Monday, September 19, 2005

Peace Unity and Purity -- Further reflections

No, I haven't forgotten that I promised further interaction -- Honestly, Hurricane Katrina knocked me off my momentum on this topic -- and I just haven't had the heart to pick it up.

For those of you needing background on this topic see Post #1 and Post #2 on it.

Also see the archive of links that I'm updating regularly

Here's why -- I know that eventually, I have to deal with the Task Force's recommendations. I've tried to bring out positive aspects of the report, but I have serious concerns about one of the recommendations. Those of you who know me know I hate conflict, especially with people I like. I've met these folks on the task force; I like them. To a person, they're all very nice, very personable, and highly committed to their ministries. They are all people of conviction who long to serve Christ as they understand Him and to love other people as they love themselves. So, I hate to offer a critique that might hurt their feelings.

However, I've been following the posts on the web, and I've seen much harsher critiques than I have to offer. And thus, I offer my thoughts in what I hope to be a spirit of humility. That said, here goes:

Recommendation 1 "The task force recommends that the General Assembly strongly encourage a. every member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to witness to the church's visible oneness, to avoid division into separate denominations that obscure our community in Christ, and to live in harmony with other members of this denomination, so that we may with one voice together glorify God in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit; and b. all sessions, congregations, presbyteries, and synods to renew and strengthen their covenanted partnership with one another and the General Assembly."

Interesting phrasing here -- Have the GA strongly encourage no division. Note that this doesn't preclude division, it is but strong encouragement. Implicit is the recognition that division may yet happen. The wording is strong, but not a club -- very pastoral and wise. As it is, not an objectionable recommendation.

Recommendation 2 "The task force recommends that the General Assembly urge governing bodies, congregations, and other groups of Presbyterians to follow the example of the task force and other groups that, in the face of difficult issues, have engaged in the processes of intensive discernment through worship, community-building, study, and collaborative work."

Again, nothing objectionable here. Indeed this might be the best thing to come out of the task force -- their capacity to work together despite deep (even foundational) differences is commendable. They have shown that it is possible to disagree about serious issues and still be warm, generous, and loving to one another. While they have not given up on core convictions, they have been able to connect with one another personally. For this, I have nothing but commendation to the task force.

Recommendation 3 "The task force asks the General Assembly to commend for study the Theological Reflection that heads the task force report."

Again, a great recommendation -- as I said in my last post, it would be a terrible shame if we jumped straight to the recommendations without first grappline with this theological interpretation -- while there is a lot of "wiggle room" in the reflections, an honest reading of them gives great encouragement to me. My main concern there is not so much with the words, but with the language games that are used by some interpreters -- language games that at times invert the clear intent of the wording of a document. That said, I think evangelicals ought to use this document to engage the rest of the church.

Recommendation 4 "The task force recommends that the General Assembly direct the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly and urge those who plan and moderate meetings of other governing bodies to explore the use of alternative forms of discernment and decision-making as a complement to parliamentary procedure, especially in dealing with potentially divisive issues."

Basically, this recommendation states "Roberts Rules is not authoritative scripture" Again, I feel pretty good about this. Roberts Rules are but tools to facilitate civil discussion and conversation, but they can also be cumbersome, bureacratic, and confusing. Especially for small groups (like a 10-12 member committee). Larger bodies benefit more from such structures, but smaller bodies benefit from greater flexibility. I can see some potential dangers in this in that we don't live in an environment of trust, so alternative forms of decision making could also be used as a club rather than a tool for civility. However, in principle, I think this is good food for thought.

Recommendation 5: The task force's "Authoritative Interpretation" of the G-6.0108 of the book of order. This is too long to effectively reproduce here. In effect, it says that the ordination standards are for the whole church and are not up to local option. However, local governing bodies are given leeway in granting exceptions to the ordination standards. They are subject to the review of higher bodies, however.

This is the recommendation that troubles me. It is the fruit of a lot of labor on the task force, and it is their best effort at placating conservatives by maintaining the national standard, while granting leeway to more liberal presbyteries to ordain who they clearly feel called to ministry. While De Jure, they have found a "middle way", De Facto, they have created local option.

Ironically, their own demonstrate the untenable nature of this main recommendation. In their section on resources for the church, they enumerate four tensions in presbyterian polity. Then, as they address application of these tensions they write "The opportunities and temptations of the culture that the church inhabits, discord over controversial issues, and other factors internal and external to the church can push the church to one side of the polity balance or the other. In certain situations they can even threaten to capsize the ship of faith by collapsing the necessary tension between its guiding principles. The church's calling in the face of such a challenge has been to seek an equilibrium rather than perfect and equal balance by weighting its polity for a time in favor of those principles neglected by certain trends in culture, controversy, theology or practice." Said in the words of my former seminary professor Richard Pratt: "the deck of life is always shifting -- balance is merely momentary synchronicity." -- to have the faith meet the contemporary challenge, we need to emphasize certain principles in some times and seasons, and other principles in others.

Keep that thought in your mind, and then read this quote from the section about the proposed authoritative interpretation: "These measures will not be effective, however, unless subsection (5) of the proposed authoritative interpretation is taken with the utmost seriousness. All parties must outdo one another in honoring the decisions of other bodies, presuming that other governing bodies have employed their best wisdom and sincerely sought the Spirit's guidance in all their deliberations. The proposed authoritative interpretation is not a license either to disregard standards or to override judgments of the fitness of persons elected to office."

Simply said, for this thing to work, we need to be in an atmosphere of trust. Sadly, this is not the atmosphere in which we live. The present circumstances under which our church is held together don't even come close to trust. By their own reasoning (see the first quote two paragraphs above) different times and seasons call for different responses. While the Task Force has worked hard to develop among themselves trust and mutual affection, such attitudes do not characterize the church at large.

I envision that should this recommendation prevail, we will enter a season of unfettered litigation -- for the church courts will become the sole means of wrestling with this issue. Rather than fostering the peace of the church, judicial warfare will ensue -- mainly because there is not the trust that the task force says is so critical and important.

Well, those are some of my thoughts -- for those of you in the PCUSA (and even those outside it), I would be interested in your thoughts as well.

Soli Deo Gloria