Friday, July 11, 2008

Reading the AI with Comprehension

When dealing with a complicated statement, I often find it useful to construct a visual representation somewhat like sentence diagramming from school days. I think that would help us better understand the new Authoritative Interpretation (AI), which is admittedly a complex statement. I think it will also point out at least one ambiguous part.

So here’s my try for the sentence: “Interpretive statements concerning ordained service of homosexual church members by the 190th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the 119th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and all subsequent affirmations thereof, have no further force or effect”:

1) Interpretive statements
a. concerning ordained service of homosexual church members
b. by the 190th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian

Church in the United States of America and
c. [by] the 119th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in
the United States

2) affirmations
a. all
b. subsequent
c. thereof,
3) have no further force or effect.

Okay. So what do we have? Numbers 1 and 2 are the subjects; number 3 is the verb phrase. “Interpretive statements and affirmations have no further force or effect.” That’s the bare-bones skeleton.

But obviously not all interpretive statements, as 1.a-c tell us. The interpretative statements being considered are strictly limited by:

(a) Only those that concern ordained service of homosexual church members. (Notice how this is written as if homosexual orientation and not homosexual practice were the main thing. The 1978/1993 Authoritative Interpretation was very careful and specific in dealing with homosexual practice. This new statement is actually more careless and less clear. In a way, there is no historical statement about the ordination of homosexual persons per se to be rendered of no force or effect, because the previous statements are about homosexual behavior, not about someone's abstract state of being homosexual.)

(b) Only the statement by the UPCUSA 190th General Assembly (1978) and
(c) Only the statement by the PCUS 119th General Assembly (1979)

Okay, so now we know that the statements that have no further force or effect are just two very specific statements, and they were mischaracterized in this new resolution as being about homosexual persons, when they were in truth about homosexual practice.

We also know that we’re talking about “interpretative statements” in their totality that were issued by these two denominations in 1978 and 1979, not the very narrow part of each statement that for some reason the Stated Clerk’s office zeroed in on in its Advisory Opinion #22.

What else do we know from the sentence diagram? We know that there is something else that has no further force or effect: “affirmations.” What kind of affirmations in particular?

a and b) “all subsequent” affirmations. That means that after 1978-79, every single such affirmation is also of no further force or effect. But still, what kind?

c) Affirmations “thereof.” The “thereof” tells us something specific. It’s not just any affirmation that may have come out of our mouths after 1979, such as “I like chocolate!” It is only affirmations that pertain to the two very specific statements delineated in the first part. So if a General Assembly affirmed something else or reaffirmed some other statement of principle, such affirmations that aren’t “thereof” are not being included here and would remain in force and effect. Only in cases where the General Assembly has affirmed the 1978 UPCUSA statement or the 1979 PCUS statement about homosexual (practice as it relates to) ordination is such a subsequent affirmation of no further force or effect.

But here’s the ambiguity: “affirmations” by whom? By any Presbyterian anywhere? One would think not! By sessions or presbyteries? I seriously doubt it. They haven’t been mentioned at all in this section of the resolution, so there is no reason to slip them in as the party making the affirmations.

No, it appears that the elliptical party doing the affirmations or reaffirmations would have to be a subsequent General Assembly, such as the 217th General Assembly as recently as 2006 that commended the statement to the study of the whole church. If we are going to supply an assumed party to be doing such affirmations, it would most likely be the only party that can with authority affirm a statement by the General Assembly: another General Assembly.

Thus, in this reading, if any subsequent General Assembly has affirmed the 1978/1979 statements, that affirmation is now left without further force or effect, because this particular, most-recent General Assembly has said so.

What about the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) and its ability to also produce Authoritative Interpretations? The Stated Clerk’s office in its new Advisory Opinion seems to think that any time a GAPJC cited the 1978/1979 statements, this new Authoritative Interpretation then basically invalidates that decision, as if the GAPJC opinion were not also rooted in the Bible, our confessions, legislative intent, and the standard practice of Christians for two millennia.

The Stated Clerk’s office, if it is being careful with the exact language of this new Authoritative Interpretation, must be interpreting “all subsequent affirmations thereof” to include GAPJC decisions as well as General Assembly resolutions. But is a GAPJC decision truly an “affirmation” of an “interpretive statement” by a General Assembly?

I would say no. The GAPJC may use the interpretative statement or rely on it or partially base its decision on the interpretative statement, but that is something different than it being an “affirmation” of the statement. The entity that can affirm or reaffirm such statements is the General Assembly.

