Members of the General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations (GACEIR) gathered in Louisville June 10–12 with related staff to discuss their mandate, hear from panelists on the role of interreligious dialogue in theological education, share interfaith experiences and perceptions, and formulate approaches to share their work with the wider church.
Of special importance to the gathering was a discussion regarding Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) responses to increased instances of violence against Muslims in the United States.
“There needs to be a Christian response to [anti-Muslim actions], a very vocal and Christian response,” said the Rev. Randall C. Bailey, vice chair of GACEIR and a representative of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
“We need to call on the church to be the church and say that such actions are not acceptable,” he continued. “And to be there in open witness, pointing people to other ways of respecting that God has revealed Godself to other people.”
Bailey asserted, “We need to call into question the clergy who are supporting these actions.”
Discussion by the committee recognized the varying political and religious views that exist within the PC(USA). Yet the complexity of addressing violent or discriminatory actions against other faith groups is no reason for the church to shy away from taking a stance, said the Rev. Rodney Petersen.
“We have to be careful about how we craft things, especially as a denomination,” he said. “But I also think there are times when we can’t shy away from making positive statements to issues today. We just finished an important document—the Interreligious Stance. We are to use that as a guideline to produce pronouncements for the denomination. To create helpful guides for congregations and community conversations.”
The Rev. Robina Winbush, the associate for ecumenical and ecclesial ministries in the PC(USA) Office of the General Assembly, agreed with the need to provide guidance to congregations.
“In an age where our members are living in an increasingly pluralistic world, in an age when the global religious situation is spilling over into our congregations, what is the response and guidance we need to give the church as a whole as to how we understand these relationships?” she asked.
The Interreligious Stance cites nine common “spheres of life” that the committee believes are the beginning for interfaith cooperation and dialogue. Universal experiences of human needs, social justice, mission and evangelism, conflict, families, education, communities, congregations and workplace are highlighted as means of approaching interreligious relations.
“It’s an educational opportunity for us, to get the truth out,” said the Rev. Amantha L. Barbee of establishing the grounds for dialogue. “We can begin by asking: What do we have in common; what is the Islamic family doing that we’re doing? So we can have a common understanding of what it is to be human. We need to put some resources out there that will help our pastors and congregations start a conversation about what it means to be human and to understand their faith expression.”
In addition to addressing anti-Muslim issues, the committee spent considerable time addressing other areas of interfaith dialogue and the use of the Interreligious Stance in congregations and in theological education.
Three panel members, the Rev. Michelle Bartel, coordinator of theological education and seminary relations and PC(USA) staff for the Committee on Theological Education, and McCormick Seminary Professors the Rev. David Daniels III and Sarah Tanzer, discussed areas of interest and concern in the document.
Bartel framed the document as an invitation to hospitality that represents the best of Christian values. “What we learn from Paul is that Christian conscience and Christian hospitality are not in conflict at all,” she said. “The rejection of hospitality closes a door.”
Affirming the value of relationships, Tanzer urged participants in interreligious conversations to hold off on deep theological discussions until they have a framework for understanding. “Sometimes dialogue happens way too soon,” she said. “You haven’t built a real relationship of trust, and it’s hard to hang around the table when you get to those [tough] issues.”
“There is a lot of shared interest in making the world a better place, but you really need to have those relationships in place before you begin,” she said.
Reflecting on the core tenets of the document, Daniels said respectful presence and hospitality, given and received, are essential to inclusive interreligious work. He also emphasized the need for a clear understanding by Christian participants of their faith.
“You can still say Jesus Christ is important,” he asserted. “You can also say that Jesus Christ is normative. . . . The spirit of the living Christ is at work in the world, restoring creation, maintaining dignity, urging us to restore relationship with our neighbor.”
An interfaith panel consisting of Cantor David Lipp from Congregation Adath Jeshurun and Cynthia Christensen from Baha’i Community, both in Louisville, gave their impressions of the Interreligious Stance and took questions form committee members.
Applauding the Jewish nature of the “unknowable God” concept present in the statement, Lipp said, “The document has an incredible respect and grace to it.”
“We’re all trying to get access to God in the best way we can, without trampling on other people along the way,” said Lipp. “How does each religion, each religious person and community, maintain its identity? I think this document is a good guide.”
The chairperson of GACEIR, the Rev. Aimee Moiso, sees the committee’s work as formative for the next steps of their charter.
“The intention of the meeting was to think more deeply about the relationship between theological education and the interreligious stance of our document,” she said. “The commitment is twin themes of formation and engagement. How do we form communities in the church that are interreligious and theologically minded?”
Mindful of the “opportunity and challenge of the many different constituencies, both within and beyond the Presbyterian Church, with whom we want to speak, and listen,” Moiso is optimistic about the work the committee will produce and commission.
“The Interreligious Stance was a document written by committee, so it’s multi-vocal,” she said. “It reflects that the people writing it come from various places of engagement with interfaith dialogue. Some folks who haven’t engaged in interreligious dialogue may find it bold and innovated. Those more familiar may find it timid.”
Future meetings of GACEIR are scheduled for October 2015 and January 2016, when work on the requirements of the committee’s mandate and production of the Interreligious Stance Study Guide will continue. The study guide and additional materials are expected to be delivered to the General Assembly in 2016.