Monday, October 31, 2011

Trust No Covenant Network Bearing "Gifts"

Unctuous is a word that often comes to mind when I read a statement from the Covenant Network (CN). In a suave and clever manner, CN unctuously implies one thing while actually saying another. The October 28 statement by the Covenant Network board provides a telling example.

The CN statement endorses a political tactic that relies on an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) to make a sweeping change in Christian practice concerning marriage. The endorsed AI would permit Presbyterian teaching elders “to celebrate same-gender marriages where they are sanctioned by the civil authorities.”

An AI allows a single General Assembly vote to rule authoritatively about what the Presbyterian Church (USA) Constitution means in any case where the wording of the Constitution is in dispute. An AI such as the Covenant Network is supporting, however, would presumably need to declare that although the Constitution speaks clearly in numerous places about marriage only in terms of one man and one woman, it actually means any two people.

This would be a case of an Authoritative Interpretation making absurd what is already clear and unambiguous. Such would be an abuse of an AI, by employing it, rather than an outright amendment, to reverse the actual meaning of the Constitution, rather than merely disambiguate it.

Too clever by half
Shrewd as Covenant Network is, it knows that getting a constitutional amendment past 173 presbyteries nationwide would be a monumental task, perhaps "a bridge too far." Thus, CN is cleverly opting for an AI, which is effected by the vote of only a single General Assembly.

The track record is clear that CN can likely get a General Assembly to do its bidding. The General Assembly voting commissioners are a skewed population of Presbyterians, more theologically and politically liberal in opinions and beliefs than Presbyterians as a whole. CN ought to be able to play the next General Assembly like a violin and get its AI passed without breaking a sweat. The AI would allow for same-sex marriages. Mission accomplished.

However, had Covenant Network joined its more gung ho but less politically adept More Light Presbyterians cobelligerents in opting for full-blown constitutional amendments to allow same-sex marriages, CN would have a much riskier task on its hands. It would need to amend the Book of Order, the Directory for Worship, and several confessions. That process would require approval by two General Assemblies, plus approval by two thirds of the presbyteries (for the confession amendments).

Such an undertaking would be a big order, and presumably CN would fail. Then it would have to deal with defeat. So CN has decided to take the easy route with an AI. An Authoritative Interpretation does the job—albeit cheaply, but it would work.

False impressions
What's more, Covenant Network comes across as such nice folks, such reasonable diplomats for “tend[ing] to the unity of the denomination,” for not disturbing the waters with yet another constitutional amendment vote. But such unctuous talk is as phony as a $3 bill. If CN truly valued unity, it would not use the oily stealth of an Authoritative Interpretation to get illegitimately what it has hustled for years at the expense of denominational peace, unity, and, most of all, purity.

The Covenant Network is clever and effective. However, it is not and probably never will be a true statesman in the life of the PCUSA.

No one should be fooled by Covenant Network’s shrewd tactic with only the false appearance of restraint and good order. CN plans to get exactly what it wants, but at a bargain price—and with some bogus goodwill thrown in in the deal.

[Viola Larson makes two good points about the Covenant Network statement on her blog: Naming His Grace".]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tit for Tat Truth

Major abortion providers are in a huff about crisis pregnancy centers from which not-yet-born babies emerge alive. Their newest tactic is to push laws that make a crisis pregnancy center notify potential clients through signage that the center does not perform abortions or refer clients to abortion providers.

Think of it like Burger King being forced to put up prominent signs stating that it doesn't offer a Big Mac or give out directions to the nearest McDonald's. Or a church being forced to state on a sign that it doesn't sell methamphetamine or recommend neighborhood dealers.

The Baptist Press published an informative article on the subject, listing arguments from both sides of the issue. Among other observations, it pointed out that Planned Parenthood has a clear financial interest in counseling clients to abort, something the statistics shout out loud and clear. Planned Parenthood performs 340 abortions for every one referral to an adoption agency.

Tit for tat

Okay, let's be fair. I propose that if pro-life crisis pregnancy centers are required to put up prominent signs, so should pro-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.

Pro-abortion centers: WE KILL YOUR BABY.


Fair is fair! Full disclosure cuts both ways.

But if only pro-life crisis pregnancy centers must post signs, then let the sign read: WE WILL NOT HELP YOU KILL YOUR OWN CHILD.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

We Pay to Get Lobbied?

What’s the Washington Office up to these days? Is there major “mission creep” going on?

A recent article from the Presbyterian News Service speaks of the participation of the Office of Political Witness (OPW, formerly the Washington Office) in the Ecumenical Advisory Days coming up in March—the days when mainline denominations and other religious groups gather in Washington to push an all-things-liberal agenda, speaking as if they were representing millions of Christians who actually would advocate for the other side of many issues. This is a longstanding exercise in leadership deception and political futility. Same old same old, although this year the stated theme sounds more decent than others.

However, a line from the article caught my attention: “OPW is working to extend its work outside of Washington and into the greater church.” What? So the office originally designed to lobby Congress is now going to lobby its funders instead?

Let me get this straight. Although…

Presbyterians already have multiple, overlapping, denomination-funded entities pushing one theologically and politically liberal issue after another at the church as a whole, so that we are already over-lobbied by our own church leadership elites;

Presbyterians in the plurality who actually happen to espouse a theologically or politically conservative position have no such internal access to denominational funds and clout (paid in part with their own money), but must turn around and support other groups that actually do promote their convictions;

The Office of Political Witness was set up to lobby the federal government apparatus in Washington for causes deemed important to Presbyterians—a lobby set up strategically to lobby exactly where political power is concentrated, in Washington; and

The Office of Political Witness has been roundly ineffectual in its task for years, held in low esteem by secular power, and generally ignored (fortunately, since it usually pushes radical issues opposed by most of the church);

… now the office plans to turn its focus back toward the church itself, in order to lobby us about issues frequently more important to and determined by liberal mainline lobbying peers than Presbyterians as a whole?

So we Presbyterians get yet one more agency funded by our dollars whose task it has become to pester us with skewed viewpoints “backed” by anemic theology?

Exactly who decided that this church-targeted effort was necessary in a denomination notorious for its backsliding miscues?

At least we Presbyterians have one consolation: The OPW has never been very good at what it does, so it will probably be as ineffective in this misdirected focus as it was in its wrong-headed lobbying. But what a waste of dollars and goodwill!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Light Makes Critters Scurry and Hide

I am pleased that Carmen Fowler has taken up the torch for open meetings and that Layman letter writers (January 21) truly understand the importance of this cause.

For a few years, I was often the lone outsider at Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) meetings in far-flung locations. I have observed many of its meetings, reported on what I saw, and learned much about how the committee operates. A few people gather, they share a remarkable affinity for liberal social policies (uncharacteristic of Presbyterians as a whole), and they welcome with open arms and access to discussion guests and “experts” who share the committee’s ideology. Critics, true experts of another persuasion, and the press, they sequester, occasionally hector, roundly ignore, and gamely tolerate.

Members spend hours and hours at meetings pursuing mainly personal hobbyhorses, they work very hard (but frequently not very effectively), and they produce long, opinionated, overreaching, dilettante, always-politically-liberal papers that typically garner a yawning approval from unquestioning and largely uninterested commissioners at General Assembly, who figure “Somebody must know what this is about, so I guess I’ll just go along.” Then the wordy papers generally get forgotten and unused by the church as a whole, which does not generally value the opinions of the ACSWP.

However, the approved papers form the basis for always-politically-liberal advocacy by eager entities such as the Washington Office and other ingrown radical-advocacy groups that are given vague Presbyterian identity but no effective Presbyterian oversight. Also, the papers provide access to the joint Presbyterian purse, so that the radical initiatives get funding (such as a UCC pastor hired to wear a tomato on her head, when other PCUSA staff were being downsized). Our per capita and mission dollars regularly get funneled to ACSWP fancies, courtesy of this process. Further, ACSWP is supremely adept at getting even more business tossed its way by arranging for friendly presbyteries to overture that ACSWP studies be commissioned, and planting follow-up work in papers that it presents to General Assembly. ACSWP acts like a dog that throws its own stick to gleefully fetch.

