Sunday, January 17, 2010

Beyond Rebuilding 1

My essay, Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment, was published by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as an occasional paper of the Re-Forming Ministry project, led by Barry Ensign-George. It generated some responses. Barry has gathered five of these responses into a new Re-Forming Ministry paper, Beyond Rebuilding? Shaping a Life Together. For the next six Sundays I will respond to these essays. (None of what I say is Barry's fault).

The first essay, "Another Possible Church for a New Day," is by José Luis Casal, General Missioner [Executive Presbyter], Tres Rios Presbytery. He does not take up my argument for a Presbyterian establishment directly. He makes a general case for a missional church, one that is responsive at the local level and not centralized power. In this we agree.

Casal says the basic question is simple: "are we to save a system (structure) or humankind?" I think this is a false distinction. The church, like any social structure, is a tool for getting a job done. I don't think saving humankind is the church's job (that is a little above our pay grade), but I agree with Casal, as he says elsewhere, that the church is meant to proclaim God's salvation of humankind. Christians can't do the job God set for us without the church. We have to "save the structure." The real question is how.

Casal supports the proposal that is now before the church for a simpler, more mission-oriented Book of Order. I support this, too. He believes this will mean "less book and more order." I do not think human organizations work that way. The church is not a spontaneous order like a flock of starlings, made by each individual following simple rules. It is an enormous project that derives much of its ability to serve the world from the fact that it is organized to do things decently and in order.

Casal believes that what has been crippling the PC(USA) is that too much power has accumulated in the center. I think the problem is that we have evacuated most of the authority that the center used to have. Instead we have tried to fill the vacuum with procedures of participation without any coherent vision of what we are trying to do. Articulating the vision and convincing the church that it is just and godly is what an establishment is for.

It has been my experience in these discussions that people who say that the church should get rid of its constraining centralized structures turn out in practice to mean "tear down all the structures, except mine." José Casal does want the church to keep its centralized ethnic advocacy groups. In fact, he wants to expand them, centralize their coordination, and create more paid staff to run them. And General Missioner Casal wants the church authorities to insist on the biblical mandate of tithing to solve the church staff's funding problems.

I do not think that Rev. Casal has described another possible church for a new day. I think he has described the church we have now, with more money and more advocacy structures. That is exactly the program of the vestigial establishment that we have now.


Aric Clark said...

Human beings are not starlings, you say, and I tentatively agree. But there are a lot of different ways that we have organized ourselves over the millennia. Some of the best and most successful were not at all decent or orderly, but spontaneous and decentralized.

Have you read The Starfish and the Spider? It is a fantastic look at "leaderless" organizations.

Gruntled said...

I have only read about it. Some institutions can be self-organizing. Some Christian sects can be, I think, too. My nominee would be Quakers. Magisterial churches, though, like the Presbyterian, are not that kind of organization. To make a rule off the top of my head, the more responsibility an institution has, the more it needs an establishment.

Aric Clark said...

I agree Quakers are more self-organizing than presbyterians. No question.

I'm curious what you mean by "responsibility" though. Certainly you don't mean "activity for which one can be blamed or credited". The Quakers have been extraordinarily socially active these past few centuries. They have been "responsible" for some of the best Christian work in society - anti-war, anti-slavery, anti-imprisonment etc...

Regardless of whether Presbyterians can or ought to be like Quakers, though, there are degrees. I think we could have a more decentralized and spontaneous mode of operation than we presently do. I think it is what people of my generation want. I think it is all they will tolerate actually.

Gruntled said...

I used to be a Quaker. I think speaking truth to power is an honorable calling. I became a Presbyterian, in part, because I felt the complementary calling - to be the power. Responsible organizations are stewards of the whole of society. They (we) are obliged to keep society going, even through necessary compromises with sin, pride, and self-interest.

Quakers are an irresponsible sect, which I say in the most respectful way. Being responsible for everything is not their job. But it is ours.

Aric Clark said...

Wow. If I am understanding you correctly I just don't agree at all. There is no Christian calling to be the power. Jesus Christ exemplifies the only power to which a Christian can attain - that of vulnerability, other-centeredness, self-sacrifice. There is no obligation to keep society going, precisely because it requires compromises with sin, pride and self-interest. Indeed, our proclamation is the same as that of Christ - the Kingdom of God is at hand, meaning the world as it currently stands is perishing. Preserving a corrupt society is a lost cause. Our work is to live into the kingdom.