Monday, January 23, 2006

Attend; shun! An exclusive interview of Jim Berkley

It has come to the attention of the Berkley Blog that a certain Jim Berkley, Interim Director of Presbyterian Action, was quite upset by what happened to him when he attempted to observe the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) last week in Louisville. He has written a flurry of articles about it: a blog on Thursday, two blogs on Saturday, and a news and commentary article on Saturday.

So why is this guy so ticked off, anyway? The Berkley Blog has managed to arrange an exclusive, no-holds-barred interview with Berkley, who, truth be told, just happens by coincidence to be the writer of the Berkley Blog.

Berkley Blog: Look, Mr. Berkley—

Jim Berkley: Please—you can call me Jim.

Blog: Okay, uh, Jim, from how we heard it, you just waltzed into the ACSWP meeting at a conference center in Louisville and acted like you owned the place. You demanded papers to read. You forced your way into private rooms for meetings. You expected to be treated like one of the committee members or their friends. Then, when you didn’t get what you wanted, you threw a hissy fit. What makes you think you’re so almighty important?

Jim: Whoa! Down, boy! You’re showing a little attitude there. Where’d you get that version of the story?

Blog: That’s the way it seemed to the committee leaders you dealt with, didn’t it?

Jim: Yeah, it certainly seemed that way, from the reception I received. The truth of the matter is that I was merely trying to exercise the “basic right” of every church member “to know about the work done and the decisions made by entities within the church,” as our denomination’s very fine Open Meeting Policy puts it. I went to the meetings, expecting to observe them, like any other meetings I commonly attend. I tried to be pleasant and courteous, but I also turned insistent when I was thwarted at every turn. I did argue quite forcefully the legitimacy of what I was requesting.

But we need to be clear. This wasn’t about Jim Berkley and whether Jim Berkley was being treated like someone important or not. This was about a key aspect of our church government.

Blog: And that is…?

Jim: Open government. Again, let me quote from the Open Meeting Policy that is in effect in our church and certainly ought to be honored: “The work of the church is strengthened when it is done in a spirit of openness and trust. Church members have a basic right to know about the work done and the decisions made by entities within the church. Church leaders have a basic responsibility to honor that right by conducting their business with a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny.”

Look at those key words: “a spirit of openness and trust,” “a basic responsibility to honor that right,” “vulnerability to public scrutiny.” With that kind of spirit in place, our church-government processes are enhanced. We just plain get better government when things are in the open and not hidden away in secret. We’ve decided that as a denomination, and our responsibility is to live like that in action and not just on paper.

Blog: But really! The ACSWP doesn’t want to open up its meetings. It likes doing its work in private. Why should it have to have open meetings?

Jim: The policy makes it very clear: “open meetings shall be the norm,” and “meetings shall be open to all interested persons.” Why should ACSWP think it operates in a policy-free zone? The committee members especially need to open up their meetings if they feel inclined to close them. That is the exact reason we have a policy—to save groups from their own petty instincts toward secrecy. It’s part of the checks and balances in place because Presbyterians truly believe in the T from Calvin’s TULIP: total depravity.

Blog: Let me get this right: Are you saying ACSWP is depraved?

Jim: You said it. Thanks! They’re totally depraved, just like all the rest of us. They—and we—are all subject to sin in all aspects of our work. That’s why it is good for all Presbyterian meetings to have a little sunshine policy, so that others can see what is going on, form opinions on it, comment on it, and be used by the Holy Spirit to effect changes if necessary.

We all benefit from such open exchange in the marketplace of ideas. Any group descends into parochial group-think by barricading themselves from outside scrutiny and input. It’s not good, and I dare say that many of the previous failed ACSWP reports are evidence of such tunnel-vision problems. Yet, here they are, perpetuating the process that got them in trouble. That makes no sense.

Blog: And so you get on a high horse and ride in like somebody important who ought to be treated special.

Jim: Not at all. I simply ought to be treated like any other church member who has taken the time to visit and observe his or her church at work. I should be accorded Christian hospitality. The group ought to act as if of course I belong there, because this is the work of the church¸ and not their clubby little enclave. They ought to make available to any observer the basic papers that make the meeting make sense. They ought to welcome the scrutiny, praying that everything they do would shine brightly in the Kingdom of God and allow people to see what a super job their committee is doing.

