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?