Friday, October 15, 2004

Task Force likes its own world

CHICAGO – Today, I could describe for you the closed door behind which the Theological Task Force (TTF) spent a lot of their time. From about 11:15 to 7:30, the various deliberations of the TTF were off limits for anyone but task force members. This is the second set of meetings in which this permissible tactic has been employed, after a long stretch of sunshine at earlier meetings.

During the one segment of the morning discussions that observers were allowed to attend, the TTF looked at a global perspective of their task. How does world Christianity inform what they’re doing?

The answer was kinda, but not much. Or something to the effect that “perhaps it ought to, but we have such a shining model of unity amid diversity to offer them!

There was an obvious tension between acknowledging the vast exception most other Christian churches take with our fascination over homosexual matters, on the one hand, and seeing our “enlightened” Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as an important model of how open minded others ought to become and indeed are becoming as they emerge from the primitive understandings that we’ve already moved beyond, on the other hand. Note that this is my impression of how they sounded, and thus it is neither their exact words nor my personal stance.

Someone mentioned the chaos in the Anglican Communion caused by the Episcopal Church (U.S.A.) consecrating homosexually paired Bishop Robinson last summer. On Monday, October 18, a major paper is coming out of Lambeth on how the worldwide Anglican Communion is going to handle this Episcopal departure from the rest of the communion. Shouldn’t the negative consequences raining in on a determined American Episcopal denomination that is disintegrating in this country and distressing the rest of their communion at least give the TTF pause?

Not exactly. It was pointed out that eleven WARC churches (5%) already allow ordination of practicing homosexuals, so we’d be covered if we ever started to do so, too. Apparently we can ignore the moral distress we're causing the massively growing Reformed churches in the southern hemisphere, because they wouldn’t be able to isolate us for our departure from the faith?

Still, aren’t those southern hemisphere Reformed churches quite opposed to what we’re contemplating—indeed, even the discussion of the possibility of ordaining persons in defiance of Christian sexual morality? A couple of TTF members said that it’s not monolithic opposition in those countries, and, given time, they’ll slide into our modern Western understandings, too. What we really need to do is show them how well we get along despite our differences.

So, in other words, they’re not that solidly opposed to our possible revision of biblical morality, and they’ll grow up and join us in the modern world one of these days anyway. We’re on the cutting edge, and they’ll eventually follow our benighted lead. I can’t help but consider this a form of patronization, caused by Western hubris and what’s called “chronological snobbery”—the belief that anything recent has to be superior to anything believed previously.

I wasn’t particularly impressed or encouraged by the somewhat random discussion today. The end seemed to be that the TTF’s example of just getting along was what everybody needed to experience, too—be they in the larger PC(USA) here or in the Reformed and other Christian churches abroad. And, of course, no decisions were made. That’s yet to come.

The next TTF meeting will be March 2–4, most likely back at the American Airlines Training Center outside Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. It will be all day all three days. Which parts of the meeting any of us may be allowed to observe is anyone’s guess at this point. Ostensibly, anyone is welcome to come and observe. But it seems that as discussions get more serious, we observers get more frequently booted.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Stated Clerk: An innocent abroad?

CHICAGO -- The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Clifton Kirkpatrick, spoke to the Theological Task Force Thursday afternoon and fielded a number of questions. He started out by telling the Theological Task Force that their existence helped tip the balance for him to decide to stand for his third term as Stated Clerk, and he thanked them.

Kirkpatrick spoke with characteristic enthusiasm and considerable heart about his experiences at the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) general council in Ghana, where he was recently elected WARC president. It was obviously an eye-opener for him and a moving experience. Sounding at times like an endearing high school kid who had had a wonderful time at church camp, and at other times like an eloquent international statesman, Kirkpatrick spoke of a number of things, including the controversial declaration by WARC about capitalism and the global economy. “We’re called as Reformed people,” he said, “to be a community together that challenges the order of this world,” which is “destroying the lives of Presbyterians” all around the world.

The economic details and the harsh wording of the statement seemed a little beyond him and not particularly important. He didn’t seem prepared to defend the particulars, when asked. What did capture his heart, it seems, was the vast need of desperate people, and the idea that we need to do something different in the global economy to help them.

The particulars of that something—particularly how anti-capitalism and harsh on "empire"-building America it is—is the problem many have with the WARC statement. But such details obviously are not Kirkpatrick’s passion. (That is understandable, but a little worrisome, since in economics, misinformed good intentions can lead to disastrously contrary results. And all the vague and arguably misplaced guilt heaped on America doesn’t really solve problems of inequality, as much as it may make liberals feel somehow absolved.)

