Thursday, November 24, 2005

Oh, Benjamin! Sparks Fly!

It has come to the Berkley Blog’s attention that Presbyterian Outlook’s interim editor is in desperate need, himself, of an editor. In reading his most recent little bouquet of sweetness and light, we noticed the want of a redactor—to smooth out the meaning of his jumbled notions, to fill in logical gaps, and to correct what is technically called “bad writing.” Following is a meager attempt to add editorial gloss (in italics in brackets) to a sorry jumble of mangled meaning.

Sucking the Church Dry
O. Benjamin Sparks, Presbyterian Outlook interim editor11/21/2005

Some years ago [I didn’t bother to look up when it was] John Burgess [who you should know, since I do] wrote an essay for The Christian Century [poorly named as it is, since we’re in a new millennium] in which he described the drain on the ordinary life of the PC(USA) [no, I’m not talking about our rapidly depleting membership rolls] by coalitions with “reform” agendas [note the sneer quotes to emphasize my “good” and “fair” intentions] for the denomination.

To whichever coalition or covenant group you belonged [as long as it was one of those nasty ones caught red-handed promoting the historic faith and practices of the Christian church], the dedication and resources with which you once strengthened the church [meaning the national agencies of this denomination] for mission, service, and witness [resources that you now must funnel mainly through means outside the official structure, since the official structure has altered its understandings of “mission, service, and witness”], now went into lobbies [I’ll conveniently act as if the PCUSA doesn’t have an actual lobby in Washington, D.C., that has its own partisan notions of Christian mission, service, and witness] that were hungry for power, for theological dominance, or for political control [not that my opinion of others’ motives is in the least erroneous, jaded, or worldly].

Burgess’ article was written in the ‘90s. Has anyone calculated [I’m sure not going to actually bother to do the math] the hundreds of thousands of dollars which, since then, have been contributed to the Covenant Network [to mention one group on the left, to lend a semblance of balance to my diatribe against the conservatives], the Presbyterian Coalition, PFR, and the Confessing Church movement, and the like [notice how I’ve cleverly lumped together groups standing up for what Christians have always believed with a group that’s trying to undermine orthodox faith and practice, as if it made no difference]—in staff salaries, speakers’ fees, and travel for conferences, phone bills, office equipment, and the like [all made possible with gifts donated by a committed few, who wonder why their per capita isn’t used equally as well]?

If those sums of money were prudently managed and spent, they might eliminate AIDS in a medium-sized African nation [and, then again, they might not, since with this hat-trick statement I’ve scored three times: I exposed my deficiencies in math, my ignorance of the enormity of the AIDS crisis, and an embarrassingly patronizing attitude toward the significance of African countries].

For years I have viewed all these groups with suspicion [okay, with ignorance and jaundice, too, and a lack of interest in the real persons and motives involved], and wondered why the ordinary “means of grace” in congregation, session, presbytery, and General Assembly were not enough [not enough to invigorate a dwindling church, not enough to bring people to joyous faith in Christ, not enough to send off increasing rather than decreasing numbers of missionaries, not enough to stem the tide of secularization sweeping through seminaries and judicatories and congregations—yes, I do wonder why “not enough” pretty well describes official Presbyterianism nowadays]—not enough to assist faithful Presbyterians in resolving the issues that divide us by deciding them and moving on [because, from my Olympian editorial height, I can see all these petty questions of biblical authority, Christology, and sexual morality as minor matters having little to do with the real mission of the church—matters that surely ought not detain the church for more than a year or two].

Why should Presbyterians waste precious time and financial resources on something that is not the church of Jesus Christ our Lord, not the body of Christ, not the royal priesthood, the chosen race, and definitely not the holy repository of Word and Sacrament? [Okay, let me say to anyone snickering at that: I wasn’t describing the PCUSA just now. What I’m getting at is that the PCUSA has exclusive copyright claims to “body of Christ,” and we’re not about to admit that Christ might be speaking or working through any “unofficial” groups.]

We do not baptize persons into the Covenant Network [Hoo-eee! That was my coup de grâce!]. And as for the Confessing Church – I already belong to a Confessing Church and wish that presbyteries and sessions had the gumption to hold officers accountable to our constitutional standards [which, hmmm…which suggests the need for the Confessing Church Movement, I suppose].

What has happened to us [and when I say “us,” I mean the Presbyterians just like me and not those other critters with whom I disagree, who are only posing as real Presbyterians] and other mainline churches is similar to what has happened to American cities. When those with power and money lose control of the political process and the schools [well, okay, since they lose control, they must not have power, so I really meant “those with money.” Actually, I’m not sure what I meant, but never mind; I’m speechifying!] – they move to the suburbs, build their own schools and systems, abandoning those without money and power to leftovers [Oops! The copy editor didn’t save me from either my bad punctuation or my breakdown in parallelism!].

