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?


Blogger Doug Hagler said...

Interesting. Do you think that commissioners who were opposed to the AI would have their minds changed by reading it (assuming you're correct that they hadn't read it - not my assumption but we'll go with it)? I wouldn't describe seeing a lot of "indifference" to its contents myself. It seems, actually, to largely polarize - either its praises are sung, or it is reviled, but we don't have many people who are saying "Homosexuality? Meh. Whatever."

12:01 PM, July 04, 2008  
Blogger Doug Hagler said...

Oh, my bad.

Doug Hagler
San Anselmo, CA

12:47 PM, July 04, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


I can't imagine pretending to make a responsible decision about something that I don't know and understand, and yet that is most likely the case in the AI decision.

Should you and I have called "Time out!" just before the vote, suspended time for a few hours, and individually polled each of the voting commissioners about what the issue was, what their knowledge was of the AI, when they had last read it (if ever), what their reasons were for supporting or disapproving it, and exactly why they were voting as they were at this time, I am utterly convinced that the results of our poll would indicate disconcerting things.

Confusion, ignorance, and prejudice would be the largest factors at work. The AI itself was not considered, debated, and voted down. The situation of having an AI and of not ordaining practicing homosexual persons was what was talked about. People dealt in generalities, not in specifics, in feelings and hunches, not in facts and truth.

This is, of course, an absolute guess, but I would think it likely that:

No more than 10% had even read the AI ever, and the rest were operating on hearsay.

Of those who had ever read it, perhaps half had read it years if not decades ago and were relying on faded memories.

If you would ask any given commissioner, "Where can I find the AI to read it?" the commissioner would not be able to answer.

If you would ask, "Do you realize that in removing this AI, you would remove the very policy that condemns homophobia and counsels compassion and inclusion for homosexual persons?" the commissioners would be amazed, not knowing that.

Only, say, about one in fifty commissioners could give a coherent answer to the question: "Using a biblical and confessional argument from theology, and not relying on hunches or feelings, what statements in the AI can you support or disprove?"

Doug, on any given vote at General Assembly, a portion of the commissioners has strong, well-reasoned opinions for or against. On most questions, however, there is a large middle that hasn't thought it through very much, is quite undecided on the issue, is basically uninformed and really winging it, and/or is simply confused on what is happening and what a vote either way actually means. Frighteningly, that middle group usually determines the outcome.

On this issue of the AI, I believe that middle group leaned toward the progressive voices that told them the AI was bad and harmful. They never had those assertions actually proved. They couldn't articulate why the assertions were correct. But, the middle swung this time toward the revisionist side of things. It was not a vote of great wisdom and conscience. It was more, "I guess I'll go with these guys."

Again, this analysis is speculation--speculation informed by a lot of years of closely observing the dynamics of General Assemblies. I wish I were wrong. I wish it could be proved to me that the votes were marvelously informed and wondrously reasoned. But I just don't think that is the case.

For you, Doug, (1) when was the last time you read the AI? (2) Where can it be found for others to read? (3) Do you know that there is a difference between the first 56 pages or so of the 1978 booklet and the part that was actually approved?

Even now, after the fact, if you asked questions 1 and 2 to a sample of commissioners, I would bet that the responses would be shocking. If you asked question 3, you would probably get a blank look of incomprehension, proving that they have never even found the confusing booklet to read.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

1:40 PM, July 04, 2008  
Blogger Doug Hagler said...

Heh. In my case, I get a pass. 1) Earlier today. Before that...a few months ago, whenever you had your post talking about not allowing homosexuals to join churches. 2) I followed a link from your blog both times, actually, (or maybe a link from Chris Larimer's blog the first time) but I've also found it by using the PCUSA website search function in the past. 3) No, I wasn't aware of that difference.

From my previous involvement in Synod and Presbytery meetings and events, I agree that some items get voted on without a thorough reading. I think that's probably just a problem with democracy. Who can actually list all of Obama or McCain's votes on key issues in the Senate? Probably only people who are working phone banks, I'd guess. I'm not sure that means that people who are intending to vote for McCain would suddenly switch parties and vote for Obama though, if they read the voting records carefully, or vice-versa. Maybe I'm wrong, I don't know.

