Thursday, January 17, 2008

Now What Will We Hear?

After the fuzzy new Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108b of the constitution stumbled out of General Assembly in 2006, many voices—some of whom are supposed to know such things—have rushed to proclaim with full assurance: “The Authoritative Interpretation has changed nothing!”

Some of the rest of us were not so sure, having read and vigorously opposed the troublesome language of the stealth constitutional amendment put across as an Authoritative Interpretation (AI). We knew how the AI read. We had read and heard what the Peace, Unity, and Purity (PUP) Task Force intended and had written in the rationale section of the report.

It wasn’t lost on us that those seeking gay ordination favored the PUP report, and those opposed to ordaining the serially unrepentant opposed the report. There was obviously a reason for such stands. We noticed which side broke out the champagne the night of the PUP approval at General Assembly, and which camp was in tears or outraged.

Even the idea that a task force would labor for years and produce a grand plan to be celebrated for accomplishing precisely nothing seemed rather unbelievable to many of us. I, for one, would have been delighted to have been retained to produce absolutely nothing that changes precisely nothing--and then to have been paid what the task force cost. But I don’t think what the task force did was without major negative change.

Obviously many, many people felt that something had changed with the approval of the PUP Authoritative Interpretation. And since that time, Scott Anderson has decided that the way is now clear for him—a partnered gay man—to be ordained again. He was on the PUP Task Force, and this is his conclusion.

Paul Capetz of Twin Cities Presbytery, who prior to the PUP AI had surrendered his ordination out of honesty about his refusal to abide by “fidelity and chastity,” now wants his ordination back, because he thinks the PUP AI definitely changed things.

But the biggest indicator and the first case to definitely challenge and possibly clarify the ordination situation following the 2006 General Assembly is the recent decision of San Francisco Presbytery to approve Lisa Larges for ordination, after over twenty years of not allowing her to proceed because of her lesbian sexual practice. Obviously San Francisco Presbytery thinks something drastically changed with the approval of the PUP AI.

So, voices of “No change,” speak again!

Okay, it seems time for all those who so confidently assured us that nothing has changed to speak up again, telling Lisa Larges and San Francisco Presbytery to cut it out! The time is now. Talk was easy in 2006, because the subject was hypothetical; now it is actual.

Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick wrote in an Advisory Opinion that it is clear that “that there are national standards for ordination, which are binding upon all ordaining bodies.” He also made it clear that “an individual may declare a scruple concerning the appropriateness of a mandatory provision. But a governing body cannot excuse a mandatory provision, for it lacks the power to set aside a provision of the Constitution. However, a candidate may still be ordained or installed so long as she/he is still willing to comply with the mandatory provisions” (emphasis added).

Okay, San Francisco Presbytery has flat out discarded as inessential a binding standard (a term that ought to be considered redundant in its clarity). Lisa Larges declared a scruple and is entirely unwilling to comply with the mandatory provision. Such unwillingness was excused. Yes, a mandatory, binding, required standard was set aside by the presbytery. Will our Stated Clerk now contest this anarchic state of affairs?

Ed Koster, Stated Clerk of Detroit Presbytery and a frequent polity pundit, wrote about the 2006 General Assembly that “some of the press have been reporting that it has approved the ordination of non-celibate homosexual persons at the discretion of local ordaining bodies. The press have it wrong, and in fact the Authoritative Interpretation approved by the General Assembly has probably made it less likely that such ordinations will be allowed” (emphasis added). Okay, given the fact that San Francisco held off for twenty-some years and just now feels entitled to ordain Larges on the basis of the AI, what will Koster say now?

The PCUSA Director of Constitutional Services, Mark Tammen, got snippy with me a while back because I persisted in saying that the AI could pave the way for ordinations such as the one being contemplated for Larges. As I remember the conversation, this chief lawyer on Kirkpatrick’s staff made it clear that those like me plying such allegations ought to cease such careless speculation that was so patently wrong and inflammatory. “Nothing has changed!” he snorted, as if it were completely self-evident. Well, I wonder what counsel Tammen will offer at this juncture. Will he labor relentlessly to counter San Francisco’s impermissible errors that make his overconfident pronouncement untrue?