In similar fashion, when I cannot get my way in the church [Why bother attributing more noble and true motives when I can cheaply smear my foes as solely being interested in getting their way, which is all that matters in church politics, isn’t it?], I form a group and not only try to change the church’s direction [please pay no attention to the fact that I myself am trying to change the church’s direction as I write this editorial], but also relentlessly attack the church for its apostasy or its lack of courage and prophetic zeal [but it’s decidedly okay for me to relentlessly attack the committed church reformers for their cussedness or their courage and prophetic zeal.]. I then weaken the church sufficiently [yes, of course, the only goal of renewal groups is to weaken the church; how blind of people not to see it before I point it out so plainly!], so that when my group finally takes control, what do I have [obviously a mean-spirited argument that holds no water!]?

The Report of the Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church has revealed this [petulant penchant for incoherence on my part] as nothing else in recent Presbyterian history [my knowledge of which may be incomplete, but it is so easy to make a sweeping but mindless claim once the keyboard starts clicking]. Even with its flaws and the risks to which it calls the church, the 20 people [Copy editor! Where’s the copy editor who should have saved me from dangling modifiers like this?] on the TF have proven – at least to themselves [in their dreams] – that the church of Jesus Christ is bigger than its expensive factions [which are forced to supplement what the official structures fail to do].

They found that they all belong to something higher and larger and grander than any coalition from which they come – with an intentionally limited vision. They belong to [the great kindergarten in the sky, where every child is special and no one takes cuts in line—wait, I digress] Jesus Christ and they need each other [because everyone else not enchanted with their cheery group-think is seeing through their putative solution]. In addition to the General Assembly recommendations, they invite us to discover among ourselves what they have learned [specifically, that if you use enough ambiguous words loosely, everybody finds something that he or she can like, and they all may just miss the bomb you’re dropping in the recommendations].

A group of young ministers, all of whom happened to be from Columbia Seminary, (See “Common Ground” articles, Outlook issue of May 30, 2005) discovered the same thing when they met together – that the Christ who called them to serve the church is more compelling and lovely than the issues that divide them [such as what it means to dedicatedly follow that Christ and make that Christ LORD, not one’s own devices and desires].

It is foolish to expect all these coalitions to disappear, or to wither away, or to be required to hold their meetings in Harare, Zimbabwe [although that doesn’t restrain me from suggesting it], while the General Assembly is meeting in Birmingham, Alabama [under the complete and undisputed sway of the national church agencies, which would be the only voice heard, rather than only the most privileged voice heard].

But it is not too much to expect, for ministers and elders from the 50 largest congregations (or even the 15 largest) to follow the example of those young ministers and meet together, so that – for the good of the church of Jesus Christ under the leadership of the Spirit – they may learn that the gospel vocation that binds them together is bigger, deeper, and broader than any issue dividing them [and I suggest this without a whit of acknowledgement that most of the 50 largest congregations are solidly on one side (the orthodox side) of the debate, that their pastors aren’t ninnies, that they may have already engaged in many such “dialogues,” and that they have learned the limits of what such “dialogue” can accomplish].

Hey, even the Layman and the Outlook [notice how I’ve neatly placed the Outlook up against the Layman, evaporating any semblance of neutrality about the Outlook’s self-perceived stance] might learn to break bread together – on our knees!

Instead of a sucked-dry chalice – we need to become a cup overflowing with the wine of reconciliation and peace. [Yes, please do follow my example of utter kindness and generosity in reaching out in reconciliation and peace to those dirty, rotten scoundrels, those politically motivated money-grubbers who are sucking our church dry with their sick cravings for conflict.] Christ died – not for any group’s agenda, but for the church [of which I am one of the sole remaining shining examples, unlike those other people with an agenda].

* * * * *

Editor’s note: It occurs to me that some budding private detectives with a dubious streak might uncover the fact that this blogger earns part of his living leading one of those dread “coalitions with a ‘reform’ agenda.” Yes, fans, according to Sparks, I’m a sucker-dry of all that is good and noble! By his calculations, AIDS is still ravaging Africa because I’m a Presbyterian parasite. It’s a heavy burden of guilt to bear, but in spite of it, I try to practice my Christian faith and journalism with a particular attitude that seems outside the comprehension of those who can only envision power politics or personal gain: seeking altruistically to glorify God in Jesus Christ, speaking the truth of his Word, and applying it to the church and the world as best I can, as the Holy Spirit leads.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

A centrist among eccentrics? Or not.

