Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Evangelicals' splitting headache

What is the evangelical mind concerning staying to contend for the faith within the PCUSA versus leaving to contend for the faith outside the PCUSA? All over the place.

We know this: We’re not of one mind. We’re even disagreeing over the numbers we estimated in a straw vote taken at the recent Atlanta meeting of the Presbyterian Coalition. The straw vote was meant to determine NOT what persons had firmly decided to actually DO, but what general direction they thought it most worthwhile to look into.

Parker Williamson reported his perception that more than half want to consider leaving the PCUSA.

I wrote about what I counted, that somewhere around 50 people--perhaps a sixth of those present--favored investigating departure from the PCUSA.

Toby Wilson estimated nearly 50 percent in the “some sort of separation” camp.

Gary Miller estimated a few more than 40 percent or maybe nearly half who are looking to head out the door.

Matt Ferguson was trying hard to count, too, from the back of the church, and he “guess-ta-mated 30% voted for the ‘Separate, Relocation’” option.

I’m happy that several people have given their estimates. I would hope that several more people--especially the Coalition board members who were strategically placed on the chancel and in front of the pews to “read the room”—would also give their impressions and estimates. It is in the data from the many that we can probably come close to reconstructing a near approximation of the true count.

Trial lawyers tell us that eyewitnesses are notorious for relaying different, even contradictory, stories about a crime. We see what we think we see, but it is usually only partial, and it is often colored by perception. Then that impression enters into the memory, where it can be distorted or partially lost. By the time it comes out as an eyewitness account, it may or may not be accurate. I think we see elements of that in all of our recollections of the vote.

Here’s why I retain a level of confidence in what I reported:
1) My exact task at that moment was to record what I saw. It had my entire attention, and I was straining to do it accurately.
2) I wrote down the result for each of the five options. I have a contemporaneous record and don’t need to rely on memory.
3) My vantage point was second to none. Looking down from near the pulpit, I could see all areas. Rather than looking out through a forest of hands around me from within the pews, I had more of a bird’s-eye view. The only better vantage point would have been if there had been time to roam the floor as a teller for an actual count.
4) There are basically two ways to determine a rough count: (a) One can judge “relative density” (Are there more hands down than up? A lot more? How thick is the clustering of hands up versus hands down?), or (b) one can count and if time runs out, extrapolate (If you count X hands on half the floor, and the votes look evenly spaced throughout the floor, you can double the count and get a close estimate of the vote). I used the first method to guess about 40 percent for the first option to “stay and fight.” It seemed significant but not quite half. Then when the second option’s hands went up for “fellowship,” I was surprised that the density seemed very close to the first, so I estimated another 40 percent. It was easy to count the votes for option three (3 votes) and four (2 votes), and they were insignificant to the overall picture. So that leaves option five: “separate, relocate.” This one entailed the greatest change from the present course, so I was intently interested in the exact number on this one. Thus I attempted a quick count. I got nearly two-thirds of the way around the floor and was up to 35. A quick glance at the rest of the floor confirmed that it was similar to what I had counted already, so I extrapolated the total count to about 50 votes (not 50 percent). This was the most accurate of my estimates.
5) There were about 450 people registered for this 24-hour conference. I wouldn’t expect a lot of attrition for this final session, which offered some of the greatest opportunity for insight and action. Therefore I would guess that at least 300 if not 400 people were present and voting in the straw poll. If I were extremely inaccurate in my actual count on the “separate, relocate” option and missed as many as half of the hands, that would still mean that no more than a third of the people voted for the departure option. I have a clear memory that the hands seemed sparser for the fifth option than they had been for the first or second options.
6) I came into the straw poll with no idea of what I would find. It wasn’t that I expected one thing rather than another, which can affect perception. I felt more like a social scientist than an advocate on this poll. While no one can claim a total lack of bias, searching myself, I don’t think that desired results biased my counts. I’m not even sure what I would have desired!

