Category Archives: commentary

Some Thoughts On Fossil Fuel Divestment Overture At The 221st General Assembly, PC(USA)

Let me begin this post with full disclosure that this piece probably falls more into the category of commentary than analysis or reporting.

Second, why the heck would I be writing commentary on this? If you are not aware I am a geologist by profession so I do have some background in this even though my primary specialty is earthquakes. But I did work for an oil company one summer during college.

Third, this is business that is before the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) next week so it is of concern to many of us.

The main overture that I want to speak to is item 15-01 from the Presbytery of Boston with concurrences from 11 other presbyteries. It will be reviewed by the Assembly Committee on Immigration and Environmental Issues. This committee only has three other items of business to consider besides this one, one regarding immigration, one about sustainable development and one about coal export projects.

The overture calls for the 221st GA to recognize the “moral mandate for humanity to shift to sustainable energy.” As part of this it asks for no new PC(USA) investments in fossil fuel companies, divestment from current holdings over the next five years, report on the progress and tell the fossil fuel companies why they are doing this.

In considering fossil fuel divestment let me discuss two particular aspects of this topic that I don’t think are getting aired in the materials I have read.

First, go with me on a thought exercise. Don’t worry, this won’t take long…

Name the materials in your home that are extracted from the earth.

I do this exercise with students all the time and it is quicker to name the materials that are not earth-related. The obvious one is wood if you live in a wood frame house, have wood shingles and probably have wooden furniture. The other is fabric that comes from animals (such as wool or leather) or plants (cotton and hemp for example). In my experience that is it.

Someone usually asks about the carpets and if you have common polyester carpets guess what, they come from petrochemicals. In fact, you may be surprised to find the amount of material in your home or car that are petrochemicals.

My point is that saying companies are just about fossil fuels ignores other uses of the materials extracted, whether it be the petroleum that goes into plastics or the coal that goes to make coke for iron/steel production. Yes, according to the ExxonMobil Annual Report only 11.7% of their annual revenues were from the chemical side, but neither the overture nor the Carbon Tracker report they reference make any mention of secondary uses of the material.

The second thing that strikes me is the method being employed. I always wonder when companies or industries are singled out for boycotts or divestment when we are trying to make societal changes. I think it is generally better to change things either through the demand side, not the supply side of the equation or to promote better alternatives on the supply side. Before Edwin Drake drilled the first commercial oil well in the United States lamp oil came from whaling. While whaling is still an active, but controversial industry, the whale oil portion did not drop off because of government regulation or environmental concerns. Rather, the rise of the petroleum industry produced a less-expensive alternative.

Similarly, I would argue that the same thing would be more effective here. Time and resources should be put into alternate and more environmentally friendly sources of energy and helping develop conservation attitudes.

To this end, I appreciate the advice provided by the Assembly Committee on Social Witness Policy which instead suggests a balance approached typified by the amendment they suggest that says “To this end,
the church shall work to shift its energy investments increasingly into
renewable sources as it undertakes parallel actions to reduce its
nonrenewable energy consumption and that of its members.”

Let me ask if more can be done internally by the PC(USA). Can the national office be heated, cooled and lit with more alternative energy? Can trips to the offices be reduced by telecommuting or car pooling? Can the General Assembly reduce its carbon footprint? Can incentives be given to employees of the PC(USA), its middle governing bodies or its churches to conserve, use alternate energy and reduce their carbon footprint. We ask others to be environmentally responsible, how can we set the example and promote that within our denomination?

