Tuesday, December 13, 2005

What to Expect from a PUP

As of last week, the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (PUP) was slated to make forty-six visits to presbyteries, synods, and events in 2006, following many such meetings already in 2005. They come to promote their final report, destined for General Assembly consideration next June. A pattern for those visits has become apparent. It goes like this:

· Very nice people from the task force speak passionately about the process and personal interactions experienced during their four years together.

· Great emphasis is made on the initial diversity of the group, their rich experiences together, and the final unanimity of their report and recommendations.

· Often aspects of their study and the report are cited—a particular slant on history from the 1920s, pleasing narrative sections on Christology, the joys of alternative means of discernment, and so on.

· Their intense experience that required prodigious expenditures of time and effort is held up as a model that everyone should follow (as if it were practical or even possible for the general population of Presbyterians to spend about three hundred hours together).

· Then the audience is broken into small discussion groups to share feelings, as in a focus group, where opinion is sampled. In this case, however, there is no real feedback mechanism, other than occasional reporting back to the large group the small groups’ impressions.

· That’s it. The juggernaut moves on to the next susceptible venue, to build even more momentum for the report's approval at General Assembly in Birmingham in June.

Do you notice what’s missing?

Most often, there is precious little or no time given to discussing the substance and implications of the report’s recommendations. When all is said and done, sparkling little turns of phrases in the general report will mean very little. What would be approved by General Assembly and enacted would be only the “Recommendations” section of the report, and even those approved recommendations wouldn’t include the “Rationales” interwoven among the recommendations. Yet these crucial recommendations may be subjected to scant examination or discussion in many presentations. Sometimes there is no such assessment.

What is sold in the meetings is the feel-good wrappings, rather than the package of enormous changes the Theological Task Force report actually would deliver. Presbytery after presbytery is letting this sell-the-sizzle format deprive presbyters of an opportunity to discuss the crucial governance implications of the report, results that could wrack the church with dissension and alter drastically our Presbyterian form of polity.

In many instances, there is no opportunity to question the task force presenter(s). Sometimes a few moments are allowed for questions, but the task force members may dodge pointed questions or skirt the issues, returning inevitably to their experience together. Many presbyteries have allowed themselves to be talked out of any meaningful opportunity to interact on the substance of the report at all, leaving their vigilant presbyters frustrated and their unaware members in a fool’s paradise.

The key for any group wanting to interact meaningfully with the report is to center on the recommendations, particularly Recommendation #4 (on adding other means of decision making) and Recommendation #5 (on allowing ordaining bodies to grant exceptions to clear standards). To make the meetings useful, presbyters must insist on a meeting format that encourages critical thinking about the substance of the report and offers abundant opportunity for questions that range beyond the surface niceties into the major implications of the proposed polity changes.

If the report is coming to your presbytery, here are some tips:

· Encourage people to read or at least scan the report. Alan Wisdom offers some very handy tips to save time. Some presbyteries find that 80 percent of the presbyters know little or nothing about the Theological Task Force or the report, making them prime targets for propaganda rather than active seekers of better understanding of a complex report.

· Find out who is responsible for the event and help them set an agenda that majors on analysis of the report itself, particularly the Recommendations section. You don’t need a sales job.

· Do not allow presbytery to be turned into a passive audience, able only to “share impressions” with other presbyters in a meaningless exercise that stifles genuine discussion of the substance of the report and its implications.

· Set up an open and balanced process, providing for official input from presenters troubled by the report’s implications and knowledgeable about its content, to balance the knowledge and enthusiasm of official presenters from the task force.

· Provide ample time and encouragement for significant questions and answers—with follow-up questions allowed—utilizing a panel of both task force presenters and skilled skeptics, for balance in the answers and analysis. See “Questions Begging for a Diligent Answer” for questions you might want to be prepared to ask in such a forum.

The report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church is a major event, with enormous consequences. Your presbytery deserves the opportunity to chew on the meat of the ham, rather than only sample the honey baked on the surface.

Questions Begging for a Straight Answer

The report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church leaves readers begging for answers to knotty questions. If a task force presenter is scheduled for your presbytery, help your presbytery set up the time to be a genuine forum and zero in on directed questions such as these:

1) Will sexually active gays and lesbians be allowed to be ordained legally if your Authoritative Interpretation is passed? If not, then what difference would the A.I. make? If so, could you possibly explain why Presbyterians should now approve in this fashion what we have repeatedly determined to be unbiblical, immoral, and against God’s will?