I mean, think of it: If you’re producing a great product through an honorable process, what’s there to hide?

Blog: Hey, I thought I was the one asking the questions! I know there have been times when news stories have gone out about partially drafted papers, and then people got all upset over aspects that never even made it into the final draft. Why shouldn’t the ACSWP wait to get pasted for what the committee does produce, rather than getting blasted for what it might produce?

Jim: That sounds like a fearful group that is grasping for elusive control it really shouldn’t want and never can obtain anyway! Where is its confidence in Presbyterians to think and discern? Where is its confidence in its own thoughts and words to win the hearts and minds of believers, trouncing false allegations or mean-spirited attacks because the committee’s thoughts and words just ooze biblical faithfulness and utter reasonableness?

Where, I ask, is the committee’s submission to the task given it to broadly include the wisdom of the church in its deliberations? As the “Forming Social Policy” statement reads, ACSWP is to work things out in a “manner in which the whole church can participate (advise, offer input, etc.) in its deliberations.” You don’t exclude the very people you are supposed to include! Wisdom doesn’t begin and end with the committee members. What makes them think that they need to hoard their work to themselves, lest someone else might see it and—horrors!—offer some good suggestions that might actually improve it?

Blog: Okay. Okay. So they let people crash the party. But Mark Tammen from the Office of the General Assembly told them they didn’t need to make their papers available, didn’t he?

Jim: Don’t get me started! Yes, he did. Somehow he was able to read a very clear policy and rule that an open meeting could also maintain secret papers. People could physically attend an open meeting, but they needn’t be given any means to comprehend what is being said. All the papers can be kept secret, and thus about 95% of the discussion is rendered meaningless.

If that’s an open meeting, then I’m a monkey’s uncle! Ridiculous! That’s your per capita money at work, rendering a clear policy merely “aspirational,” something that can be aspired to, but—Gracious, no!—doesn’t actually need to be followed.

Blog: I get it that you feel rather strongly about this personally. This is about you, isn’t it?

Jim: Yes and no. Yes, in that I got to bear the brunt of officious rejection, which was no picnic, and endure the grinding frustration of being rendered paperless during hours and hours of meetings turned into maddening mysteries. I didn’t give up four days of my life and travel all the way from Seattle to be shunned like a party crasher. So, yes, I’m personally not very happy about that kind of shabby treatment.

But this really isn’t about me. I’m not important. I don’t deserve any particular attention. I was there to represent church members, Presbyterians as a whole. I was there to report and comment on the process and the ideas, so that church members could get a picture into how their ACSWP was handling the important business of the church.

Now this is important: The way I was treated, then, was actually the way the ACSWP chose to treat the church! Denying me what should have been graciously and cheerfully delivered was to haughtily deny the church information that is theirs to know. It was to say, “This is our business, and you (the church) don’t belong in it. Bug out!”

And don’t forget, reporter Evan Silverstein of Presbyterian News Service was equally denied access. He was there to report to all of us what was going on, and ACSWP very thoroughly frustrated his task and wasted his time. Believe me, he was disgusted by it, too.

Blog: Okay. I think I have a pretty good idea now of how you feel. Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t give you a chance to say?

Jim: Thank you. That was a gracious question—and brilliant. I’ve used that one before, myself, when interviewing people.

Let me point out one little anecdote that I think illustrates the disconnect between the ACSWP and the church. The ACSWP members are simply not like the church as a whole. They don’t come close to representing us.

Here’s what happened: Witherspoon Society activist and commentator Eugene TeSelle was in attendance as a consultant on a paper the ACSWP has in process, and he sat in on parts of the rest of the meeting (outfitted with papers, I might add). After one session, he came over to me to cheerfully point out a book he had recommended to the committee. The book was Toward an Evangelical Public Policy, by Ron Sider and Diane Knippers. He seemed pleased with himself for providing the committee insight into the evangelical mind by suggesting this book. I think he considered it a broadminded gesture, given his marked progressive viewpoint.

