Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Blogger's Delight: Meeting Other Bloggers

An unexpected benefit of the General Assembly for me was meeting other Presbyterian bloggers whose work I had been reading.

Along the edge of each meeting room sprang up an informal "laptop row" as we congregated around the electrical outlets. The Office of the General Assembly had thoughtfully placed a set of power strips among the end seats. This made for a mutually helpful community among the compulsive typists – as well as some strange ideological bedfellows.

There was not an internet connection in the convention center, though there was an intranet to LES, the Assembly's business tracking system. This was a good idea, as there would no doubt have been a great deal of distracting emailing going back and forth across committee rooms and even the assembly hall itself otherwise. There was wifi across the street at the Sheraton, though, so at every break a troop of laptoppers would head over to the hotel lobby.

At once such email-checking break I was sitting in lobby when one of the advocacy group leaders came by with another fellow in tow. I started bantering with the group leader, who mentioned to the stranger that I was blogging the Assembly. The following dialogue ensued, beginning with the other guy.

"I am blogging the Assembly, too."
"Oh great – who are you?"
"Eagle and Child, glad to meet you." [Hand extended.]
"Gruntled Center." [Handshake returned with a smile.]
"You're Gruntled Center? I have been following your stuff!"

We then settled in to talk for an hour, which led to pulling out laptops and emailing stuff to one another as we talked.

I met several other bloggers in the course of the Assembly – in the hotel lobby, sitting in front of me in church, even sitting next to me in Assembly meetings writing the next day's blog. We did not all agree, certainly, but we did form a noticeable community – one that had some impact on the course of the Assembly and, I hope, future church discussions.

Eagle and Child, by the way, is a fine blog, part of the Presbyterian Bloggers Ring listed at the bottom of my blogroll. I commend that site, and ring, to all.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Schism is Wrong

The normal state of the church is a competition of the left and right for the loyalist center. Sometimes that competition breaks down, and one side or the other talks about splitting the church. When the Presbyterian Church recovered from one of these schisms, the Old Side/New Side split of the early 18th century, it wisely adopted the standard for dissent that we have to this day. The standard of 1758 reads:
That when any matter is determined by a major vote, every member shall either actively concur with, or passively submit to, such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. Provided always, that this shall be understood to extend only to such determinations as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine and Presbyterian government.

In the months ahead, there will be calls for schism, some in anger, some under the name of "gracious separation." Our polity does not allow for either, and our officers have vowed to uphold the standard of modest remonstration and, if necessary, peaceable withdrawal.

I do firmly believe that the church can return to civil competition under the PUP standard, which is our good old Adopting Act standard. But if some of our brothers and sisters, of the left and the right, feel it necessary to leave, let them do so in the decent and orderly way that our church has wisely upheld for a quarter millennium.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Loyalists, Step Up: Volunteer for Examination Committees

Now that the Peace, Unity, and Purity report has passed, the burden shifts to sessions and presbyteries to really examine – and re-examine – officers of the church. Too often we let these examinations become perfunctory. We get to know someone as a decent person and an active member of the congregation, and let that substitute for a serious judgment of whether they are really suited to be a Ruling Elder of the church. When it comes to potential ministers in our presbytery, we are more likely to rely on their seminary credential to assure us that a candidate would be a sound minister.

Now that the application of national standards has been returned to the local ordaining and examining bodies, those of us who live and pray in those local congregations and presbyteries must do our part to make those national standards real. PUP can help promote the peace and unity of the church at the national level. But this will only work if we have the will to promote purity at the local level.

Seriously examining someone else's vocation face to face is a very hard thing to do. It is much easier for the perennial critics in the church to attack other people from a distance. Loyalists, though, are loyal to their actual local church.

Therefore, loyalists need to take up the burden of judgment and discrimination, in the highest sense of those terms, in order for there to be purity, unity, and, in the long run, peace in the church.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

PUP Passes – Let the Local Application Begin

The Report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church was debated by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) last night. After a serious, civil debate, the report passed, 57% to 43%.

