Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Trust the Locals, But Verify

The Presbyterian Church is a middle polity. The main seat of authority is not the local congregation, nor the top of the hierarchy. The presbytery is the main decision making body. It is made up of clergy and elder representatives of the congregations. The presbyteries send clergy and elder representatives to the higher bodies, including to the national General Assembly. The Presbyterian Church is organized like the federal system of the United States (though I think the influence runs more the other way).

Ministers are examined, ordained, and belong to a presbytery. The rest of the church trusts the presbyteries to examine and choose well. BUT, the higher bodies can review the decisions of the presbytery, including ordination decisions.

How much to trust the locals is the core issue in the debate over the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force report at the General Assembly. The shorthand is that the debate is over "local option." This is not quite right. Here is a way to think about the alternatives before the church:

1) Local option: local governing bodies are allowed to set their own standards
2) Local application: local governing bodies apply the national standards
3) Local license: local governing bodies may overlook violations of the standards

I believe that what the broad middle of the church wants is the second option, local application. Local application is what the Task Force calls for. The Task Force does call on the church to trust the locals. Indeed, they call on all units of the church to outdo one another in trusting one another. Still, the Task Force, and common sense, clearly tell us that the central church sometimes just has to review that decisions of the locals and, if necessary, reign them in.

Local application of national standards is the traditional Presbyterian way to have peace and unity in a varied national church. And in those rare cases when the locals go off the rails, the national church, reluctantly but firmly, acts to bring them back into line.


Denis Hancock said...

I appreciate your analysis of the "option" issue.

In a sense, we already have "local application" written into our constitution in so far as Synod and General Assembly do not ordain -- the Presbyteries and Sessions do -- thus they apply the churchwide standards.

But we also have de facto, "local license", as a certain church in Austin TX has reminded us.

Gruntled said...

We have local license until and unless the higher bodies show the will to actually discipline a church (or presbytery, in the case of Redwoods). Then we restore local application.

Mark Smith said...

To complete your post:

The folks on the "left" in the gay ordination debate really want Local License. Well, actually the truth is that they want Local License unless they can get non-discrimination against gay ordination written into the constitution, then they want "National Application"

The folks on the "right" want "National Application", in which a discrete list of very specific requirements are used and each candidate must meet ALL requirements. With full appeal to higher level bodies at the individual candidate level if someone outside of the process feels that a standard wasn't applied.

I still say that "Local Option" is the closest to what the US Presbyterian system has traditionally had. It's inevitable that standards will at least be modified in strength or ignored locally as long as there isn't a set list and a "check-off" style examination by the ordaining body.

Gruntled said...

I think there is a difference between having scruples about some aspects of the church's confessions, and open defiance of its constitution. Local option would allow the latter; local application would not.

Tyler Ward said...

"Local application of national standards is the traditional Presbyterian way to have peace and unity in a varied national church." What happended to the purity part? In our ordination vows it reads peace, unity, and purity.

My other thought was that "outdoing each other in trusting one another" isn't very Calvinist. I'm not saying that we should be suspicious of every ordination, but there are some presbyteries, and arguably synods, who would throw the standards out the window. Sure there is EVENTUAL oversight, but in the mean time these loose canons are wreaking havoc.

Also, I belive you fail to mention what happends with the ordination of elders! Their ordinations are as important as Ministers of Word and Sacrament. Yet, would a presbytery have enough time to adequately provide oversight? I mean, some COMs are so out of it that they won't even intervene when chairs are thrown at a session meeting.

I think what you propose would be nice in theory, but just isn't pragmatic if we want any semblance of a national church which holds the same core beliefs!

Gruntled said...

Fair enough. I was not talking about elders to simplify the argument.

I think the basis of common belief is a true confession, which is almost impossible to achieve under the Book of Confessions. A true confession, and trying to earn the trust of others, is also the most likely route to purity.

Mark Smith said...

It seems to me that when people (not just you, Tyler) make statements like:
"there are some presbyteries, and arguably synods, who would throw the standards out the window"
... then the concept of trust has already gone out the window.

As soon as someone starts claiming that they have the "one truth" about God's wants for us, we've thrown the intentional collegial nature of our polity away. We become a rule-book church, with hard and fast rules generated by the majority (or possibly a very small minority in positions of power).

We have to have room for variation in order to allow reform to happen. If a new idea is so far off base, we have to let the system take care of it.

Stuart Gordon said...

This conversation reminds me of a Protestant review of a Roman Catholic book about the scripture principle. Speaking of the R.C. critique, the reviewer says, "the supposition that sola Scriptura is unworkable because different denominations do not agree on all doctrinal matters is overstated. Doctrinal unity (or certainty) in every detail is not the purpose of Scripture. The demand for certainty in doctrine suggests the real purpose of this book is to defend the infallibility of tradition and the Magisterium."

I suppose that our situation here is an interesting example of that reality. As a church, we have lost interpretive and doctrinal unity on the matter of human sexuality. Lacking consensus on biblical interpretation, we have reached for "Magisterial" power to impose doctrinal unity. As shouldn't be suprising in a Protestant body, such unity eludes us.

Are our resources rich enough to sustain us, despite this biblical and doctrinal divide?