That was great of him to do. It was fair and broadminded. But don’t you think it odd that a committee of the whole church, a committee that ought to be broadly diverse, a committee in a denomination that is just 18 percent liberal in orientation but 38 percent conservative—isn’t it odd that the ACSWP members would need a book to introduce them to evangelical thinking, as if conservative Presbyterians were an odd species to study from afar? Wouldn’t you think they’d have four or five conservative committee members to interpret that large segment of the church to two or three liberal members?

Ha! Think again.

Blog: Okay, then what can people actually do about this?

Jim: I'm glad you asked. If they think this is the pits, they need to let their respectful case be heard. The leaders of the ACSWP and of the denomination need to know that this kind of monkey business in our church is a disgrace, that we do believe in the rule of law and not of whim. Here are some people to write:

Nile Harper is chair of the ACSWP:

Chris Iosso is staff Coordinator for ACSWP:

John Detterick is Executive Director of the General Assembly Council, and ACSWP is lodged under his authority:

Helen Locklear is Deputy Executive Director of GAC, and she is directly responsible for oversight of ACSWP:

Mark Tammen is Director of the Department of Constitutional Services:

Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, supervises Mark Tammen:

I'd ask folks to do me a favor and cc me when they write or when they get a reply: And thanks for letting me get this off my chest.

Blog: The pleasure was all mine.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Sun Don’t Shine in Louisville

To continue my “Nothing to See in Louisville” story from yesterday about the virtual-closed-meeting of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, here’s the news for Friday: Nothing changed. All day, no papers. The “sunshine policy” doesn’t work.

The following log traces my dismal day Thursday, to document what no Presbyterian should be forced to endure at the hands of church entities at work.

  • 8:30 a.m.: I arrived at the meeting place, only to find the first meeting was at 1:15 p.m. ACSWP members were in a reading period from 9:00 to noon to read the reports. Okay. I’ll use the time for the same profitable reading, because nothing had been sent to me, not even an agenda.
  • 8:40 a.m.: I found ACSWP chair Nile Harper and made what has always before been a routine request for copies of the reports to read. He said that I could read the reports with the rest of the world after February 15, when they are released by the Office of General Assembly. I would not be given any reports to read. He did say that reports would be available in the working groups and plenary sessions, and I could see them there but couldn’t take them from the room or copy them. He told me the afternoon working groups would meet out in the public spaces, and I could join them. I protested the whole no-papers arrangement, to no avail.
  • 8:45 a.m.: I realized that I could have slept off my jet lag, with suddenly no ACSWP-related activity to do for nearly five hours. I flew from Seattle to Louisville for this?
  • 1:15 p.m.: ACSWP met briefly to break into three working groups to fine-tune the drafts they had received and read. Nile Harper informed me that they would now be meeting in private sleeping rooms and that I would not be allowed to join in on the meetings. The committee meetings were private. That was in direct contradiction with what he had told me previously, and no warning or explanation was given. When the working groups dispersed, I strongly pressed the case with Harper for following the denominational Open Meeting Policy. It was not pleasant. Only after I showed him the actual policy and pled my case vigorously did he relent and glumly take me to the working group of my choice.
  • 1:30 p.m. Nile Harper knocked on the sleeping room door of a work group hiding out from scrutiny. Oops! Wrong working group. But I saw apprehension written on some faces anyway. We went to the right room and Harper knocked there. He explained through the door that he was there to place me in that group because of the policy. I got to hear senior staff member Vernon Broyles complain bitterly that I don’t belong and shouldn’t be allowed in. Harper prevailed, and I got to join the happy little gathering of people who wished I would just go away. I was not allowed to see any of the papers they prepared for plenary. I could only listen and take sparing notes.
  • 4:30 p.m. We gathered in a meeting room for a plenary session. Now Evan Silverstein from the Presbyterian News Service also shared my no-paper plight. Nile Harper made it clear that we two would not be allowed to see any papers—again completely contradicting what he had said in the morning. The group worked through three papers, but Evan and I had no ability to ascertain what people were referring to in their comments. Our time was wasted.
  • 5:00 p.m. I try to call Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, GAC Executive Director John Detterick, and legal officer Mark Tammen in the Presbytery Center to alert them about the egregious violation of policy. Kirkpatrick was out. Tammen and Detterick had voicemail. I left messages. I also sent an e-mail.
  • 6:00 p.m. The group broke for dinner. Evan went to reason with Chris Iosso (staff Coordinator for ACSWP) and I talked with Nile Harper, again to no avail. Something had changed since he had talked with me in the morning, and now they didn’t plan to release any papers even to be read in the meeting room. Helen Locklear, Deputy Executive Director of GAC, was present. I talked briefly with her about the Open Meeting Policy, and she said she would talk with Harper. I joined Evan Silverstein in conversation with Chris Iosso and ended up in an extended debate with Iosso, who produced lame excuse after unsupportable reason why they didn’t need to comply with the plain spirit of the Open Meeting Policy. It was a most frustrating conversation. ACSWP simply didn’t want anyone to know yet what they were doing. Thus, they weren’t going to let us see it, plain and simple. I went to dinner.
  • 7:45 p.m. Back in the plenary meeting, Helen Locklear whispered that she had talked with John Detterick, and Mark Tammen would respond. Detterick would have liked to return my call, but I had failed to give him my cell number.
  • 7:50 p.m. Mark Tammen e-mailed a phone number, and I left the meeting to call him. We talked over 70 minutes, and by the end of the call and having heard my explanation, Tammen seemed ready to say that the policy ought to apply. I was relieved.
  • 10:22 p.m. Mark Tammen e-mailed an informal version of a “formal opinion” from his office. He basically ruled that although giving out papers to observers is customary and fits the spirit of open meetings, the policy is “aspirational” and he cannot rule that any groups are required to provide papers. If I wanted, I could go through the overture process at General Assembly and get the policy amended, however. What a thoughtful remedy!
  • All day Friday: ACSWP enjoyed its permission to continue trashing the spirit and purpose of open meetings by carefully hoarding their papers.

