Putting the Squeeze on Generous Presbyteries
Does anyone else know that a new Advisory Opinion #19 has been quietly released by Constitutional Services in the Office of the General Assembly? It’s titled “Implementing the Trust Clause for the Unity of the Church.” It ought to be titled “Limiting the Kingdom of God by Parochial Presbyterian Greed.”
It’s that bad.
Do you remember how the recently released Advisory Opinion #18 about the new Authoritative Interpretation on G-6.0108 was fuzzy, falling all over itself in its avoidance of useful counsel on ordination matters? Well, the same folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t be clear on ordination standards have found a way to be perfectly clear on church property--mainly that the PCUSA owns every square inch of it and that church property exists solely for the benefit of the denomination. And nobody had better mess with that tightly held and narrowly defined possessiveness!
The Advisory Opinion is rife with bad reasoning and poor logic, but the main points it attempts to establish are these:
- A church can’t dismiss itself; presbytery must dismiss it. Granted.
- Presbyteries need to be mighty careful about just how they dismiss churches, especially if they’re going to be giving away assets that Louisville covets--if’n you get my drift.
- Presbyteries had better fear the wrath of synods coming in to assert original jurisdiction if they start squandering PCUSA riches by doing the unthinkable act of allowing worshipping congregations to leave with their property for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God and the welfare of a community of believers.
This is a narrow, parochial, covetous, desperate, bullying Advisory Opinion, unworthy to be emanating from our highest constitutional authority. Or his office. Or whoever was on duty at the time and didn’t see fit to attach his name.
I’ll leave detailed analysis to better legal minds than mine. But let me just briefly point out four glaring problems:
First, the opinion confuses polity with theology. It reads that Presbyterian “polity incorporates these theological principles regarding church property…” and then it goes on to list plainly legal and constitutional assertions about polity, not about theology. I suppose if any denominational office would think polity is theology, it would be most likely the legal wonks. But really, aren’t these guys supposed to be professionals?
Second, section II A attempts to limit presbyteries’ dismissal determinations to the most greedy aspect: what’s good only for the interests of the denomination. It reads: “All such decisions [about releasing a congregation] must be made solely upon the basis of advancing the mission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the presbytery’s geographic area.”
Forget about what would be good for the worshipping community of believers. Forget the community or neighborhood. Forget our supposed interest in ecumenism. Think entirely of PCUSA interests--or greed, or possessiveness. That’s so selfish, so institutionally sinful! (The section then attempts to buttress this atrocious selfishness with Book of Order references that don’t apply.)
Third, section II E is simply false. It reads: “… only the General Assembly itself can release or dissolve a presbytery (G-13.0103n).” If you actually read G-13.0103n with eighth-grade comprehension, you will see that it says nothing about releasing or dissolving a presbytery.
And fourth: Whatever happened to the Office of the Stated Clerk’s infatuation with the “presumption of wisdom” we’re supposed to lavishly grant governing bodies? When it worked in order to grant unconstitutional latitude to ordaining bodies, our Stated Clerk honored it, as in the final two paragraphs of Advisory Opinion #18.
But now, when governing bodies might perhaps make decisions about being gracious with departing churches, when a small part of the King’s riches might depart with a congregation for the congregation’s continued welfare and vitality rather than accrue to the bureaucracy of the denomination, where did the presumption of wisdom about that decision go? Pfffft! It’s gone.
Rather than a presumption of wisdom, we have a no-nonsense, hierarchical threat: “If a presbytery fails to carry out these constitutional responsibilities [to hoard the property for the PCUSA only], the synod may be required to intervene.”
Let me take a little liberty with the language of Advisory Opinion #18 to show how Advisory Opinion #19 might have read, if it were to follow the same kind of generous reasoning employed about ordination standards in the previous Advisory Opinion:
All parties should endeavor to outdo one another in honoring one another’s decisions, according the presumption of wisdom to presbyteries in graciously blessing departing congregations and to synods in respecting that generosity.
This means that presbyteries should be given the “benefit of the doubt” in making individual judgments regarding dismissals of congregations. Correspondingly, it means that presbyteries are urged to not “push the limits” in making those determinations. While explicitly recognizing the right of review, we urge the church to exercise great restraint in utilizing that right, reserving its use to clear cases of abuse of authority by presbyteries. We remind the church that it is the duty of both individual Christians and Christian societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward one another (G-1.0305). We pray that all presbyteries will exercise Kingdom judgment and abound in Christian charity.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think congregations ought to depart willy nilly. Presbyteries have a true responsibility to act prudently as well as graciously. Presbyteries may at times save congregations from swindles or blunders.
But presbyteries are given the ability by our Constitution (G-8.0300) to be generous and broadminded with congregations, transferring property to them if the presbytery so chooses. If a congregation simply must leave, a presbytery need not kick them on the way out. Or hold them over a barrel, squeezing every last nickel out of them before they go. Or confiscate property from a thriving congregation to be left in the failing hands of a disgruntled few holdouts for all things PCUSA.
A presbytery ought to be able to weigh many factors in its decision on how best to handle property matters when a congregation genuinely will not remain in the PCUSA. What’s good for the community? What’s good for the continuing discipleship of the vast majority of the people in the congregation? What is generous and openhanded, rather than grasping and legalistic? How can the Kingdom of God be enhanced by the decision, rather than just the bottom line of the PCUSA? What would bring the greatest glory to God?
When a dying WASP congregation lovingly deeds its property to an emerging neighborhood multi-ethnic congregation, we applaud the graciousness. Why can’t a pragmatic presbytery be just as gracious with a group of former Presbyterians who want to thrive in another Reformed denomination, being able to utilize the building they paid for over the years?
Surely presbyteries ought to be able to freely and prayerfully consider Kingdom factors rather than purely preservation-of-PCUSA-assets criteria when making their decisions about departing congregations. Our Stated Clerk has threatened such presbyteries preemptively, using much more certainty than the Constitution grants him, and certainly more certainty than he was able to muster about other constitutional matters dealing with morality rather than mammon.