2) Right now, sexually active gays and lesbians cannot be ordained without defying our national ordination standards. With your Authoritative Interpretation proposed in Recommendation #5, any presbytery or session would be able to ordain sexually active gays and lesbians. Our denomination has voted three times not to approve such ordinations, the most recent time by a 73% majority. Yet the task force brings back the same tired “solution” once again in your report’s recommendations. Why would you do that to us?

3) Would you please provide for us a clear and convincing refutation of the theological exegesis of Robert Gagnon? The reason I ask is that your task force apparently all but ignored his authoritative and exhaustive book The Bible and Homosexual Practice. In the face of all that he has so ably defended, the Theological Task Force failed to do the theological work to disprove or dislodge any of his theses; you just acted as if they weren’t there. Some of the assumptions of the task force [i.e., that we don’t know what the Bible says about homosexuality, that the texts are contradictory, that there are many equally valid interpretations, that homosexual behavior is theologically of little consequence, and so on] have been conclusively proven to be untenable by Gagnon. In what specific ways is Gagnon wrong? And if you cannot make your case, isn’t it lacking in intellectual integrity to continue sidestepping Gagnon’s work?

4) The Book of Order says that all meetings shall be conducted by Robert’s Rules of Order. The “shall” language makes it absolutely mandatory. That makes the recommendation to use alternative methods of decision making, such as consensus, actually unconstitutional. Why would the Task Force recommend to us an unconstitutional practice in Recommendation #4?

5) The most prominent parliamentarian in the Presbyterian Church, Marianne Wolfe, strongly argues against consensus decision-making as destructive to the unity of the body [see booklet pages 4 and 5]. We need more unity rather than less unity. I think Wolfe is absolutely correct. The opportunity for coercion is abundant with consensus. In what way is this parliamentarian we’ve all trusted for years wrong? Please be specific.

6) The Bible is terribly clear and consistent about the sinfulness of homosexual practice. Christians for two thousand years have understood what the Bible says. How could the Task Force so plainly ignore or downplay the universal witness of the ages and claim there is no agreement? It can't be the case that all Christians were childishly uninformed until the task force came along with some kind of new revelation distilled from the last thirty years of American cultural disintegration, can it?

7) Why would you ever resort to hiding your actions in closed meetings? Why wouldn’t you want all of us know what you went through to reach consensus? How can we learn from you if even your task force, with all your group building, didn’t have the courage to work where we could watch and learn?

8) During the last national vote on removing G-6.0106b and approving a substitute Authoritative Interpretation, the gist of the matter was to leave those decisions to the presbytery. That was disapproved nationally by a landslide 3:1 ratio. Now you present to us a scheme that would leave ordination decisions to the presbytery. It’s no different! Leaving G-6.0106b in place but ignoring it is equivalent to removing it. So what, exactly, were you thinking in giving back to us a failed, disapproved plan?

9) An Authoritative Interpretation is meant to explain a disputed section of the Constitution, and yet your A.I. does not explain the face meaning of G-6.0108, which is intended to limit unbounded personal freedoms, not expand them. Furthermore, an Authoritative Interpretation is not supposed to reverse constitutional provisions or act as a constitutional amendment, yet yours does. Your recommended Authoritative Interpretation would make enormous changes in our polity, taking from us our connectional system and uniform ordination practices, and that would be visited on the PCUSA without benefit of a presbytery-by-presbytery vote. It would seem illegitimate to make and impose new constitutional law by the mere vote of a single General Assembly, would it not?


These are tough, incisive questions, so one’s tone of voice in asking really comes into play in how they are received by the rest of the audience. The Theological Task Force members are not our adversaries, and there is no reason to treat them unkindly. However, they have made some decisions that would greatly affect the PCUSA, should their decisions be adopted by General Assembly.

Presbyteries have a right to get to the heart of what is being proposed and to develop a well-informed understanding of it. Task force members have an obligation to be transparent and forthcoming as they respond to questions, just as questioners have the responsibility to be polite and respectful, even when boring in with penetrating questions in response to facile answers.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

How to Respond to the Task Force Report

Having just finished reading the report of the Theological Task Force, Elliot Berkley demonstrates the proper response to the report:

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Even at 17 days, this little girl is discerning enough to be dubious.

And so should we all be dubious about a report that would pave the way for ordinations that would be "in contradiction to [the church's] charter and calling in Scripture, setting in motion both within the church and society serious contradictions to the will of Christ," according to our Authoritative Interpretation (pdf page 58).

Okay, so this adorable little girl just happens to be my first grandchild. That demonstrates even better discernment on her part.