Sunday, June 11, 2006

Trust and Consequences

The Presbyterian Church (USA)'s General Assembly begins later this week, and yours truly will be enjoying every minute of it, no doubt, in lovely Birmingham. My job will be to follow the ins and outs of the debate over the final report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. I will keep you posted about the PUP report.

The main proposal of the report is that Presbyterians, at all our many institutional levels and forms, need to outdo one another in honoring each other's decisions. To be sure, there are still checks and balances. But the main thrust of the report is that we should trust one another more to make just decisions for the church. If one presbytery says that someone is good to ordain as a minister, then the other presbyteries should try mightily to believe that they are right.

I fully support this proposal.

However, the church, like any other human institution, needs to enforce its own rules sometimes, or all that trust will erode. Nearly all the time, in nearly every case, presbyteries do make good decisions in who they ordain and how they judge their officers' subsequent actions. But in those rare cases when a potential officer, or even an already ordained one, openly defies the rules of the church in order to defy them, then the church has to try 'em and toss 'em.

The worst instance of this kind of defiance is the case of Jane Spahr, lesbian evangelist, who finally got someone to try her for conducting same-sex marriages. As she well knows, Presbyterian ministers may not perform same-sex marriages. She opposes that rule, and has been breaking it publicly in order to get a trial. But it is not Spahr's defiance that is the real problem. The real problem is that, by a 6 –1 vote, the judicial commission of Redwoods Presbytery ruled that Spahr did nothing wrong in openly violating clear church rules.

Redwoods Presbytery as a whole has responded to this breach of trust by its own judicial commission by appealing the decision to the synod, which in turn will no doubt be appealed to the General Assembly's judicial commission. The worry here is that the church's top court will evade the open defiance of church rules on a technicality. In this case, that would be very bad. The church is a voluntary institution. No one has to belong. If you deeply disagree with a church's confession and rules, go join another one. It is a very free country when it comes to religion.

The best way to build trust in the church nearly all the time is to have real consequences for the untrustworthy – no, the openly destructive – in those exceptional times.


Mark Smith said...

I've met Janie Spahr. It's been a while, but I have.

You're completely right.

On both sides of this issue, there are people standing up and saying "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it any more". That takes two forms:

1. The left side is being intentionally disruptive. These are the folks who try to interrupt communion at General Assembly meetings by acting up. They go out of their way to get people to take potshots at them, and then complain about the results.

2. The right side makes inflammatory statements about the left. The most benign of these are an appeal to biblical authority (somebody explain to me how you can quote Matthew as preventing same-sex marriages but ignoring the prohibition on divorce 2 verses later?), but the worst are insults and sometimes outright lies about what the other side is saying or doing (the "gay promiscuity" argument is an example).

BOTH sides make threats to leave. Some courageous people have obeyed the Presbyterian tradition against schism by going away reasonably quietly. For each of them, there's somebody else standing up and wailing "This church has lost its way - and I'm gonna take my ball and go home". That would be fine, but they don't ACTUALLY take their ball and go home - they remain on the playground crying to anybody who will listen.

What we need most is a cease-fire. Time for each side to stop the fight and perhaps - just perhaps - work together on some unrelated issue. People learn a lot by putting their differences aside and working together on a common goal. Perhaps that goal should be REDUCING the losses of membership.

I truly believe that a "big tent" church is the way to go. Two long-standing principles of the Presbyterian Church are that we are always reforming and that people of good faith may differ. I have trouble understanding why we can't just agree to co-exist for a while, treat each other with respect, and see how God works through us to build unity.

So, for me, "local option" is the right choice. Tolerance of people with different beliefs is necessary.

When you're having a discussion with someone and you manage to get them angry, there's no discussion anymore - just shouting. Once anger enters the equation nobody is going to change their mind.

Gruntled said...

Mark, I agree with you about 90%.
I do think, though, that a couple intentionally defiant rule-breakers need to be publicly disciplined. This will strengthen the center, and help convince everyone that the church has some real substance to it.

Aimee said...

Completely off topic but... In Birmingham, I must highly recommend eating at the Fish Market Restaurant downtown. Check it out at

Have fun in Bham!

Denis Hancock said...

I take it you are going to be "on the ground" in Birmingham?

I look forward to reading your daily reports. Or will that be 'hourly'?

Seriously, it will be good to hear from the independent center, as much of the "blow-by-blow" commentary historically has come from one fringe or the other.

Good luck!

Paul Jolly said...

This is such a tough issue to grapple with.

On one hand, all Reformation churches are built on the idea that if you don’t like the way things are going you leave and do your own thing (the old “if it was good enough for Martin Luther, it’s good enough for you” argument), but at the same time, even Martin Luther made his issues known to the religious authority of his day. If you don’t have people who are willing to stand up and say “this is wrong and we should do something about it,” then you never have change and your church stagnates. You can’t just make every mover and shaker leave, without them we’d have no King James Version.

The bottom line is, where is the line to be drawn? It is absolutely essential to have folks who question the status quo, but, on the other hand, open violation of the laws undercuts the basic faith in the message of the church.

Marsha said...

Hi Beau: Good to see that you will be reporting on GA. Missed you at our last meeting in May.
Graham was at the Synod meeting and we had an interesting chat and time of interaction. I will have to tell you his comments another time.
To the topic at hand: I have also met Jane Spahr many years ago at a PW Gathering.
She knows that performing same sex marriages are against the Book of Order but if the Presbytery has allowed her to do so, without any accountability, who's at fault here??
Blessings, Marsha

Gruntled said...

I think she is at fault, but the presbytery's fault is worse. One person defying the constitution is a case; a presbytery defying the constitution is a crisis.