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.

Sincerely,

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].
Shalom,
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.

Sincerely,
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.
Shalom,
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.

Sincerely,
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?

3 Comments:

Blogger Mission Presbyterian said...

I do not for one moment think Stephen Grace is kidding.
Also, I congratulate you, Dr. Berkley, on your ability to resist cynicism re: the good will and good offices of COGA.
They are "progressives" there, which means they know better than anyone else. And that they can be absolutely trusted to behave like committed Marxists and authoritarians always behave. That is, like the Ministry of Truth in Huxley's 1984.
I hope that is not cynicism on my part but the realism that comes from bitter experience.

2:27 PM, June 12, 2006  
Blogger Bruce said...

Oh Jim, if only you had done a little checking you could have saved yourself much consternation. The PUP Task Force and their handlers would never violate the longstanding policy that pre-assembly events not be about controversial topics that will be in contention at the current General Assembly. In fact, PUP Task Force members have agreed to confine their remarks to non-controversial topics of their choosing. Gary Demarest, for instance, will be showing us pictures of his grandchildren while Barbara Wheeler will demonstrate how to make homemade soup stock. But I’m really looking forward to seeing Mark Achtemeier’s collection of superhero action figures.

You see, Jim? No attempt to propagandize; no taking advantage of a one sided format; just good people abiding by the rules that apply to the rest of us. The system works!

1:25 PM, June 13, 2006  
Blogger Alan Trafford said...

Well, I was there this morning at the PUP presentation and, as we all imagined, the entire event was simply advocacy for the recommendations. We were told, for example, that the report does not introduce local option. If this was not a breaking of the "common sense" rule of not using pre-Assembly conferences to influence commissioners unfairly, then I don't know what would be.
Incidentally, charging $36 for fruit and a few pastries, and calling it breakfast, is not totally honest either!

9:53 AM, June 15, 2006  

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