Grace Presbyterian Church
August 5, 2018, Pentecost 11B
Confession of 1967 – All Together
It’s one of the most familiar of the parables Jesus tells in the gospels, and – as with so many of these most well-known passages of scripture – it opens up multiple lessons to the serious reader the more times it is read. Still and always significant, though, is the most elemental meaning, the one that answers the second, slightly desperate question asked by the lawyer whose encounter with Jesus sets this story in motion.
The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner once tried to imagine exactly what was going on in the mind of the lawyer, and exactly what he was seeking:
He presumably wanted something on the order of: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.”
Instead, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is to be construed as meaning anybody who needs you. The lawyer’s response is left unrecorded.
Of course, the flip side of such a definition might be that you are a neighbor to anyone who you need, and that often causes more trouble for people who think of themselves as self-reliant, or who just don’t like, you know, those people – like the Samaritans in Jesus’s parable.
The Confession of 1967, a product of the reunion of two branches of Presbyterian churches in 1958 (creating what was for some years known as the “northern” church), confronted (among other things) the very kind of divide exemplified in the parable, one with close to three centuries’ worth of history at the time of its writing. The divide between black and white is not unique to the United States (next week’s confession will remind us of this fact), but it has played out with particular violence and vitriol at many points in US history, not least of which is right now. While many tensions did break out across the decade of the 1960s as the confession was being written, the release of the statement and its unswerving emphasis on reconciliation among peoples – any race, any gender, any nationality, anyone – must have seemed especially perceptive, even prophetic, in the turbulent year of 1968 that followed.
In addition to its strong focus on reconciliation, the confession also serves as a kind of “catching up” to the twentieth century on the part of Presbyterians, catching up with a world that was dramatically different than the one in which the Westminster Standards – still the only confession acknowledged in many Presbyterian traditions – was written. The Westminster Confession could not comprehend a world in which such racism featured front and center in the society of the most powerful nation on earth. It also couldn’t comprehend a world in which scientific inquiry had advanced as dramatically as to put human beings on the moon, an event not long in the future in 1967; in which research and scholarship had uncovered numerous biblical manuscripts unknown to the writers of the King James Bible and developed scholarly methods to plumb the depths of scripture more fully and with greater intellectual integrity; and which contemplated (however imperfectly) the – astonishing! – possibility that women were not the inferiors of men.
To be fair, C67 (as it is commonly and informally known) doesn’t contemplate all these things perfectly. It may not be quite as understanding of racism, as opposed to straightforward prejudice, as it aspires to be. To seek reconciliation without reparation – without undoing and removing the injustices and abuse that create the breach – is frankly worse than no reconciliation at all, and C67 may not be firm enough on that. Also, it’s all fine and good to contemplate the equality of women and men, but doing so in a document that speaks of humanity exclusively in masculine language somehow undercuts the effect. (In this one way C67 is entirely consistent with its Reformed confessional forbearers.) Still, contemplating these questions and bringing reconciliation to the forefront of the newly-formed denomination’s conversation at that place and time in history is a dramatic step forward for the church, one whose significance should never be underestimated.
Ultimately approved, despite the ferocious resistance of some Westminster diehards, C67 officially became part of the church in cohort with a host of previous confessional statements (including Westminster), giving the church its first book of confessions – the predecessor to the book we have today. In so doing (as well as by the very specifically dated title it was given), the Confession of 1967 made the point that had been previously made by other statements that these human– hopefully inspired but still human – statements were not meant to be fixed and immovable, as Westminster had become. Our responsibility is still to see the world and all its evils and speak to them directly. That did not end with the Westminster divines, nor the “confessing church” of Barmen, nor the commissioners of C67, and it does not end even now. We are still called to speak, and to act, and maybe even live up to the aims of the Confession of 1967 at long last.
For the timely application of timeless faith, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #327, From All That Dwell Below The Skies; #772, Live Into Hope; #754, Help Us Accept Each Other; #339, Lift Every Voice and Sing
Image from a plenary sesson of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Portland, 1967, at which the Confession of 1967 was approved.