After reading about the most recent General Assembly moderator endorsement—Tim Halverson of Cape Coral, Florida—I had a couple of thoughts and a question.

First, it’s great that Tim has a degree in evangelism and church growth—elements sorely needed in the Presbyterian church today. It’s also nice that his congregation is growing moderately, again good in this numerically declining denomination. However, although the news story touts over 1,100 new members in the last eight years, the statistics reveal more than 700 members sent packing during that same time, so it looks like one of those demographic situations where Tim and the church need to keep running just to stay in place. Still, this two- to three-percent net annual increase in membership over eight years would look mighty good if it could be replicated in the entire PCUSA!

Second, it appears by the news coverage that Halverson is staking out his territory at the mythical center of the church. One gets that from his statement (“In a left-right world, we have forgotten the center”) and the elaboration by Halverson’s general presbyter (“We need a strong and articulate voice from the center to hold us together in these difficult times”)—which I think was meant to refer to Halverson’s voice and not Christ’s.

Somehow, this brought to mind something I remember youth leaders doing at times when I was in youth ministry. They’d want to hype their activity, so they’d say to the kids, “This isn’t going to be like Sunday school. This isn’t going to be boring old church. Our Banana Madness Night is going to be FUN!” So, in trying to build up their thing, these youth directors would knock Sunday school and put down worship. It always made me wince, like it was a cheap shot and counterproductive besides.

I would hope that Tim Halverson doesn’t make his place in the moderatorial field by attempting to shove to the extremes fellow Presbyterians who have chosen to look clearly at the issues and speak an opinion or work toward an end. Claiming the center and isolating the others at arbitrary poles of an artificial spectrum would not be a particularly noble tactic—kind of a cheap shot for one’s own barren advantage, I would think. “Halverson: The centrist among eccentrics!”

And that leads to the question I would love for Tim Halverson to answer: What do you mean by “the center”? It’s a little facile to say that the center is Jesus, because, on paper at least, that wouldn’t distinguish you from any other commissioner eventually standing for moderator. All would agree. So what constitutes the theological or sociological or political center of the PCUSA, as you are referring to it? What exactly would put other people out of that center but you smack dab in the middle of it? What does it mean to be a “voice from the center” in a “left-right world”? Who are the left, and what makes them so? Who are the right, and what makes them so? And from what vantage point are you drawing your spectrum? From secular society’s viewpoint? From world Christianity? From historical Christianity or classical Reformed theology? From Halverson at the center and then on out to the “fringes”?

This is not a blast at Tim Halverson. Quite the contrary. It is a daunting task to stand for moderator, and even more exhausting to serve as one. He's brave to do this. It’s not a dig. I don’t know Tim Halverson from Adam, and I have no idea yet where the Spirit is leading us in regard to his potential leadership. But I think some more conversation about the meaning of how he is positioning himself will be useful to everyone with an interest not only in who will be Moderator of General Assembly, but also an interest in what is happening throughout our denomination as people look to the issues before us.

Perhaps this announcement by Tim Halverson can bring out a necessary discussion on Presbyterian political nomenclature often alluded to but rarely defined.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Theological Task Force's Humongous Dilemma

Does anyone else remember the Chippendales-tryout skit with Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live? In the classic comedy sketch, the suave hunk Patrick Swayze and the rotund slob Chris Farley are the final two auditioners left in a tryout for a job as a Chippendales dancer (masculine cheesecake, if you’re not familiar with Chippendales). Swayze has all the moves, the look, the build. Farley has sweaty rolls of fat and a clueless but chipper earnestness.

The running joke is that the producer just can’t decide which guy to go with. Wow! It’s SUCH a tough decision. With Swayze’s charm and Farley’s fearless physical humor, the skit is a hoot.

So why do I keep picturing that skit when I think of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church?

Well, the Task Force just CAN’T decide about the big ordination question. It is SUCH a tough decision. I mean, think about it:

On the one hand, in opposition to homosexual practice being okay for Christians, you have:
· The clear text of the Bible, whose plain disapproval of homosexual practice Christians have always understood.
· The uniform moral belief and practice of the Christian church as long as there has been a church.
· Confirmation by what our Confessions teach.
· An express provision in our Constitution that turned into explicit law what had always been practiced implicitly.
· A definitive guidance, authoritative interpretations, and advisory opinions that also point out the incompatibility of homosexual practice with God’s will, Christian discipleship, and church leadership.
· Decisions by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission that further reinforce the Constitutional standard.
· Progressively more lopsided victories in churchwide constitutional votes that upheld standards opposed to homosexual practice.
· The magisterial exegetical work of Robert Gagnon that makes a biblical case against homosexual practice that no other scholar has successfully disputed.
· The witness of faithful Christian churches around the world who beg Presbyterians not to trifle with the faith by embracing homosexual practice.
· The stories of former homosexual persons who have found release and transformation in Jesus Christ.