The debate was all about conservative attempts to prevent the Authoritative Interpretation from taking effect. There were no liberal efforts to stop the two-year moratorium on amending the constitution. Indeed, an overture to delete the chastity and fidelity provision of the constitution was rejected later in the evening by 81% of the Assembly.

By my reading, the PUP report marks a return to the great centrist principle of the Adopting Act of 1729. This is the standard the church has returned to again and again after major conflicts. The Adopting Act requires all officers to subscribe to the church's standards, explaining any "scruples" they might have about particular parts of the constitution. If the ordaining body judges that those scruples do not touch essential matters, then the officer is ok. This judgment by the locals is subject to review by the higher bodies. But everyone is better off if, in the words of the PUP report, all parts of the church "outdo one another in honoring" the judgments of the other parts of the church. The Authoritative Interpretation says that the church does not have to change its constitution to adopt this standard of judgment, because it has been there in the constitution all along.

The PUP report says that it will promote "local application" of national standards. Opponents say that the AI will lead to "local option" or, in more heated moments, "local license," in which the locals will simply make up their own standards.

I believe that the PUP report is a centrist measure. Restoring the Adopting Act rule will take a little doing – we don’t have one confession any more, and we don't have the same track record about how scrupling applies to the rules of order as it does to the confession of faith. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the effect of the PUP report will be to promote the peace of the church.

To do that, though, we need to have the locals apply the national standards justly. Nearly all presbyteries and sessions will be just and honorable. A few, though, have already demonstrated their determination to simply defy the constitution and the rest of the church. Most of this open defiance has been on the left, especially about gay ordination. A few conservative congregations, though, have long resisted ordaining women, in defiance of the very clear standards of the church. And one or two conservative presbyteries have come close to threatening defiance if the PUP report were adopted.

To make local application work, the national church will have to clearly discipline defiance on the right and the left. It will only take a few judicial cases, or a few public rebukes, and maybe a few firings. The church as a whole can only trust that the standards are really standards if they are enforced in egregious cases. They have the rules – all the church leaders need is the will.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Misstep on the Minority Report

The opponents of the PUP report have made a mistake, I think, in the minority report from the Ecclesiology Committee. In the committee, there was a long debate over deleting recommendation 5, the Authoritative Interpretation.

That failed, 23-37.

They then tried to have 5 and 6 (the moratorium on changing the existing constitution) sent to the presbyteries for comment before final action by the General Assembly.

That failed 26-38.

The conclusion I would draw from this vote, and the debate that preceded it, was that there was more support for getting systematic input from the presbyteries on the two core ideas of the Peace, Unity, and Purity report than there is for killing the Authoritative Interpretation outright.

Instead, the report's opponents went for the whole victory the first time. The minority report reads, in its entirety:

In place of Item 06-01, Recommendations 5, 6, and 7, we move the following recommendations:

1. That Item 06-01, Recommendation 5, be disapproved.

2. That Item 06-01, Recommendations 6 and 7 be approved.

The minority report was filed by 17 commissioners and youth advisory delegates.

I have no doubt that the minority report will fail in this morning's debate. The minority may then try to send 5 and 6 to the presbyteries for comment. If this is proposed after they tried to kill 5 altogether, I think the Assembly is less likely to consider the proposal on its merits, and more likely to see it merely a delaying tactic.

I believe PUP will pass this morning.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Center is Holding

On the first day of committee work at the Presbyterian General Assembly, they rejected an attempt to make the definition of marriage more restrictive or to oppose government recognition of gay unions. That set a limit on the right side.

On the second day of committee work, they rejected an attempt to undo the rule that officers of the church must be chaste in singleness or faithful in marriage (of one man and one woman, in case anyone were confused). That set a limit on the left side.

