leadership, we are still the same church. We still have our racist, sexist, homophobic tendencies, because these are built-in to how we do church. We can’t undo hundreds of years of a sinful preferential option for the wealthy, white, and male, or a couple thousand years of colonialism and patriarchy in just one assembly, or even in 50 years of assemblies.
But we can try.
Instead of sitting back and expecting these leaders to take care of the work for us, we can work with them, taking responsibility for the ways in which it will take the whole church to work towards the worshiping community of faith we are called to be. We can build on the work of those who have gone before us, fighting structural oppression in their times and ways. We have a long tradition of bringing our theological, biblical, and ecclesiastical muscle to bear on making this church continue its journey toward a gospel understanding of what we are to be and become.
We are already saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t need anyone else to save us. (Don’t you feel more free now?)
We are always being reformed. Isn’t that great? It’s okay that we aren’t perfect. It’s in our church DNA to be open to the movement of the Spirit.
These leaders can’t save us by virtue of their identities and what they represent alone, but they sure can lead. It’s on us to decide if we plan to be a part of what is emerging. We can pray for them, encourage them, challenge them, and in turn, encourage and challenge our partners in ministry, through the PC(USA) and beyond. We aren’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. But we’ve made a few steps in the right direction.
Settle in. We’re in it for the long haul.
*“Head of communion” is the generic term in the ecumenical world for the primary representative for a given denomination, since most denominations have their own titles (like Presiding Bishop, Stated Clerk, General Minister and President, etc.)
Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as Vice President of Church & Public Relations and editor of These Days at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She has served with the Forum for Theological Exploration and at McCormick Theological Seminary. She grew up a double pastors kid in the Pacific Northwest and holds an MBA from North Park University and an MDiv from McCormick Theological Seminary. Her claim to fame is having lived in the Pacific Northwest (both east and west of the mountains), California, the Midwest, New York City (plus a summer on Shelter Island), the Deep South, and the Mid-South where tea can be ordered “unsweet.” For fun, she watches television, reads fiction, delves into post-colonial feminism and critical race theory, and rages against the system of which, she is clear, she is a part. Laura blogs very occasionally at http://churchrelations.blogspot.com and tweets at @lmcheifetz .
She is a co-contributor on “Asian American Religious Leadership” in the SAGE Reference “Religious Leadership” volume, a contributor to “Race in a Post-Obama America” from Westminster John Knox Press, contributor to Judson Press’ “Streams Run Uphill” and “Here I Am,” and co-editor of “Church on Purpose,” also of Judson Press. She has written and blogged for Horizons Magazine, Ecclesio, Unbound, the Salt Collective, the Covenant Network, McCormick’s CURE, and NEXT Church.
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