Kirkpatrick also earnestly noted that “another challenge that came out of the gathering was our [U.S. church] lack of focus on the Bible, prayer, worship, and spiritual life together.” He observed the ardent spiritual life of the church in Ghana and among those in his small-group Bible study, and seemed to long for that fire in our Presbyterian church again. We on the renewal side of the aisle would second that!

In addressing the work of the task force, he noted that in the world Reformed community, “there are huge disagreements” about homosexuality, but the decision has been to stay together since “this shouldn’t be the dividing issue.” He said that of the 220 world Reformed churches, only 11 openly ordain gay and lesbian persons, and “the vast majority of churches, especially in the southern hemisphere, do not support it and in fact work vigorously against it”—some to the point of being homophobic. He acknowledged that it is most difficult for those churches in the Islamic world, because Christians there are persecuted for what we do here.

In responding to a question by John Wilkinson about how we can think more broadly about the world church, Kirkpatrick replied that “whatever decisions we make about church life here need to be made in light of the whole church around the world.” He said basically that in the years ahead and with the demographic trends we’re seeing in this country, if we can’t be in good relations with the churches around the world, we won’t have a Presbyterian church in the U.S.

When Portland (Oregon) pastor Vicky Curtiss asked about how the task force’s interactions will be made known to the larger church, Kirkpatrick replied in part: “I was astounded at how much WARC people know about what we do. They read our web pages. So if we don’t split the church and don’t marginalize people, if we’re not at each other’s throats, that will be a powerful message in itself.”
After that, the task force and Kirkpatrick quickly adjourned to a nice group dinner across the hall, for which this poor, wretched beggar could only languish, dispossessed, outside the door to plead for a crust of bread. But am I bitter, as a mere observer rather than a privileged task force member? Nooooo! Not me.

Task Force probes polity

CHICAGO – The Theological Task Force considered two more papers Thursday, this time on the subject of Presbyterian polity. “Considered” is definitely the word to use, because they did not adopt them or receive them or approve them or amend them or implement them. But they did consider them and discuss them and note them, the first paper to a greater extent than the second.

Dubuque professor Mark Achtemeier presented the first paper, titled “Polity and Power: Proposals for Discussion,” about foundations of Presbyterian polity. It is a strong and vital paper, beginning with “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ.”

It continues on to explain that the way we know Jesus Christ is through Scripture. “The holy Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, and abides in the same, and listens not to the voice of a stranger,” he quotes from “The Ten Theses of Bern” (1528). “Presbyterians do not believe that Christ is known to us reliably, except as he comes to us clothed in his Word,” Achtemeier writes. Amen!

How do we rightly hear and obey the voice of Christ in Scripture? It is through the Holy Spirit’s leading, who will “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you,” Jesus said (John 14:26). “The interpretation of Scripture … pertains to the Spirit of God by whom the Scriptures were written,” according to the Scots Confession (3.18).

And finally, “Presbyterian polity orders the church to be a listening, discerning community attending to God’s Word and Spirit.” Achtemeier states that “Presbyterian polity … [is] a system designed to create the best and most reliable circumstances possible for attending to the Spirit of Christ speaking through the Scriptures, in accordance with its confession that Jesus Christ is head of the church.”

It was aspects of this final point that caused the most commentary by other task force members. Most were ready to affirm the other points, but several had some comments or suggested edits to this fourth section, where the rubber meets the road. The greatest concern seemed to be over the apparent sticky point between majority rule, on the one hand, and discerning the will of God, on the other.

The strength of Achtemeier’s paper is its firm reliance on not a nebulous “Jesus factor” and a fuzzy “Spirit leading,” but on the revealed Jesus of Scriptures, and the Spirit inevitably pointing to this Jesus of Scriptures. But this is also, perhaps, the sticking point for some task force members. The fact that God’s will is revealed through Scripture and not by vague feelings ascribed to the Spirit may have elicited some of the polite uneasiness with the paper. This paper may possibly emerge somewhat intact at a later time, although like everything so far, it was just added to the mix today.

Later in the day, Union Seminary faculty member Joe Coalter very briefly introduced a paper titled: “Principles of Polity: Their Contribution to the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Presbyterian Church.” This is a 15-pager, co-written by Coalter, Auburn Seminary President Barbara Wheeler, and Rochester pastor John Wilkinson. It attempts to summarize much of the historical teaching the task force has heard over their series of meetings.

It presents four “points of balance” that are “based on principles,” yet “press those who would adhere to them to strive for a measure of equilibrium rather than simple logical consistency.” In other words, they’re more a conundrum than a road map—like real-life, messy history often is.