Clark Cowden is a highly respected presbytery executive and expert on the Presbyterian Church. He also has a deeply evangelical faith. Following General Assembly in 2006, he argued that both the meaning and the intent of G-6.0106b (“fidelity and chastity”) stand, as does the Authoritative Interpretation of 1996 that carries forward the guidance of the landmark 1978 statement on homosexuality: “… these continue to be mandatory requirements that all elders, deacons, and pastors must agree to live by. The approval of the amended PUP report does not change any of this, and does not give governing bodies ‘wiggle room’ to allow disobedience of the requirements” (emphasis added). The time is ripe for Cowden to reiterate his arguments, as it appears that San Francisco Presbytery hasn’t bought any of them.

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over

This San Francisco case with Lisa Larges is bound to go into an extended appeal process. Here is an open-and-shut case. Larges openly and squarely fails to meet the standard of G-6.0106b. San Francisco has said that that doesn’t matter; she ought to be ordained anyway. Nobody is disputing those facts.

The question now for the Permanent Judicial Commission is if San Francisco Presbytery is right that it can ordain Larges anyway because of the 2006 Authoritative Interpretation. Or does our Constitution and especially the new Authoritative Interpretation give the presbytery no such right to “excuse a mandatory provision,” as Kirkpatrick put it?

As we observe the legal wrangling and wait for a ruling that sets a needed precedent, may we not forget that our larger theological and polity questions are being determined in the midst of a human drama being worked out in the life of Lisa Larges. As much as I believe that what she is attempting is not of God, as much as I oppose the wider relentless pressure to distort and discard Christian sexual morality, as much as I lament the costs in relationships and crippled church witness that such disputes incur, I need to remember that Lisa is beloved by God. I need to keep her temporal and eternal welfare deeply in mind. It is so sad when wounded individuals end up being tossed around the vortex of a theological cyclone.

But remembering Lisa’s deepest needs, I know all the more that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) must do what is right, rather than what is either popular or expedient. All the more, we must uphold the only standards worth valuing—those given to us in Scripture by God, those well represented in our constitutional ordination standards. Everyone ultimately benefits when that happens.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Someone Is Missing More Than Yoga Classes

Does anyone train, supervise, direct, and, if necessary, correct our volunteer missionaries on assignment in Presbyterian mission? I ask, because there is an obvious need in Jerusalem.

Presbyterian volunteer missionary Shannon O'Donnell is assigned, oddly enough, to a radically politicized and highly controversial liberation theology outfit in Jerusalem. (I say "oddly enough" since liberation theology has been widely repudiated after its excesses in Latin America and is hardly the stuff of Reformed theology.) She appears to be a sincere and idealistic person, but her biased assumptions and questionable behaviors do not represent what the overwhelming majority of Presbyterians would want to support with their mission dollars.