There are also a number of pragmatic considerations in all this. Yes, this is a social witness statement and that alone is sometimes good enough. But remember that the General Assembly speaks only for itself and while there are obviously at least 12 presbyteries that agree with this action the only investments it directly controls are its own. Furthermore, that is not always the case as I remember hearing representatives from the Board of Pensions and the Foundation at the last GA talking about the investment process and what influence they did, or did not have, on the outside investment advisers they contracted with. Finally, I do not want to diminish the fact that this is making a social witness statement and any actual effects are just part of the equation, but it is interesting reading about how Stanford made the decision to divest from only coal when a full fossil fuel divestment was asked for by a student group. The change was both for financial reasons as well as moral as this article discusses:

Beyond the hit to Stanford’s pocketbook, the university figured that
divesting from all fossil-fuel stocks would be seen, justifiably, as too
ivory-tower. “It would have been viewed as hypocritical to say, `You
should divest from fossil fuels,’ when everyone on this campus consumes
fossil fuels,” [Stanford President John] Hennessy said. “There’s a hypocritical issue to it.” And
what’s true for Stanford, he noted, is true for the globe. “You try to
replace all fossil fuels? We are so far from that happening.”

But
divesting just from coal-mining stocks should, financially, have “little
or no endowment impact,” Hennessy said. The university, he said, can
put the dollars it was investing into coal-mining companies into other
energy sourcesperhaps other fossil fuelswhich,
like coal stocks, help guard the endowment against the threat of
inflation. Moreover, Stanford will remain invested in coal consumption.
The divestment doesn’t apply to stocks of power companies that burn
coal. And it doesn’t apply to shares in steel makers, Hennessy noted,
for whom a fuel source other than coal isn’t readily apparent.

Finally, the argument can be made that keeping the stock and using it as the entry into stockholder meetings and resolutions is a more effective method to promote a social witness policy.

So there are some of my thoughts on the matter. Your mileage may vary. But this overture has plenty of advice attached to it and based on how Assemblies operate I am pretty confident it will be in a much different form when it reaches the plenary and then my undergo another revision, possibly major. Or maybe it will fly through and get put on the shelf with all those other social witness statements. Stay tuned…

[Addendum: Full Disclosure: First, I own stock in energy companies
because when I started investing the advice I received from my
Presbyterian minister – a former stock broker – was “invest in what you
know” and I knew geology. Second, a notable portion of my undergraduate education was provided by scholarships from energy companies and even some money that come from Edwin L. Drake a long time ago.]

Where Are The Ruling Elders?


Fair warning – this probably qualifies as another one of my rants on one of the topics I rant about from time to time – Where are the ruling elders?

In the last few days two documents have come out of agencies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that seem to overlook the fact that according to our Book of Order “This church shall be governed by presbyters, that is, ruling elders and teaching elders.” (F-3.0202 first part) and the last part of G-2.0301:

Ruling elders, together with teaching elders, exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a congregation as well as the whole church, including ecumenical relationships. When elected by the congregation, they shall serve faithfully as members of the session. When elected as commissioners to higher councils, ruling elders participate and vote with the same authority as teaching elders, and they are eligible for any office.

And your point is…?

The first document to come out was a press release from the Presbyterian Publishing Company (PPC) – one of the six agencies of the PC(USA) – concerning their decision to stop using Cokesbury for distribution to brick and mortar locations and that they would now distribute their products almost exclusively online through their own system. Now that is an interesting development in and of itself and I may return to it. But within the press release was the line:

PPC encourages all PC(USA) clergy, church educational and office
professionals, religious academics, and lay members to support the
denominational publisher by purchasing books and resources through these
websites.

And where are the ruling elders? For those not familiar with Presbyterian polity they do not fall into the category of “lay members.” And this from the publishing house that operates the The Presbyterian Leader imprint. Maybe it is just that the ruling elders are not encouraged to support the denominational publisher.

OK, I was going to let this go as a one-off, an oversight, a press release put together in a hurry. After all, one point does not define a trend. But then we got another point…

In the meeting this morning of another PC(USA) agency board, the Presbyterian Mission Agency, a proposed revision to the Directory for Worship was revealed. The Board agreed to send it to the 221st General Assembly with the recommendation to forward it on to the whole denomination for study. I will have more to say on this document at a later time. For now I will say that there are a number of typos in the document that need to be cleaned up.