This also means that in previous GAs, when the AI was approved, for example, or reaffirmed, or otherwise voted upon, we can only guess that the same large middle didn't read it then either, and just went with "those folks over there" - again, if the conjecture is true (I frankly don't have the background experience to say either way. I would hope our commissioners are more informed than you say, but I've never been to GA). So that means that, this year, the AI got an "average" amount of scrutiny and reading, perhaps, which maybe evens out? I mean, it isn't only due to misinformation when things don't go the way you'd like them to...

Doug Hagler
San Anselmo, CA

4:45 PM, July 04, 2008  
Blogger Alan Trafford said...

In a secular setting, a performance like this would have cost the stated clerk his job. I can't think of a clearer illustration of the bureacracy of the church obstructing the will of the Assembly. In effect, the only time the rules are applied is when it suits them. I wonder what would have happened if other Assembly decisions had been summarily ignored or obfuscated in the same way.
Still disgusted.
Alan Trafford.

10:04 AM, July 05, 2008  
Blogger Presbyman said...

Kirkpatrick was too busy dreaming up accusations against the Evangelical Presbyterian Church to do a little thing like follow a GA instruction. And he may have had his plate full with the property issue.

11:52 AM, July 05, 2008  
Blogger Presbyman said...

Sorry ...

John Erthein
Erie, PA

11:53 AM, July 05, 2008  
Blogger Dennis said...

I was deeply disappointed in this General Assembly. Jim, your analysis of how General Assembly commissioners work gibes with my experience. I was a commissioner to the 1990 GA in Salt Lake City. There was an awful lot of stuff to read prior to the GA. This stuff was prepared by staff. Then much of this stuff was changed in committee, so that it had to be read all over again, an impossible task for all but the most very dedicated commissioner. I was disappointed in my GA. We spent more time debating a resolution on Cuba than we did debating the Brief Statement of Faith. I confess that I have not read the AI, and I would have been uninformed if it had come up. Basically, you are right, Jim, to say that the broad middle that does not have strong feelings on the subject (or doesn't understand it) tends to get swayed one way or the other. There is an awful lot crammed into a few short days. That is why the approval process in the Presbyteries is so necessary, and so much more thoughtful. Or so I hope!

Dennis Veith
Ferndale, WA

3:42 PM, July 05, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


Yes, all kinds of GA decisions happen for various reasons, not many of which particularly raise one's confidence! So good or ill can logically come of poorly arrived-at decisions.

However, in 1978, you can BET that the definitive guidance (now the authoritative interpreation just junked) was THE major issue of the GA, and as such it received enormous attention. Probably as much as any business item, what it said and what it meant were likely VERY well discussed and known.

Then on other occasions, the AI has been a major item of contention. The last time I saw that was in 2004, when the Covenent Network made that their must-do item for that GA. The anti-AI crowd seemed to make confusion and misrepresentation its two key tactics. I referred to that in a hyperlinked article in the main posting. The vote was close to retain it that time, and I'm convinced it was a vote clouded by disinformation. It would have been a stronger vote to retain, were it not for confusion introduced from people who should have known better and should have acted more responsibly.

At this assembly, the AI was but one part of an attack on many fronts. Thus, it kind of was just one part of a wide array of things to be known and understood. Thus, it wasn't.

Again, the utter negligence on our stated clerk's part played a big role. The AI was supposed to be highlighted and commended in the previous two years. It was instead neglected and undermined.

That was our system at is worst.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

8:49 PM, July 05, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


Kirkpatrick blew off another instruction by General Assembly, another command he just had no will to actually DO.

In 2006, GA passed a resolution condemning suicide bombings--much to the consternation of the denominational Palestine nannies, who usually keep us from saying anything meaningful about Palestinian terror.

Part of the 2006 resolution was that Kirkpatrick was to "take every opportunity" (or some wording similar) to speak out against such terrorism. He didn't. The loquacious Stated Clerk suddenly had very little to say.

