Saturday, June 17, 2006

Every Presbytery is Purple

On any given vote, each presbytery comes out red or blue. Within each presbytery, though, all shades of opinion are represented. Every presbytery, in each part of the country, has a dissenting minority. The whole presbytery is well served by being civil in their disagreements. Civility is a virtue in itself. And in the good American tradition of understanding that our self-interest is best served by helping society, smart competitors realize that today's victorious majority can become tomorrow's dissenting minority.

The Ecclesiology committee considered the PUP report all day Friday. The most hopeful word came from people in divided presbyteries who reported that their arguments became more civil and less hurtful after they adopted some of the discernment, consensus, and simple listening methods that Task Force members had brought to them.

San Francisco is one the most liberal presbyteries, especially on the homosexual ordination issue, yet that body has a strong conservative minority which threatens to bolt. Cincinnati Presbytery, on the other hand, had a well-known case in the church of a dissident liberal congregation that had to be disciplined by the presbytery for defying the constitution. Both were places where feelings were running high. In both cases, people who were strong partisans on the contested issues nonetheless came to thank the Task Force for helping them stay together and argue more civilly.

There do, of course, need to be serious limits to dissent and opposition on both sides. But a broad middle that is committed to staying together in order to perpetually compete is the only viable future for the denomination.

The whole church is purple, and is going to stay that way.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Who Won the Moderator's Race? Centrism

Last night the General Assembly elected a new Moderator for the Presbyterian Church (USA). This is usually an exciting and well-attended event. The Birmingham convention center was packed through the hours of speeches and Q & A. The event did not disappoint, either – the candidates were evenly matched, and the election really did turn on the answers the candidates gave to questions from ordinary voters. This was a fine moment for democracy.

Moderator candidates are nominated by their presbyteries months before the GA. These days they have low-key campaigns, too – standing in front of booths, naming vice-moderator running mates, handing out sticker, tee-shirts, and, in the case of one candidate this year, cookies. The pattern in recent years has been to have three candidates, one clearly liberal, one clearly conservative, and the third aiming for the middle.

This year, there were four candidates. On paper, one might read Deborah Block as the liberal – a pastor from Milwaukee Presbytery, a board member of the liberal umbrella group the Covenant Network. Likewise, Tim Halverson looked like the main conservative – pastor of a Florida megachurch, father of seven kids. Joan Gray, an Atlanta interim minister and the author of a well-known polity book, would therefore be left with the center. The wild card was Kerry Carson. He is the pastor of a little church in Iowa.

Yet all of them ran as centrists. Block's pitch was as a sensitive bridge builder. Carson, as a pastoral uniter. Gray? A healing leader. Tim Halverson, in his published platform, said "in a left-right world, we have forgotten the center." In his speech he even said that if elected he would "lead from the center" – very gratifying to this author.

Each candidate was given a nominating speech, then had five minutes to make a pitch to the commissioners. Then followed an hour of questions from the commissioners and advisory delegates. These ran mostly in familiar channels. My summary notes of the questions mostly needed only a word or two to identify which particular chestnut we were dealing with -- Youth? Multiculti? Jesus the way? Gay ordination? Church's greatest challenge? Reconciliation after GA? Favorite Scripture for hope? Global South evangelizing us? PUP recommendation 5? Church in 5 years?

The decisive question, in my view, was bluntly put by a youth delegate: do you favor the ordination of practicing homosexuals? Block said yes, Carson said no. Halverson said no, but said he dreamed of a day when the church would judge officers by the content of their characters, not their sexual orientation. Joan Gray gave one of the few unexpected answers of the night: she respects gays and lesbians who want to serve, but that she had "not been able to get my mind around the idea that homosexuality is God's intention." The Moderator, she went on, is an officer of church, and stands on the constitution. As Moderator, she would fully support the constitution, and would only consider changing her position if the Holy Spirit moved the church as a whole to change the constitution.

In my opinion, Joan Gray ultimately won election with that answer.

The voting itself was fascinating. Here are the percentages won by each candidate on the first, second, and third ballots:


The center of the church has spoken. Centrism won.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The National Church Sets Standards; the Local Governing Body Applies Them to Individuals

The national Presbyterian Church sets standards for the whole denomination. It is local presbyteries, though, which examine and ordain ministers, and even more local sessions (congregational governors) which examine and ordain elders. The locals apply the national standards to individuals. But every individual is a mixture of virtues and vices. No one meets all the national standards perfectly, so every ordination involves judgment about whether a particular person's quirks, even defects, touch any essential tenet of the Reformed faith.

The national standards are not themselves essential tenets. Depending on the locals to rightly sort out how closely the church's officers fit within the essential tenets – without specifying for all times and places what those tenets are – is part of the genius of the American Presbyterian system.

Some people want the national church to define the essential tenets. The church could do this, but it is a long and complicated process. Thus far, in its three centuries in America, the Presbyterian Church has not thought that defining essential tenets was a good idea. It is clear that no one part of the church could define these national standards by itself.

Faced with these obstacles to defining national essential tenets, some people want to do the same thing at the local level. They want presbyteries to draw up lists of essential tenets that they, at least, will use in examining candidates for office.

And this brings us to the interesting point that the first day of discussion of the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force report brought out: the locals cannot define local standards of what are the essential tenets. Only the national church can set categorical standards that apply to everyone. The local church must examine each case on its own merit, in relation to those national standards.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

"No Torture" is Good Stewardship

I have often written about stewardship of society as one of the central virtues of Presbyterians. A fine example of this is the new ad, being placed in papers all over the country, against torture. The ad has been signed by a wide range of religious leaders, from Jimmy Carter on down. The text was drafted by George Hunsinger, a Presbyterian and a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. The ad reads, in part:

Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved - policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation's most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.
Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now - without exceptions.

Good going, George and the other signers. Good stewardship.

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.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Big Picture of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

For most of the next two weeks I will be an observer at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). My particular task will be to follow the ups and downs of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. I have written about this report on a number of Sundays so far. For the next two weeks, the PC (USA) will fill the weekdays of this blog, as well.

Today I want outline what I think are three fundamental starting points in considering the Big Picture of the mainline Presbyterian Church.

1) The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) must be a biblical church.
We should read the Bible richly and with some sophistication, but we should never let that sophistication lead us to reject the Bible because it is culturally inconvenient. Some churches rest more on the church's tradition of reasoning about the faith, while other churches depend more on the continuing witness of the Holy Spirit. I think that the whole ecology of the capital-C Church depends on having all of them, in spirited competition with one another. But the Presbyterian Church must aim to act biblically in order to be true to our essence.

2) The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) must be a responsible steward of society.
Responsibility is built into our DNA. We do not have the option of sectarian withdrawal from society. We do not even have the option of being just decent ordinary folks, while someone else takes care of social order. The Presbyterian Church, and even more so individual Presbyterians, can't stand aside from the major cultural issues of society. We have to avoid pride as a deadly sin, and avoid hubris as a ridiculous foible. But the Presbyterian Church must aim to act responsibly in order to be true to our essence.

3) The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) must be a respectful competitor in a free society.
While we are trying to be responsible biblical stewards of society we know that other churches and other citizens who are not churched at all have an equal right and responsibility to try to shape society. We are competing to convince other free citizens, not to coerce even if we could. The Presbyterian Church must be especially careful in its relation to the civil government, to avoid improperly using or being used by government power. But the Presbyterian Church must aim to act competitively in order to be true to our essence.

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.