But reading through the Rational section I was intreagued and concerned to read about the focus group they put together to get reaction to the document:

A diverse group of scholars, pastors, and mid council leaders provided feedback on the proposed revision…

And where are the ruling elders? Yes, within the scholars and mid-council leaders there probably were ruling elders. But if pastors were invited were ruling elders from churches invited to give feedback on the document and not just ecclesiastical professionals?

As regular readers of my blog know the equal governance of teaching and ruling elders together is an area that I am hyper-sensitive about and when I read documents with that filter things like this jump out at me. I am sure that some of you are thinking that I am blowing this out of proportion. But to me the situation is something to pay attention to. If we are serious about our government structure then we need to be intentional about including ruling elders in the mix the same way we are intentional about including the wide diversity of our membership in the decision making process. Furthermore, the joint decision making by teaching and ruling elders is the genius of our system and provides the means for better decision making (see Landon Whitsitt’s Open Source Church – sorry, could not find it on The Presbyterian Leader to link to) and it is the means to engage a greater cross-section of the church in ministry. Both of these quotes, to me at least, place more emphasis on the institutional side of the church and not it’s wide diversity.

OK, my coffee break is over. Just a few thoughts for now. But I leave you with the famous words of Cynthia Bolbach, the Moderator of the 219th General Assembly…

“Elders Rule!”

To every action… (A Reformation Day Reflection)

…there is always an equal and opposite reaction.

That is Newton’s third law of motion as translated from the Latin of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, often noted by the shorthand Principia.

That is the rule in Physics, so on this Reformation Day I wanted to consider the ecclesiastical reaction to the Reformation. Whether it was “equal and opposite” is left as an exercise for the reader.

The personal consequences of Martin Luther’s questioning of the Roman church that is commemorated on this day are fairly well known: The papal bull, his excommunication, his stand before the Diet of Worms, the protection by political authorities who may have had motives more or less theological versus political, and the resulting split with Rome in parts of Germany have been regularly chronicled in the popular media.

But what about broader and longer-term reactions to the Protestant Reformation?

There was a reaction in the Roman church which goes by a few different names but is commonly called the Counter-Reformation. And as I began researching this I found that the Roman church laid claim to Martin Luther in this, at least to a point…

[T]he name [Counter-Reformation] suggests that the Catholic movement came after the Protestant; whereas in truth the reform originally began in the Catholic Church, and Luther was a Catholic Reformer before he became a Protestant. By becoming a Protestant Reformer, he did indeed hinder the progress of the Catholic reformation, but he did not stop it. It continued to gain headway in the Catholic South until it was strong enough to meet and roll back the movement from the North. [from Catholic Encyclopedia]

They go on to argue that it was not a reaction but continuing process, even talking about how the movement continues today since the heresies from the time of Luther still continue. (I guess they figure that there are still Lutherans running around.)

This idea is echoed in a scholarly article from The Catholic History Review (Vol. 75, No. 3 (Jul., 1989), pp. 383-404 ) by Wolfgang Reinhard titled “Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the Early Modern State a Reassessment.” He writes:

Traditionally, German, and to a certain extent European early modern
history as well, is divided into three periods: the “Reformation” 1517-
1555, the “Counter-Reformation” 1555-1648, and the “Age of Absolutism” 1648-1789. This division has become almost indestructible
because of the simple and convincing dialectical pattern it is based
upon: a progressive movement, the “Reformation,” as thesis, evokes a
reaction, the reactionary “Counter-Reformation,” as antithesis; their contradiction leads to extremely destructive armed conflicts, until Europe
is saved by the strong hand of the absolutist early modern state, which because of its neutrality in the religious conflict is considered the synthesis, a synthesis which opens the way to that culmination point of
world history the modern national power state. This view of history is
wonderfully convincing, but quite incorrect. If only we were able to free
ourselves from its grip, we might easily learn from recent research that
“Counter-Reformation,” if a reaction, was still not simply reactionary.
But we would also recognize that the relation between “Reformation”
and “Counter-Reformation” was not just that of action and reaction, but
much more that of slightly dislocated parallel processes.