So what can we say at this point? Let me venture some new guesses for the range of votes.
1) Option One, to stay and fight: close to 40 percent. (Perhaps there is an optical illusion that makes a significant vote look closer to half the house than it is. Obviously THREE options couldn’t have had roughly half the vote each, since we’re not talking about Chicago politics!) Several observers seem to coalesce on about 40 percent for this group.
2) Option Two, to form fellowships: about 35 to 40 percent. There is less unanimity concerning this number. One observer even seems to fail to take this option into account. But it was a substantial group that approached Option One in size. It also would characterize those interested in the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, and many were in town to take in the PGF meeting immediately following this Coalition straw vote. It makes sense that that option would be a major percentage.
3) Options Three and Four: insignificant.
4) Option Five, to separate: as much as 25 percent (assuming I missed a bunch of hands in my count). This group, being the most fed up, also tended to speak out regularly and do so forcefully. It only makes sense. Thus, their presence may have felt larger than their actual numbers, which were significant but not near a majority, as I saw it. I realize that mine is a much lower number than others report for this option, but I don’t know what else to do with the actual numbers I counted. Even with twice as many as I actually counted, my number would be far below half the house that some others report.

This is my opinion. Of course, others’ opinions count, too, so you can take mine with a grain of salt. I’d encourage still more voices to bring their best estimates to the table. Taken together, we may get the most accurate picture.

And in the mean time, it is obvious that people among us want to go in at least two different directions. Since another conclusion from the same Coalition session is that people want unified leadership to lead them in ONE direction, I’m feeling not a little disconnect.

One small group had this advice: “No one option surfaced as a way forward…. We see a need for the Renewal groups to speak with one voice and organization.” The small group of 15 to 20 couldn’t agree on a single option, and yet they expect the entire renewal movement to speak with one voice and organization? Hello-oo!

Groups that oppose us love to talk about “wedge issues.” They figure if they can introduce a wedge issue to drive a wedge into the opposing bloc and split it into factions, they can defeat the individual pieces that result.

I’m not sure, but it looks like we may be doing a great job of “auto-wedging” ourselves, and we need to be very careful to work together with concern and support for one another, even though it appears that we are tending toward taking at least two different routes toward faithfulness. Parker Williamson beautifully modeled such a spirit of support and concern in his reply to my earlier letter. We can do it!


Blogger Dave Moody said...

Your last paragraph is spot on. I don't have a clue how to get folks on the same page, but the spirit in which Parker wrote you is what we all need. Thanks for doing what you do.
grace & peace,

8:56 AM, August 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


It was great to meet you 'in person' at the meetings!

By my last count it was really: 70% for option 1, 50% for option 2 and 65% for option 5! :)

If you would be so kind, I would appreciate your comments on my latest post on what I see as three types of evangelicals in the PCUSA today.

I too hold out hope that we all can stand together in the time of trial.

Our people are all 'counting' on it!

12:24 PM, August 23, 2006  
Blogger MikeZ said...

Given that the GA has officially ruled that no congregation is going to be allowed to split (certainly not with all that valuable real estate), that option seems to be closed.

I'm glad to be a member of my local congregation, and admire our pastor. The leadership at the GA level, though, does not impress me.

Mr Williamson's article quotes Mr Kirkpatrick: "... those who advocate gracious separation or the withholding of per capita are violating their ordination vows. Such advocacy, he said, is unconstitutional."

That was from 2002, so it would seem that the current Task Force approach is to consider the constitution as just another "non-essential".

12:56 PM, August 23, 2006  
Blogger Martin Thompson said...

With all the fine talk from Presbyterians about "peace", "reconciliation", "Justice" and "listening", (at least for Hezbollah)you'd think they would be calling on the Lombard Mennonite Peace center for help in "conflict resolution" with congregations aiming to leave instead of trial lawyers.

But then again, I think all the talk about tolerance is one sided - tolerance for apostasy.

I hope you're right about people wanting to stay. I think a strong contingent of Christians needs to stay if only to survive the demographic implosion of liberalism.

2:06 PM, August 23, 2006  
Blogger Ehud said...

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7:36 AM, August 24, 2006  

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