While I was wryly observing and commenting on this process as a lone outsider, often I was icily tolerated at best, logistically frustrated, and even physically barred from parts of meetings. I was denied papers in a supposedly open meeting. I was warned and threatened not to divulge particulars of what was written in drafts. In broad strokes, ACSWP generally labored to blunt and even disregard the intent as well as the letter of an excellent Open Meetings Policy that ought to have governed and restrained the committee’s secrecy tactics.

More sunlight for meetings
As a result of experiences like mine, a General Assembly commissioners’ resolution sparked an amendment of the Open Meetings Policy to include a sentence detailing that papers in open meetings are certainly to be made available to observers. Because of the kinds of concerns ACSWP expresses and the apparent handiwork of Associate Stated Clerk Mark Tammen, a degree of the value of this new clarification may appear to be diminished by explanations in the “Rationale” section. (Tammen, at times, has appeared more concerned with finding ways to help ACSWP hide its processes and work than with simply upholding the obvious intent and clear provisions of the Open Meeting Policy.) The Rationale includes this suggestion:

The documents may of course include an appropriate heading, e.g. Draft; Not Yet Acted on by the Committee; Proposal Only; Not for Distribution; Not Approved, as the case may be, to distinguish it from the finally adopted action, if any, at the open meeting. It is expected that interested persons at the meeting who receive the documents will honor such limitations.

ACSWP, it appears, is trying to stretch this Rationale to extremes by doling out its papers suspiciously, retrieving them at the end of the meeting, and scaring observers into draconian measures of secrecy and abridged free speech and free press. This is seriously wrong!

First, these suggestions in the rationale were never approved by the General Assembly. Only the “Recommendations” portion of an item is approved. The “Rationale”—the sales job to get an item of business approved—carries no authority. For instance, a commissioner on the floor of General Assembly who might propose an amendment to an item’s Rationale would be called out of order, for the Rationale is not Assembly business. A Rationale is simply the proposing group’s attempt to argue for its proposal.

What was approved by General Assembly was the wording: “Documents being considered at such [open] meetings shall be available to interested persons at the meeting.” Anything spoken in a truly open meeting is public information; anything passed out to be read in that open meeting is public information. If you’re at the meeting, the papers shall be available to you. Period. End of story.

Second, ACSWP’s attempted secrecy is wrong because the Open Meeting Policy specifically opens to the public not just the decisions that a group finally makes—such as the final document that is approved—but also “the work done.” The exact wording from the policy is this: “Church members have a basic right to know about the work done and the decisions made by entities within the church.” A draft document is certainly part of “the work done” by an entity.

Often, the most newsworthy and useful part of reporting from a meeting is the process of getting to a final decision. The wording that was considered and scrapped is vital information to get out; the ideas that didn’t fly; the amendments that spelled compromise. (Think of national legislation: What if no one could report on the healthcare initiative until its final version is voted into law eventually!) It’s not just the final decision that is of interest to the church; it is also how that decision comes about. And that includes the content of preliminary drafts.

ACSWP can do better
General Assembly, itself, does a great job with openness. All the business before it—drafts and all—is there for reading, citation, and dissemination. ACSWP can and must be equally as open.

Maybe ACSWP fears that some journalist or blogger would publish or treat quotations from a draft as if the draft were the final, approved version. Should that happen, however, the perceived skill and wisdom of the journalist would be imperiled, not the work of ACSWP. Fearing “what ifs” is hardly good policy for a denominational entity! And if ACSWP is simply afraid that once the church fully gets wind of its intentions, it will be harder to hustle ACSWP items through a generally unknowing General Assembly, then shame on the ACSWP! If ACSWP members can’t stand the light, they should get off the stage.

The church is served by openness. Jealous, parochial, power-abusing self-interest is served by measures to hide information from the church.

One further note: ACSWP tried to use the General Assembly to cast observers at meetings as presumed scoundrels in need of admonition to stay under control (see the final comment here). Added to the responsibility for church leaders to “conduct their business with a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny” now in the Open Meeting Policy, ACSWP proposed to General Assembly these preemptory admonishments as a policy amendment: “observers and other guests, particularly members of the PC(USA), have a basic responsibility to show respect for elected members and staff of church bodies and, though not under General Assembly authority, to demonstrate a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny in their behavior and publications.” This petty ACSWP attempt to cast doubt on the intentions and character of observers went nowhere. It failed. General Assembly was obviously more concerned with true openness in meetings than it was in catering to ACSWP worries that some observer may not write flattering accounts of ACSWP affairs.

Shine a light!
So, I say this to Carmen Fowler: Thank you! Shine your light behind the ACSWP curtains. Read the reports, preliminary or final. Hear the arguments. Watch the posturing. And write on what you see. Let us know what is coming from ACSWP, good or bad. Be the eyes and ears for all the rest of us who cannot afford the time and expense to go to Louisville to watch the ACSWP struggle through its radical advocacy in what is supposed to be an entirely open meeting.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

News That Has a Familiar Ring

Today I was reading about the Vietnamese government declaring that "all properties in Vietnam belong to the country and the government." Anything the Vatican previously owned that has been confiscated by the decree of the government of Vietnam ostensibly belongs to that government.

The Prime Minister is attributed as saying that "all the property claims [by the Roman Catholic Church against the government of Vietnam] have to be carried out according to the law" and "the property claims of the Vatican go against the Vietnamese constitution and the law." Thus by legal decree, the property of the churches has been unilaterally confiscated from the congregations and made the property of the state.

We in religiously free states believe that such confiscation of religious property is an outrage, a miscarrige of justice, a greedy grab by the powerful from the powerless.

But the funny thing is, this situation in Vietnam sounds so altogether familiar to Presbyterians! The declaration and the arguments sound like something we've heard within our denomination.

By a decree of the denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) claims to own all congregational properties. Each congregation--which purchased the property, built the buildings, pays for maintenance and upkeep, and pays the utility bills--did not assent to the property grab by the denomination. Each congregation did not begin any legal action to place its property in denominational control, while maintaining all the costs and liabilities locally. Like the Catholic Church in Vietnam, each congregation had this situation imposed on it by a higher authority with all the apparent power and none of the right to do so.

It ain't fair in Vietnam. And it ain't fair in our country either. Someone else cannot just declare one's property to belong to another authority altogether.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Clergy Poll: Getting What You Pay For?

I read the news today, oh boy! It was an article about clergy opinions on gay issues.

A poll by Public Religion Research has some startling and disheartening results about an apparent slide of Presbyterian clergy belief—basically a rush away from God’s will as revealed in Scripture toward the views of a godless society on its way to destruction. Sad.

However, I find it important, when reading news, to consider the source of the news as well as the content. Thus, it is interesting to note how clearly the poll represents the viewpoints of both the research organization and the foundation funding the poll. Neither party could be considered a disinterested bystander in the issue of homosexual advocacy.
  • Public Religion Research appears to be a boldly progressive group, advocating for gay causes in particular. Its website and blog leave no doubt about its politically and theologically liberal/progressive stance and advocacy. The president and founder, Robert P. Jones, is also a fellow in a progressive think tank. Unless Public Religion Research found a way to be totally scrupulous in its polling research procedure, it would not be difficult for testing bias to seep through in its research results.
  • The Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, which bankrolled the poll, makes grants for millions of dollars to gay-advocacy groups each year, including approximately $6.5 million in 2008! This is the foundation that flooded $1.2 million into political activist groups such as More Light Presbyterians, allowing it to add staff to lobby the PCUSA to lower its sexual standards. (Note that MLP is now advertising to add two staff members—staffing probably made possible in part by the Haas Fund windfall.)

How coincidental that the results the poll obtained would be so useful for the known advocacy of the pollsters, the funders, and the sexual revisionists they support!

For possibly less biased polling, I would suggest the Presbyterian Panel’s 2008 snapshot of Presbyterians. The final page shows gay-ordination opinions. The 2005 snapshot also lists opinions on gay unions and marriages.

If the Haas-PRR poll is indeed accurate, it documents a disgraceful clergy abandonment of biblical morality, a selling out to the Baal of our times. If, on the other hand, the poll turns out to be tainted by testing bias, it will amount to nothing more than a propaganda tool to be used to sway popular opinion away from biblical truth. Either reality is less than propitious.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Mortal Hubris

In reading about the Group of Eight’s decision on so-called global warming, I was somewhat relieved and much amused.