Wow! That’s pretty awesome!

But, wait. We’d better see what’s lined up on the other hand. After all, in favor of homosexual ordination, you have, uh– Well, you’ve got some … hmmm … Well, there’s, um, there’s some:
· Sad stories about people who feel oppressed because they can’t freely practice forbidden sex.
· Yeah, and you’ve got some pretty darn strong personal opinion, too!
· And you’ve got the way the sexual-liberation tide is sweeping through a degenerate Western society. You’ve definitely got that.
· And, to top that off, you’ve got some really imaginative, uh, “interpretation” of some spare parts of the Bible that their commentators haven’t tossed out altogether quite yet.

So, line them up: biblical faithfulness on the one hand, and worldly wish fulfillment on the other. With a massive dilemma like this, golly! How’s a Theological Task Force to decide?

Well, they couldn’t. Discernment was not their strong suit. And that’s why I think of Farley and Swayze when the Theological Task Force comes to mind.

And that’s why the Task Force report fails Presbyterians. It neither directs us toward peace, unity, and purity nor corrects our moral failure of will. At General Assembly next summer, the report must be replaced, amended, or simply defeated.

(For a clear-eyed, much more serious analysis of the subject, take a look at the essay by Thomas Warren, pastor of Deltona (FL) Presbyterian Church, in The Layman Online’s letters to the editor on November 14, 2005.)

Friday, November 11, 2005

Closed Doors and Confusion

Why do Presbyterian meeting doors keep slamming shut? What is going on that the whole world can't witness? How many more ways can we twist a transparent open-door policy to permit secrecy and withhold public information?

The report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church was greatly handicapped by being forged in secret. The very group that was supposed to lead the church into dealing theologically with disputes could not summon the courage to deal openly with their disputes, and retreated behind closed doors for nearly all of their discussions and decisions. In order to meet privately, they exploited to the nth degree a small exception to an excellent open-door policy in effect in our denomination.

Now, news comes that the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee slammed the doors shut on their meeting with Motorola, a target for possible divestment because of their business with the Israeli police and military. This meeting was part of a graduated series of steps to bring pressure on Motorola, a process that could lead to divestment of 644,400 shares of Motorola stock owned by Presbyterian entities.

So how could an organization with a firm open-door policy kick everybody out in order to hold a closed session? MRTI invoked a clause in the open-meetings policy that "In certain circumstances, when the confidentiality of the subject matter is impeding the open work of the group, its meetings may be closed." Among the requirements is that "Subjects dealt with must be limited to property negotiation, personnel, civil and criminal litigation, or security."

In a church that properly expects its entities to operate out in the open, so that the entire church--and, indeed, the world--may see, evaluate, and approve of what is being done on their behalf, why would there be the opportunity to close some meetings? A need for confidentiality of some subject matter is the key reason, along with security:

  • For property matters, you obviously can't have possible sellers knowing that "We'll offer $1 million to buy that property, but we could go as high as $1.5 million if necessary." In bona fide property negotiations, a buyer or seller needs some confidentiality in order to negotiate the terms successfully. Were the MRTI team meeting to come up with strategy prior to their time with Motorola, perhaps that strategy meeting could be closed. MRTI wouldn't want Motorola to know that "We'll press for XYZ, but if they give us only X and Z, let's be satisfied." But that wasn't the closed meeting. The closed meeting was WITH Motorola! The party kept out was the Presbyterian Church as a whole.
  • In personnel matters, discretion about an individual's activities and performance is a kindness and most often is required, in order to limit possible legal repercussions. Also, salary and benefit negotiations would hardly be fair if the candidate knew the upper figure possible for remuneration, or what everybody else is being paid.
  • Civil and criminal litigation require confidentiality for legal and personal-rights reasons.
  • Security is a little more subjective, but if a meeting is being made impossible through disruption, threats, intimidation, or criminal action, steps obviously need to be taken to prevent disaster. Rare should security be invoked as a reason to close Presbyterian meetings, however! And security was not the stated reason for closing the MRTI-Motorola meeting.