The article goes on to talk about the modern state making this a mildly interesting article. But that is not the point today.

Returning to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, I am willing to grant that on one level these were movements in much broader developments across Europe at this point in time and that there were reform movements clearly working within the Roman church (such as the Society of Jesus). But there are two historical developments that I am not sure would have developed as they did were it not for the Protestant Reformation, leading me to see the Counter-Reformation as truly “counter” to the Reformation.

The first event occurred on 21 July 1542 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was founded under the original name of the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. According to that web site it has the “duty… to defend the Church from heresy.” (It should be noted that Inquisitions had existed before in local or regional settings but now it was, and its successor is still, based in Rome for the whole church.)

The second event followed a couple of years later when on 13 December 1545 the Council of Trent was opened. According to the abstract of the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia the Council is described thus:

Its main object was the definitive determination of the doctrines of the Church in answer to the heresies of the Protestants; a further object was the execution of a thorough reform of the inner life of the Church by removing the numerous abuses that had developed in it.

My point is not to call the Roman church to task for defending its doctrine and correcting abuses – it has every right to do that although the methods were sometimes extreme to our modern sensibilities. The point is that even if there were certain internal reform movements already in place, the unprecedented success of Martin Luther’s challenge to the Roman church certainly got the church’s attention and the Roman church decided that a response in the form of some major and targeted action was necessary.

Equal? Maybe or maybe not. Opposite? Not entirely as it did address some of the same internal abuses that got Luther going.

But a response to the action? From my reading of history there clearly was. But you can be the judge for yourself.

Happy Reformation Day. May we always be Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.

Another Different Sort Of July 4th


Last year on July 4th I reflected on the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War, the three day battle at Gettysburg from the first to the third of July 1863. This year, appropriately, much is being made of that battle in recognition of its sesquicentennial anniversary.

But there is another important sesquicentennial anniversary today which Mr. Mac McCarty reminded us of last year: today is also the anniversary of the end of a very different battle — the battle for Vicksburg, Mississippi.

While maybe not as well known as Gettysburg, it’s importance in the war could be just as great, some think even greater. Vicksburg held a commanding position on the heights over the Mississippi River and was referred to as the “Gibraltar of the South.” Of its position and importance it was said by Jefferson Davis:

“Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”

And by Abraham Lincoln:

“Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”

It was the one point that kept the Union from controlling the whole length of the Mississippi. (To be fair, there was another small garrison at Port Hudson that surrendered when they heard of Vicksburg’s fall.)

It was Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s objective to take the city and his efforts occupied over half a year from December 26, 1862 until the final surrender on July 4, 1863. During this time Grant had about a half-dozen failed attempts at attacking the city, a couple of them fairly creative, but finally on April 30 he got his army across the Mississippi unopposed using diversionary tactics. From there they fought their way to the city. By May 18 the city was surrounded but Vicksburg’s fortifications were significant and two direct attacks were repelled. So Grant lay siege to the city, shelling it with the army and the navy day and night. By July 3 no help had come and the conditions were grim. Lt. General John Pemberton, the Confederate garrison commander, asked for terms of surrender. On July Fourth their flags were stuck, the weapons stacked and the city was occupied.

Grant chose not to take the opposing forces as prisoners but to immediately parole the soldiers and release them. This did two things — first, it meant he did not have to deal with the logistics of moving and feeding about 30,000 prisoners of war and second it was a psychological weapon that would return many of these men to their homes defeated.

In reading about this battle one thing that struck me was the respect Grant showed his opponents. In response to the initial note asking to negotiate terms of surrender Grant includes this line [all these following quotes from his memoir]:

Men who have shown so much endurance and courage as those now in
Vicksburg, will always challenge the respect of an adversary, and I can
assure you will be treated with all the respect due to prisoners of war.

