Saturday, June 28, 2008

My Advice to Conservative Presbyterians: Stay and Compete

All this week I will be blogging on the Presbyterian General Assembly.

The General Assembly approved three out of four liberal measures on sex. They voted to amend the constitution to drop the "chastity and fidelity" requirement of church officers. They voted to replace the previous "authoritative interpretations" of the constitution that prohibited acknowledged, active homosexuals from being officers of the church. They voted to retranslate one of the confessions so that it no longer condemns "the homosexual perversion." Late last night they stopped short of redefining marriage away from "one man and one woman."

The coalition of conservative groups sent out a very disheartened message. A dozen congregations were dismissed to other denominations last year, mostly to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and there were some harsh words about the EPC at the Assembly. One of the last things that happened at the end of last night's grueling session was a proposal to deal with pastoral kindness with congregations that want to leave the denomination. It passed overwhelmingly. "Good bye and good luck," seems to be the liberal strategy, which is matched by the conservative mood.

I say to conservatives: stay and compete. The vast majority of Presbyterians do themselves believe the essential tenets of the Reformed faith. Almost all the growing congregations in the PC(USA) are conservative. Conservatives are more likely to marry, have kids, and be optimistic about the future. There aren't really many liberals in the church. What we see in the Assembly year after year are majorities of commissioners who personally have a traditional faith, but also believe in tolerating deviants (in both directions from the center). The future is actually pretty bright for traditional Presbyterian faith. It is just the rules that are getting loosened, not so many of the people.

So stay and compete. How people vote with their feet matters the most in the end.

Friday, June 27, 2008

FOG Goes to the Hustings

All this week I will be blogging on the Presbyterian General Assembly.

As expected, the General Assembly sent the new Form of Government to the presbyteries for discussion. They fended off several attempts to mess with it, including an anarchic proposal to let everyone suggest their own new FOG.

I have volunteered to my General Presbyter to help organize our presbytery's discussion. I think that a concerted effort should be made to get the ministers and elders most involved in the life of the presbytery to get together at a special meeting to hash it out. I am hoping for food, serious homework, and an outcome.

I urge all readers of this blog in a position to do so to volunteer for similar service. By my estimate, perhaps two dozen people really understand what nFOG says, and I am not counting myself in that number. The only way to get informed enough to have a real opinion is to read the thing and talk it over with other informed, concerned people.

That, I believe, is to build up the denomination from the grass tops.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Belhar: Good Confession, Bad Constitution

All this week I will be blogging on the Presbyterian General Assembly.

The Theological Issues and Institutions Committee recommended that the Belhar Confession be studied for possible inclusion in the Book of Confessions. The Belhar Confession is one of the great anti-apartheid documents in South Africa. It should be read and studied by Reformed Christians.

But it does not belong in the Book of Confessions.

My concern is not with the specific substance of the confession. It makes as much sense to put Belhar in the compendium of great confessions as it does Barmen. They should be understood and honored.

The Book of Confessions is supposed to be the first part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is supposed to be the answer to the question "what do Presbyterians believe?" For ministers and elders, it is supposed to be the legal standard of belief in the church.

Instead, the Book of Confessions has become The Museum of Pretty Words That We Honor Whenever it is Convenient. We don't confess the confessions. We have literally turned them into banners. Their names function as symbols, but their contents are not in any way binding. Indeed, most officers of the church could not even name all the confessions -- go ahead, ask some.

Adding the Belhar Confession to the Book of Confessions will just add to the erosion of the confessions from working rule to wallpaper.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Schism Acceleration Act of 2008 Passes Committee

All this week I will be blogging the Presbyterian General Assembly.

The Church Orders Committee voted to delete the "chastity and fidelity" amendment from the Book of Order.

In its place the committee proposes this new standard:

Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.

The vote was 41 - 11. Many on the losing conservative side did not return after dinner for the voting.

Liberals have tried to delete the chastity and fidelity standard twice before. One of the liberal proponents of this current deletion attempt, Rev. Sue Fisher, said “One day this will be deleted,if not today then some day and I want to give the Assembly the opportunity to determine if this is the day.”

I have found that many liberals have a sense that history is on their side. At the same time, they are more pessimistic about the future of the church than the conservatives tend to be.

There may come a time when the presbyteries trust one another to judge justly enough, without having to spell out a national standard. That time has clearly not come. I think the only effect of yet another attempt to delete the sexual behavior standard from the constitution will be to drive out more congregations that are sick of having to re-fight this fight.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Heidelberg Revisions

All this week I will be blogging on the Presbyterian General Assembly.

