When I was an adolescent, I pictured my conscience as being God’s way of speaking to me—reminding me, when faced with a choice of two paths to take, that there was generally a right path and a wrong path, and helping me to choose the right one. Or if I chose the wrong path—as I sometimes did, despite the urging of my conscience—that the guilt I subsequently felt was the result of having tuned my conscience out; or to my child-like way of thinking—of having disobeyed, and thus disappointed God. Like most children, the choices with which I found myself faced were pretty much binary in nature—left or right, black or white, truth or falsehood, love or hate. Because I was reared in a caring community of faith—the Cumberland Presbyterian Church—my conscience was lovingly nurtured into a mature process for discerning the will of God in even complex choices through the encouragement of my Sunday School teachers, Youth Group Leaders, Pastors, and spiritual mentors. I was taught to study the foundations of my faith, encouraged to question them freely in my efforts to understand, to compare scripture with scripture, to pray and be open for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to employ critical thinking in using the intellect with which I’d been blessed, and ultimately, to think for myself—hand in hand with the Lord of our conscience.

In 1991, the 161st General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church issued a Statement on the Sanctity of Persons as a means of coming to grips with the vast array of passionately-held opinions on abortion that were threatening to rip both the church and our society apart. In the end, that body proclaimed that “since Cumberland Presbyterians affirm a variety of views on abortion, it is not appropriate for the General Assembly to define [any single] view as the view of the church. Instead, on the issue of abortion, the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church affirms this range of views as equally valid interpretations of the Christian faith, equally faithful to scripture and equally open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Recognizing that members of our church will act on their convictions in the public arena and in the church, we affirm their prerogative to act in Christian conscience.” And make no mistake; the issue of abortion would not (and will not) be settled through a simple binary choice, nor would a quick and easy answer be plucked from the foundations of our faith.

Thirty years later, the disagreements and divisions concerning abortion among people of faith and in our nation at large seem as deep as ever, and yet the Cumberland Presbyterian Church—arguably thanks to our decision back then to honor the integrity of an individual conscience engaged in conversation with the Holy Spirit—has remained largely intact, allowing for viewpoints that stand all along what is surely an almost infinite spectrum. Indeed, the General Assembly of 1991, with that Statement, took the only position that a community of faith such as ours, steeped in the “medium theology” we embrace, could take—that of respecting and honoring each member’s God-given ability to discern God’s call upon their conscience and their life.

This week, almost exactly 30 years later, the 190th General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church will come together again for its annual meeting. And this week, our Assembly will attempt to come to grips with yet another controversial issue that threatens to divide us. The Assembly will consider whether or not the Cumberland Presbyterian Church will include members of the LGBTQIA+ community in the full fellowship, participation, and ministry of the church as they discern and answer the Call that God has put upon them. Like the issue of abortion, the issue of inclusion has elicited passionate debate, with viewpoints occurring at points all along an almost infinite spectrum, each developed as a matter of sincere, God-given conscience. It is likely that regardless of one’s position, each of our siblings in Christ has arrived at the viewpoint they have through much prayer, study of scripture, interpretation, discernment, and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As a part of its deliberations, I pray that the 190th General Assembly will consider whether any among us is virtuous enough to question the position to which another has come after a journey like that? Who among us is blameless enough to question the Call of God on another to live authentically when that Call has emerged and been realized through the work of the Spirit?

As an adult, I have continued to listen to my conscience, and still think of it as the presence of God, reminding of me of my upbringing in God’s church. The difference between the conscience of my childhood and the conscience of my present life is decades of study, interpretation of scripture, prayer, discernment, and the guidance of the Spirit. I still don’t always get it right, but I find comfort in knowing that no one else does either. Instead of binding the conscience of our members as it relates to human sexuality and gender, the General Assembly, mindful of our mandate to share the Good News with whosoever will take it to heart, should invite individuals and the church as a whole to graciously and hospitably open a space for people to live authentically and without hindrance according to their conscience, and to love and embrace one another in the midst of differences. In this way, we honor the work of the Spirit in each individual’s unique relationship with Christ, and the answers they have found at this point on their journey.

Our disagreements and differences on inclusion, and indeed, on most other such controversial topics can be embraced as a blessing urging us toward deeper understanding of and fellowship with our siblings in Christ; or they can be fuel for fear, separating us from the Peace of God and allowing us to be driven apart as God weeps over the darkness and brokenness they will inevitably bring upon us.

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