I was relieved that saner heads must have prevailed, so that our leaders aren’t pledging draconian measures that would push us all back into frontier times. Has anybody ever stopped to think what a wild measure like locking carbon-dioxide emissions to 20 percent of what was emitted nearly two decades ago would entail? Has anyone tried using one-fifth of the electricity in their home that they used in 1990? Or driving one-fifth of the miles they drove in 1990? Or cutting their natural gas or heating oil consumption by 80 percent? That 80-percent-reduction talk is absolute foolishness, unless we are expected to regress drastically to live like our great-great-grandparents did--minus the wood fires.

But I was actually much amused by the political leaders’ prideful assumption that they could precisely control the world’s temperatures by government fiat. The hubris of thinking that we mortals have that much control over a vast ecosphere, that government leaders could just dial up the precise change they deem necessary—and no more! Just who do they think they are, anyway?

“Group of 8 Agrees On a Ceiling for Temperature Rise” the headline read. What will we see next?
• “Group of 8 Forbids Further Sunspots”
• “Group of 8 Outlaws Volcanoes”
• “Group of 8 Moves the Equator South”
• “Group of 8 Demands Greater Cloud Cover”
• “Group of 8 Fine-Tunes Tides”
• “Group of 8 Delays Sunrise”

It seems to me that there is a very good reason for the old quip, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one is doing anything about it.” You can’t.

And it seems to me to be downright pathetic to wreak social and economic disaster in a foolishly prideful attempt to control the uncontrollable. “Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind,” Bob Dylan sang.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


You probably know the word prestidigitation already: fast (as in presto) fingers (as in digits), sleight of hand, legerdemain. It's the magician drawing your attention with one movement, while deftly removing your wallet with another. That's prestidigitation.

I think it is time to coin a new word: presbydigitation. This word would be defined as Presbyterian sleight of hand concerning numbers, as in reluctantly meting out some budget figures, but drawing attention away from or withholding equally significant numbers at the same time. That's presbydigitation, and presbydigitation appears to be happening again.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been trying to ferret out what went wrong with the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) budget (see here and here). For the second time in as many budget cycles, the Stated Clerk has needed to announce major budget cuts a mere three months into a two-year cycle. Just when the OGA was starting to use a budget approved only a few months earlier, it found the budget untenable and in need of drastic emergency cutting.

Hmmm. What's going on?

Rather than an answer to that question, I find that we've received presbydigitation.

Two years ago, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick proclaimed that "over 95 percent of per capita apportionments are being paid," as if it were a good thing. He was correct on the percentage, apparently, but he left the wrong impression that 95 percent was good or normal. It was not.

Traditionally more like 98 percent of per capita apportionments were being paid. That year, approximately twice as much per capita had been withheld, and that withholding was causing problems. Kirkpatrick, however, chose presbydigitation over a clear account of what was wrong.

Now this March, our new Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, a protégé of Kirkpatrick, has perhaps learned too much from his mentor. In announcing his need to slice his recently begun budget, Parsons fingered "the economic downturn," which "has undercut the value of OGA’s investment reserves."

What Parsons conveniently neglected to mention is that per capita receipts were down $1 million at year-end 2008, compared to the previous year. Nor did he mention that the General Assembly budget had been overspent by a cool half million dollars last June. Presbydigitation.

It's sad and disconcerting that apparently our Stated Clerk has either:

a) failed to personally pursue the money troubles to the source or relied on and passed on only incomplete information from others, or

(b) decided to tell a version of the "truth" that fails to leave the correct impression that the whole truth would have provided, a partial-truth version that masks damaging or difficult information the Stated Clerk might not want the public to know.

If (a) is the correct alternative, then we have an uninformed and careless Stated Clerk. If (b) is the case, then we have a deceptive and crafty Stated Clerk.

Personally, I don't care for either of those alternatives. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) deserves far better. And what's more, I think Gradye Parsons can do much better than either (a) or (b) would imply. Parsons is typically a good and conscientious leader, and this kind of behavior is not characteristic of such character.

It seems to me to be time for the OGA spokespersons to tell the full story of what is happening with per capita finances: the big drops in per capita pay-up, the GA cost overruns, the shrinking number of Presbyterian "heads" to pay per capita, and, yes, also the disastrous stock market that shrunk investments. Lay it all out. Chart the facts and trends. Come clean.

Then, I would wager that most Presbyterians would be happy to be fully informed, rather than vengeful or accusatory. Yes, San Jose was a costly place, so General Assembly going over budget isn't surprising. Yes, it is a distrustful time, when people don't easily cough up donations, so per capita pay-up being down is understandable. Yes, losing cash reserves in the stock market is all too real.

We Presbyterians can cope with the truth, and with the truth, we can start to devise appropriate remedies. What we cannot stand is being handled, being spun, being managed, being propagandized. What we will not abide is presbydigitation.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Ecclesiastical Isolationism

I wonder if a form of church isolationism isn't taking place.

When a country thinks it can be isolationist--all safe and protected by borders and the open seas--it soon learns that wars and oppression gain strength and end up on the attack. An isolationist country soon loses its isolation and becomes the focus of invasion.

It seems to me that the same effect can overtake Presbyterian congregations that grow weary of defending the faith, grow excited about "just being missional," grow distant from the very real ideological disputes in the denomination, and thus grow vulnerable to invasion and ruin by the very entities these congregations had decided to benignly ignore.

It would be a wonderful respite not to have to defend orthodox doctrine, not to have to fight the gross secularization of the church, not to have to muster the troops once again to retain biblical standards. Oh the leisure of just forgetting such unpleasantness!

But oh the danger!

Kelly Kannwischer, Executive Director of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, is a fine person performing a great ministry. Recently she has written about what PGF is going to do. What she says makes good sense in many ways. It is definitely valuable and needed.

However, I fear that the PGF agenda is inadequate, given the Presbyterian world in which congregations operate. PGF reminds me of a colony joyfully planting fields and cultivating crops--and talking cutting-edge agriculture--while all around the colony destructive forces collect to overrun the prosperous band. This colony also needs to urgently take up defense, as distasteful as it may seem to the farmers who aren't soldiers.

I left a comment to Kelly on the article. Here is what I wrote:


That's great, but...

What are you going to do about a denomination that is going astray and in doing so can greatly harm if not destroy the missional work of all your churches?

Every Presbyterian church is connected. If the denomination completely falls apart or abandons the majority of Reformed theology or plays the harlot with non-Christian beliefs and practices, every single Presbyterian church will feel the consequences. The stink raised by the denomination will be attributed to every congregation that bears the Presbyterian name!

What's more, no church is invulnerable to attack and perhaps even confiscation of property and deposition of leaders. The 500-pound-gorilla churches like Peachtree may feel immune, but in no time, even such a church could be hurt badly and even destroyed by a presbytery that so chose to oppose it.

Most churches aren't the mini-denominations like the tallest-steeple churches, and they are completely vulnerable to who is running presbytery. Property can be taken, sessions can be declared dissolved, and pastors can be removed. And then what? How is missional work to continue in such a toxic or devastated

Just what does PGF plan to do about a denomination teetering on the brink of disaster? You're good people, but all it takes for evil to prosper is for good people to be merrily involved in other things deemed more important. Then Presbyterian power politics can turn on you and bite you where it hurts.

I've waited for a PGF answer about this problem, and I haven't heard much, except that such protective and restorative work seems rather yesterday and is pretty much being left to those who apparently must not get the missional message and must still like to fight instead.

That's not much help.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

RCRC Support in Name Only

Following my previous post about the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC)--a "never met an abortion we didn't like" kind of political activist group--I was asked in a comment if the PCUSA provides any financial support for the RCRC. I didn't know, but I found out.

At least for 2007 and 2008, nothing has been given to RCRC in terms of direct Presbyterian financial support.

It is good to know that Presbyterian money is not supporting RCRC and its appalling pro-abortion advocacy. But I am left with two further thoughts:

First, it was anything but easy coming up with a conclusive answer from denominational leaders to my simple questions about funding. Between January 28 and February 5, I wrote no fewer than six e-mails before I received a clear and unequivocal answer.

Three Presbyterian entities are listed by RCRC as member groups: The Washington Office, Women's Ministries, and Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options (PARO). Joey Bailey, Deputy Executive Director for Shared Services, quickly made it clear that GAC entities hadn't written any checks to RCRC in 2007 or 2008, but it took a third e-mail to him to get clarity that that didn't say anything about PARO's possible support.

