What to Expect from a PUP
· 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.