Of his meeting with the opposing commander he writes:

Pemberton and I had served in the same division during part of the
Mexican War. I knew him very well therefore, and greeted him as an old
acquaintance.

Although it should be noted that the friendship did not get in the way of Grant rejecting his proposed terms of surrender.

Regarding the respect for the adversary Grant set the tone from the top. He writes of the time of surrender:

Our soldiers were no sooner inside the lines than the two armies began
to fraternize. Our men had had full rations from the time the siege
commenced, to the close. The enemy had been suffering, particularly
towards the last. I myself saw our men taking bread from their
haversacks and giving it to the enemy they had so recently been engaged
in starving out. It was accepted with avidity and with thanks.

Furthermore upon the surrender and evacuation of the city by the paroled soldiers there were to be no Union celebrations. He describes it like this:

 The prisoners were allowed to occupy their old camps behind the
intrenchments. No restraint was put upon them, except by their own
commanders. They were rationed about as our own men, and from our
supplies. The men of the two armies fraternized as if they had been
fighting for the same cause. When they passed out of the works they had
so long and so gallantly defended, between lines of their late
antagonists, not a cheer went up, not a remark was made that would give
pain. Really, I believe there was a feeling of sadness just then in the
breasts of most of the Union soldiers at seeing the dejection of their
late antagonists.

As to the significance of the day Grant writes:

The fate of the Confederacy was sealed when Vicksburg fell. Much hard
fighting was to be done afterwards and many precious lives were to be
sacrificed; but the morale was with the supporters of the Union ever after.

And, as one history site says

The town of Vicksburg would not celebrate the Fourth of July for 81 years

General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church Of Ireland — Youth and Children: A Tale Of The Tweets


I have been having fun the last couple of days following the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. There is no live streaming so the vast majority of what I can find out in real time is through Twitter.

A few transcripts and audio selections have found their way onto the internet. The church has posted the text of the addresses by the outgoing Moderator and the incoming Moderator. To hear parts of the Assembly you can check out a number of audio clips that Alan in Belfast has posted on his blog as part of his coverage of the Assembly meeting.  In addition, he has posted the report of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Youth and Children Council (PCIYAC) from earlier today. (part 1, part 2)

And getting down to the subject of the Board of Youth and Children’s Ministries, they were fairly vocal in the debate yesterday concerning the proposal by the Structures Committee to reorganize and consolidate Boards. In particular, they were concerned about their loss of Board status as they would be included with the Council For Congregational Life and Witness. In the end the Structures proposal was not adopted this year by the vote of 190 to 119 so they continue as they are for another year.

This afternoon was the report of the Board of Youth and Children’s Ministries itself. The report went well, as you can hear for yourself on the audio clips above, lasting just over 40 minutes. One of the highlights was a video promoting Messy Church. Another was the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Boys Brigade program and the impact that it has had, including a couple of testimonials from the floor. As for the seven resolutions in the report, nothing controversial that raised any real objections.

What did catch a number of people’s attention was the turnout of Assembly members for the report, at least at the beginning.

When the report began it was preceded by a prayer that included these lines transcribed from the audio clip:

“We thank you for those who serve within this Board, for the work of this past year. And now as they report help them to communicate to us what’s on their hearts and what’s of importance to them and to us.”

Thanks to Twitter we have some comments and pictures of the meeting space at about the time the prayer was being said. Among those tweets are these two:

 
James Currie @JCBelfast

Hall unfortunately nearly empty for the Youth and Children’s Board Report #pciga13 pic.twitter.com/pBrBMJTtD3
 

James McCormick @jamesmcc77

Not much interest in Youth & Children from PCI members. Poor show folks. #pciga13 pic.twitter.com/yUdxIRPj9o
 



As the prayer said “…what’s of importance to them and to us.” Not many of the “us.”

Now to be fair, these pictures were taken at the beginning of the report right after a short 15 minute break and the lines for coffee this week are reported to be very long. And the hall did fill up a bit more after this. Furthermore, this was not the only report with very low attendance at the beginning. But the reports on Twitter still seem to indicate that it never did fill up the way it had for some of the more high-profile reports. And comparisons continued later in the day.