So, looking at the PCUSA web site, I found contact information for a co-moderator of PARO, and I wrote her about possible PARO financial involvement with RCRC. Well, the web site was out of date. That co-moderator is no longer co-moderator, and what's more, she wouldn't tell me who was now in her former role, nor would she give me the information I sought.

Finally, when I was forced to cc higher-up leaders in order to try to obtain an answer to my simple questions, the answer eventually came from Sara Lisherness. Ably filling in for an associate, she assured me that "No funds from PARO, PHEWA, or any related entity were given to RCRC in 2007 or 2008. The last time that PARO gave any money at all to RCRC was $100 for membership dues in 2000."

Lisherness, who serves as Director of Peace and Justice, had the savvy and courtesy to simply answer my question clearly and fully the first time, rather than give partial or evasive answers, as other leaders had done. I have regularly found Lisherness to be a breath of fresh air, due to her nondefensive and helpful attitude in dealing with matters from constituents. She understands what is being asked for and graciously provides it.

So I finally got the information that ought not be that hard to pry out of the system, and it was encouraging information.

But second, that got me thinking: Why does RCRC allow groups to be named as members but pay no dues? And won't dues-paying groups be steamed if they find out that, unlike them, the Presbyterian member groups don't have to pay anything at all?

I can guess why the Presbyterian groups can remain named as RCRC members although they have not contributed: RCRC wants the apparent legitimacy of endorsement by official Presbyterian entities. It's worth a lot for RCRC to be able to list PCUSA members to make it look like the PCUSA is a proud sponsor of abortion.

So while Presbyterian money hasn't gone to RCRC for some time, the Presbyterian name gets lent to the RCRC cause, and that is distressing for those of us who believe that abortion is a great moral tragedy. Whatever good name is left for Presbyterians ought not be associated with so morally bankrupt an organization as RCRC.

Further, we don't know for certain what in-kind contributions might be made by PCUSA staff, offices, and organizations. Publicity channels, staff members' time, advocacy by Presbyterian entities, promotion of RCRC activities by PCUSA groups--all of this is worth something to RCRC, too.

But one does wonder, who is supporting RCRC financially, if member organizations can freeload, as the three Presbyterian organizations apparently do?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Infernal Doublespeak on Abortion

The sun is darkness.

Death Valley is a soaring peak.

High cholesterol enhances circulatory health.

You may wonder what I’m doing. I’m practicing writing with all the verity and logic of Carlton Veazey, President of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Let me tell you, it takes tremendous talent to be perfectly wrong so brazenly, so often. It must be a gift to produce such continuous doublespeak while keeping a straight face.

And doublespeak it is. William Lutz, an English professor at Rutgers, described doublespeak as “language that only pretends to say something; it's language that hides, evades, or misleads.” In this case, it does more: It describes what is evil in glowing terms, and what is good in disparaging terms.

Look at how Veazey began a recent press release:

After eight years of a policy that contributed to the suffering of women and children worldwide….

So what would one expect that policy to be, the policy that causes women and children to suffer? Might it be a policy that causes women to turn on their own children and mercilessly kill them by dousing them with caustic chemicals, hacking them into pieces, or leaving them battered and exposed until they die? Would that policy be one that causes suffering and death in disproportionate numbers for millions of the most helpless children of color, of poverty, of the underclasses?

No, it’s not that. The policy Veazey so oddly describes is a policy that has the effect of discouraging women from taking the lives of their babies, of discouraging the suffering deaths of the innocent.

President Obama has put the United States back on the path of charity, hope and compassion….

And what exactly is Veazey describing that is so charitable, hope inducing, and compassionate? Abortion. Abortion at every opportunity. Abundant abortion. According to Veazey, by enthusiastically exporting the wickedness of abortion on demand, the U.S. is exercising charity, hope, and compassion. Down is up. Hot is cold.

… by overturning the Bush administration's global gag rule.

So what was the “global gag rule”? It was a humane decision not to fund abortions with aid money or to use U.S. funds to interfere with other countries’ pro-life laws. U.S. funds would not enrich the horrific abortion industry. But now they will, under Obama’s rules.

… President Obama has reaffirmed that the United States is a caring and humane world citizen…

Let me get this straight: When we cherished the sanctity of life, seeking the welfare of women, families, and children by not promoting the savagery of killing one’s own child, that made the U.S. uncaring and inhumane? So it’s caring and humane to destroy our own children before they see the light of day? Infernal doublespeak!

… and has removed injurious barriers to funding family planning services for some of the world's poorest women.

The euphemism “family planning service” means abortion, plain and simple. It means snuffing out an innocent life. By describing a barrier to such inhumane cruelty as “injurious,” Veazey pretty well completes the pattern of serial doublespeak.

The apostle Paul has succinct counsel for the doublespeakers of the world: “Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9). That, however, would require a 180-degree turn for Carlton Veazey, so that he would no longer hold fast to what is evil and hate what is good.

As hard as that abrupt turnaround would be, it is necessary, because the prophet Isaiah has hard words for doublespeak, which hides, evades, or misleads: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). One ignores God's woe statements only at the greatest of spiritual peril.

Surely our denomination must be morally bankrupt to lend one cent or one shred of Presbyterian legitimacy to the turned-backwards work of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Speaking Nonsense to No One in Particular?

Episcopal Bishop Vicky Gene Robinson has never ceased to scandalize and fracture the church with his sexual immorality and his “It’s all about me!” promotions. His error and controversy seem continual.

But still, I believe he is on the cusp of being his most scandalous when he declares about his pending inauguration-related invocation: “I am very clear that this will not be a Christian prayer….” That leaves one wondering, then, to whom it will be addressed and whether it will be a prayer at all.

Who will be invoked?
According to the New York Times reporter Laurie Goldstein, “Bishop Robinson said he might address the prayer to ‘the God of our many understandings….’” Who the heck is that? Is that “god” simply a generic stand-in for some vague deity-like construct that Robinson is not able or willing to clearly name?

Is there any true God that Robinson believes worthy of being addressed and capable of acting on one’s earnest petitions? Or are we just kind of playing at some kind of amusing wish fulfillment in thinking there truly is a God, and so it’s perfectly okay to envision that “god-image” any old way one fancies in order to fulfill a ritualized but actually meaningless tradition in public occasions? Or might it be that in truth there is a whole pantheon of gods, and Robinson’s intended wording is meant to address the whole lot of them equally?

Bishop Robinson has taken the role of a Christian clergyman. One would think that that would entail allegiance to, love of, and devotion to the Christian God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That true God has declared himself the only God, as opposed to the false gods that humankind continually seeks to worship as idols of human construction. This true God rightfully demands that his people “shall have no other gods before me” (see the beginning of Exodus 20).

So why would Bishop Robinson deem it appropriate to pray not to the God of the Universe but to some unnamed and undifferentiated construct or to some handful of idols? In such a “prayer,” he would be vigorously breaking the first and second commandments. Apparently that does not bother Bishop Robinson, who seems more intent on currying public favor than serving the Living God.

What will be said?
And that leads to the second concern: Will it be a prayer at all? A prayer is communication with God. In public, the speaker of the prayer is intended to raise up the devotion, the needs, the petitions, and the praise—if not the confessions!—of the whole people, saying for them as one speaker what needs to be said to God by all. God is the audience. The people are the co-supplicants with the one voicing their prayer.

Thus, if Bishop Robinson will be truly praying, then he will address God with and for the people. His words will be directed to God and not get diverted to a human audience. Certainly people will hear what he says in so public an occasion, but their thoughts ought to be “Yes! That is what I would like to say to God, too!” rather than, “I’m convinced by what you say, Bishop Robinson, and you make a good point!”

The temptation for anyone leading public prayer is to grandstand, to say things to the crowd through the guise of addressing God, to make a statement or wage an argument or wax loquacious. A prayer, however, is an intimate conversation with God. A public prayer is an overheard conversation with God, intended by the one offering the prayer to capture the needs of the people and include the listeners in the experience of addressing God.

Prayer is no exercise between a speaker and a human audience, yet one wonders if that is not Robinson’s bottom-line intent. In addressing no god in particular, Robinson seems not very concerned about the vertical communication but apparently very concerned about his horizontal message to the crowd.