Thus, if we read the new Authoritative Interpretation for what it says and not for what we only assume it is saying or what we want it to say, it is basically saying this: Those 1978 and 1979 interpretative statements about homosexual practice have, in their entirety, no further force or effect. In addition, all affirmations of these particular interpretative statements (and only these) by subsequent General Assemblies also have no further force or effect.

I wish the 218th General Assembly had never made such a statement, but I do believe that this is the meaning of their statement.

This reading would also mean that other General Assembly policy statements about homosexual practice or Christian sexual morality in general are not affected by this new Authoritative Interpretation, nor would Permanent Judicial Commission decisions—with the force of being Authoritative Interpretations in their own right—be affected by this new Authoritative Interpretation.

With that in mind, the Stated Clerk’s Advisory Opinion #22 seems to require either more thought and revision, or far better clarity and explanation. This is no time for muddy, ambiguous, confusing counsel. We need to know what is the case and why.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Fragmentation and an Idealized Opposition

In comments on my previous posting, a writer warned against fragmentation among evangelicals/conservatives, following the event of the recent General Assembly in San Jose.

I replied in the comments, but I thought it worthwhile to make my reply a separate posting. Here's what I wrote:

Thanks for your insights.

Yes, personal foibles always are at play in any organization. It's easy to have "ergocentricity" rear its ugly head, where my work is central and everyone else should drop what they are doing and do what I do (or what I lead).

Fragmentation is always a danger within the orthodox camp, especially when we start laying blame on others for a difficult setback. We need to be gentle on one another at a time of disappointment, and then firm in our stern opposition to whatever damage might have been attempted.

We also need to avoid the tendency to idealize the opposition. They are not monolithic or without their own internal squabbles. I have attended Covenant Network meetings in which significant infighting was evident. The "Let's get it on!" group always chafes against the "But we need to be strategic" group. The "I don't care if it destroys the PCUSA!" group wrestles with the "But we must not kill the goose that lays the golden egg" group.

The "others" are definitely not unified. Why should there be both a That All May Freely Serve and a More Light Presbyterians? And why a Covenant Network that is ideologically aligned but usually strategically at odds with the GLBT groups? You should hear the gay voices complain about the sympathetic liberal voices trying to counsel restraint.

In the case of Covenant Network versus MLP or TAMFS, all of them are fundamentally at odds with the Bible and Christian morality. But they are not in lock-step with one another on how to proceed. They, too, are human and have their leadership and tactical foibles.

What the gay-activist forces have done for the most part, however, is endure setbacks. They didn't have just one General Assembly as bad for them as our San Jose assembly has been for us. They have had one assembly after another after another that has been a horrible disappointment that was filled with setbacks, from their perspective.

And yet, yet--they were still there in San Jose, working their plan. This time, in an odd situation with a very skewed set of voting commissioners, they experienced a major victory.

Now, will this one setback cause evangelicals to: 1) blame each other, 2) get all discuraged, 3) fragment, and 4) just plain quit? Or will this setback make us fighting mad and awaken the fence-sitters and spur us into better, more determined action?

I hope it is the latter. I don't think we are made of lesser stuff than the gay activists, who have weathered far worse for decades and still show up for the dispute.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Official Negligence Helped Doom the Authoritative Interpretation

Our just-completed General Assembly tossed a gem of a policy on the theological trash heap.

Well, make that "a slim majority of the General Assembly" did so. Many fine, brilliant commissioners tried to stay the hands of the majority, but just couldn't forestall such a mistake.

After thirty years of stalwart biblical counsel, after holding the line with grace and pastoral sensitivity all these tumultuous years, by a single decision of a horribly skewed General Assembly, the statement that started out as definitive guidance about homosexual practice in 1978 and in 1993 became an authoritative interpretation is gone. Discarded. Trashed. What a tragic waste!

How did that happen? Let me venture two causes.

The first cause is a massive disconnect between the sample of Presbyterians chosen as commissioners and the population of Presbyterians as a whole. Quite simply, the commissioners at General Assembly are not a representative sample of Presbyterians overall. The slice of Presbyterians who generally concentrate their work more in presbyteries than in parishes and thus manage to be elected as commissioners by presbyteries is theologically different; it is typically far more progressive theologically and politically than the bulk of people "back home."

Thus, a General Assembly will make pronouncements and take actions that scandalize the rank and file and that divide the church. Here, on the issue of the permissibility of homosexual practice, that disconnect and thus the scandal are readily apparent.

The second cause is leadership failure. In 2006, the General Assembly chose wisely to affirm and uplift the very same Authoritative Interpretation (AI) that in 2008 the assembly voted to discard. In 2006, the assembly felt so strongly that the AI was a good and valuable document that it required the Stated Clerk to commend it and to send it out to all the churches for renewed acquaintance and study. Here was a document whose wisdom needed to get into people's hands and minds!