So I am sitting here wondering do I really need to spell this out? Do I really need to point out that when we talk about the younger generation and their importance to the church and then we don’t show up for the report about their ministries it sends a pretty mixed message? Do I need to rant on about the theme of the Assembly being about transformation and then the report about working with the generation we are trying to transform the church for has so few people listening to it?

No I don’t think I need to do any of that. But what struck me about the events of today is that when there is so much concern and discussion about whether the church has a future I must admit that I was very surprised at the apparent lack of attention that was paid to an important Board that has responsibility for the youngest members of the Body of Christ, the ones that have the most riding on the future.

OK, rant over. Commentary mode off.

We now return to our regularly scheduled stream of tweets.

Thoughts On Some Recent News Reports And Connections To The Church

Over the last couple of weeks I was struck by a few news reports and some of the implications for the church going forward. Here are those stories and some thoughts about each…

Churches big purchasers of music performance gear

From Which Way LA? on KCRW

This brought to my attention something that makes sense but I had not thought about – churches are now the largest market for live music. This story was driven by the recent convention of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) in Anaheim.

The lead quote in the piece:

“In any city today that you go to, there’s now more bands playing live
music on Saturday night and Sunday morning in churches than there are in
any clubs,” said Christian Musician
magazine publisher Bruce Adolph.  “The DJ’s have hit the sector and
taken away some live music.  Karaoke’s hurt live music.  But a lot of
the guys are actually returning to church and playing music.”

The next quote, from Holland Davis – pastor of Worship Life Calvary Church – emphasizes this fact:

“There’s over 300,000 churches in America alone. And so
just the sheer volume of churches and they all use audio equipment,
microphones, instruments, lighting.  And we’re in a time where the
number of churches that are being started from scratch is phenomenal.”

And the piece points out that the need for musicians and music equipment has increased at a faster pace than the need for pastors, particularly considering multi-site churches that have bands at every location but one preacher on video. (They do overlook the fact that each remote site usually has a worship leader, but that is sometimes a band member too.)

It is also interesting if that comment “the
number of churches that are being started from scratch is phenomenal” because if that is true it doesn’t seem to include the mainline.

OK, so all of you probably knew that. But it was interesting to hear in the rest of the report how NAMM has recognized that churches are the growing market and is catering to them. We now have a secular organization, that admittedly does include Christians, that is helping to drive what Christian worship looks like.

While this is clearly welcomed by some, like the person in the piece that talked about using rock and contemporary music in worship like preaching in the language of the audience, it is not universally accepted. For another perspective check out Jeff Gissing blog post “Why Contemporary Worship Is Not The Answer.” For an even more critical and extensive analysis there is always T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns.

Model versus Brand

On Monday morning I heard a short radio report on shopping for televisions, brand loyalty and shopping for the model. In his Money 101 segment Bob McCormick talked about how consumers have lost brand loyalty, in part because the brand name is now who sells it not who makes it. Instead consumers look for the model that has the features that they want.

Well, the application to the church, and worship in particular, should be pretty obvious. And it is not just that brand loyalty to denominations has all but disappeared but that church shoppers – yes that is a phrase in our lexicon now – mostly care only about the individual church and mostly its form of worship.

This came up recently in a discussion with a teaching elder who had recently received a call. He had potential connections to ECO and the discussion got around to his interest in the PC(USA). Well, as he talked about it his response struck me as being more about the church that had extended the call and not as much about the PC(USA) itself.

But let’s take this one step further to the idea that the name on the front is not necessarily who made it. You could walk into different Presbyterian churches on a Sunday morning (or Saturday evening) and except for the name on the building not distinguish them as being uniquely Presbyterian. You could probably find a Baptist, Methodist and maybe an Episcopal worship service and not distinguish them from the Presbyterian service. To use one example, do we have “Presbyterian” on the label and “made by North Point” in the fine print. While there is not necessarily anything wrong with this we must realize that this would be a factor in the decline of mainline denominations.

