At least two elements of our PC(USA) denominational DNA shape what we mean when we say "the unity of the church."
One element (one gene, to follow the metaphor) of our denominational DNA is directed especially outward, to our place amongst an array of denominations in the church, each built around distinct and differing ways of living the Christian faith. This element of our denominational DNA is embodied especially in our Full Communion Agreement with the Reformed Church in America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the United Church of Christ.
In our full communion agreement we acknowledge that the partner denominations adhere to and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, that they live that proclamation in valid sacraments and patterns of ministry. They are in the church, the Body of Christ. But at the same time, we acknowledge that we have differing understandings of that common gospel. We have different ways of living that common gospel. Indeed, our differences, lived out in our different denominations, are necessary, to provide multiple and different witnesses to the gospel. Each witness is incomplete without the others. Our differences are not contradictions. There is an open generosity in our full communion agreement, acknowledging that we are but one way of living the Christian life, and that there is room within the church for different understandings to find their way in denominations that are distinct from the PC(USA).
Let us note: this gene in our denomination DNA represents our insistence that it is legitimate for us to exist as a separate denomination in the church, separate from the vast majority of Christians. We make our own judgment about what justifies our existence as a denomination separate from all others. We also extend legitimacy to those with whom we disagree (at least, to some of them).
A second element of our denominational DNA that shapes our understanding of unity is directed more inward, to the kind of unity we expect the PC(USA) to have internally. It insists on a high level of commonality. This element of our denominational DNA is embodied especially in the way we settled the question of the ordination of women to all ordained offices of the church, a settlement reached in key Permanent Judicial Commission cases in the 1970s. Given our strong affirmation of the ordination of women, it’s interesting to reflect on how we worked this out in our denomination, and what that tells us about what we think it means to be a denomination in the church.
Perhaps the most famous of these cases is the “Kenyon” case, named for Walter Wynn Kenyon. Kenyon was a Candidate for ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in Pittsburgh Presbytery. He objected to the ordination of women as a matter of conscience. He would not stand in the way of ordaining a woman to ordained office, but because of his scruple on this point he would ask another minister to preside at the ordination. The presbytery voted in favor of ordination. This decision was appealed, and our Permanent Judicial Commission (Synod and GA) overturned the vote to ordain. In the matter of the ordination of women, we decided, there is no room within our denomination for differing ways or views. We decided against allowing room for significant difference of opinion. We insisted that in this matter there will be like-mindedness internal to our denomination.
This is not necessarily a surprise. As a denomination we have to have agreement about some things. We’ll never have like-mindedness about everything, of course. But there has to be agreement about some things, enough things to hold us together as a coherent denomination in the breadth of the church. There has to be enough gravitational pull from some gravitational center to hold us all together, to keep us from just drifting off from one another (I touched on this in “Why Be A PC(USA) Presbyterian?” and “The Unity of this Denomination”).
Faced with conflict in the present moment, one of the questions before us as a denomination is who we will be as we carry forward from our past. Will we follow the vision of unity that recognizes the need for and legitimacy of a variety of ways of and institutional structures for living our common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Will we instead decide to add to the list of things about which we must have agreement?
Or, will we fashion another way? Denominational DNA need not determine our present or future. Perhaps we will develop additional ways of being a denomination, combining some things that hold us together and allowing room for high levels of disagreement, and even forthright contradiction among us. (The Middle Governing Bodies Commission and the GA Committee to Study the Nature of the Church for the 21st Century are energetically exploring possibilities.)