And then again, the whole idea of offering an invocation in a pluralistic society is rather dicey. How can the one praying attempt to speak for a crowd of mixed intent and devotion—or none at all?

It would seem to me that if a person of a particular faith is invited to invoke a deity in an invocation, the expectation should be that the person of faith would invoke the god that person believes in and worships. Typically, those planning occasions seek someone most likely to represent a broad plurality or majority of the crowd, so that the invocation best represents the interests of as many as possible.

Some people, however, will inevitably find the undertaking to be superfluous or meaningless. Those people have every right to quietly, respectfully not participate in the prayer. For instance, if a Hindu spiritual leader were invited to open an occasion with prayer, I would simply wait out the time of prayer with dignity and decency. It wouldn’t speak for me, and I wouldn’t be taking part in the prayer, but that’s okay. I can give the spiritual leader that opportunity to pray as he sees fit.

But what I wouldn’t do is expect the Hindu to tailor his prayer to Christian standards or to abandon his beliefs and pray to some mush god. Neither he nor I would have integrity in such a situation. A spiritual leader can legitimately pray only to the deity in which he or she believes. Anything else is a mockery of prayer, a blasphemy, a false accommodation to syncretism.

But as it looks to me that from what he says, Bishop Robinson is apparently a man who doesn’t have a prayer.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Gospel in a Carol

Christmas Eve gives worship leaders a golden window into people’s hearts when they are especially receptive to the Good News of Jesus Christ. By the millions, people flock to churches. Many in the Christmas Eve crowd hardly set foot in the door the rest of the year, but Christmas Eve is a point in which the tender story of God’s overwhelming love for us can be conveyed to aching hearts particularly hungry for meaning and hope.

The Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” gives any congregation a simple and compelling way to tell the kernel of the evangelistic story. This carol, written by Phillips Brooks in 1868, is the Good News in a beloved song. Note the lyrics:

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.

These first four lines tell about apparent realities versus eternal realities under the surface.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

Now a hint of hope is introduced to gain the secular person’s attention: Our hopes and fears meet? Where? How? What—or better yet, who—is “the everlasting light”?

For Christ is born of Mary;
and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.

This is how and who! These lines introduce the Gospel story, while again contrasting what is apparently happening versus what is truly happening.

O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
and peace to all the earth.

The carol breaks into praise over this truly good news. Now, the following stanza is an absolutely profound revelation.

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.

This part poetically tells the warm heart of the gospel story: a gift of grace. This is the Great Exchange: God gives salvation and blessing; God takes away sin and stain. What a deal! And this can happen today.

No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.

This part tells how to receive this wonderful gift: meekly receive it. But how? What follows is the answer.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in;
be born in us today.

Here is a classic prayer of salvation, asking God to stoop to us, forgive our sin, enter our lives, and be alive in us! Singing these words with earnest intent, a seeker can realize salvation.

We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;

This is very good news indeed!

O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

Here the singer reaffirms the prayer that asked Jesus Christ into his or her life.

Taken altogether, this simple and familiar carol piques interest, tells the Gospel story, invites response, and leads the singer into a prayer that voices a decision to believe.

People may frequently sing the carol without thought, but this Christmas Eve the time is ripe to point out the profound meaning of this carol and invite people to sing it as their faith received and allegiance declared.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

"No on B" Votes Increasingly Doom Passage

As of this writing, 9 of 173 presbyteries have voted on Amendment 08-B. All have voted no, most overwhelmingly. Each successive “no” vote makes the prospect of gaining approval of the moral revisionist amendment—and thus approving nonmarital sexual practice for ordained Presbyterians—all the more unlikely.

“Well DUH!” you might say. “Every no vote isn’t a yes vote, and they need yes votes to win. And besides, all nine presbyteries have voted just as they have in the past. The vote is rather obvious, with no surprises so far. It doesn’t prove anything.”

I’m no rocket surgeon, as a “Dilbert” In-Duh-Vidual was once quoted as saying, but I think there is something very important going on even in these according-to-form early votes. It is this: The folks who want us to toss out our ordination standard and approve the constitutional amendment desperately NEED some surprises to happen, and so when the obvious happens, the forces for change lose big.

Let’s do the math: The last time we voted on the matter, 127 presbyteries voted to retain the standards we have always upheld. Only 46 presbyteries voted to remove the standards. That means that this year, in order to get the 87 presbyteries needed to approve a constitutional amendment, the revisionists need 41 of the 127 opposing presbyteries to change their mind and vote the other way. In other words, nearly a third of these presbyteries need to flip-flop on the issue—and that’s if the moral revisionists manage to hold on to every one of their previous 46 presbyteries who voted with them.

So, the moral revisionists needed 41 of 127 opposing presbyteries to change their minds. That was a 32 percent change rate. But now 9 presbyteries have already voted, and not one of them has changed. That means that only 118 opposing presbyteries remain that might possibly flop over to the moral revisionist side.

Since the revisionists still need 41 presbyteries to switch, they now need 41 out of 118 opposing presbyteries, or a 35 percent change rate. As you can see, the needed change rate just keeps getting steeper every time a presbytery votes according to form against the amendment. Should a presbytery that formerly voted with the moral revisionists now vote against them (as in voting no on Amendment 08-B), the needed change rate would really jump higher.

Or think of it this way: Those who favor ordaining persons sexually active outside the marriage of a man and a woman need to nearly double the number of presbyteries willing to vote with them, from 46 to 87. Every presbytery that doesn’t do so is one more nail in the Amendment 08-B coffin.

It could get to the point before long that nearly every remaining opposing presbytery would need to switch its vote for the moral revisionists to get their amendment approved. That is not likely to happen.

However, having watched my team’s criminally lax “prevent defense” allow a college football rival to win a game today that my team ought to have won, I understand the need for caution. The wholesale revision of Christian sexual morality can and will happen if good people do nothing. Revisionists are working diligently to try to get Amendment 08-B approved. Thus, those of us who want to retain biblical morality simply must show up to work against, speak against, and vote against Amendment 08-B in each of our presbyteries.

We ought to take hope that the odds are stacked in our favor on this vote. We ought not to let that lure us into fatal complacency.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Everyone Needs to Respond to the Good News

Former General Assembly Moderator Susan Andrews asked, “Can the inclusion of gay and lesbian persons be a part of our evangelism?” She was bringing up what she considered a sensitive question at a denominational evangelism consultation at Stony Point.

The answer seems a no-brainer to me: Of course we ought to include gay and lesbian persons in our evangelistic outreach!

No one—absolutely no one—ought to be left out of the invitation to say yes to Jesus Christ. Why would anyone not be given access to redemption and the opportunity to switch the lordship of one’s life from self to God? Who does not need to respond in obedience and thankfulness to so great a salvation? Everyone needs to be valued enough to be evangelized.

So, yes, by all means, we must include gay and lesbian persons as part of our evangelism. I fail to see any controversy in that.

If you want controversy, mention including Jewish persons as part of our evangelism. Or better yet, if you want controversy, try simply doing evangelism in a denomination that has studiously avoided it for decades. But sharing the Good News with gay and lesbian persons outside the faith and inviting them to give their lives in submission to Jesus Christ—just as every one of us already in the church has supposedly done—now that’s not particularly controversial, as I see it.

Something else?
But perhaps that isn’t what Susan Andrews was considering. Maybe she was trying to turn political social engineering into some form of ersatz evangelism. It is quite possible that she was thinking not so much of telling gay and lesbian persons about redemption through faith in Jesus Christ, but instead just kind of inviting them to join her club and be a part of this do-good social organization.

No expectations. No faith requirements. Nothing to give up, as Jesus asked the rich young ruler to do concerning his attachment to money. Just mosey on by and join our club, without paying any attention to the radical redirection of all of our life and living that is supposed to go hand-in-hand with making Jesus Lord of everything and not just chief affirmer of all that's wonderful in me.

There’s this little hang-up with sexual morality that perhaps Susan Andrews was hoping we’d just kind of paper over—you know, the thing about living our lives by God’s loving commandments rather than being controlled by our prideful sins and harmful addictions. That part about being born again, about confessing sin and experiencing metanoia (a turning of direction to follow God’s will); that part about saying “Not my will but thy will be done”—perhaps Susan would prefer to lay that aside and just tell people what they want to hear, not what they desperately need to hear.

