What makes a Presbyterian a Presbyterian? Let me name (some of) the ways. One could argue that a love of (or at least an appreciation for) acronyms is a pretty good marker of Presbyterianism. We meet with CPMs, support service trips with the PDA, participate in the OGHS offering, and prepare PIFs – just to name a few.
Presbyterians also love conferences. Several of us students traveled to Denver in January to attend the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators’ Annual Event (otherwise known as APCE – another acronym!). More of us headed to Kansas City just this past week to attend the NEXT Church National Gathering (and no, “NEXT” is amazingly not an acronym). Others of us have attended conferences at Montreat; General Assembly (arguably the biggest “conference” of them all); the Pathways to Chaplaincy conference; Compassion, Peace and Justice training days; and many more. And those were just in the last year or so!
Theologically, Presbyterians speak often of tables. We gather around table – one that’s not our table, but the Lord’s – for communion each Wednesday here at Union, partaking in the joyful feast that is celebration and thanksgiving for God’s amazing gift to us. We have similarly joyful feasts nearly every other day of the week around tables in Richmond Hall, in each other’s apartments or kitchens, and in local restaurants. We break literal bread on Wednesdays and perhaps not-so-literal “bread” on these other days, always giving thanks to God and for one another.
But my favorite analogy often employed by Presbyterians is that of the big tent. (Heck, we even have a conference named after it!) When I interviewed for a CPE program a few weeks ago, I was asked about my own understanding of God’s grace. In my answer, I talked about the “big tent,” and how under it there’s room for a range of perspectives and opinions – and not just Presbyterians. My interviewers looked at each other, looked back at me, and replied, “That’s so Presbyterian of you.”
Just like the communion table, this big tent is not ours, but God’s. And just like at table, there’s room for everyone under the big tent. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as the RSGA takes steps to advocate for inclusivity of diverse people and perspectives on our campus. Back in December, after two months of discussion, the RSGA decided to send a letter to the dean of students and academic dean about embracing ideological diversity at Union. You can read it here. The letter outlines a few ways in which we believe more room for a wider range of perspectives can be made on this campus, and makes a few suggestions about ways we as an institution might do so. As your moderator, I have met with both deans, President Blount, and the entire faculty to share this letter with them, explain its genesis, and discuss ways we might move forward in conversation and action.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like we are entering a new era in American culture. It feels like discourse of all kinds – even with friends and family – is more difficult, more fraught with accusations and tension, than it used to be. And in such a time, this is what I know to be true, as stated in the letter: “We know that the majority of our calls will be to serve in contexts with a diverse representation of ideological perspectives—we ought to have experience engaging with those perspectives.”
I know there is more work to be done to ensure that all students, regardless of ideology, feel welcome on this campus. I look forward to engaging in further conversation around this issue with students, faculty, and staff. Particularly if you are a student who identifies with this letter, I urge you to talk to me, Dean McFayden, or President Blount so we might learn more about your perspective and experience at Union. I’d also like to encourage you to speak up in class or anywhere else on campus, because only when we better represent this big tent can we learn a perspective other than our own. But no matter where you place yourself on the ideological spectrum, I pray we will all take advantage of this unique time in our lives to learn what it might be like to be a pastor to a “purple” church, a chaplain to a diverse mix of people, a leader to those who might not agree on matters of government but do agree on matters of God.
I am grateful for all of you who make up the current population of our seminary. Each of your voices is valued, respected, and needed. No matter what we all do with our degrees once we graduate from this place, here and now let us endeavor to equip one another to be able to see and appreciate and respect convictions we might not share, but convictions that fit under our big tent nonetheless. And you don’t need to be Presbyterian to know that God’s tent is more expansive and more grace-filled than we can ever begin to imagine. This tent we have at Union is big enough for us all. Let’s live in it.
LINDA KURTZ is a middle level M.Div/M.A.C.E student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. She is serving as the 2016-2017 moderator for the RSGA.