Doesn’t that sound like a fun two days of sweetness and light while in responsible pursuit of connectionalism?

“Asperational” policies and other nonsense

This posting, related to the previous one, shows my e-mail exchange with Mark Tammen, so you, too, can check out the legal reasoning.


01/19/2006 5:01 PM

Cliff, John, and Mark,

I have flown from Seattle to Louisville to observe the ACSWC meetings and am finding GREAT resistance to the Open Meeting Policy here. Already I have been repeatedly denied the opportunity to read anything before the groups, sitting through a five-hour morning and then two meetings with it made abundantly clear that I cannot see the documents they are discussing. I had to truly ARGUE my way into being able to be present in one of the working groups and was only grudgingly allowed after I made a strong, insistent case from the Open Meeting Policy.

I need your help: Should not a meeting that is truly open allow for observers to see and comprehend the documents being discussed? There is no good reason to keep materials secret, and none of the materials fall under the exceptions to the Open Meeting Policy. It is simply material they don't want others to see--which is why we have an Open Meeting Policy to deny such urges.

This is not the way an open meeting should be!

We are meeting tonight (Thursday) and the next two days. I think this is intolerable, and I request that you contact Nile Harper and Chris Iosso to instruct them that they cannot hide their business as they have.

Thanks. I'm steaming at a table in the back of the room.

Jim Berkley

[Later we talked on the phone for 70 minutes to fully explain the situation and think through the options. Then the following answer came by e-mail, after the evening plenary meeting was concluded. Tammen wrote it in haste during off hours for my benefit before meetings resumed the next morning, so thus it contains some understandable typos. It is “thinking out loud” rather than formal policy, and shouldn’t be considered as a formal reply, but it does render a decision that is notable in its leniency on upholding the clear spirit of a General Assembly policy. That decision allowed ACSWP to continue withholding materials on Friday.]

Thu 1/19/2006 10:22 PM


Our network seems to be back up and running, so I can write from my computer rather than a blackberry screen. You and I have had an extensive conversation. I have now had a chance to review the Open Meetings Policy.

Since you said you have access to wireless, I'll try to respond in this format in hopes you can have this opinion in time for tommow's meeting. I'll cc Evan as well.

You have sought my advice on two issues surrounding the interpretations of open meetings policy.

1. You have sought my interpretation as to what “meetings” are covered under the policy?

It seems to me that any gathering where deliberation and consideration are taking place would be covered by the policy; whereas writing teams from committees that are drafting material for the committee (or subcommittees with delegated authority) would not be subject to the policy.