Oh, we’d be very popular in this anything-goes world if we would simply invite people with any particular sin to celebrate it and not worry about conforming it to God’s will. We’d be hip. We’d be happenin’. We’d be the darlings of the “tolerant” set, who demand adoration of any bent other than orthodox Christianity, which oddly must not be permitted. The press would lionize such “acceptance,” as compared to the much-frowned-upon “intolerance” of orthodox Christian morality.

But we would be unloving, and we would be in opposition to the Lord of the Universe if we became sloppily antinomian. We’d be unloving by encouraging people to destroy themselves and others with ungodly actions. We'd be unloving in hiding from gay and lesbian persons the one message every one of us most needs to hear: Repent and be baptized.

We’d be in opposition to the Lord because we would withhold from people whom God loves the radical words of salvation. We’d be in opposition to the Lord because God hates sin, and no sin gets a pass, while every sin can be erased through God’s grace.

So, yes! Let us include gay and lesbian persons in our evangelism. The Good News is for every one of us sinners. Let us include them in the church—unrepentant as they taste the love of God and get exposed to the Good News of redemption, and then repentant as they are swept up in God’s overpowering love and accede to God’s lordship.

And let gay and lesbian persons—fully given to Jesus Christ as he gives them power to live chaste lives in obedience to him—reach out as evangelists to others, not with some bogus “good news” that tries to accommodate brokenness, but with the genuine Good News that Jesus saves us from any and all behaviors and proclivities, as he transforms our lives to mirror his good and perfect intent for our perfection.

Now that, I contend, would be gutsy evangelism!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

We Are Not Amused with Arrogated Power

Wait one minute, Mr. Tulsa Attorney now threatening the Kirk of the Hills property settlement! The property agreement between the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma and Kirk of the Hills is none of your business.

The Form of Government does not give the denomination the authority to “approve” a transfer of property. G-8.0301 states:

Whenever property of, or held for, a particular church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ceases to be used by that church as a particular church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in accordance with this Constitution, such property shall be held, used, applied, transferred, or sold as provided by the PRESBYTERY [emphasis added].

G-8.0401 states:

Whenever a particular church is formally dissolved by the presbytery, or has become extinct by reason of the dispersal of its members, the abandonment of its work, or other cause, such property as it may have shall be held, used, and applied for such uses, purposes, and trusts as the PRESBYTERY may direct, limit, and appoint, or such property may be sold or disposed of as the PRESBYTERY may direct, in conformity with the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [emphasis added].

Further, G-11.0103y (a section on the responsibilities and powers of presbyteries) states that the PRESBYTERY has the responsibility and power “to consider and act upon requests from congregations for permission to take the actions regarding real property as described in G-8.000.”

Could it be clearer? The PRESBYTERY is given the responsibility to make this call. What the presbytery decides is what matters.

The denomination has no authority to involve itself in this matter, other than general administrative oversight over a lower governing body. However, even that general oversight responsibility belongs to the synod first and would require some kind of complaint process that would trigger an administrative review of the synod by the General Assembly. What some hyperactive bureaucrat (or agent thereof) thinks or wants is irrelevant.

We Presbyterians do not have a bullying monarchical form of church government, in which denominational lawyers threaten the proper constitutional governance of the presbyteries and congregations. King Henry VIII had spies and enforcers ready to deal severely with anyone who dared question his absolute authority. For example, to disagree with his discarding of Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn was to be guilty of treason, and the punishment was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.

After watching from afar the “king’s” expensive, disgraceful, ministry-crippling, and God-dishonoring grasping after the assets of the Kirk of the Hills, after hoping that the mutually agreed upon settlement would finally end the hostilities, and then after reading that some denominational king apparently will not be satisfied without first hanging, drawing, and quartering the Kirk, I am disgusted that kinder, gentler, more Christian leaders have not stepped forward within the denominational structure to put an end to this avaricious disgrace.

This is especially disgraceful after General Assembly declared that “Scripture and the Holy Spirit require a gracious witness from us rather than a harsh legalism.” General Assembly made it clear that “trying to exercise this responsibility and power [to divide, dismiss, or dissolve churches] through litigation is deadly to the cause of Christ.”

But there is more. The new Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Gradye Parsons, is also disposed against further resort to courts. “The last thing we need to do in dealing with these situations is to go to court,” he said in a press conference following his election. “We need to find ways to address them with each other and try to stay out of court….”

So, we now see evidence of three rather grave errors:

First, the denominational hierarchy is arrogating powers to itself that belong to the presbytery.

Second, the denominational hierarchy is acting in a manner contrary to the authority and will of the General Assembly—to say nothing of the will of God!

And third, apparently the intention of even the Stated Clerk counts for nothing for the denomination’s legal arm, supposedly a department under his authority.

Somebody please tell me that this is just a rogue, self-appointed attack attorney who is operating outside the scope of legitimate denominational authority. That is, after all, a possibility—the most benign explanation I can come up with at the moment.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


At a time of great national economic ruin and joblessness, I find myself in solidarity with the masses. I am unemployed—although I hope to avoid the "great economic ruin" part.

On September 17, I was told that my position as Director of Presbyterian Action with the Institute on Religion and Democracy was being eliminated and I was being laid off as of that day. It was a necessary decision, as I understood it, one that I had seen coming for some time.

Had I been my own boss, I probably would have made the same call. One cannot spend money that isn’t there. Prudent judgment required a three-person reduction in the IRD work force. The hole I left could be ably filled by Alan Wisdom, and Presbyterian Action would be around to see another day. So it was done.

I remain a great fan of the positions advocated by the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the work its people do. Theirs is a vital and necessary ministry undertaken by brilliant and deeply faithful people. Theirs is also a difficult and rather thankless task: To stand up to the ideas and forces that would unmake the Church, sully its witness, and harm individuals and society.

Too few conservative Christians seem to understand and embrace the importance of a biblically faithful social witness. They tend to cede that territory by default to the progressives, who revel in that playground as political players largely cut free from biblical constraints. The progressives run mostly unchecked, except for the nagging IRD whistle blowers. However, with somewhat of a collective evangelical yawn, evangelicals have insufficiently funded the IRD’s ministry, and therefore the cutback.

Responding to a wider phenomenon

The IRD’s belt tightening is not unique, however. Throughout the Presbyterian renewal community, income is scarce and ministries are suffering. It’s not that beliefs have changed. It’s more that hope has dwindled, interests have diffused, and constituencies are fracturing.

Evangelical cynics would say, “Well of course! The bums leading the so-called renewal groups haven’t been able to accomplish a thing! Not a penny more to them!” Those cynics would, of course, see the glass as half empty--a glass that would have been completely drained, if not for the dogged efforts of many renewal groups as they stymied a progressive take-over of the PC(USA). The cynics mindlessly dismiss the very renewal organizations that have struggled for their own interests, delaying and diminishing disaster for decades!

Progressive adversaries are probably saying, “Sweet! Our opposition is crumbling, and in no time it will be our church to run unhindered. Not a penny more for renewal’s obstacles!”

It must look juicy to the progressives. Perhaps tottering are the very renewal groups that have stood in their way and tripped up their radical recasting of beliefs and practices. Still only about a nineteen-percent minority of the PC(USA), the activist progressives could find the whole kit and caboodle dropped into their hands--if a panic sweeps the evangelicals, who give up or walk away.

Evangelical stalwarts therefore must say, “That can’t happen! If we drop the ball, only ill can result. Every penny possible to the effort; every defender to the barricades!”

Without a unified and, yes, expensive effort, evangelicals will soon find themselves detested aliens in their own denomination, which will have departed from the faith entirely. This struggle won’t go away simply by ignoring it or concentrating on more pleasant endeavors.

Awkward irony

The timing of downsizing is awkward for evangelicals. Just when a radical activist group—More Light Presbyterians—gets windfall secular funding to add staff to further attempt to turn the PCUSA into another gay-advocacy caucus for political purposes, that’s when renewal groups are struggling to retrench or maybe even to survive. If evangelicals allow a wholesale collapse of their renewal and reform efforts, what a boon that would be for the progressives!

But the rightsizing of the IRD is a little ironic in itself, since speculative and self-serious voices from the progressive fringe have gone loony about how well-funded the IRD is and how it supposedly bankrolls and controls all the other renewal groups in several denominations. No, the IRD doesn’t receive bales of unmarked bills from clandestine right-wing fanatics out to destroy the church for political purposes. The IRD evidently receives insufficient $20 checks from dear saints even to maintain its own staffing level. So much for the half-baked conspiracy theories!