After months and months-- if I remember correctly, some time in January or February of 2008--and after being hounded to fulfill his responsibility, he made ONE rather weak statement about bombers using unknowing Down Syndrome victims to do the bombings. In other words, it was only a particularly egregious instance that got Kirkpatrick to say anything--once.

To the best of my knowledge, he hasn't said anything since. So "every opportunity" became one weak instance of speaking out in two years. He had much more to say about tomatoes than terrorism.

But then, Kirkpatrick WANTED to talk tomatoes. That's apparently the determining factor, not what GA demands.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

9:00 PM, July 05, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


Thanks for your experience. It is typical of those who serve as commissioners.

But don't hold your breath for presbyteries to step in and correct the GA vote on the Authoritative Interpretation. Yes, presbyteries would very likely reverse the situation through more representative and thorough consideration.

Presbyteries, however, will get no such chance. An authoritative interpretation is not subject to presbytery referendum, as a constitutional amendment would be. That's why an AI is called an end run around the will of Presbyterians as a whole. One GA in one vote changes the whole stance of the church, and the presbyteries can do nothing.

What presbyteries CAN do, however, is to once again knock the tar out of the proposed constitutional amendments that would remove G-6.0106b (fidelity and chastity) from the Book of Order and "homosexual perversion" from the Heidelberg Catechism. Major defeats again in the presbyteries would show that Presbyterians as a whole do not at all agree with a rebel GA that used an imbalanced set of commissioners to attempt to inflict major damage on the belief and practice of our denomination.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

9:08 PM, July 05, 2008  
Blogger Doug Hagler said...

"Presbyteries, however, will get no such chance. An authoritative interpretation is not subject to presbytery referendum, as a constitutional amendment would be. That's why an AI is called an end run around the will of Presbyterians as a whole. One GA in one vote changes the whole stance of the church, and the presbyteries can do nothing."

Interesting. To me, this seems like an indictment of AIs in general, this one and any other that might come along. Which, actually, being a ground-up sort of person, I'm fine with. I think the Presbyteries should tell the GA what to do (and the congregations should tell the Presbyteries what to do, and so on down).

12:44 AM, July 06, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


An authoritative interpretation is meant to be a clear interpretation of what is already in the constitution, what is already the settled belief and practice of the church. In 1978,the definitive guidance was an answer to a question, and it was needed in order to put into careful language what the church had ALWAYS practiced, which was now, just recently, being questioned.

It became an authoritative interpretation later, in order to have constitutional weight to CONTINUE what the practice had always been. It interpreted what has ALWAYS been the practice of the church.

Then folks tried to change the constitution. They were very unsuccessful, so unsuccessful that if they tried a direct approach again, they would lose all momentum altogether.

So, rather than accept that they didn't have a constitutional leg to stand on, they tried the one thing they thought they might be able to pull off: they tried to change the Authoritative Interpretation, because that took ONLY the vote of one GA. It was a perfect end run around the will of the church.

The thing was that that, too, didn't work the first number of times it was tried. And so then the next way to make drastic changes without changing the constitution was the PUP report from two years ago, which said, in essence: we have standards, but local presbyteries don't have to follow any they don't choose to follow.

That was another end run, and it was done by an AI, which was supposed to INTERPRET the constitution, but instead quite egregiously served as if it were a constitutional amendment. It attmepted to "interpret" a section of the constitution that spoke of the LIMITS to conscience, but it wildly expanding the so-called right of conscience. It was, quite simply, a vast abuse of an AI.

So an AI to make clear what has been the belief and practice can be a good thing, when done with integrity and it is consistent with the constitution. But an AI that is a cheap way to CHANGE policy and subvert the constitution is no good.

This is a far too hasty and simplified explanation, but I have a ferry to catch.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

8:47 PM, July 06, 2008  
Blogger marcb said...

Jim - after "winning" my court case (Benton v. Hudson River Presbytery), I thought that our denomination was on a downhill course that would not be reversed. This pessimism came out of the fact that the case did absolutely nothing to stop those who were determined to marry (I use that word advisably) gay couples. As the years have passed since then, my pessimism has only deepened. The conservatives are either too disorganized or demoralized or indifferent to make the necessary sacrifices to do what is necessary on the human level to turn things around. That is a major reason why I retired in January of 2006 and am now teaching on the college level full time - tired of seeing nothing effective done to stop the I pulled out as an individual. Have done interim work in the Methodist Church, but am done with the PCUSA - I see it offering only heartache in the future. Marc Benton, York, PA

1:42 PM, July 07, 2008  
Blogger John Berstecher said...

