Friday, June 30, 2006

Give me fundamental honesty

You ask a direct question. You expect a direct answer.

But don't expect it if you ask a leader of a mainline denomination. You ask a direct question, and you get indistinct verbal ooze.

Presbyterian example: In a newly released FAQ sheet about the recent adoption of the PUP report, the fact-sheet writers dance around their own question!

Will gays and lesbians now be ordained?

Presbyteries and sessions have been reminded of their historical responsibility to examine candidates for ordination and decide, on a case-by-case basis, about a person’s qualifications for ministry. The constitutional standard in the Book of Order (G-6.0106b) requiring “fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman” or “chastity in singleness” remains in place.

Each governing body will be required to decide if a departure from a standard of faith or practice represents a violation of an “essential” of the faith. Governing bodies have been encouraged to strive to honor one another’s ordination decisions. Still, these decisions continue to be subject to review by higher governing bodies.

Well, that pretty well does it, except for answering the question of whether gays and lesbians will now be ordained! Just answer the question, Stated Clerk! Pastors everywhere have had to come up with a real answer for their parishioners. You can do it, too.

United Methodist example: A pastor in Tacoma, Washington, Monty Smith, has opened First United Methodist Church as a sanctuary to military personnel who refuse to go to war. He was interviewed on the Fox Network's "Hannity and Colmes" show, and when pressed with direct questions became absolutely elusive. Rich Lowry had to interrupt and ask and ask again the most basic questions to get him simply to answer. Click here for a video of the frustrating interview--frustrating if you think Christians ought to be honest.

Episcopalian example: Probably the reigning champion of elusive babble has to be Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (U.S.A.). Recently Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, floated a plan that would create two tiers of relationship to the Anglican Communion. It was obviously a necessary move to counter the determined rebellion of the Episcopal Church, and it was timed shortly after the election of the woman who would succeed Griswold--a woman whose theology slops over the boundaries acceptable to most Anglicans. So would Griswold acknowledge the obvious relationship between Episcopal actions and Williams's plan, which would demote American Episcopalians basically out of the Anglican Communion? Does Griswold name the concern and speak to it? No. Read his elliptical ramble here. Griswold appears unable to speak without fundamental deception, refusing to acknowledge the rhinocerous that is not only in the room but at the moment is sitting on him.

These are Christian leaders. Wouldn't you expect a little refreshing honesty, plain-spoken and clear? Sad.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Committee punts on open meetings

BIRMINGHAM -- Open meetings are a topic of business at General Assembly this week. Commissioner Michael Carey from Central Florida Presbytery introduced a Commissioner Resolution (CR) to make it official business before the Assembly. The Carey CR seeks to spell out aspects of the fine Open Meeting Policy that ought to be clear but have been disputed.

I'm thankful for Carey's hard work to try to preserve the openness that leads toward more trust and accountability in our denomination--aspects of our life together that are not in ample supply. I got to catch part of his presentation in the General Assembly Procedures Committee on Sunday, and he was magnificent.

The problem was, however, that he had the misfortune of presenting the second-to-last item on an agenda that had stretched nearly to the breaking point the hours of the committee's meeting as well as their nerves and stamina. Tired from business that had already consumed them, they were unwilling to offer an open hearing for anyone other than establishment figures to bring information about the problem of diminishing openness in meetings.

This limited the perspective the committee members did hear to a rather one-sided litany of red herrings from some representatives of denominational entities. For instance, Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy coordinator Chris Iosso named me and pointed at me in the gallery. His testimony imagined all the dreadful things that could happen when people get hold of committee papers--people like me.

Other warnings of the grave problems of drafts on the loose, if applied to other entities such as the General Assembly itself, would logically necessitate the closing off of all General Assembly committee meetings, such as the one in which we were participating. If the supposed problems of public drafts that we heard in this committee were applied across the board, none of not-yet-finally-approved GA papers would be available to the public during General Assembly meetings, either.

The time given to staff and advisory personnel greatly dominated the committee time and thoroughly poisoned their perspective. When the committee members began to debate the motion to approve Carey's CR, many appeared all too ready to sacrifice their right to open meetings on the altar of imagined fears of ill deeds by malicious observers. They dealt in large part with conjured eventualities the CR would never occasion, should it be implemented.

Thus, it was no surprise when the committee ended up referring the matter to the Committee on the Office of General Assembly "and other appropriate committees" for a report back to General Assembly in two years. When too tired to advance the ball, punt.

On Wednesday afternoon, most likely, General Assembly will consider the committee recommendation and make the final decision. Perhaps the other commissioners will be able to give the matter a fairer hearing, unsullied by negative and fearful assumptions and only half the story.

It would be a shame for General Assembly to be made so fearful that they would blithely relinquish any aspect of the basic right of Presbyterians to observe their church at work.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Failing grades on the test of truth

BIRMINGHAM -- Giving my breathless two-minute presentation to a committee today, I said that I was advocate for an overture from Seattle Presbytery to suspend the [Israel] divestment process for two years and initiate engagement with various entities to promote a just and lasting peace. We seek justice and shalom, and thus we also seek TRUTH. Yesterday [during the open hearings in committee], we heard some statements that simply don’t meet the test of truth. Let me name a few.

We heard that “Israel has shown no willingness to give up land.” Wrong. Israel HAS given up land several times, including Gaza recently.

We heard, “Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons and so doesn’t need a security barrier.” Let me get this straight: Do we expect or want Israel to combat snipers and suicide bombers with nuclear weapons? Not me!

We heard, “Israeli actions have devastated the Palestinian economy.” That’s scapegoating! Graft, corruption, and armed battles between Hamas and Fatah gunmen will ruin any economy.

We heard, “Commissioners are just scared of offending the Jewish community.” Such statements demean your faith and courage as commissioners. How false to make this out to be a case of mean Jews making Presbyterians cower in fear! PRESBYTERIANS are offended too, not just our Jewish friends!

We heard, “The Church of England has rejected arguments against divestment.” Wrong. The Church of England has actually joined many other denominations in wisely rejecting divestment.

