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.