Sunday, October 19, 2008

End Race and Sex Quotas in the Church

In my essay Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment, I call for ending the Committees on Representation that are mandatory at all levels of church government in the Presbyterian Church (USA). This point is secondary to my main point, which is that the whole church would be better off if we had an establishment of authoritative leaders to draw on. We used to, but we do not now in part because we deliberately dismantled the structures that create and recreate an establishment since the Sixties.

Still, one of the reasons that the "old boys' network" was dismantled was to create more opportunities for people who were not old white men to be in positions of leadership. Committees on Representation were mandated to monitor compliance with the cultural mandate, and shame the recalcitrant.

There may have been a moment when it was necessary to mandate the inclusion of women in leadership positions in the church, and to mandate the inclusion of racial-ethnic minorities and disabled people on the monitoring committees. I believe that, as that generation retires and is replaced by my naturally inclusive generations, that moment when the church required demographic quotas has passed. They are becoming counter-productive because they foster the idea that sex and ethnicity are primary identities within the church, rather than all being one in Christ.

Yesterday I met with the General Assembly Committee on Representation, the highest such body in the denomination. They were gracious, and we had a civil conversation. I thank them for the invitation. You will not be surprised to learn that the committed members of the Committee on Representation were not convinced that their body was no longer necessary. Fair enough. Several members of the committee also argued that overcoming white male privilege requires people who are not white males to always be in the conversation. I think the church does benefit when people who are not white males are in conversation. But that is a means to a higher end, not an end in itself.

We are faced now with the prudential judgment of whether we still need formal structures to push for demographic representation, or whether the Presbyterian Church is now normally against sex and race exclusion. I believe we have reached the time for change.


Walter L. Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Walter L. Taylor said...

The present denominational policy reflects a viewpoint that holds race and sex (and soon probably "sexual orientation") in higher esteem than baptism and understanding of the Reformed faith, when it comes to selecting denominational leaders.

johngulden said...

As a member of the GACOR, the committee that Dr. Weston met with this past weekend, I can say that we appreciated his willingness to visit with us in the hopes that we can all better understand the ways in which the world is changing, the ways in which the denomination is (re)considering leadership, and the ways in which we are attempting to grow in our faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

I have the privilege (pun intended) to serve on such a committee as a quota-filler for all dominant and privileged groups of people in my particular synod (young, white, male clergy from the Synod of Living Waters). From that vantage point I would like to exercise caution in creating a "straw man" argument that says our struggles in maintaining this institution of ours is solely the effect of the movement away from an authority-based to a representational-based leadership structure.

While we didn't have a chance to discuss other cultural and societal reasons for our struggles, I think the volumes of most public, research and seminary libraries would indicate that there are many. One we did discuss at length during our time with Dr. Weston was evangelism. He emphasized the importance of Christ-centered activities in helping our denomination to maintain itself. I would gladly jump on that bandwagon and make it a priority of all churches to learn and practice evangelism, and other activities that are of central importance to our faith. I would do so long before assuming that a heightened consciousness of diversity and representation qualifies us, in our total depravity, to practice it well or faithfully without structures of accountability.

I also would love to know, as I asked Dr. Weston the other day and still ask, of some persons of color and women (other than his spouse) who have agreed with the premise of “Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment”. Until then, I think it is premature for so many who come from a place of privilege (myself included) to suggest that our consciousness is pure and free from prejudice.

Sorry for such a short comment…

Gruntled said...

John, I will be discussing the essay face-to-face with larger groups over the next 9 months -- then I will have a better idea of who favors and opposes. I have discussed the idea with a number of women who were initially hostile, then warmed to the idea as they thought more about what most women in leadership who they knew really wanted. But the N is too small to generalize from yet.

Quotidian Grace said...

Beau, as a woman who has struggled with filling the "quotas" on a presbytery level, let me say that I couldn't agree with your analysis more. Great post.

S said...

I am a woman and I will probably never be comfortable with people being chosen for positions because of their gender, race or perceived disability. I think it is patronizing.

SingingSkies said...

I have recently rotated off the GACOR. I, too, come at this from a position of white privilege; although, I also have a position which puts me in a bit of a minority - clergywoman.

There is still much work to be done before Committees on Representation become “irrelevant”. I also am a member of New Covenant presbytery, and will admit that I dropped the ball on some of the representational work which needs to be done here. This is being rectified. For example, there are committees in our presbytery structure that are made up of moderators of other committees in the presbytery. As we’ve begun to work with the nominating committee, one of the things we’ve noticed is that these “over-committees” can all too easily become mainly white males. It can be difficult for even conscientious nominating committees to be completely aware of how certain choices affect other aspects of the leadership of the presbytery.

One of the unique features of Committees on Representation is that they are required to be composed such that the majority of its members are members of racial/ethnic minority groups. For those of us who have lived our entire lives from a position of privilege due to race (whether we have been aware of such privilege or not), this compositional flip-flop allows us to experience, at least somewhat, what it means to be in the minority. I believe this to be healthy for both the individuals involved and the PCUSA as a whole.

I wonder what the PCUSA would be like if, for one four-year term, the GA Nominating Committee were required to fill all positions so that every General Assembly-level committee had a majority of members who are members of racial/ethnic minorities, were under the age of 45, and had at least one-third of its members who had a condition which meets the criteria of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That would not preclude having members on each committee who could express the heritage and history of that committee‘s work, but might allow the work of the PCUSA to move forward in new, unexpected, and Spirit-driven ways.