The TRUTH is that we, dabbling in nearly intractable politics from the security of Birmingham, ought to exercise the humility and love to end harsh divestment to promote a just and lasting peace. Please vote to suspend divestment now.

Presbyterians amuse themselves

BIRMINGHAM -- While sitting through two lengthy days of committee meetings at General Assembly, I found some peculiar items to be amusing.

My favorite quotation today came from a tired commissioner in a committee: "I think it’s a good idea to break and come up with a quasi … whatever!" The funny thing is that the committee did. It did break and then it did come up with a "quasi whatever" on Israel divestment.

The same committee encountered language that appeared to have the moderator stumped--so totally confounded that she sent for the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly to get a ruling on the meaning. The wording was found twice in an overture to end the process leading toward divestment from companies operating in Israel. It said that parts of a resolution were being "hereby repealed, rescinded, and declared null and void."

With nearly Hebraic threefold repetition, the line's intent isn't particularly hard to get, right? Well, the moderator just couldn't decide if "rescinded" meant an actual end to Israel divestment. I thought the intent had been clarified, elucidated, and made quite evident.

I think I heard the mother of all rhetorical overkill today, when a commissioner referred to the security fence being constructed by Israel as "terrorism by barrier."

By far the most comical occasion in the committee, however, was when a resource person went forward to answer a question. When he got to the microphone by the moderator, there was a pause while the committee leadership huddled on a matter. While the resource person waited, he casually crossed his arms and leaned back against the portable wall.

The problem was that where he leaned against the carpeted wall was actually a door. An unlatched door. Like the best comic pratfall you've ever seen, his disappearance through the doorway and red-faced (and unharmed) emergence from the floor offered just the levity the committee needed.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Pre-Assembly events: Of COURSE there was advocacy

BIRMINGHAM -- Thursday, the day General Assembly convened, two pre-assembly events gathered a ballroom of commissioners, advisory delegates, and observers. I had previously written about the unbelievable contention by the moderator of the Committee on the Office of General Assembly (COGA) that “the content of these two events is not focused on issues that are before this year's General Assembly.”

Reports (here and here) about the event presented by the Theological Task Force certainly belie that statement, as anyone might have expected. Task Force members promoted their report.

Another report demonstrates how the Israel-Palestine event was laced with advocacy about the divestment controversy. Two sides were presented at least, but not equally.

Thus we can see that COGA’s moderator was demonstrably mistaken. The problem anybody could have seen coming--and for which specific warning was given--ensued exactly as expected. Now, what will COGA do about such a predictable and indeed inevitable state of affairs?

This kind of unfair practice that privileges one viewpoint on a contentious issue and beggars another should never have been allowed this year and should be disallowed henceforth.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Wrong on all counts: open meetings, free press, personal motivation

This is part 3 of a series on the Presbyterian Church’s endangered Open Meeting Policy (see part 1 and part 2). Yesterday, Mark Tammen had written me, stripping my basic right to an open meeting and impugning my motivations. Until that point, I was simply determined that the Open Meeting Policy not be obscured, especially by inconsistent decrees that always seemed to provide for more closings. But the fallacies and insinuations in the letter by Tammen demanded a thorough debunking.

Tammen's line of thought demeaned the role of church members, betrayed an elitist bias, and set the stage for further erosion of our sunshine policy. See what you think about this as you read my response:


I believe you are overstepping your bounds (evidenced in what you wrote below), and I write to protest it. I write at length to explain fully, not out of anger. The gist is this: You have done much to hinder my ability to attend and cover open meetings in the Presbyterian Church, and you have weakened our policy as a whole.

You hold a position of responsibility to the entire church, which expects you to uphold the plain and obvious intent of open meetings, something you appear increasingly loath to do. If you are upset with me and are thus working to keep me out of open meetings, please just say so in so many words. If you are not so working, then what are you attempting to accomplish in the interchange below?

In your capacity as an officer of the church, it is definitely not your place to be crudely speculative about my intentions, or to strategically interject yourself between me (as I seek what the policy spells out so generously) and any entity of the church (which has a basic responsibility to conduct its business in a manner of openness and vulnerability to scrutiny), so that my rights and the church’s rights are abridged.

Again, I must say, REREAD the policy. And please read it without a filter that asks "How much can we who control the mechanisms manage to keep secret?" but rather with the understanding that an Open Meeting Policy is for the very intention of opening up meetings to public scrutiny, not finding ways to close them off.

You have earlier agreed that the policy's language is “very expansive.” Yet, you have also somehow managed to consider the policy merely “aspirational.” It is as if you are saying, "Well, yes. I know we have great policies, but they are SO tedious to try to actually uphold, so we'll just agree to wink at them and work out methods to allow deviations." Such an attitude is most troublesome!

If I may remind you, the language of the policy gives what is termed a "basic RIGHT" to church members: "Church members have a basic right to know about the work done and the decisions made by entities within the church." ACSWP is an "entity within the church," and I am a "church member." Thus, as a church member, I have the basic right not only to observe meetings where decisions are being made, but also "to know about the work done." Notice the two aspects mentioned: "work done" and "decisions made." It does not fit at all with the meaning of the policy for you to strangely reason that only "decisions made" meetings must be open to observers.

To get such a crabbed reading in your note below, you have to conveniently ignore all the other language of the policy about "a spirit of openness and trust" and "a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny," and how "OPEN meetings SHALL be the norm." Why the hard work to shelter some parts of open meetings from the application of a very open policy? What drives such a spirit contrary to the very meaning of the policy? Why serve as an enabler for a committee hooked on secrecy, contrary to our policy?

Further, the language spells out a "basic RESPONSIBILITY" for church leaders, such as yourself and those leading ACSWP: "Church leaders have a basic responsibility to honor that right [of members like me to observe open meetings] by conducting their business with a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny." Groups like ACSWP and leaders such as Chris Iosso have a definite responsibility to openness and scrutiny, not some right to closure or "confidentiality."