So how could the MRTI meetings be closed? They used the pretext of "property negotiations." The stock we hold is technically property, they'll be talking about that property with Motorola, and so that discussion was deemed sufficient to fall under the "property negotiations" exception to the open-meetings policy.

Really? Does that make any sense to you?

What is to be gained by a closed meeting? By not allowing the press or any Presbyterians to witness what their MRTI committee was hashing out with Motorola, is MRTI preserving some kind of necessary advantage for Presbyterians as a whole against "nasty" Motorola, with whom we were ostensibly engaged in "property negotiations"? I have no idea what that advantage would be. It's not as if we Presbyterians have a purchase price we're holding secret and don't want Motorola to know.

What's more, the party being kept OUT of the meetings is not the "adversary"--Motorola--it's all of us Presbyterians who don't know what is being done in our stead! The parties being sheltered from scrutiny and protected from accountability are the MRTI and Motorola representatives. The Presbyterian Church doesn't benefit from closing those doors, but our representatives on MRTI and Motorola's representatives sure do. They don't have to deal with any accountability for what they said and did in a session off-limits to everyone else who SHOULD be in that room!

Let's say that our MRTI team made outrageous demands, operated from naive and false economic and political assumptions, expected ridiculous concessions from Motorola, and generally embarrassed the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). If so, they could do it with impunity. No correction would be possible, because we Presbyterians have no idea what they said and did.

On the contrary, let's say that our MRTI team acted brilliantly, responsibly, and with devastating insight and accuracy. They had their case down cold, and pinned Motorola to the mat, making Motorola look foolish and churlish. Does the innate fairness and brilliance of their case help any of the rest of us see the light and make up our minds, too? No. The case was wasted, since it was made behind closed doors.

Okay, let's say that Motorola acted remote and uncaring, stonewalling any attempt for information or exchange of ideas. Or maybe they really goofed up and gave the MRTI team information that actually hurt the Motorola case and buttressed the case for divestment. Does anybody but the MRTI team benefit from this knowledge? No. No one else got to see it.

Or, let's say that Motorola was exceedingly courteous, professional, knowledgeable, and competent in their talk with MRTI, perhaps clearing up misconceptions or proving how allegations against them are baseless. Maybe they so argued their case that open-minded persons would believe that Motorola is doing good rather than doing harm, and they should be supported, rather than hounded. With a closed meeting, any of that would need to be transmitted second-hand, either from Motorola or MRTI, each of which might not be entirely trusted by one party or another. Since no one witnessed the actual event, second-hand reports from interested parties would have to suffice.

So why the closed meeting? There is no justification for it, other than the possible comfort of the representatives of both sides who don't have to have their statements and actions subject to scrutiny. The PCUSA doesn't gain by having those meetings closed. Why couldn't the world hear our case for why, if Motorola doesn't shape up to what MRTI wants, we should sell our stock? Why couldn't the whole world hear Motorola's case for why possible divestment is unfair or unwise?

This was no "property negotiation." Closing the meeting was not only imprudent for pragmatic reasons; it was an abuse of a very necessary and useful open-meetings policy. I would only wish that our Associate Stated Clerk would not so blithely defend such harmful misapplication of a prudent policy.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Agreement on Theological Task Force Results

Is the proposed Authoritative Interpretation in Recommendation #5 of the Theological Task Force's report a big deal? The A.I. would provide a means for the ordination of persons determined to be in violation of ordination standards, such as G-6.0106b on "fidelity and chastity." Would it make any difference if the A.I. gets approved by General Assembly next summer?

We could look at it this way: If it wouldn't make a difference, why would it be proposed by the Task Force as their plan of action? If it would make virtually no change in our polity practices, what use would it serve? Why bother? Certainly the Task Force members believe it does introduce a real change, although their official line is that the change is almost no change at all.

People very familiar with the report believe big changes would be made. And here, both sides of the aisle are in rare agreement.

According to Tricia Dykers Koenig, the Covenant Network’s national organizer, the Authoritative Interpretaion's approval “would be a huge step forward, because a lot more ordinations [of practicing homosexual persons] would be happening.” She's speaking from the side advocating the reversal of our standards.

Speaking from the side of the majority of Presbyterians, who want us to uphold biblical standards, I said at the Presbyterian Coalition meeting in Orlando recently that "we would soon have a flood of elders, deacons, and pastors ordained contrary to the standards that Christians have always upheld."

Approval of the proposed Authoritative Interpretation next summer would undoubtably result in a sharp increase of sexually active homosexual persons ordained to office. Anyone opposed to that scenario will definitely want to help work for amendment, substitution, or outright disapproval of the Theological Task Force report.