The Stated Clerk: An innocent abroad?
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.