ACSWP has no "right" to simply declare their material confidential. Nor can they merely label work groups considering part of their business "writing groups," simply to exploit your manufactured reason not to allow church members their basic right to observe the "work done."

The "committees" that I argued to be able to observe at the last ACSWP meeting were not writing groups, as you and I envisioned them in the long phone conversation in January. A writing group is a few people who labor to come up with a draft to give to ACSWP when it meets. Then, when a writing group delivers its draft to ACSWP, part of the way ACSWP deals with the drafts in its meetings is in work groups, which make preliminary decisions and then report to the full ACSWP, which makes final decisions.

These work groups I laboriously got to observe in January were just like committees of General Assembly. They dealt in depth with part of the business that the whole ACSWP would deal with later. They were a "work group" related to an entity--which is exactly one of the kinds of meetings that the Open Meeting Policy pertains to (see section #2).

Those work groups WERE making decisions, by the way. They were making recommendations, amending portions of papers, determining strengths and deficiencies--exactly, again, the kind of things that a GA committee does. Then their work went to the whole ACSWP in its plenary session. According to the Open Meeting Policy, members of the church belong in such meetings as observers, in direct contradiction to your comments below.

Such work group meetings must be open. There is no good reason why they would need to be closed--not if one actually BELIEVES what the Open Meeting Policy says, that "the work of the church is strengthened when it is done in a spirit of openness and trust."

So far, my letter has been about open meetings as a whole. In addition, I want to protest the personal inferences you load into your note below. I do not believe it is your job to disparage my motives and work, or to lecture me as if I were a miscreant. That comes across as misuse of power. In particular:

1) You infer that I have endeavored to have "input on the discussions or decisions." I have not commented or spoken in meetings I observe. I have not insinuated myself into the role of a participant. I have not tried to vote, as if I could! You simply cannot substantiate such an unfounded inference.

2) You speak of my "practice of publishing all information (with your interpretive slant)." Why shouldn’t “all information” be published? What is there to hide? Which part is the church not allowed to know about? And exactly what role ought an independent commentator take, other than publishing information and interpretation about the meeting? Would you require that I write nothing about meetings? Or should I write only what YOU tell me to write, or what someone else would LIKE me to write? Must any writing be "just the facts" with no interpretation about the meaning of what is going on, no background, no commentary? Am I not allowed an opinion and the freedom to express it? Is muzzling free speech and the press what our Open Meeting Policy intends?

3) You accuse me of "an attempt to influence the decisions of elected persons." Yes. Exactly. And what could possibly be wrong with my using logic, reason, information, and persuasion to, yes, "influence the decisions of elected persons"? Are they meant to be kept in a hermetically sealed world in which no one and nothing influences them? Are they not already influenced by world events, the reading they do, the number of staff persons at the meetings, their past experience, their world view, their emotions, the other elected persons, their friends, a watching church, and who knows what else? But I am supposed to have no influence on them through the things I write, which, by the way, they can read or not, as they see fit? Of course I'd like to influence them to do what is right and prudent, but the only influence I can possibly have is through information they can choose to take or leave. There is absolutely nothing untoward about that!

If what I write may cause church members to influence them, too, all the better. In "Forming Social Policy," which, one would hope, isn’t merely "aspirational," there is a REQUIREMENT that policy statements must have "a plan indicating the manner in which THE WHOLE CHURCH CAN PARTICIPATE (advise, offer input, etc.)" in deliberations. We need to remember over and over that this work is NOT the business solely of ACSWP. It is the business of the whole church, a church that needs to be welcomed and not locked out or intimidated into silence.

4) You employ a loaded verb. You ask me, "Why else would you DEMAND access to meetings in which no decisions are made?" First, no one should ever have to DEMAND what is his or her "basic right," granted by church policy! You write as if ACSWP has a basic right to secrecy and I have a basic responsibility to stay away. Nonsense! Would you ask a woman pastor "Why else would you DEMAND ordination?" Would you ask a Korean elder, "Why do you DEMAND to be at presbytery?"

I should be graciously GRANTED access to an open meeting, and YOU should be upholding the Open Meeting Policy by demanding my full access, if anyone is forced to demand it.

Second, meetings in which "no decisions are made" are also open meetings, in which we church members have the "basic right to know about the work done." So much is learned in HOW business is transacted. What was the overall mood of the participants? Where were the sticking points? What seemed to be driving the members? Are there different factions, or is the group united?

It would be especially interesting to the church to know where the ACSWP sees itself headed in the next months after General Assembly. Are any changes coming, perhaps? Is ACSWP having second thoughts about some recent missteps it has taken? Members may not be giving final approval to any papers, but what they are talking about is most newsworthy. I cannot understand how you could fail to see that "the work done" is important, not just "the decisions made."

5) You write about my supposed need to "accept the fact you are not entitled to attend subcommittee/writing team meetings." Exactly where does an Open Meeting Policy that declares that “open meetings shall be the norm” state or even imply such a non-entitlement?

And what are such “subcommittee/writing team meetings”? Certainly not the work groups at an overall meeting of the ACSWP, when ACSWP members divide into sections to consider various business, even business in the conceptual stage. That is part of "the work done" in an open meeting, and that is what I sought and properly gained access to in January. Those smaller groups were considering the writing that had been done over the months by actual "subcommittee/writing teams." The work groups at the ACSWP meeting were quite independent of such actual writing teams.

Exclusion from the work groups at the ACSWP meetings is not allowed by the Open Meeting Policy, which DOES include "work groups" by name as open meetings. Are you prepared to tell all the observers at General Assembly that they cannot observe GA committees? Those committees do exactly the kind of work for GA that the ACSWP subcommittees did for ACSWP in January. They are completely analogous.

Are you trying to say that you have found in a very open Open Meeting Policy a way to interject closed meetings, foreign to the intent of the policy, by naming something a "writing team"? A “writing team” is a very specific group tasked with coming up with a policy draft (see 2.b. in "Forming Social Policy") and is in no way merely a committee or work group composed of ACSWP members in general.