Last night the Ecclesiology Committee finally approved the Peace, Unity, and Purity report, 41 to 22. They had made a couple of minor changes, but basically passed it as the Task Force wrote it. The one real addition that the committee made to the report strengthens its centrist character. Listening to the hours of debate, what struck me as the weakest point of the report was the language about judicial review. The relevant section of recommendation 5 reads:

Ordaining and installing bodies, acting as corporate expressions of the church, have the responsibility to determine their membership by applying these standards to those elected to office. These determinations include:

d. Whether the ordaining/installing body has conducted its examination reasonably, responsibly, prayerfully, and deliberately in deciding to ordain a candidate for church office is subject to review by higher governing bodies.

This last point has disturbed some people, who read section d as limiting judicial review of local decisions to the process that the locals used, but not the substance of the decision. If, for example, a presbytery ordained an atheist, the General Assembly's Permanent Judicial Commission (the "supreme court") could only look at whether the presbytery used proper process, but not stop the ordination because the candidate was an atheist.

The Task Force, and the representative of the church's Advisory Committee on the Constitution, were repeatedly questioned on this point. In their reading, "reasonably" and "responsibly" covers the substance, as well as the process, of an examination. The ACC representative said that this language was taken from judicial decisions of the church courts, which have already interpreted this standard to include substantive judicial review.

Nonetheless, the plain words do invite misunderstanding, at least. So the Ecclesiology Committee amended section d. It now reads:

d. Whether the examination complies with the Constitution of the PCUSA, and whether the ordaining/installing body has conducted its examination reasonably, responsibly, prayerfully, and deliberately in deciding to ordain a candidate for church office is subject to review by higher governing bodies.

Three committee actions, all strengthening the loyalist understanding of how the church should work.

Let the plenary begin.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

You Heard it Here: PUP Will Pass

At 5:10 p.m. yesterday, Birmingham time, the Ecclesiology Committee of the Presbyterian General Assembly took its first vote on the most disputed section of the Peace, Unity, and Purity report, and the report survived.

The most contested recommendation of the PUP report is #5, the Authoritative Interpretation of the Constitution. The AI proposes to revive the church's custom, dating from the Adopting Act of 1729, of trusting the local governing bodies to make sure that church officers stay within the essential tenets and practices of the Reformed faith. The higher governing bodies can still review the decisions of the lower ones. Unless the locals screw up royally or utterly defy the constitution, the higher bodies will defer to the locals. The locals, after all, know the candidate best, and have to live with him or her.

Conservatives have opposed 5 from the outset. They think it would mean that national standards will not be binding, but will only be suggestions. They disagree with the Task Force that the AI would allow judicial review on the substance, as well as the process, of decisions made by lower governing bodies. Several overtures to the Assembly called for deleting 5, and the overture advocates spoke to the committee in support of this position.

When the committee got to the consideration of recommendation 5 on Saturday afternoon, a member proposed deleting the AI altogether. And the competition was on. The committee spoke, civilly, for hours. Nearly every member of the group spoke, some of them several times. Finally, the vote came.

The motion to delete 5 failed, 23 –37.

The committee continued to debate into the night. A substitute motion, which would have gutted 5, was also proposed, and the long process of considering it, instead of the main motion to pass the rest of the Task Force report, dragged on into the night. Votes on various amendments showed the same split, with roughly a third opposed to the core of the report, and the other two thirds ready to pass it.

At 10:25 p.m. approval of the whole PUP report, with only a few changes, was in sight. However, the last busses back to the hotels were about to leave, and they were exhausted. They recessed, to resume this afternoon.

I believe the writing is on the wall. The Ecclesiology Committee will pass the PUP report by a vote of about 2 – 1. It appears that the conservatives will file a minority report. Both reports will go to the whole Assembly tomorrow. Nothing is certain, of course, but if the whole Assembly is like the committee, I think they will also pass the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force report by at least a 2 – 1 margin.