Here are the four points of balance:
1) “Honoring discernment in community of the will of God and the Spirit’s leading” balances against “Recognition that God alone is the Lord of the conscience under the authority of Scripture.”
2) “Adherence to essential and necessary beliefs and practices that bind the faithful into the body of Christ” balances against “Respect for freedom in non-essential matters of belief, worship, piety, witness and service.”
3) “Distinctive Presbyterian and Reformed witness to the world” balances against “Mission with other Christians with whom we share a Catholic identity.”
4) “The rights and responsibilities of governing bodies that have original jurisdiction in church governance” balances against “The rights and responsibilities of governing bodies that have the power of oversight and review.”

The task force didn’t really interact with this paper. About three minor wording suggestions were quietly offered, and that was that. Obviously there remains much serious noodling to be done on this weighty paper full of historical insight and polity implications. We’ll probably see it again.

On a quick read, the paper seems to me to lean toward forbearance (there’s that word again!), latitude, freedom to choose one’s essentials, the value of divergent voices in the same organization, and presbytery autonomy, for the most part. But I may be feeling suspicious tonight.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Theological Task Force floating some ideas

CHICAGO – The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (TTF) is meeting October 13–15 at the Marriott Hickory Ridge in Lisle, IL (suburban Chicago). This morning, meeting in an open session with observers present, they voted to hold closed meetings most of Friday. But by day’s end, they had graciously changed their minds, choosing to close only two hours in the afternoon.

The major portion of the day was spent talking through two two-page drafts. TTF members weren’t exactly editing them, but subcommittee members were taking notes from the discussions, in order to come back later with revised drafts. These two drafts provide some of the first indications of which direction the TTF may be leaning. While the drafts are anything but finished papers, they seem to be tipping toward some form of “local option” with “mutual forbearance.” But this is only a first swipe at the matter, and the final form may end up far from this first try.

One “revised draft” on “fidelity and chastity” tried to focus on where, exactly, our church disputes arise. The draft, mainly the work of Princeton systematics professor Stacy Johnson and not seen previously by many task force members, postulated pretty much solid agreement that marital infidelity and sexual promiscuity were considered wrong. But what about “faithful, exclusive, enduring, covenantal, and committed partnership with another person of the same gender” (a tiny fraction of homosexual relationships)? Can covenantal same-gender unions ever be proper, or at least condoned as the least offensive same-sex sexual practice?

Christians throughout the ages have said, “Of course not! They’re sin!” But the draft didn’t go there. It wondered if something made to appear as innocuous as this even qualifies as departing from the essentials of Reformed faith and polity. “Why not deal with decisions on a case-by-case basis?” the argument goes. Why not practice mutual forbearance (which means to just allow the ordination of pretty-much-socially-acceptable practicing homosexual persons)?

A second revised draft on “essential tenets” begins with affirming the importance of remaining clear about doctrinal standards, and it ends with being “open to what God is doing in the world” and the “ongoing task” of setting forth the church’s standards “under the direction of Word and Spirit.” It essentially boils down to local option “within the fellowship of the governing bodies of ordaining jurisdiction.” It frowns on “a narrow set of assertions” and “narrowing the church’s confessional tradition” and “imposing on the candidate in advance a set of doctrinal standards or formulations other than the Book of Confessions” and conforming “to a list of extra-confessional words or formulae.”

Basically it feels like it’s trying to say something like this: “Confessions are good, but let’s not try to get very specific. Let’s not make a big deal about ‘reasonable’ differences (like differences over sexual morality), especially at a time when the Spirit is busy giving new direction.” Hmmm.

Again, let me emphasize that these drafts are not final in any way. They were also discussed quite thoroughly, with a major number of problems and confusions mentioned and hashed out. TTF members were not buying them wholesale. There will probably be numerous and substantial changes made, or the drafts themselves might even disappear—a preliminary but untenable idea. We’ll see what the TTF comes up with in the end.

But if these two draft papers were to fly in a form similar to what we’ve seen today, Presbyterians have reason to be concerned. These drafts appear to be aimed toward a form of local option, where the issue of biblical morality is downplayed to the point of becoming nonessential, and everyone is encouraged just to practice mutual forbearance on such a “trivial” matter.

I would think that such a trial balloon would not fly with several TTF members, judging by their comments today. And it certainly would crash among the faithful Presbyterians who are my reference points.

But we’ll see what does eventually happen to these proto ideas.

The Berkley Blog continues

After over a month of blog blockage, I'm back at it, for good or for ill.

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