The Stated Clerk failed horribly in doing his job. In a half-hearted and delayed effort, he distributed it poorly, without adequate fanfare, and with little sense of its value. As a check, do you remember receiving the AI from the Stated Clerk? Did you read any notice that it was available? Did you get the sense that this is something valuable being commended by the General Assembly as a major, enduring policy statement of the church? Most likely not.

The AI did not get the prominence, distribution, and commendation that the 2006 General Assembly intended. And thus, at this assembly, the hardly known document with all its unrealized value could just be casually tossed aside as if it were theological drivel.

How many of the 2008 commissioners had even read the AI they voted to discard, having been told it was bad and unnecessary?

A little more history: In General Assembly plenary debate over the Authoritative Interpretation in 2004, three separate progressive leaders egregiously misquoted and misrepresented the AI. It was obvious then that even the committee chair of the committee to which the business had been assigned didn't know what the real AI contained and thus could mischaracterize it so badly. Nevertheless, even with major disinformation floated about the AI, General Assembly in 2004 voted to uphold it.

However, that debacle of ignorance or deceit led to the overture in 2006 that intended to make the true AI read and known, so that people could appreciate for themselves how valuable its measured, biblical, pastoral approach was. Or if people were to still oppose the AI, at least they would oppose it from knowledge and not from misadvised hearsay. The overture was approved in 2006.

But it appears that the Stated Clerk had little interest in following through with the clear intent of the 2006 General Assembly. In much the same way as one can “damn by faint praise,” the Stated Clerk frustrated the project by faint effort. Here is what General Assembly demanded of the Stated Clerk, compared to what Clifton Kirkpatrick actually did:

First, to send to each congregation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) a pastoral letter explaining the role of an authoritative interpretation of the Constitution….” The explanation was one sentence, buried in a letter that takes pains not to state the central finding of the AI: that homosexual practice is sin. The letter was posted rather unceremoniously on the Theology and Worship web site.

Second, [to send] a copy of the “Policy Statements and Recommendations” from the 1978 report “The Church and Homosexuality” (also known as the Authoritative Interpretation of 1993)…. This fresh copy of the policy statement and recommendations was needed, since the 1978 version was found 57 pages deep in a pamphlet that first contained dozens of pages of a confusing and contradictory report that was rejected rather than approved. Such a clean copy was not sent.

Third, [And to send] a brief study guide prepared by the Office of Theology and Worship and commended to sessions and congregations for study of this authoritative interpretation. The study guide turned out to be 35 pages long and was available as a PDF file for download. The Stated Clerk hoped it would “continue our discernment of God’s will about issues of human sexuality and ordination.” He said nothing of the 217th General Assembly affirming and commending the AI for study. All in all, his was a most tepid way to commend a repeatedly affirmed policy of the church—as if we were waiting for something new to come along through further discernment to replace it.

Fourth, the study guide shall be written in a manner sympathetic to the standards and intention of the Authoritative Interpretation of 1993, commending it to congregations as the historic policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The study guide remains decidedly neutral if not skeptical about the policy, treating it as possibly dated and introducing arguments against the policy in the form of leading questions. The policy is not treated as a treasure that propounds enduring Christian belief and practice, but as something to pick apart, to take or leave.

Fifth, it shall be sent to congregations no later than one year prior to the convening of the 218th General Assembly (2008). The letter by Clifton Kirkpatrick was dated “spring 2008” and was posted on the Theology and Worship web site June 13, eight days prior to the convening of the 218th General Assembly. If the purpose was to inform discussion at the 2008 General Assembly, that purpose was thoroughly frustrated by the Stated Clerk’s utter failure to fulfill the Assembly’s requirement.

Sixth, electronic communication will be used as a means of saving costs. This part was followed. The items were posted unobtrusively on the web. No Presbyterian News Service article announced them.

Therefore, given such massive subversion of the will of the prior General Assembly and the resulting continuance of the widespread ignorance of and indifference to the contents of the AI, is it any wonder that this year's General Assembly came along and with hardly a thought swept the Authoritative Interpretation aside?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Where's the General Assembly Stuff?

During General Assembly, roughly June 19-29, I was blogging frequently on the Presbyterian Action blog, titled "PresbyActBlog (click here to go there).

I have signed my name on all the PresbyAct Blog postings I wrote. Other postings are by my colleague Alan Wisdom and my wife, Debbie Berkley.

I'm switching back to this blog now that General Assembly is over.