Her January 8 letter, dutifully publicized on the PCUSA web site, provides ample examples of her crying need for supervision, for someone wise and experienced to provide more direction and loving mentoring, as she grows in her ability to exercise sound judgment. The letter is filled with embarrassing and contradictory statements, such as:
  • "At first I was going to lie my way through the gym application process...." In O'Donnell's favor, she eventually didn't lie to get what she wanted, but only because she sensed that the truth might work this time. However, it does give one pause that in her ethics (or lack thereof), lying would be a potential and even primary choice about how to handle a matter. Apparently O'Donnell operates with the understanding that one can lie, if it achieves a desired end. Such a failing in basic ethics hardly recommends her as a Christian leader! Is no one supervising her and teaching better practices? Will someone do so now that the problem has surfaced?
  • O'Donnell did write a thoughtful and interesting analogy about Nazi Germany, telling of an alley protesters would use in order to avoid saluting Nazism. Turning introspective, she wrote: "How many hearts gave in to injustice to save their own lives? Which path would I chose?" Well, I could guess. Anyone who would consider lying in order to avoid a few questions to get into a dance class couldn't be expected to risk life and limb for the truth. We learn most about the heart by the small habits of life, not the vain grandstanding.
  • "I don’t know what Bush’s visit will accomplish, but I do know for certain that ... I will not be going to my yoga class at the YMCA...." How petty, self-centered, and inane! A head of state is knocking himself out to broker a just peace, and O'Donnell laments that she'll have to miss yoga because it gets too inconvenient. Perhaps a mentor could suggest that it's not all about her.
  • Within inches of each other, she wrote two very contradictory statements: (1) "I didn’t expect to feel accepted at such a place on the west side of town" (displaying gross prejudice against the inhabitants of Jewish Jerusalem), and (2) "I have also found that it is equally important not to judge others." Yet, she had prejudged others, and, from what she has written previously, she does it regularly. A little consistency between what she supposedly champions and what she actually does would be nice.
  • "We are to love people, even when it hurts," she writes. I see her working to live that out as she loves the Palestinians. That's good. But, in a way, given the propaganda in which she is steeped, that's not very revolutionary. She's just flowing with the stream of her political persuasions. How much more sacrificial and "hurting" it would be for O'Donnell to demonstrate genuine love for George W. Bush, for her own country, and, particularly in Israel, for the Jewish people and the government of Israel. For her, to love those entities would "hurt," I would imagine. I don't think she's seen that. She appears to be too busy being oh-so-politically proper in following her liberation theology dogma, with a broad streak of naivete and smugness showing through.

I am sure Shannon O'Donnell is a delightful person to know. She has given a good portion of her life to doing something she thinks is good and right. That's why it is all the more tragic that she appears to have no one wise and caring to help nudge her misguided and nascent energy in a more appropriate direction. Letter after letter displays her shortcomings.

Who should be watching Shannon O'Donnell's back? Who cares about her enough to gently, lovingly disciple her, rather than allowing her to flounder?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Massive Mission Creep in Per Capita

Someone asked me today about a way to get funding for ecumenical enterprises unlinked from per capita funding. The World Council of Churches (WCC), the National Council of Churches (NCC), and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) all receive funding out of General Assembly per capita assessments--over $1 million a year in total. Obtaining and fiercely protecting such funding has been a major priority for Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick.

I suggested two possible overtures to send to General Assembly. One (attached below) is a suggestion to limit what per capita funds. In the Book of Order, the description of per capita is very brief, and it has been stretched unbelievably in order to make it an enormous $12.6 million "business." Including the NCC as a necessary administrative expense rather than as a mission undertaken is, to me, an egregious mistake.

A second overture has already been approved by Indian Nations Presbytery and will be advocated at General Assembly by Jim Cahalan, a wise veteran of many assemblies. Any other presbytery can pick it up verbatim to concur as a presbytery. Then when the presbytery adds its own version of a rationale, both rationales get printed for commissioners to see. It is a great way to combine efforts and double the opportunity to explain the concept.

The Presbyterian Coalition also suggests a like overture.

About a year ago I wrote an article about a bizarre experience I had at the NCC offices that was almost surreal. Also the Institute on Religion and Demcracy did a groundbreaking study on the funding for the NCC. The report, Strange Yokefellows, found that secular liberal foundations are the primary source of NCC income, and their interest is not religious but rather political. From the IRD site, you can read it chapter by chapter, but it is also available as a booklet.

Such resources provide a lot of material about what has happened with the NCC over the years in its decline from an organization interested in uniting and strengthening churches in Christian ministry into an organization aligned to be the liberal/progressive political voice in opposition to a perceived national bent toward evangelical and traditional Christian voices. The NCC represents mainly left-leaning Christians and is actually busily opposed to the beliefs and work of a great many of the American Christians it claims to represent!