So a team that is working together to put thoughts on paper for the committee (or subcommittee) to consider and act upon would not be a “meeting” within the understanding of the policy, but the group that considers that work product to would be subject tot the policy.

2. You have also sought my opinion as to whether the very expansive language used in paragraph #1 of the policy [hyperlink added] implicitly requires that a GA committee share the documents that the committee is considering with observers of the meeting.

I agree that words like “conducting their business with a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny” are expansive and very broad, yet it seems to me that they are likewise asperational.

In my experience the norm in the GA entities, committees and such is that materials considered are made available for visitors to use in following the discussion. I believe such a practice to be entirely consistent with the underlying ethos of the Open Meetings Policy. I understand that such transparency surely fosters greater trust and makes the policy more helpful to visitors such as yourself.

However you have sought a formal opinion from our office (under section 7 of the policy). I do not believe the policy, on its face, explicitly requires that a GA committee, entity, and the like, to provide copies of materials being considered to visitors such as yourself.

Seems to me that the General Assembly could surely be asked to amend its Open Meetings Policy to make such distribution of materials by it committies and entities an explicit provision in the policy, but until it does I do not believe our office has any basis to import such a right on the basis of the broad strokes of paragraph #1 of the policy.

You may surely share this note with Niles Harper and Chris Iosso, but as you can see from my discussion above, I don't believe the policy is explicit enough for us to issue a formal opinion declaring the policy requires the distribution of written materials being considered by ACSWAP.

Sorry I'm no more help.



[In my disappointment at the response, I replied as follows.]

Fri 1/20/2006 1:12 AM


Thank you for such a quick reply “after hours,” but you deliver surprise #2 for me today--the first being that I gave up four days of my life, flew 2500 miles, and spent about $600 to be blanked out of what ought to be an open meeting.

One further question: Does your opinion give meeting leaders the positive authority to DENY access to the written materials altogether, rather than only permission not to go out of their way to provide the materials? In other words, in an open meeting, can the leadership actually BAR observers from even reading a copy of the written materials under open consideration, taking pains to PROHIBIT such reading? Wouldn't that lend the “open” adjective in “open meeting” a most curious reading?

That would also certainly seem to fly in the face of the plain reading of the policy’s wording about a church member’s “basic right [note “RIGHT!”] to know about the work done and the decisions made by entities within the church.” There is simply no way to KNOW about work and decisions one is not even permitted to read.

In addition it absolutely flies in the face of church leaders’ “basic RESPONSIBILITY to honor that right by conducting their business with a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny.” There is nothing remotely open and vulnerable about documents assiduously kept secret!

And the day that groups only need to “aspire” to well-stated General Assembly policies--rather than explicitly follow them--is the day we quit being Presbyterian in polity and the day you open the door to unending mischief.

I am deeply disappointed in your reading, which seems indefensible to me. General Assembly had approved a fine Open Meeting Policy, which you now seem to have rendered violable by any entity that would just rather not have the church know what they are doing.


Jim Berkley

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Nothing to See in Louisville

Wednesday morning, I got up at 4:00 a.m. and left the house at 4:30 to fly to Louisville from Seattle, to observe the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP). At 8:30 on Thursday morning, I showed up at Laws Lodge on the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary campus, eager to begin two and a half days of watching our social witness policy go together. I’d like to tell you about that process.

I’d like to, but I can’t.

From the moment I arrived for a morning of reading reports, on through afternoon committee meetings, and then into late-afternoon and evening plenary sessions, I was vehemently and repeatedly denied access to a single written document under consideration. By 9:30 at night, I had yet to encounter even one written word of what ACSWP was discussing, amending, and voting on.

I had to argue fiercely even to be grudgingly allowed to sit in—without papers—on committee meetings that were suddenly and unexpectedly moved from public areas into private guest bedrooms when it became known that I was on hand to observe.

Such was my unwelcome experience of exclusion today, in a denomination with a very wise and sensible Open Meeting Policy, which reads in part:

(1) The work of the church is strengthened when it is done in a spirit of openness and trust. Church members have a basic right to know about the work done and the decisions made by entities within the church. Church leaders have a basic responsibility to honor that right by conducting their business with a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny. Therefore, open meetings shall be the norm for all such entities.