But let me also refer to one other aspect of the modern culture and the lack of brand loyalty. In a 2011 Ernst and Young Survey one of the five important points they found was:

From mass broadcasts to self-selection: consumer communication gets personal

As part of a clear preference toward personalized communication and
service, the survey shows trust has moved from traditional mass channels to
closer “community” vehicles, such as social media and other digital channels.
This move is taking the power of the owned and paid-for channel out of
the hands of brands — and the reach of traditional marketing — and making
bloggers society’s new spokespeople. This trend offers huge opportunities
for organizations that can harness digital consumers to their advantage:
nothing less than a massive new marketing department, that’s not even on
the payroll.

This has a number of implications for the church including the idea that there is nothing that gets people to church better than a personal invitation from someone they trust. There are a number of interesting points to this survey but one of the other applicable ones involves, well, involvement:

These new empowered customers, the survey shows, want to have a greater say in how they experience service. They want products and services to be designed, sold, delivered, serviced and purchased in a way that suits them. They want to be active co-creators, not passive consumers.

The implications for worship and our community life are left as an exercise for the reader.

Interview with Rosaria Butterfield

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled onto a YouTube video of a one-hour interview with Rosaria Butterfield at Patrick Henry College conducted by Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of World Magazine.  Mrs. Butterfield was an English professor at Syracuse University who, through extended contact with the members and pastor of a local Reformed Presbyterian Church, moved from a homosexual lifestyle to a heterosexual lifestyle. She has written about this journey in her book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and the interview covers much of this ground. (And there are Presbyterians throughout her story.)

Whatever you may think of her journey you can consider the interview a case study in a church drawing someone into the Body of Christ through unconditional love and acceptance of who they are. I found her description of the interaction of her and the church very interesting. For instance, at one point (at 0:33:07 in the video) she talks about her expeience saying:

But I had some really burning questions for people so I would go up to my, you know, homeschool mom friends and I would say “Look, I had to give up the girlfriend what did you have to give up to be here? And I want to hear it. And don’t tell me it was your math curriculum, OK…. I’ll pour my coffee on you – I am really not wanting to hear that.” And I heard some amazing things. And it made me realize that I did not have any more to give up than anybody else.

(Please note that these are my transcriptions of the video so I
apologize for any errors and they are excerpts from much longer answers
to interview questions.)

A minute later in the video she finishes up her comment with this:

I learned that there are other people in my church who struggled with sexual sin. I learned that there are other people in my church who struggled with lust, who struggled with faithlessness. Who, um… and they told me that. They took a risk of no longer looking all cleaned up to me to tell me that. And that was very helpful and so I think a good thing to think about as a Christian is to think about “What did you have to give up to be here?” How would you answer that honestly to someone?

Just before this (0:29:44) she talks about the members of the church and how they had been praying for her:

At first it was hard for them to pray for me because – of course these are now my friends – and then they shared with me that… that it’s easier to simply be disgusted by a person like me than pray for me. Right, because I came to church but then I also brought friends to church. I brought Jay [ a transsexual woman and former Presbyterian minister] to church. And we are an acapella Psalm singing church and Jay has probably one of the best bass voices there.

So, that’s an issue. Right, I mean come on, its OK, it is, it’s an issue. I had a deacon in the church tell me if he had known how, how difficult all this would be he might not have been praying so faithfully.

I could quote numerous other parts of this interview that have interesting points regarding reaching out to the broken and different in the name of Christ. But I recommend it as a good insight from someone who found the Gospel as to what people did to help her on that journey and what the process required of her and the people in the church. (And note that there may be a connection to Jeff Gissing’s piece I mentioned in the first section.)

So, there are a few thoughts on some news reports, mainstream and secular, that caught my attention and had me connecting the dots that last couple of weeks. As always, your mileage may vary.