And now that More Light Presbyterians’ umbrella organization--the Institute for Welcoming Resources--has become a wholly owned subsidiary of a secular gay political lobbying organization, will these same “concerned” voices be railing about the “outside political influence” on the denomination? Somehow one thinks not!


What is needed is evangelical solidarity. Together, those of us who are theologically orthodox/conservative/evangelical need to come out of the woodwork and work in union. There are more than twice as many evangelicals in the PCUSA than there are progressives, although one would never know it from the liberal-skewed demographics of those placed in leadership roles. We evangelicals have history, theology, the Bible, the Book of Order, the Book of Confessions, the international Church, and tradition in our favor--as well as the numbers.

But do we have the will? The spiritual fortitude? The solidarity? Time will tell.

And one more thing: God will prevail. God always does.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Attractive Nonsense

One of my favorite bloggers who happens to be a first-rate scholar--Mark Roberts--has written two articles on a change in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) standardized ordination exam on exegesis (here and here). The change is rather disturbing, especially since it came not from a General Assembly action but from the routine work of an obscure committee that was elected without a moment of consideration by the General Assembly.

Where once budding preachers would be compelled to find the "principal meaning" of a sermon text--demonstrating proficiency in the original language of the text--now, the test takers must give only a "faithful interpretation" of the text. So what does that mean?

It depends on the principal meaning of "faithful" in "faithful interpretation." So what makes an interpretation "faithful"? We have at least two options:
  1. Faithful can mean full of faith, as in an interpretation that is imbued with the faith of the interpreter. The interpreter ostensibly is a person of faith and uses that faith to whatever extent to come up with a personal interpretation of the passage. Thus, according to this understanding, that would make the resultant interpretation a faithful interpretation. By this meaning, unless the interpretation were done by a raving atheist with no faith, it would necessarily be a faithful interpretation because of the faith of the interpreter.
  2. Faithful could mean instead that the interpretation keeps faith with the original meaning of the passage, that it has fidelity to the original intent. It would be like a copy of a last will and testament being a faithful reproduction of the original. It can mean that the interpretation is authentic, true, as accurate as possible a rendition of the meaning intended by the writer.

So which is it? I would hope that it would be the latter.

I would hope that relativism hasn't so weakened Presbyterian understanding of "true truth" that we've given up hope of ever determining what is the clear, obvious meaning of a text that was written to transmit meaning that God inspired and expected to be effectively transmitted through the text. I would hope that the communication-crippling nonsense of deconstructionism hasn't completely undermined Presbyterian expectations of exegesis.

But I would probably be wrong.

It appears to me that "faithful" was probably intended to denote #1 above. That means that personal impressions, biases, hobbyhorses, weaknesses, blindness, power trips, and blunders would be allowed to triumph over the discipline of exegesis, so that a passage could have a "faithful interpretation" to mean whatever anyone professing any form of faith wants it to mean.

Thus preachers who don't discard or ignore the sermon text altogether could simply transform the text into their own idiosyncratic creation through their "faith." I would argue that we need less of such troublesome practice, not more.

Who could be opposed to something as attractive sounding as "faithful interpretation"? Anyone who knows what is actually being lost and what is sadly being perpetuated when whim is allowed to replace rigor.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Reading the AI with Comprehension

When dealing with a complicated statement, I often find it useful to construct a visual representation somewhat like sentence diagramming from school days. I think that would help us better understand the new Authoritative Interpretation (AI), which is admittedly a complex statement. I think it will also point out at least one ambiguous part.

So here’s my try for the sentence: “Interpretive statements concerning ordained service of homosexual church members by the 190th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the 119th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and all subsequent affirmations thereof, have no further force or effect”:

1) Interpretive statements
a. concerning ordained service of homosexual church members
b. by the 190th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian

Church in the United States of America and
c. [by] the 119th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in
the United States

2) affirmations
a. all
b. subsequent
c. thereof,
3) have no further force or effect.

Okay. So what do we have? Numbers 1 and 2 are the subjects; number 3 is the verb phrase. “Interpretive statements and affirmations have no further force or effect.” That’s the bare-bones skeleton.

But obviously not all interpretive statements, as 1.a-c tell us. The interpretative statements being considered are strictly limited by:

(a) Only those that concern ordained service of homosexual church members. (Notice how this is written as if homosexual orientation and not homosexual practice were the main thing. The 1978/1993 Authoritative Interpretation was very careful and specific in dealing with homosexual practice. This new statement is actually more careless and less clear. In a way, there is no historical statement about the ordination of homosexual persons per se to be rendered of no force or effect, because the previous statements are about homosexual behavior, not about someone's abstract state of being homosexual.)

(b) Only the statement by the UPCUSA 190th General Assembly (1978) and
(c) Only the statement by the PCUS 119th General Assembly (1979)

Okay, so now we know that the statements that have no further force or effect are just two very specific statements, and they were mischaracterized in this new resolution as being about homosexual persons, when they were in truth about homosexual practice.

We also know that we’re talking about “interpretative statements” in their totality that were issued by these two denominations in 1978 and 1979, not the very narrow part of each statement that for some reason the Stated Clerk’s office zeroed in on in its Advisory Opinion #22.

What else do we know from the sentence diagram? We know that there is something else that has no further force or effect: “affirmations.” What kind of affirmations in particular?

a and b) “all subsequent” affirmations. That means that after 1978-79, every single such affirmation is also of no further force or effect. But still, what kind?

c) Affirmations “thereof.” The “thereof” tells us something specific. It’s not just any affirmation that may have come out of our mouths after 1979, such as “I like chocolate!” It is only affirmations that pertain to the two very specific statements delineated in the first part. So if a General Assembly affirmed something else or reaffirmed some other statement of principle, such affirmations that aren’t “thereof” are not being included here and would remain in force and effect. Only in cases where the General Assembly has affirmed the 1978 UPCUSA statement or the 1979 PCUS statement about homosexual (practice as it relates to) ordination is such a subsequent affirmation of no further force or effect.

But here’s the ambiguity: “affirmations” by whom? By any Presbyterian anywhere? One would think not! By sessions or presbyteries? I seriously doubt it. They haven’t been mentioned at all in this section of the resolution, so there is no reason to slip them in as the party making the affirmations.

No, it appears that the elliptical party doing the affirmations or reaffirmations would have to be a subsequent General Assembly, such as the 217th General Assembly as recently as 2006 that commended the statement to the study of the whole church. If we are going to supply an assumed party to be doing such affirmations, it would most likely be the only party that can with authority affirm a statement by the General Assembly: another General Assembly.

Thus, in this reading, if any subsequent General Assembly has affirmed the 1978/1979 statements, that affirmation is now left without further force or effect, because this particular, most-recent General Assembly has said so.

What about the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) and its ability to also produce Authoritative Interpretations? The Stated Clerk’s office in its new Advisory Opinion seems to think that any time a GAPJC cited the 1978/1979 statements, this new Authoritative Interpretation then basically invalidates that decision, as if the GAPJC opinion were not also rooted in the Bible, our confessions, legislative intent, and the standard practice of Christians for two millennia.

The Stated Clerk’s office, if it is being careful with the exact language of this new Authoritative Interpretation, must be interpreting “all subsequent affirmations thereof” to include GAPJC decisions as well as General Assembly resolutions. But is a GAPJC decision truly an “affirmation” of an “interpretive statement” by a General Assembly?

I would say no. The GAPJC may use the interpretative statement or rely on it or partially base its decision on the interpretative statement, but that is something different than it being an “affirmation” of the statement. The entity that can affirm or reaffirm such statements is the General Assembly.

Thus, if we read the new Authoritative Interpretation for what it says and not for what we only assume it is saying or what we want it to say, it is basically saying this: Those 1978 and 1979 interpretative statements about homosexual practice have, in their entirety, no further force or effect. In addition, all affirmations of these particular interpretative statements (and only these) by subsequent General Assemblies also have no further force or effect.

I wish the 218th General Assembly had never made such a statement, but I do believe that this is the meaning of their statement.