Why, again, the great desire to create a method to close off a part of a meeting through a manufactured technicality, when the Open Meeting Policy is so grandly clear about openness and its benefits? Why do you work so assiduously to reverse the intent of the policy--which would say that I am entitled to attend the subcommittee/work groups that meet as part of the overall ACSWP meeting?

6) You try to ascribe petty motives on my part: "Sorry that you are so angry..." It is rather convenient to be able to write off logic and sensibility as anger. By being simply dismissive, you escape having to deal with the substance of my reasoning about open meetings. I would ask you to remember your particular responsibility as a Christian leader--which doesn't include permission for ad hominem statements.

7) You think I need to be told the obvious. "You are not an elected member of the committee, but rather an observer," you remind me. Exactly. That is all I have asked to be allowed to do--to observe. But I cannot observe that which I cannot attend. I cannot read that which is denied that I see.

You have obviously made it quite clear that ACSWP can bar me from whatever it decides to label a "subcommittee/writing team," making it impossible for me to be an observer of what our General Assembly deemed an open meeting of a work group. You previously gave tacit permission for ACSWP to withhold documents. Now you speak positively of ACSWP's penchant to deem documents "confidential," which also makes a mockery of the "open" in open meetings and "a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny."

It feels from this vantage point as if, perhaps out of pique toward me, you have decided to make sure that my efforts to be an observer at ACSWP meetings are frustrated at every turn. I sadly don't understand the thought process that goes into your decisions. But I do request that you revise your decisions, which appear flawed in multiple ways.


Jim Berkley


Presbyterian Church open meetings--let’s not let them be closed off, either by degrees or decrees.

Why we need a stronger Open Meeting Policy

Yesterday I wrote about the Open Meeting Policy, which has been interpreted lately in both loose and tight ways, whichever allows more meetings or materials to be closed to observers. Like a putty nose, our policy has been mashed this way and that to blunt the excellent intent of a wide-open church.

Where the story left off, I had inquired about what my welcome would be at the July Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy meeting in Pasadena. I wrote ACSWP Coordinator Chris Iosso. I heard back from Mark Tammen, in very lawyerly fashion, to wit:


I hope that you and ACSWP can have this meeting without the difficulties you all experienced last meeting, but I want to be clear about several issues you have raised.

1. I do NOT believe you are entitled to present, nor receive documents from a writing /drafting team that lacks authority to act on a document..." (Item 5 of Stated Clerk's

2. ACSWP may of course admit you and give you such materials, but if they decide to do so, I do hope that you will honor the last sentence of Item 4 of the Stated Clerk's Opinion "It is incumbent upon observers to honor requests not to publish, or share the contents, such documents until the entity, division, committee, or taskforce has acted."

The Open meetings policy does not provide you any right to decide on your own that such materials should be available to the entire church. Only after such materials have been considered by the plenary would I see any basis in the open meetings policy for you to share documents with others. Until action has taken place, no public distribution (beyond the meeting room) is anticipated by the Policy.

3. Unless materials ready for action by the plenary have been sent out in advance, I do not believe the policy provides you any right to them. It surely provides you no right to share them publicly prior to consideration by the ACSWP Plenary.

Hope the above understandings will help assure a more satisfactory interaction this time.


mark Tammen


I replied to Mark:


Yours are excellent provisions to defeat the purposes of an open meeting.

What I fail to understand is how you can feel any honor in subverting the meaning and intent of a good policy. Policies are meant to be actually followed, not merely aspired toward. And they CAN be actually followed, unless they are allowed to be corrupted.

Open means open. People can see and hear. People can read. People can later comment in public. People have the right to observe their business being transacted and to know what's going on. The Open Meeting Policy is intended to OPEN meetings, not to close them and hoard the business for the jealous eyes of only the elect with petty plans to keep their work secret.

I am so disappointed in your continuing to aid and abet a parochial, self-serving, distrusting, and clearly unopen practice of ACSWP, which is so very contrary to an open meeting. It is THEIR practices about secrecy that need to change to conform to the Open Meeting Policy; the Open Meeting Policy should not be bent like a putty nose to accommodate secrecy.

By what stretch of the imagination is this reasonable: Someone who can pay to travel to Pasadena and attend the meeting is privileged with seeing and reading papers that are the church's business (not ACSWP's solely), and yet persons who cannot make the trip or take the time off of work have no business also having access to those papers being considered in an open meeting? What goes on in an open meeting is open to the public. Papers brought out and discussed in an open meeting necessarily become open to the public. They are no longer private, nor should they be allowed to be deemed private or confidential. That is so fundamentally obvious that you have to turn logic on its head to contend otherwise. What good and noble purpose is served by wrapping secrecy around what is intended to be open?

There is no justification for such jealous hoarding of papers--not in an OPEN meeting. To twist our very open rules in order to allow ACSWP to continue such a process that is inimical to openness in meetings simply does not do justice to the trust we have put in you in your position. You make yourself a servant of those who would block the penetrating warmth of sunshine.

Exactly how am I supposed to go to Pasadena, probably get shut out of committee meetings again because they'll suddenly be called "writing/drafting teams without authority," be denied papers until the last minute if at all, be expected to treat papers as state secrets, and write nothing about anything I've read so that others might have the advantage of actually knowing what THEIR ACSWP is doing--and yet somehow avoid "the difficulties you all experienced last meeting"? In what alternate moral universe is this supposed to happen? Certainly not in the PCUSA, with an excellent open meeting policy.

Reread the Open Meeting Policy. There is a party that has a definite DUTY and a party that has a definite RIGHT. Yet you have totally reversed the roles, trying to foist a bogus DUTY on me while gifting ACSWP with a right they do not and should not have. I don't call that justice.

And why are you writing me? I made simple requests to Chris Iosso, who I am sure has the ability to respond.


James D. Berkley


Chris Iosso did then write back from ACSWP, kindly giving me details of their meeting and inviting me to attend--well, most of the meetings. He said that ACSWP “may also determine that some of their business or small-group work requires the Committee to invoke provisions of the Open Meeting policy that allow deliberation specifically by those elected to do it.” I think that means that some sessions could have a new magic name that would allow secrecy: “Writing/Drafting Teams.”