(2) It is the policy of the General Assembly, the General Assembly Council, its divisions and Finance and Technology Office, and the entities and work groups related to them, that their meetings shall be open to all interested persons.

We’ll see on Friday if my—and your—“basic right to know about the work done and the decisions made” by ACSWP remains determinedly abridged. Today, Evan Silverstein from Presbyterian News Service and I can tell you next to nothing.

Under protest, we were left wordless.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Colliding Convictions, Part 2

Since writing the previous blog posting on letting convictions collide, I have received and appreciated some further useful commentary. Since the issue is important—how we live together in a way that is pleasing to God and conducive to the Kingdom of God—I’d like to hit some further points.

First, Jack Haberer wrote me a warm and generous note, in which he further explained what he meant by “convictions.” Let me quote it for you:

The one thing to keep in mind when I speak about convictions is that that's a key word in the subtitle and, hence, in the whole substance of GodViews [Haberer’s recent book]. I have used it in more recent contexts, particularly the TTFPUP discussions, having the book as backdrop.

In GodViews I do uphold sets of Christian convictions (confessing the truth, cultivating devotion, church building, altruism, and justice-activism) as each having critical importance in the church AND as each having tendencies to err. Not all convictions are equally valid, and many convictions are not valid at all. They ought to be opposed.

We are totally agreed on that point.

Thus, in his editorial, Haberer was most likely speaking of such convictions as having a heart for the underdog or deeply appreciating the value of an historic denomination. That’s great. Some lean more toward one emphasis of the church or another, and we all benefit from that.

But the convictions that are really tearing us apart are deeper and more focused. The greatest divide is over scriptural interpretation and authority. Some of us have decided to follow Scripture wherever it leads, making it the absolute authority in our lives because it is God’s Word. Others have decided that they can subordinate it whenever it apparently conflicts with their life experience, the latest psychological theories, or the spirit of the age, because, for them, it is after all, human thoughts written down to help us out, until something else seems more sensible.

That conflict of convictions comes to a head, quite unfortunately, in the sensitive and so very personal and painful issue of homosexuality. If Scripture means what it says, then homosexual practice is simply wrong. It’s sin, and thus to be avoided and discouraged, and not to be made normative—especially in the lives of those called by the church into leadership positions. But for those with a personal stake in destigmatizing homosexual practice, or those with overactive empathy for homosexual persons, which confuses blanket approval with love, the issue becomes a justice issue. To them, people practicing homosexual sin aren’t sinning at all and should by right have access to church leadership, and to deny it is nothing less than ugly personal prejudice. Scripture that says anything contrary becomes merely a nagging drip to be ignored, reengineered, or denied.

The conflict is, at its root, about how seriously one takes Scripture versus how high one wants to elevate personal experience or psychological theory in contradiction of Scripture. People of great convictions about this issue are very seriously engaged in a contest over the future of the PCUSA.

And at least one side is wrong.

I was rather pleased that someone of no less stature than Abraham Lincoln shared thoughts similar to mine. Carl L. Lammers of Baltimore pointed this out in an insightful letter in The Layman Online (January 9 letters). About slavery and the fact that both sides in the Civil War claimed that they were fighting for God’s will, Lincoln wrote: “God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.” One side or both sides must be wrong, he argued. Amen!

So it’s not best simply to paste a smile on our faces and blithely go on with a whole lot of people in the denomination conscientiously working against what is right and God-pleasing. Something definitely needs to be done about it.

That leaves another decision: Do we simply split up and go our different ways? Or do we beg, cajole, plead, and reason with one another, praying that God will use our efforts to turn people from convictions that are simply wrong?

Ever the optimist, ever one who believes God can move mountains, I have chosen the latter. That means steadfastly believing and even stubbornly contending that some people in this denomination are quite wrong. Their convictions are not to be mindlessly held on to, but are instead to be vigorously countered. They are not in the will of God. They are teaching false doctrine. They are intending to love but are in truth harming people by withholding God’s truth from them. Such convictions cannot be allowed to overrun the PCUSA, directing it in a disastrous course contrary to God’s will.