This reading would also mean that other General Assembly policy statements about homosexual practice or Christian sexual morality in general are not affected by this new Authoritative Interpretation, nor would Permanent Judicial Commission decisions—with the force of being Authoritative Interpretations in their own right—be affected by this new Authoritative Interpretation.

With that in mind, the Stated Clerk’s Advisory Opinion #22 seems to require either more thought and revision, or far better clarity and explanation. This is no time for muddy, ambiguous, confusing counsel. We need to know what is the case and why.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Fragmentation and an Idealized Opposition

In comments on my previous posting, a writer warned against fragmentation among evangelicals/conservatives, following the event of the recent General Assembly in San Jose.

I replied in the comments, but I thought it worthwhile to make my reply a separate posting. Here's what I wrote:

Thanks for your insights.

Yes, personal foibles always are at play in any organization. It's easy to have "ergocentricity" rear its ugly head, where my work is central and everyone else should drop what they are doing and do what I do (or what I lead).

Fragmentation is always a danger within the orthodox camp, especially when we start laying blame on others for a difficult setback. We need to be gentle on one another at a time of disappointment, and then firm in our stern opposition to whatever damage might have been attempted.

We also need to avoid the tendency to idealize the opposition. They are not monolithic or without their own internal squabbles. I have attended Covenant Network meetings in which significant infighting was evident. The "Let's get it on!" group always chafes against the "But we need to be strategic" group. The "I don't care if it destroys the PCUSA!" group wrestles with the "But we must not kill the goose that lays the golden egg" group.

The "others" are definitely not unified. Why should there be both a That All May Freely Serve and a More Light Presbyterians? And why a Covenant Network that is ideologically aligned but usually strategically at odds with the GLBT groups? You should hear the gay voices complain about the sympathetic liberal voices trying to counsel restraint.

In the case of Covenant Network versus MLP or TAMFS, all of them are fundamentally at odds with the Bible and Christian morality. But they are not in lock-step with one another on how to proceed. They, too, are human and have their leadership and tactical foibles.

What the gay-activist forces have done for the most part, however, is endure setbacks. They didn't have just one General Assembly as bad for them as our San Jose assembly has been for us. They have had one assembly after another after another that has been a horrible disappointment that was filled with setbacks, from their perspective.

And yet, yet--they were still there in San Jose, working their plan. This time, in an odd situation with a very skewed set of voting commissioners, they experienced a major victory.

Now, will this one setback cause evangelicals to: 1) blame each other, 2) get all discuraged, 3) fragment, and 4) just plain quit? Or will this setback make us fighting mad and awaken the fence-sitters and spur us into better, more determined action?

I hope it is the latter. I don't think we are made of lesser stuff than the gay activists, who have weathered far worse for decades and still show up for the dispute.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Official Negligence Helped Doom the Authoritative Interpretation

Our just-completed General Assembly tossed a gem of a policy on the theological trash heap.

Well, make that "a slim majority of the General Assembly" did so. Many fine, brilliant commissioners tried to stay the hands of the majority, but just couldn't forestall such a mistake.

After thirty years of stalwart biblical counsel, after holding the line with grace and pastoral sensitivity all these tumultuous years, by a single decision of a horribly skewed General Assembly, the statement that started out as definitive guidance about homosexual practice in 1978 and in 1993 became an authoritative interpretation is gone. Discarded. Trashed. What a tragic waste!

How did that happen? Let me venture two causes.

The first cause is a massive disconnect between the sample of Presbyterians chosen as commissioners and the population of Presbyterians as a whole. Quite simply, the commissioners at General Assembly are not a representative sample of Presbyterians overall. The slice of Presbyterians who generally concentrate their work more in presbyteries than in parishes and thus manage to be elected as commissioners by presbyteries is theologically different; it is typically far more progressive theologically and politically than the bulk of people "back home."

Thus, a General Assembly will make pronouncements and take actions that scandalize the rank and file and that divide the church. Here, on the issue of the permissibility of homosexual practice, that disconnect and thus the scandal are readily apparent.

The second cause is leadership failure. In 2006, the General Assembly chose wisely to affirm and uplift the very same Authoritative Interpretation (AI) that in 2008 the assembly voted to discard. In 2006, the assembly felt so strongly that the AI was a good and valuable document that it required the Stated Clerk to commend it and to send it out to all the churches for renewed acquaintance and study. Here was a document whose wisdom needed to get into people's hands and minds!

The Stated Clerk failed horribly in doing his job. In a half-hearted and delayed effort, he distributed it poorly, without adequate fanfare, and with little sense of its value. As a check, do you remember receiving the AI from the Stated Clerk? Did you read any notice that it was available? Did you get the sense that this is something valuable being commended by the General Assembly as a major, enduring policy statement of the church? Most likely not.

The AI did not get the prominence, distribution, and commendation that the 2006 General Assembly intended. And thus, at this assembly, the hardly known document with all its unrealized value could just be casually tossed aside as if it were theological drivel.

How many of the 2008 commissioners had even read the AI they voted to discard, having been told it was bad and unnecessary?

A little more history: In General Assembly plenary debate over the Authoritative Interpretation in 2004, three separate progressive leaders egregiously misquoted and misrepresented the AI. It was obvious then that even the committee chair of the committee to which the business had been assigned didn't know what the real AI contained and thus could mischaracterize it so badly. Nevertheless, even with major disinformation floated about the AI, General Assembly in 2004 voted to uphold it.

However, that debacle of ignorance or deceit led to the overture in 2006 that intended to make the true AI read and known, so that people could appreciate for themselves how valuable its measured, biblical, pastoral approach was. Or if people were to still oppose the AI, at least they would oppose it from knowledge and not from misadvised hearsay. The overture was approved in 2006.

But it appears that the Stated Clerk had little interest in following through with the clear intent of the 2006 General Assembly. In much the same way as one can “damn by faint praise,” the Stated Clerk frustrated the project by faint effort. Here is what General Assembly demanded of the Stated Clerk, compared to what Clifton Kirkpatrick actually did:

First, to send to each congregation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) a pastoral letter explaining the role of an authoritative interpretation of the Constitution….” The explanation was one sentence, buried in a letter that takes pains not to state the central finding of the AI: that homosexual practice is sin. The letter was posted rather unceremoniously on the Theology and Worship web site.

Second, [to send] a copy of the “Policy Statements and Recommendations” from the 1978 report “The Church and Homosexuality” (also known as the Authoritative Interpretation of 1993)…. This fresh copy of the policy statement and recommendations was needed, since the 1978 version was found 57 pages deep in a pamphlet that first contained dozens of pages of a confusing and contradictory report that was rejected rather than approved. Such a clean copy was not sent.

Third, [And to send] a brief study guide prepared by the Office of Theology and Worship and commended to sessions and congregations for study of this authoritative interpretation. The study guide turned out to be 35 pages long and was available as a PDF file for download. The Stated Clerk hoped it would “continue our discernment of God’s will about issues of human sexuality and ordination.” He said nothing of the 217th General Assembly affirming and commending the AI for study. All in all, his was a most tepid way to commend a repeatedly affirmed policy of the church—as if we were waiting for something new to come along through further discernment to replace it.

Fourth, the study guide shall be written in a manner sympathetic to the standards and intention of the Authoritative Interpretation of 1993, commending it to congregations as the historic policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The study guide remains decidedly neutral if not skeptical about the policy, treating it as possibly dated and introducing arguments against the policy in the form of leading questions. The policy is not treated as a treasure that propounds enduring Christian belief and practice, but as something to pick apart, to take or leave.

Fifth, it shall be sent to congregations no later than one year prior to the convening of the 218th General Assembly (2008). The letter by Clifton Kirkpatrick was dated “spring 2008” and was posted on the Theology and Worship web site June 13, eight days prior to the convening of the 218th General Assembly. If the purpose was to inform discussion at the 2008 General Assembly, that purpose was thoroughly frustrated by the Stated Clerk’s utter failure to fulfill the Assembly’s requirement.

Sixth, electronic communication will be used as a means of saving costs. This part was followed. The items were posted unobtrusively on the web. No Presbyterian News Service article announced them.

Therefore, given such massive subversion of the will of the prior General Assembly and the resulting continuance of the widespread ignorance of and indifference to the contents of the AI, is it any wonder that this year's General Assembly came along and with hardly a thought swept the Authoritative Interpretation aside?