I replied to Iosso, thanking him for the information he sent, speaking again about open meetings, and closing with “You will remember that the policy is to insure that meetings are truly open. The policy is not meant to provide excuses to close off portions of the meeting, except for the very carefully proscribed four exceptions. I will expect to be allowed entrance to the meetings, required to be open, that any member of the church would receive.”

Then I heard again from Mark Tammen:

I am pleased to see that Chris has offered you access to the meetings. Hopefully you can now relax and watch with interest.

I would remind you, however, that an open meeting does not entitle you to input on the discussions or decisions. Your practice of publishing all information (with your interpretive slant) appears to me to be an attempt to influence the decisions of elected persons. Why else would you demand access to meetings in which no decisions are made? If you simply wished to report the actions of committees, you would attend the plenary meetings (where ACSWP decisions are made), and accept the fact you are not entitled to attend subcommittee/writing team meetings.

Sorry you are so angry, but you are not an elected member of the committee, but rather an observer.

Hope that clarifies what I believe the policy provides.



Well, obviously, we need an Open Meeting Policy that is tamperproof--or maybe Tammenproof. We need a policy that makes clear that papers are open documents once they get discussed in an open meeting; that when the larger group breaks out into committees, the committee meetings are intended to be open, too (as they are at General Assembly, for instance); and that when the Office of General Assembly rules on the policy, the ruling must err toward opening rather than closing meetings.

Mark Tammen has twice stated that if the Open Meeting Policy intends such provisions, then General Assembly can write them into the policy. Apparently General Assembly needs to do exactly that.

Are there any commissioners out there who are game for preserving open meetings from tampering?

Tomorrow I’ll copy an extended reply that I sent Tammen, hoping (in vain, I must add) to convince him to return to the meaning and intent of open meetings and our denominational policy.

Stated Clerk rules on open meetings

Following my dust-up with the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly issued, rather quietly, a ruling on the specifics of the incident I endured. Both ACSWP and I received copies of the opinion by e-mail, but one must do a sophisticated search to find it (see final section of this web document).

The decision does rule that papers should be made available in an open meeting, but it confuses which meetings must be open and it inexplicably honors calling papers "confidential," a practice that should be disallowed, if openness is the goal.

Following is a copy of what Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, ruled about open meetings--a ruling that was largely formulated by Mark Tammen and which he is treating now as settled law that only General Assembly can revise by official action.

Opinion on Interpreting the General Assembly Open Meeting Policy

The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP has requested an opinion from the Stated Clerk as to whether the ACSWP’s internal policy, “Respect for Pre-General Assembly Documents,” is consistent with the Open Meeting Policy. The ACSWP’s policy has been challenged and it seeks an Opinion of the Stated Clerk (Clerk) who has been provided a copy of that internal ACSWP document for review.

1. The Clerk makes this response pursuant to section 7 of the Open Meetings Policy. He reminds ACSWP and any Presbyterians desiring to observe a meeting of the Committee that as members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “…we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” (G-1.0305). We are all bound together by a common Covenant.

2. The relevant text of ACSWP’s internal policy is:

“…the preliminary texts of documents and reports being developed under the auspices of ACSWP or its task forces are to be treated as internal deliberations which remain confidential.”

3. The Clerk notes that the current Open Meeting Policy does not directly address the question of the sharing of documents being considered by a General Assembly entity, division, committee, or workgroup. He likewise notes that neither of the previous editions of the policy addressed the issue of the sharing of papers or reports. If the General Assembly wishes to impose such a practice on its entities, divisions, committees, and task forces, it may surely do so.

4. The Clerk further notes that the opening paragraph of the Open Meetings Policy affirms that “the work of the Church is strengthened when it is done in a spirit of openness and trust.” Such language would seem to presume observers of meetings should have access to documents that are critical to their understanding the deliberations that they are observing. Therefore the Clerk believes the presumption should favor the sharing of all documents under consideration by an entity, division, committee, or task group. It is incumbent upon observers to honor requests not to publish, or share the contents, such documents until the entity, division, committee, or task force has acted.

5. The Clerk draws a distinction between documents being considered for action by an entity, division, committee, or task force and those being discussed by a writing /drafting team that lacks authority to act on a document, but rather is charged with preparation of a document that will be proposed for action by an entity, division, committee, or task force.

6. Once a draft document comes before the entity, division, committee, or task force, the document should be made available to all observers.

[This posting is related to the posting titled: "Why we need a stronger Open Meeting Policy."]

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Open Meetings: A Putty-Nose Policy

One of the best things going for fairness and good sense in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is its Open Meeting Policy. You read it, and you get a feeling of guilelessness and goodwill: “Throw the windows open and let everyone watch! Nothing to hide in here!” they seem to say. Yeah! A church does really benefit from such a policy.

But when you follow the application of our Open Meeting Policy, the sunshine gets dimmed all too often. Doors slam shut. Business mysteriously happens elsewhere, other than in the open meeting. People get huffy when one attempts to attend their meeting. And, most distressingly, the policy itself gets bent like a putty nose to fit the occasion when some entity wants secrecy.

Who is distorting that putty nose? Unfortunately, it’s coming directly out of the office charged with upholding our constitution--the Office of the General Assembly, headed by Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick. Specifically, the policy is being interpreted by Mark Tammen, Director of the Office of Constitutional Services. It’s his job. He has the authority. And, in my opinion, he’s tweaking the open meetings nose and damaging the openness of our open meetings by allowing various ways to keep observers out.

The most celebrated case of closed meetings is the Theological Task Force, which actually got a General Assembly warrant to hide out when their highly vaunted discernment process got a little dicey. Like an alcoholic who promises to drink “only for medicinal purposes,” the Task Force was soon imbibing closed sessions excessively. But at least they had a license to hide.