Last night the Committee on Theological Issues and Institutions voted 33 - 26 to change the Heidelberg Catechism in our Book of Confessions so that it no longer would condemn "homosexual perversion."

Question 87 now reads:

Q. 87. Can those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful,
impenitent life be saved?
A. Certainly not! Scripture says, “Surely you know that the unjust will never come into possession of the kingdom of God. Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.”

This translation from German was made in 1962, and was adopted along with many other documents into the Book of Confessions in 1967. It is the only place in the church's constitution in which homosexuality is mentioned. People who want to change the translation (that is, the winning side in last night's committee vote) say it is a bad translation. People who want to leave it the way it is say it is a better representation of the intent of the catechism, and of current church understanding, since it more directly quotes scripture. Specifically, in the King James Version, I Cor. 6: 9-10 reads:

9Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,

10Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

I don't know enough German to speak to the merits of the translation question.

I can say, though, that the only time I have ever heard this passage discussed is in debates like this one. That is, in all the debates about homosexual orientation, homosexual practice, gay ordination, and same-sex marriage in the Presbyterian Church -- a debate I have followed pretty closely -- I cannot recall anyone saying that their position on this issue was swayed by what the Heidelberg Catechism said. All discussions about Question 87 have been pre-emptive attempts to change/preserve the wording of the current translation in case someone wanted to make something of it later.

And yet, no one does make anything serious of what the Heidelberg Catechism says, or pretty much what anything in the Book of Confessions says. We have made all the confessions merely advisory, and ignore them at will. That is, we do not confess the confessions.

The whole Heidelberg translation issue is not really about changing a serious or effective part of the Presbyterian constitution. It is a symbolic feint in the ideological struggle over normalizing homosexual practice.

What the church really needs is a confession it actually confesses. Then we can have a serious discussion of how, exactly, it is worded.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment

On this slow day of the GA, let me introduce my latest contribution to building up the Presbyterian Church. My pamphlet, Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment, has just been published by the Re-Forming Ministry project of the church. You can download the pamphlet here, or order a hardcopy (with a nice, stained-glass cover) from the same site. There is also a Facebook group to sponsor discussion of the pamphlet here.

In a nutshell, I think that the Presbyterian Church used to have an establishment of leading pastors and elders who we honored and trusted. This was a great asset in times of conflict. The Special Commission of 1925 was such an establishment group. The church turned to them to settle the fundamentalist/modernist controversy of the 1920s. However, in "the Sixties," we deliberately unmade our establishment in the church, as in society at large, and made structural changes to prevent a new establishment from arising. And now when we need one, we don't have one.

I expect that most of the people most interested in my analysis are tied up with the General Assembly now. I had thought that the discussion of the Presbyterian Establishment idea will begin in earnest after the dust settles from the GA.

I was gratified to see, though, that there are two commissioner's resolutions that seem to promote two structural changes I also support. One would grant presbytery staff advisory vote. This has been referred to committee. Another would phase out the advisory committees. This one was declined. Still, I believe in incremental change, and these proposals seem a step in the right direction.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Presbyterian 2.0 has been seriously unleashed"

These are the words of Bruce Reyes-Chow, the newly elected Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He won on the second ballot. He almost won outright on the first ballot, in which he had 48% in a field of four. Bill Teng, the most conservative candidate, showed a respectable second with 36%. (As an aside, it is a great day for a church when the serious race is between a Reyes-Chow and a Teng. Come on, honey-colored nation!)

I do not read this election as primarily liberal vs. conservative, though Reyes-Chow is clearly left of center in the church. What he really is is a full-on Gen-X. And what I really like about Gen-X is that they like to get things done. Boomers tend to talk about "I'll fight for you" or "I'll push for change." Xers just do it. Reyes-Chow is actually building a new church in San Francisco, one of the most secular cities in America, and he is doing it with other under-40s.

He pushes my buttons on a personal level too. He blogs everything. He and his wife have three little kids, who figure prominently in the narrative. He describes himself on his personal blog as "pastor/geek/dad/follower of Christ." He describes his blog as "Just an idiot with a Mac." The disclaimer frees his church, family, pet, imaginary friend, and "Rufus, the thirteenth disciple" from responsibility (the Gruntleds are big "Dogma" fans). My kind of guy.

Several years ago, when some well-meaning but ineffectual Boomer was gassing on about our good intentions in church, I turned to Mrs. G. and asked (quietly), "Can't we just pay the Xers to take over now?"

I believe the General Assembly has answered that question in the affirmative.