The frustration you express about the Stated Clerk’s inaction in response to the 2004 GA’s instruction regarding the 1978 D.G. (A.I.) captures in its essence what has dispirited those who had hoped for and worked for renewal these last 30 years. Why bother with the ecclesiastical process if one man can by his inaction undermine and further weaken the whole point of a deliberative ecclesiastical body? Even without his stubborn refusal to use his office to carry out the 2004 action, (which Jim, you know is only one of a whole series of failures on the same issue during his whole tenure as clerk) American culture was already trivializing nationwide denominationalism. Not to excuse his blatant failures, but perhaps his inaction and his support for the FOG reform, also reflects a realization that the era of the top down leader and the centralized denominational infrastructure directing local churches was over?
So even if the presbyteries vote down the amendment by a wide margin, I doubt denominations as we once knew them, can be put back together again. Those of us who are evangelical and still in the PCUSA must find a creative way to relate to each other. Nothing personal, but I think its time to do that and to stop sounding like we’re whining because things didn’t go the way we thought they would when in 1978 and then in 1996 we got “fidelity and chastity”.

9:58 AM, July 08, 2008  
Blogger Brian Ahier said...

I pray that the presbyteries will "once again knock the tar out of the proposed constitutional amendments that would remove G-6.0106b (fidelity and chastity) from the Book of Order and 'homosexual perversion' from the Heidelberg Catechism."
I also think it is high time for a coordinated effort to cut as much funding as possible from the control of Louisville.

10:16 PM, July 08, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fascinating read is contrasting what went on at the recent EPC GA and ours.

Sure makes Reformed evangelicals wonder how we've put up with all of this for so long.

And why.

Soon not to be from Cuero, TX

5:40 AM, July 09, 2008  
Blogger Dr. J said...


As a commisioner to the 1999 GA, I have to agree with your description of the process and of the cause of the disaster in San Jose.
Yet one other factor in the conservative side of the church needs to be raised up for our consideration. When I attended the Coalition Gathering in Orlando a year or two ago, one of the major issues that I rubbed up against is the egos of the leaders. Each seemed to see himself or herself as the leader that everyone should follow; when I bounced this perception off of one of the leaders (whom I met in the airport), he not only confirmed my perception but told me of his own frustrations in that area.
Hence, our constant battle against fragmentation, a battle that leaves us vulnerable to a full-court press such as was mounted in San Jose this year.
Lord, have mercy.
Dr. John Kerr
Jacksonville, NC

12:25 PM, July 09, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


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.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

1:03 PM, July 09, 2008  
Blogger Doug Hagler said...

Last comment, I promise, and I'll make it quick.

"And so then the next way to make drastic changes without changing the constitution was the PUP report from two years ago, which said, in essence: we have standards, but local presbyteries don't have to follow any they don't choose to follow."

My understanding was that this was the practice of the Presbyterian Church for hundreds of years, assuming you're referring to "scrupling" here. At least, when the PUP report was discussed (at length in various venues) references were made to a long history of scrupling with regard to the Westminster Confession when it was a standard in and of itself. So is it possible to say that "scrupling" is an example of the long-standing practice of the Presbyterian Church that was 'resurrected'? In the historical case, scrupling with regard to the standards of the WC, and in the latter, scrupling with regards to our broader standards for ordination...

7:26 PM, July 09, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scrupling was only allowed on certain selected portions of Westminster. You could scruple the religious functions of the civil magistrate, for example.

The classical definition of a scruple meant that one had to teach and preach in accord with the Westminster Standards, but one could hold PRIVATE, PERSONAL convictions to the contrary on these select matters.

This has nothing to do with the postmodern, buffet mentality that has wrecked the PCUSA.

It's all over but the shoutin'.

6:21 AM, July 10, 2008  

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