Romanist Priest Participates in Ecumenical Community Thanksgiving Service
On November 26, 1998, Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church co-sponsored an ecumenical community Thanksgiving service. The other sponsoring churches were Church of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, which hosted the event; Our Lady of the Mount Catholic Church; and Lookout Mountain United Methodist Church.
The preacher for this joint worship was the Rev. Mary Parson, a United Methodist clergywoman. Other clergy participants were: the Rev. Joseph Novenson and the Rev. Frank Hitchings of the Presbyterian Church in America; the Rev. Frank Richardson of the Roman Catholic Church; and the Rev. C. Perry Scruggs, Jr., and the Rev. John D. Talbird, Jr., of the Episcopal Church.
Lookout Mountain Presbyterian entered the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 1982. It is one of the most prestigious and influential congregations in the PCA. Many students at Covenant College attend the church, and many of the college's faculty and staff, including President Frank Brock, are members and officers there. Two of its elders have served as Moderator of the General Assembly-G. Richard Hostetter in 1993 and Dr. Brock in 1995. Among those associated with the church who serve on General Assembly committees and agencies are: Dr. Robert Ashlock (Interchurch Relations); Pastor Novenson (Board of Covenant Theological Seminary); and Mr. Hostetter (Board of Covenant College).
Joe Novenson: A Matter of Conscience and Community
Joseph Novenson is widely known throughout the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) for his compassion, his wisdom, and his insightfulness. His participation in a joint worship service with clergy from liberal denominations and with a Roman Catholic Church priest-a service of worship in which a woman minister preached-may raise eyebrows among fellow ministers and members of the PCA.
For Joe, the issue was one of trying to maintain his and his denomination's conscientious stance against women's ordination, while at the same time trying to maintain cordial relations in the community. This year, the perennial event of long-standing proved to be rather problematic, in that Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church was scheduled to host the service at which the clergywoman would be bringing the message. Acting out of conscience, the PCA minister determined to participate in the joint service, but not to host it at his church.
In making this decision, he had to explain to the United Methodist clergywoman his own beliefs. He said that "she was most gracious"; and also indicated to him that maintaining her commitment to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture in circles where such commitment is not respected was one of the most difficult things that she does. Pastor Novenson realized that his stance might mean that the other Lookout Mountain clergy may not want him to participate at all in the joint service; but that his colleagues in the community expressed no such sentiment of wanting to exclude him because of his conscientious views.
Joe Novenson acknowledges the awkward position that this may put him in. "Is that risky? Yes. Does that sober me? Yes." But, he wants to go as far as he can in fellowship with people with whom he disagrees. "Having voiced my conscience," he said, "I wanted to participate and continue to build bridges. . . . -to build every bridge I can in every position I can."
In his eyes, "If my Savior could teach inside of the synagogue that had wandered so far," then he, too, could bear witness to the truth: "Gently, but I trust clearly." He wants to "draw the line of conscience while still building community." He added that "isolation is not always the way to maintain conscience."
Last year, the ecumenical service was held at the Roman Catholic Church, and the Presbyterian minister was invited to preach. He accepted the invitation, speaking from James 1-that thanksgiving is because of God's sovereignty and electing grace. "I will lift up the cross wherever I can," declared the preacher.
The choices he has made are not universally popular within his own congregation. Some in his flock choose, for reasons of conscience, not to participate in the joint service. Pastor Novenson respects such a decision; indeed, the service is not held on the Lord's Day so as to avoid a perception that people are expected to come. On the other hand, the decision not to have a woman give a sermon in the Presbyterian pulpit was opposed by others of his flock.
He believes that "it would be easier" to choose one of two extremes: complete isolation or complete assimilation. "Both of these require less courage and less wisdom." Joe Novenson has chosen what he regards as a third way-not of compromise, but of constructive dialogue, as he maintains his conscience and builds community.