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) wasn’t accustomed to persons asking about observing their meetings, held last fall and winter. They had always just met and done their constitutional thing without anyone looking over their shoulders or raising pesky questions about consistency. Somewhat like the Wizard of Oz, they hoped no one paid any attention to the man behind the curtain. When Oregon pastor Rich Zimmerman asked how to observe the ACC meetings he was stalled and put off. Finally when he persisted in actually getting information, he was written off by Tammen as “confused.”

However, because there was no good excuse to hide, the ACC did let Michael Walker of PFR observe, and Jim Tony of the Presbyterian Coalition was allowed to listen in by speaker phone. But it wasn’t easy.

When I attempted to be part of committee meetings and read the papers and reports at the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy in January, I was treated by ACSWP as a party crasher. In an ostensibly open meeting, I couldn’t view any of the papers they spent hours discussing. I asked Tammen to clarify open meetings to ACSWP leadership. He did. He told them they could show me the papers and that many groups would. But he made it clear that “I do not believe our office has any basis to import such a right” for me to see the papers.

Why wouldn’t he apply the generous language of the policy to ACSWP? Because the policy didn’t mention papers in particular. He ruled narrowly, although the policy itself is grandly expansive: “Church leaders have a basic responsibility to … [conduct] their business with a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny.”

It’s odd, then, that when ACC met again, Tammen ruled extremely broadly--unreasonably so, I would say--to allow ACC to meet in a closed session. The reason Tammen gave was that someone had mentioned that ACC needed to allow observers, lest it be liable to a remedial action under our church Rules of Discipline.

So here’s the broad interpretation of the Open Meeting Policy: Tammen ruled that because of the possible ecclesiastical action, the open meeting exception for “civil and criminal litigation” applied. Tammen ruled that possible church remedial action should just be lumped in with actual civil and criminal litigation. So the meeting was closed.

If one uses possible ecclesiastical action for a reason, every single meeting held by any entity could be closed, since every one is subject to possibly administrative review or remedial action. “Ecclesiastical litigation” wasn’t listed specifically in the Open Meeting Policy, but Tammen must have penciled it in for good measure.

Thus Tammen ruled narrowly to close part of the ACSWP meeting, and he ruled broadly to close part of the ACC meeting. Do you notice the outcome? His rulings on an Open Meeting Policy resulted in closed meetings.

The same kind of broad ruling closed part of the most recent General Assembly Council meeting when GAC was discussing the budget. Because staff positions would be cut, GAC went into a closed meeting, using the “personnel” exception to close the meeting. Staff performance wasn’t being discussed, only departments and positions to get the axe. But even though it was a budget discussion, which is intended to be done in the open, the meeting was allowed to be closed. A broad ruling, which again closed a meeting.

Do you see the trend? When in doubt, figure a way to frustrate the clear meaning of the Open Meeting Policy. You would think the tendency would be to live out the grand, open intent, instead.

One final example: I’ll be going to Pasadena in July to observe the coming ACSWP meeting. Since I’d had such difficulties at the previous meeting, I wrote ahead to establish that I would be admitted and would be granted the ability to actually hold and read copies of papers the committee would be discussing and acting on. I wrote Chris Iosso, Coordinator for ACSWP.

I heard back from Mark Tammen. An attorney. Oh, great…

(To be continued.)

Sunday, June 11, 2006

He's got to be kidding, right?

Sometimes events catch me up and make me wonder, What ARE they thinking? Well, I’ve had one of those experiences recently concerning the two pre-assembly events on the morning General Assembly begins.

General Assembly convenes at 1:00 on Thursday, June 15, in Birmingham, Alabama. On Thursday morning, two official events have been sanctioned and facilitated by the Office of General Assembly (OGA). For nearly four hours, the members of the Theological Task Force will hold sway in an event titled “The Final Report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church: Your Turn for Answers.” Also, for three hours, the Israel-Palestine Project Team will lead an event called “Visions of Peace and Justice in Israel and Palestine.”

The odd thing about this set of two meetings is that it has been a wise and longstanding policy that pre-assembly events not be about controversial topics that will be in contention at the current General Assembly. Yet this year both pre-assembly events are about topics nearly anyone would say are the two hottest topics at this General Assembly. What’s more, both events have leaders who starkly represent just one side of issues that have at least two sides. What favoritism!

You can see the problem, right? This certainly must be an enormous pair of exceptions to the rule, and at an odd time, when tensions are high and trust is low.

If you want to simply be amazed at the lack of judgment or fairness in this decision, you can stop here. But if you’re ready to be dumbfounded by documented denials, read on.
On April 21 I wrote to Steve Grace, moderator of the Committee on the Office of General Assembly:

Dear Steve,

I have been corresponding with Gradye Parsons, and he has said that you are the person with whom I should be communicating. This communication is of great urgency. I am writing about the two official pre-assembly events this year, approved, I believe, by the Committee on the Office of General Assembly. I would like to protest the one-sided, unfair advantage they provide a single side of each issue at such a strategic time.

In a correspondence with ____________, Jay Rock alluded to how the pre-assembly events could not touch on subjects coming to General Assembly, and he referred to it as if it were a sacred, hard-and-fast rule. I agreed with the concept and wrote to find out the exact wording of the policy.

After some false starts, I finally got a note from Gradye Parsons, saying, “To my knowledge there is no written policy. It is common-sense guidance we have given to all groups over the years.”

I agreed with Gradye that the policy makes great sense, but followed up with the question, how, then, do we end up this year with two pre-assembly events that both violate that common-sense guidance given consistently over the years?

Gradye did not disagree that the two events this year do fly in the face of the agreement. But he said the events do not require attendance, and they will be just generally educational (as if "general education" wouldn't have to come from one side of the issue or another!).

There is a Theological Task Force Report pre-assembly meeting, and it is being run entirely by the TTF members. No other viewpoint but theirs is being sought or allowed. That is propaganda, not education!

There is an Israel Divestment pre-assembly meeting. It is being run by pro-divestment enthusiasts, who have given scant voice (one American Jewish voice to be exact, and no Presbyterian or Israeli anti-divestment voices) to the side opposing divestment. Again, this is simply strategic indoctrination, and the “We aren’t here to debate” speech rings hollow, when one side is unfairly given the upper hand to spread their opinion.

