Light Makes Critters Scurry and Hide
For a few years, I was often the lone outsider at Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) meetings in far-flung locations. I have observed many of its meetings, reported on what I saw, and learned much about how the committee operates. A few people gather, they share a remarkable affinity for liberal social policies (uncharacteristic of Presbyterians as a whole), and they welcome with open arms and access to discussion guests and “experts” who share the committee’s ideology. Critics, true experts of another persuasion, and the press, they sequester, occasionally hector, roundly ignore, and gamely tolerate.
Members spend hours and hours at meetings pursuing mainly personal hobbyhorses, they work very hard (but frequently not very effectively), and they produce long, opinionated, overreaching, dilettante, always-politically-liberal papers that typically garner a yawning approval from unquestioning and largely uninterested commissioners at General Assembly, who figure “Somebody must know what this is about, so I guess I’ll just go along.” Then the wordy papers generally get forgotten and unused by the church as a whole, which does not generally value the opinions of the ACSWP.
However, the approved papers form the basis for always-politically-liberal advocacy by eager entities such as the Washington Office and other ingrown radical-advocacy groups that are given vague Presbyterian identity but no effective Presbyterian oversight. Also, the papers provide access to the joint Presbyterian purse, so that the radical initiatives get funding (such as a UCC pastor hired to wear a tomato on her head, when other PCUSA staff were being downsized). Our per capita and mission dollars regularly get funneled to ACSWP fancies, courtesy of this process. Further, ACSWP is supremely adept at getting even more business tossed its way by arranging for friendly presbyteries to overture that ACSWP studies be commissioned, and planting follow-up work in papers that it presents to General Assembly. ACSWP acts like a dog that throws its own stick to gleefully fetch.
While I was wryly observing and commenting on this process as a lone outsider, often I was icily tolerated at best, logistically frustrated, and even physically barred from parts of meetings. I was denied papers in a supposedly open meeting. I was warned and threatened not to divulge particulars of what was written in drafts. In broad strokes, ACSWP generally labored to blunt and even disregard the intent as well as the letter of an excellent Open Meetings Policy that ought to have governed and restrained the committee’s secrecy tactics.
More sunlight for meetings
As a result of experiences like mine, a General Assembly commissioners’ resolution sparked an amendment of the Open Meetings Policy to include a sentence detailing that papers in open meetings are certainly to be made available to observers. Because of the kinds of concerns ACSWP expresses and the apparent handiwork of Associate Stated Clerk Mark Tammen, a degree of the value of this new clarification may appear to be diminished by explanations in the “Rationale” section. (Tammen, at times, has appeared more concerned with finding ways to help ACSWP hide its processes and work than with simply upholding the obvious intent and clear provisions of the Open Meeting Policy.) The Rationale includes this suggestion:
The documents may of course include an appropriate heading, e.g. Draft; Not Yet Acted on by the Committee; Proposal Only; Not for Distribution; Not Approved, as the case may be, to distinguish it from the finally adopted action, if any, at the open meeting. It is expected that interested persons at the meeting who receive the documents will honor such limitations.
ACSWP, it appears, is trying to stretch this Rationale to extremes by doling out its papers suspiciously, retrieving them at the end of the meeting, and scaring observers into draconian measures of secrecy and abridged free speech and free press. This is seriously wrong!
First, these suggestions in the rationale were never approved by the General Assembly. Only the “Recommendations” portion of an item is approved. The “Rationale”—the sales job to get an item of business approved—carries no authority. For instance, a commissioner on the floor of General Assembly who might propose an amendment to an item’s Rationale would be called out of order, for the Rationale is not Assembly business. A Rationale is simply the proposing group’s attempt to argue for its proposal.
What was approved by General Assembly was the wording: “Documents being considered at such [open] meetings shall be available to interested persons at the meeting.” Anything spoken in a truly open meeting is public information; anything passed out to be read in that open meeting is public information. If you’re at the meeting, the papers shall be available to you. Period. End of story.
Second, ACSWP’s attempted secrecy is wrong because the Open Meeting Policy specifically opens to the public not just the decisions that a group finally makes—such as the final document that is approved—but also “the work done.” The exact wording from the policy is this: “Church members have a basic right to know about the work done and the decisions made by entities within the church.” A draft document is certainly part of “the work done” by an entity.
Often, the most newsworthy and useful part of reporting from a meeting is the process of getting to a final decision. The wording that was considered and scrapped is vital information to get out; the ideas that didn’t fly; the amendments that spelled compromise. (Think of national legislation: What if no one could report on the healthcare initiative until its final version is voted into law eventually!) It’s not just the final decision that is of interest to the church; it is also how that decision comes about. And that includes the content of preliminary drafts.
ACSWP can do better
General Assembly, itself, does a great job with openness. All the business before it—drafts and all—is there for reading, citation, and dissemination. ACSWP can and must be equally as open.
Maybe ACSWP fears that some journalist or blogger would publish or treat quotations from a draft as if the draft were the final, approved version. Should that happen, however, the perceived skill and wisdom of the journalist would be imperiled, not the work of ACSWP. Fearing “what ifs” is hardly good policy for a denominational entity! And if ACSWP is simply afraid that once the church fully gets wind of its intentions, it will be harder to hustle ACSWP items through a generally unknowing General Assembly, then shame on the ACSWP! If ACSWP members can’t stand the light, they should get off the stage.
The church is served by openness. Jealous, parochial, power-abusing self-interest is served by measures to hide information from the church.
One further note: ACSWP tried to use the General Assembly to cast observers at meetings as presumed scoundrels in need of admonition to stay under control (see the final comment here). Added to the responsibility for church leaders to “conduct their business with a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny” now in the Open Meeting Policy, ACSWP proposed to General Assembly these preemptory admonishments as a policy amendment: “observers and other guests, particularly members of the PC(USA), have a basic responsibility to show respect for elected members and staff of church bodies and, though not under General Assembly authority, to demonstrate a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny in their behavior and publications.” This petty ACSWP attempt to cast doubt on the intentions and character of observers went nowhere. It failed. General Assembly was obviously more concerned with true openness in meetings than it was in catering to ACSWP worries that some observer may not write flattering accounts of ACSWP affairs.
Shine a light!
So, I say this to Carmen Fowler: Thank you! Shine your light behind the ACSWP curtains. Read the reports, preliminary or final. Hear the arguments. Watch the posturing. And write on what you see. Let us know what is coming from ACSWP, good or bad. Be the eyes and ears for all the rest of us who cannot afford the time and expense to go to Louisville to watch the ACSWP struggle through its radical advocacy in what is supposed to be an entirely open meeting.