Next up in the WWCDL Guest Blogger Series focused on why some of us are choosing to live out our faith through in a denominational
context is someone from the denomination in which I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Ayres. You can also check out some twitterings
about this or add your own with the hashtag, #wwcdl. If you would like to submit an entry and/or know someone that would be great feel free to pass their names along to me.
Jennifer R. Ayres
eMail | facebook
Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics
McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL
Minister of Word and Sacrament
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
First, full disclosure: Bruce is a friend of many years, and when he was elected moderator of our denomination, I made a foolish promise to “serve at the pleasure of the moderator.” Guess I was having a West Wing moment. I think I also was having a beer. And now, Bruce is having second thoughts about asking me to do this.
Truth be told, my friendship with Bruce over these last (omg) ten years, and my friendships with many other Presbyterians around the country and even the planet are no small part of my commitment to denominational life. We Presbyterians love to say that we are a “connectional” church. And this is indeed true, and gives me great comfort when I feel lonely in my own particular place of call. I always know that there is another general assembly, another conference, another working committee, that will bring me back into conversation with these partners in ministry.
This ongoing conversation with partners in ministry, however, is not particular to the Presbyterian world. I enjoy collaborative work with partners in ministry in other denominations, traditions, communities, and religious groups. And, as recent studies have shown, Christians are more likely to identify with Christians on the same end of the conservative-liberal spectrum, of other denominations, than they are to identify with members of their own denomination who are on the opposite end of the spectrum. I suppose this is true. Like many of my young adult peers, I am continually frustrated with my denomination’s sluggishness to fully welcome GLBTQ persons into all dimensions of the church’s life; with what recently seems like a de-prioritizing of our justice and advocacy work; and with more general reluctance to change. On the other hand, I also am frustrated by conversations with my peers in which tradition is understood only as a fetter and our denominational institutions are rarely trusted.
Why do I stay? As a conflict-averse southern girl, I should have taken off long ago.
But that’s not how a tradition works. Apologies to my peers who hate that word, but I think it is an important one for thinking about denominational life today. Sometimes we think of tradition as a set of rules – rules that are rigid, conservative, and a little too enamored with the status quo. And a tradition can take on that character. When it does, some folks prefer to call that “traditionalism.” Tradition more broadly understood, however, has multiple meanings, and I want to offer just one that continues to be life-giving for me.
Alasdair MacIntyre describes a tradition as an ongoing “socially-embodied” argument about those things that we say are good (MacIntyre 1984). When we enter into a community, we enter into a tradition. But instead of encountering a series of beliefs and practices that are pre-determined and immovable, which we either accept or reject, I like to think that we are encountering an ongoing conversation – an argument, even! – that has a history that is important, but also has a future that is yet to be known. We might call this a living tradition.
In plainer language: Although we might experience tradition, from time to time, as oppressive, fixed and of questionable relevance, I see my denominational tradition as a rich history of arguments about the things that matter. Of course, sometimes, I feel that we are having the wrong argument. And sometimes, I feel like everyone else is on the wrong side of the argument!
But, on the whole, I remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) because I am willing to be in an ongoing conversation in which the conclusion is not yet known. I am willing to do this because there are many aspects of this particular argument that are deeply significant to me: a profound way of accounting for the brokenness in the world, the practice of determining together what we say we believe, the rigor of studying the scriptures with care and precision, the challenge of relating faithfully to political and social structures. I consider these to be great gifts not only within the Presbyterian tradition, but also gifts to the larger Body of Christ.
How I relate to my denomination is an interesting question, because I teach ethics in a Presbyterian seminary that also is gloriously ecumenical. In some ways, my context for ministry requires that I wear my denominational identity lightly, and in other ways, I think the best way I can enter into this ecumenical context is as one who loves her tradition, but not in an uncritical way.
I suppose that my own role in the future life of the denomination is closely related to this tension. In my teaching, both with Presbyterian students and with students from other traditions, I like to think of myself as inviting learners into a living tradition: a space in which we can deliberate about the things that matter; a space in which we can live together, even with vastly different understandings of these things; a space in which one tradition encounters another tradition and is enriched for it; a space in which we are grateful for the deep faithfulness of those who came before us, and in which we imagine new opportunities for faithfulness among those who will come after us.
So yes, this conflict-averse southern girl does, indeed, want to stay in this living tradition.
MacIntyre, Alasdair C. 1984. After virtue: A study in moral theory. London: Duckworth.