These two pre-assembly events are being carefully planned and orchestrated by ONE side of each controversy. Each event has a party from a distinct viewpoint that has (a) complete control of the podium and what is presented and (b) sanction from the denomination by being designated an official pre-assembly event. Both events will present "education" that will undoubtedly and inevitably lead a commissioner to vote in a particular way on major controversial items before the assembly. Anybody with a considered viewpoint different from the official opinion will be denied like access to commissioners' ears and minds.

Or to put it another way: There is Opinion A and Opinion B on a subject. Opinion A is given a strategically timed event officially sanctioned by General Assembly to make their case. Opinion B is shut out. That's educational? No, that's simply unfair--officially sanctioned unfairness.

Remember, both of these events are drastic departures from the very wise rule that the pre-assembly events should not be about issues before the Assembly. But both events are precisely about the most controversial decisions before the Assembly!

So that leaves two important questions for which I need your response:
(1) How did both exceptions to a good rule happen so egregiously this year?
(2) What can still be done in the next few weeks, so that the events are opened up for truly educational purposes and not left the domain of a single party’s viewpoint?

Underlying these particular instances, there is a disturbing pattern in the responses I’ve received so far. It appears that rules and precedent are being used loosely. If the common-sense rule can be used as an excuse to keep a dissenting voice out of the Israel Divestment meeting, Jay Rock invokes it as if it were carved in stone. But when I pressed for the source of the rule, there turns out to be no rule at all but only a common-sense understanding--which is now violated twice over by the two events.

It would appear that “rules” are made up and violated at the pleasure of those who call the shots!

It is a longstanding pattern of these kinds of unfair and irreconcilable occurrences that badly shakes confidence in the neutrality and simple integrity of General Assembly processes. It appears that some viewpoints have a whole lot more "fairness" and "equity" coming their way than others, and rules and regulations and policies just don't seem to matter much. If certain ends are desired by those in charge, a way is found around the policies. If other legitimate ends are not desired, those ends can be frustrated and blunted and diverted at will, even when the ends ostensibly ought to have equal rights.

The Committee on the Office of General Assembly can help correct this imbalance and end the impression of bias by moving to do one of two actions:

(1) Cancel the pre-assembly events, because they fly in the face of the common-sense policy we have upheld until this point. I realize that is a drastic measure, but it would be fair and judicious, in the face of the one-sidedness of the planned presentations and the unmistakable relation of the subject matter to decisions before the assembly.

(2) Open up both meetings to equal time by opposing viewpoints, so that those in attendance get true education on the matter from the most gifted presenters from both sides of the issue. Then the events become true forums, not narrowly hoarded opportunities to present a single point of view on issues that have tremendous diversity of viewpoint among commissioners. This would be messy, I realize. It would necessitate some quick action and changed plans. But it would be just and right, compared to the current unfair and biased plans.

Do we really want to begin General Assembly on a sour note? Presbyterians value solid information and absolutely swear by fairness and justice. You have a difficult choice to make, but I plead with you to level the playing field, so that certain viewpoints aren’t given all the official sanction, while others are unfairly left out in the cold.

I appeal to your sense of fairness and statesmanship on this, and I look forward to a reply.


James D. Berkley
On April 25 Steve Grace replied:

Dear Mr. Berkley,
I did receive your letter of April 21, both directly and forwarded by Gradye Parsons, regarding two preassembly events. At our September 2005 meeting, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) approved the presentation of two preassembly events which are optional for commissioners and visitors:

1. "The Final Report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church: Your Turn for Answers" to be led by members of the Task Force, and

2. "Vision of Peace and Justice in Israel and Palestine" led by members of the PC(USA) Israel/Palestine Project Team.While the topics of both events are relevant to current ministries of our church, neither event is intended to be a forum for debate of particular issues before the 217th General Assembly nor are the events publicized that way. I believe the leadership of both events will steer clear of debate about specific items before GA [emphasis added].
In fact, the summary for the "Visions of Peace and Justice in Israel and Palestine" event (as found in the Schedule of Events section of the 217th GA web site) specifically states "It is not a forum for or against proposed items of GA business."

As for the PUP Task Force event, this presentation has already been given numerous times at presbytery meetings and other church gatherings over the last year in response to its mandate from the 213th GA "to develop a process and an instrument by which congregations and governing bodies throughout our church may reflect on and discern the matters that unite and divide us, praying that the Holy Spirit will promote the purity of the Presbyterian Church (USA)". The Task Force presentations provide opportunity for the church to learn about the Task Force's process of discernment.
Thus, these preassembly events will be presented within the "common sense" guideline of not debating specific issues to come before the General Assembly [emphasis added].
Steve Grace

Here is my shocked reply on May 4, after a missed message or two:

Dear Mr. Grace,

… I appreciate your sending again your reply today. Thank you.

I must say, however, that the concerns I posed are far from assuaged. We remain with two pre-assembly conferences, each about a very controversial topic before the Assembly, each controlled by people who will bring one side of the debate, each having the ear of commissioners at a strategic time, each giving a highly unfair advantage to one side of the controversy. It is utterly naïve to think that these events can or will be held without reference to the topics that will be decided by the commissioners at G.A.
That is logically impossible. If the events are on topic, which they surely will be, they WILL impinge on controversial items before the Assembly, which DOES fly in the face of the common-sense guideline which ought to continue this year but is being discarded for unknown reasons.

I do, however, see how there won’t be “debate” at the pre-assembly events. For anything resembling the fairness of debate to occur, one needs the opportunity for BOTH sides of a controversial subject to be presented. That fairness, obviously, won’t happen, since ONE side has been granted by COGA a monopoly on presentations. Certainly those who have all the advantage by being handed a prime-time platform to present their one side of the argument are savvy enough to retain that advantage by sticking to a no-debate rule. (By the way, dictatorships operate in exactly the same manner. The state-controlled propaganda agency gets to say all it wants; any persons in opposition are denied the freedom to oppose the line of propaganda.) No, there certainly won’t be any “debate” at the pre-assembly events as currently conceived, but that is a mark of utter unfairness, not a point of honor or common sense.