It is sadly necessary to note that it has been the common practice of denominational leadership to spare no cost and effort to defeat any overtures that seek to limit or eliminate funding for the NCC and WCC. Any pretext of fairness or neutrality evaporates when it is the stated clerk's ox being gored, and so committee leadership, staff "experts," and big-name officials are all aligned to thwart any grassroots attempts to unhitch ecumenical funding from the per capita budget.

All the Stated Clerk's weight of authority , position, and persuasion is used to defeat such measures. It becomes "everyman" from Presbytery X aligned in battle against Clifton Kirkpatrick, denominational staff members, committee leadership, flown-in celebrities such as the general secretary of the NCC, and any number of other forces. When I have seen it before, it is the most brutal and unfair display of bias and advantage I've seen at General Assembly.

Elder Jim Cahalan from Indian Nations Presbytery knows this, has seen it in action, and is prepared to go up against it anyway. It would be a wonderful thing for him to have able people at his side with like or concurring overtures to face off against the imported giants on a slanted playing field. Perhaps truth, reason, and simple fair play could win after all!

No congregation's money should be confiscated to fund organizations that may promote beliefs and policies completely in contradiction to the congregation's convictions. Per capita apportionments were intended to jointly fund the expenses of commissioners and simple administrative costs. Mission creep has caused the per capita budget to mushroom like cancer, and it needs to be restrained.

Time is of the essence for new overtures (a February 22 deadline), but concurrences and support of the Indian Nations overture can abound!

Sample overture:
On Delineating Per Capita Expenses

The Presbytery of ________________ overtures the 218th General Assembly (2008) to direct the Stated Clerk to send the following proposed amendment to the presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes:

Shall G-9.0404d be amended as follows: [Text to be inserted is shown as italic.]

Each governing body above the session shall prepare a budget annually for its operating expenses, including administrative personnel, and may fund it with a per capita apportionment among the particular churches within its bounds. Care shall be taken to ordinarily limit this budget to those specific ecclesial expenses related to the government, historical and archival activities, and polity of the governing body. Benevolences, ministries, ecumenical dues, or other elective spending for the work and mission of the governing body shall not be funded by the per capita budget. The presbyteries … [and so on]

According to the Book of Order, per capita may be used to pay the expenses of elders and pastors to attend governing bodies (G-9.0308). It also is meant to cover “operating expenses” for the governing body, “including administrative personnel,” which probably means some clerical and bookkeeping help (G-9.0404d). Those are the only specified per capita expenses.

Yet, from this modest beginning, meant to provide equitably for the governance of the church and to spread the expenses fairly among the churches, per capita has grown to include the costs of a vast number of enterprises, many of which cannot easily be distinguished from ministries or benevolences of the governing body. At every level, large staffs carrying on a number of ministries may be funded by per capita. For instance, over $1 million yearly is given to ecumenical relations with a narrow spectrum of church bodies through the National and World Councils of Churches.

One is hard pressed in many instances to provide a sufficient criterion for why some activities are funded by the per capita budget, while others are covered by the judicatory’s mission budget. And, as mission budget dollars have become scarcer, the temptation is to move expenses into the per capita budget, which can be raised by what amounts to compulsion if need be.

Since congregations are all but required to contribute their share to the per capita budget, the plethora of items currently included in the per capita budget — some of which are highly controversial — causes much of the greatest resistance to giving by congregations. While a congregation might be happy to help supply the basic governmental functions our Constitution requires, they would not be willing to be forced to fund causes and activities not in keeping with their conscience. Thus some churches have decided not to pay per capita at all. If what is included in per capita expense were confined to the purely ecclesial, governmental expenses it was intended to be, the per capita–withholding problem would diminish greatly.

The ministry and mission of the judicatories are important, but such activity needs to be funded through the general giving of congregations and individuals who desire to support the various activities. Work beyond the essential governmental and historical functions of the church should not be funded through assessments bordering on involuntary.