The phrase came from PUP recommendation 5.e: "All parties should endeavor to outdo one another in honoring one another’s decisions, according the presumption of wisdom to ordaining/installing bodies in examining candidates and to the General Assembly, with presbyteries’ approval, in setting standards."
In other words, in the sphere in which a governing body operates and for the decisions it is chartered to make, the other governing bodies were counseled to back off and consider that the first body knows what it is doing. It was basically a statement to observe boundaries and not go barging in to supposedly interfere.
Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick got on this band wagon. He seemed all for such gentlemanly reserve about ordination standards. In his Advisory Opinion #18, Kirkpatrick:
- Counseled that "ordaining bodies should be given the 'benefit of the doubt' in making individual judgments...."
- Joined the Assembly in urging the church "to exercise great restraint in utilizing that right [of administrative review], reserving its use to clear cases of abuse of authority...."
- Reminded the church that "it is the duty of both individual Christians and Christian societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each another (G-1.0305)."
- Prayed that "all ordaining bodies will exercise restraint and Christian charity."
One would think that Kirkpatrick was all for being mellow and laissez faire about constitutional matters. You know, just live and let live; govern and let govern; slide and let slide.
But that was then and this is now. That was about Christian morality and ordination standards, something Kirkpatrick apparently has no stomach to uphold. Now the subjects are property and per capita, which, for some strange reason, seem to super-animate Kirkpatrick.
Take, for instance, the Louisville Papers, issued under Kirkpatrick's authority. These legal briefs about taking denominational control of church property have sparked vicious, grasping lawsuits and the most suspicious, ungracious, and selfish behavior by upper governing bodies. Their actions show that they are absolutely unwilling to honor the decisions of or accord the presumption of any wisdom to lower governing bodies.
Or take the issue of churches transferring to another Reformed denomination, which our Constitution allows (unlike the ordination of those refusing to abide by moral standards). Kirkpatrick seems fiercely unwilling to honor decisions to depart. He seems utterly opposed to according the presumption of wisdom to church sessions or even to gracious presbyteries. No, Kirkpatrick instead sends in the property lawyers and accuses the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of stealing whole flocks of sheep.
And there's the issue of per capita payments. Some congregations have determined that their fiduciary and stewardship responsibilities aren't met by paying for beliefs and activities of Kirkpatrick's office that do not accord with their faith. Some presbyteries have chosen neither to force per capita payments nor to curtail other ministries to pay for uncollected per capita funds.
Are such sessions and presbyteries presumed to be wise in their financial decisions? Is Kirkpatrick falling all over himself in his endeavoring to honor such decisions? Hardly! His office instead counsels judicial means to disapprove and punish such supposed wrongdoing by governing bodies such as Seattle Presbytery (see page 3 for the PJC decision).
I long for ideological consistency and just plain fairness, which we'll probably never see in the last days of discontent under Kirkpatrick. It is indefensible to champion tolerance and laxness in one area of moral and constitutional law he must not particularly favor, while severely tightening the screws in another area of constitutional law by which his office stands to gain financially.
Consistency--that's what is needed. All the "accorded the presumption of wisdom" talk becomes mere blather when it is followed by aggressive litigation. Either sessions and presbyteries are inherently wise and should be left to do whatever they decide, or they are not and can be contested appropriately when they stray from approved practice.
Kirkpatrick can't have it both ways. So I won't buy any more high-sounding talk from him about "according the presumption of wisdom." Not if it will be applied only when it is expedient because there is something to gain.