I hope you understand what a biased position this decision by COGA is. We Presbyterians have expected COGA to be fair and unbiased, a neutral party that maintains a level playing field at General Assembly. We believe in the great value of commissioners being exposed to the BEST ideas and information from all sources, so that their decisions can be formed from broad knowledge rather than partisan, one-sided indoctrination. However, at this point, suddenly COGA has dropped the good sense of a common-sense guideline and given license for one very determined and doctrinaire side of each of two highly contested issues to have sole access to the commissioners. If you and the rest of COGA fail to understand the utter unfairness of that set-up, I despair for our denomination!

Are you sure that your explanation [above] is all that COGA can provide? Is this really where you want to leave things? The explanation [above] does not adequately answer the concerns raised in my letter. It glosses over them. Such inadequacy will not hold up to public scrutiny by fair-minded Presbyterians.

Surely it is not too late for COGA to insert fairness and common sense back into the pre-assembly picture by exercising one of two options:

1) By canceling the two pre-assembly events as currently conceived, since neither can even begin to conform to the common-sense guideline of not touching on issues being presented at the General Assembly, or
2) By giving equal time to BOTH sides of each of the subjects. This would involve opening up the planning and leadership of each of the two events by involving responsible parties representing vast numbers of Presbyterians with convictions counter to those being presented by the Theological Task Force, in one case, or the Israel/Palestine Project Team in the other.

This is not an issue that will go away by superficial explanations. I call upon you and COGA to exercise statesmanlike leadership to avert a grossly unjust and prejudicial situation that would kick off an already-volatile General Assembly in a biased and controversial manner. Your responsibility is to the whole church, and to this point you’ve given a part of the church a manifestly unfair upper hand. Please reconsider.

I look forward to your reply.

James D. Berkley

Steve Grace replied again on May 9:

Dear Mr. Berkley,
Thank you for your further e-mail of May 4.
I acknowledge your concerns. However, I have confirmed COGA's original understanding that the content of these two events is not focused on issues that are before this year's General Assembly, which is consistent with our general guideline. So I see no basis for asking COGA to reconsider and cancel the events [emphasis added].
Alternatively, to change the nature of the conferences as you suggest would move the events into the areas of discussion and debate which should be left for the General Assembly.
Certainly I recognize it is difficult to prevent someone attending the event from making a comment or asking a question which gets into a specific item of GA business. We trust the leadership of the events, who have been reminded of our general ground rule, will advise that debate and discussion around such issue is reserved for the General Assembly meeting.
Steve Grace


I replied one last time on May 9:

Dear Mr. Grace,

Thank you for replying.

I must say, however, that I am dumbfounded by what you wrote. My first expectation is always that people will be reasonable and fair, and it still surprises me when that expectation is not met.

Unless the Theological Task Force members say nothing about their report and the state of the denomination, and unless the Israel/Palestine Network doesn’t mention Israel or Palestine, there is no possible way that “the content of these two events” would not be “focused on issues that are before this year’s General Assembly.” What will they possibly be talking about if not the issues before the Assembly that are the exact subject matter of their pre-assembly events, the weather?

Common sense and clear meaning became as violated as the previous standards of fairness, as I read your intended reassurance. What remains of fairness in our denomination seems to be rapidly receding. I am sorry to see the day.

I also believe that your response simply will not stand up to public scrutiny. It will reflect poorly on the expected impartiality and stature of the Committee on the Office of General Assembly. I am sorry that an opportunity has been lost for COGA to pursue fairness and correct the mistake of intentionally allowing a decidedly uneven playing field on two of the most volatile issues before this year’s General Assembly.

Jim Berkley


You be the judge
Now the General Assembly Pre-Assembly Events are upon us on Thursday morning. Those who attend, I invite you to notice if the issue of divestment or the need to pressure Israel to make further concessions arises in the Israel-Palestine event. I invite those in the Theological Task Force to report back on whether the merits of the report and its recommendations are ever spoken about.

If neither of these eventualities happens, what was claimed by Grace is sufficient: “the content of these two events is not focused on issues that are before this year's General Assembly.”

He’s got to be kidding, right?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Those who will not see

“There are none so blind as those who will not see.” That’s a quotation from the fictitious character Little Donny Dark in the 1972 film “Butterflies Are Free.”

I got that feeling today as I read the sour-grapes remark of Jim Rigby, the controversial pastor of the Austin, Texas, church that had admitted to membership a man who believes there is no God. Rigby was bitter, obviously, because his presbytery had (quite rightly) ruled that the church was in error and needed to correct its ways.

According to a news story in the San Antonio Express-News, Rigby explained it all with this caustic remark: “Some people just have to feel like they're better than somebody else.” The “some people” he was referring to are the majority of his colleagues in Mission Presbytery.

Granted that Rigby was disappointed. Granted that he felt the sting of disapproval by his peers. Granted that it is an emotional matter (and not the first in-your-face action by this radical pastor). But really, now! Is it necessary for him to posit such base motivation for those with whom he disagrees? How uncharitable! How opposite from being truly liberal, actually!

It has become the common contention for those who operate strictly in a political and power-based world view to assume that everyone around them is doing so as well. Not so! Some people actually operate by biblical convictions and a desire to follow God’s will.

If there was even one Mission Presbytery presbyter among the 156 who voted counter to Rigby out of a desire to “feel better than somebody else,” I would be utterly astonished. Those presbyters much more likely agonized over their votes, wished they could simply let the issue slide, wanted to do what was proper nonetheless, looked to prayer and guidance from the Bible and our Book of Order, and then cast votes for what was upright and good--good not just for the presbytery, but for the atheist and his anything-goes congregation, too.

Rigby, apparently, is so blinded by dogma or bitterness that he just will not see what is going on in his colleagues. That’s sad, sadder than a church member with nothing much to believe because a church has nothing much to proclaim.