One person who left a comment on my blog has this to say: "The sense I got from [Haberer’s] comments is not that he thinks holding on to differing convictions is a good thing, but that he takes it as a given--which it is, barring some drastic work of the Holy Spirit--and wants people who are going to hold on to their differing convictions regardless to find ways to hold on to each other as well.”

That’s a fine insight, and most likely correct. I guess I’m just working for that “drastic work of the Holy Spirit” that will lead people to turn back and forswear their foolish ways.

Put me in a museum. I still believe in the authority of the Bible. I still appreciate the elegant logic of an irrefutable argument (a la C. S. Lewis). And I still believe people are changed by an encounter with God’s true truth.

I believe, therefore I blog.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Let the Convictions Collide--as They Must

New editor Jack Haberer wrote a cogent editorial in Presbyterian Outlook recently, explaining how he will be handling the Theological Task Force news story, of which he is a major player. Knowing Haberer’s integrity and having been a magazine editor, myself, I think he will be able to build the wall of separation between “Jack as editor” and “Jack as news.” I greatly appreciate the candor and foresight he offers in facing an odd situation right out of the chute.

In Haberer’s editorial, however, I think I may see something that explains part of the dilemma of how Jack Haberer--card-carrying evangelical, strategist to maintain ordination standards intact, cagey polity wonk, and leader of renewal groups--could so surprisingly become such a drum beater for the Theological Task Force recommendation #5 (see line 1063 on page 36 of the booklet). That one recommendation would reverse two thousand years of Christian moral practice in a stroke and allow the ordination of sexually active homosexual persons, and yet Haberer inexplicably supports it.

Here’s what I see: Two paragraphs in a row in the editorial find Haberer speaking approvingly of ways for Presbyterians “to hold on to one another while holding on to their differing convictions” (emphasis added).

Haberer is holding up two things he considers worth holding on to: (1) “one another” and (2) “differing convictions.” People are worth holding on to, but I would contend that differing convictions are actually the problem--make that an evil--rather than a good.

Obviously, if a terrorist believes that blowing up babies in a nursery is good and a humanitarian believes saving babies from danger is good, both firmly held convictions are not equally noble. Nor will such mutually contradictory viewpoints be conducive to good fellowship and singleness of purpose among the holders.

Holding on to convictions can be terrible, if the convictions are evil, untrue, damaging, or God-defying. In addition, some mutually exclusive convictions will never meld successfully in the same group. Holding on to convictions per se is not necessarily a good thing.

So what are the different convictions that Haberer believes people can hold on to while they hold on to each other in the Presbyterian Church? One side thinks it evil that sexually active homosexual persons cannot be ordained under our constitution. It’s prejudiced, unjust. The other side thinks it evil that God’s clear moral law and will could ever be lightly tossed aside to ordain the serially sexually unrepentant. It’s immoral, conforming to Satan’s lie. Both are firmly held convictions.

But there’s a problem. Both sides can’t be right, since one conviction contradicts the other. Both sides could be wrong, and some third conviction could be right--whatever it might be. But far more likely, one side is right and one side is wrong.

If that’s the case, what is so great about celebrating a church in which a great number of members are advocating by conviction something actually morally evil? And perpetuating that condition. And calling it a good to be valued?

Hold on! Shouldn’t a church interested in God’s true truth (as Francis Schaeffer put it) be more concerned with resolving colliding convictions rather than tenaciously holding on to them? Shouldn’t a church interested in God’s will want to determine and live out that will, rather than simply say about tough moral quandaries, “Whatever…”?

I can’t agree with Jack Haberer on this one. There are convictions within the PCUSA that badly need to change, not be held on to. That’s classically what conviction of sin, confession, repentance, and sanctification are all about--turning from wicked ways and thoughts. “Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways!” If there are right convictions and wrong convictions in the church, then we must have the gumption to try to turn the wrong-headed convictions into righteous ones.

No. Holding on to one another cannot come at the cost of cheap denigration of truth and God’s will. As our Book of Order so wisely states, “No opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a [person’s] opinions are” (G-1.0304).

Remember the old ad line about chicken: “Parts is parts!”? Well, “Convictions is convictions” is just as silly.