You Say You Want A Reformation? OK, Now What?


Yes, it is once again Reformation Day. This is the one day we can nail down as having a dramatic specific positive event in the sequence of many actions that were part of the Protestant Reformation.

A year ago I reflected on why this date among many other possible dates and why Martin Luther over several other reformers.

As I was reflecting this year I was considering the “Now What.” On this day in 1517 Martin Luther began his very public quest to ask hard theological questions of the church in which he was a priest and which was dominant in his part of the world. But while that was a pivotal moment it was much more the beginning of the journey than the end. The papal bull was not issued until June of 1520 and was not in Luther’s hands for him to burn until December. The Diet of Worms was the following April. It then took Luther a bit over a year – while in protective custody – to translate the New Testament into the common German language, but it was another twelve years to complete the Old Testament. And throughout all this he was also writing his commentaries and other books, particularly On The Babylonian Captivity of the Church where he laid out his theology and where the church in Rome had departed from scripture.

Similarly, while we mark the beginning of the Reformation, or at least Luther’s branch of it, on this day maybe the next major milestone is not his famous defense (the famous “Here I stand” speech.) but the response to that speech in the Edict of Worms issued a month later. Unlike the papal bull that condemned Luther and banned his writings, this edict cut off his accomplices and followers with him. In effect this created the Evangelisch/Lutheran church.

But Luther was not alone in having a slow and steady march. John Calvin was first convinced to stay in Geneva in September of 1536 but was kicked out a year and a half later. Three and a half years later he accepted an invitation to return and works in Geneva for the remaining 23 years of his life. Similarly, his famous work The Institutes of the Christian Religion seemed to be a work never finished going through five editions between 1536 and 1559.

And the Scottish Reformation was a real roller coaster ride. In 1560, under the leadership of John Knox, the Scottish Parliament cut ties with the papacy and adopted a new confession of faith. However, the structure of the church changed much more slowly and the back and forth of English rule and those that ruled England led to an ebb and flow in the church. There were high points, such as the Presbyterian influence in the Westminster Assembly, and low points like the 28 years of persecution under Charles II. Religious toleration came back at the end of the persecution in 1687 and Presbyterianism recognized as the established religion in Scotland with the Act of Union in 1707.

It is hard to see Reformation as a single date or point in time.

History generally teaches us that major change, and especially reformation, is messy, complicated and takes time. And Luther, Calvin and Knox are the successes while others like Hus, Tyndale and Hamilton did not find political and societal circumstances as fortunate and gave up their lives for their cause.

But in another sense the Reformation never ended. The point of the Reformation was to recover the Word of God and always be subject to it. The reformers made a point of the third mark of the true church, discipline uprightly administered, with the point of it to be constantly seeking together as a covenant community what God would have us do.

And so, on this Reformation Day, it brings us back around to one of the mottoes we associate with the Reformation:

“The Church Reformed and always being Reformed according to the Word of God”

Mid Councils Commission Report To The 220th GA Of The PC(USA)


Having gotten through a bunch of posts related to a number of other GA’s let me turn to the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I am hoping to discuss a few of the major topics coming to the GA and I hope that my blogging time before the big show starts is sufficient to get through what I want to.

While many in the church are hanging on the results of the overtures concerning marriage, and a number outside the church are actively lobbying on both sides of the Israel/Palestine divestment debate, it is my view that the most important business coming to the Assembly in terms of the future of the PC(USA) is the Mid Councils Commission Report.

This Commission, originally known as the Middle Governing Bodies Commission but renamed when the church got the new name for governing bodies (councils), has been working hard since the last GA to produce a report and make recommendations. The report is a good piece of work and does a great job of dissecting the denomination and its problems. You can read the basic report (111 pages) or a version with all the data they collected ( 326 pages – you have been warned but presbygeeks can go have a field day ). In fact, in one of the presentations on the MCC Report I attended the member of the commission freely admitted that there is way more info in that data than the commission had time to massage out of it.

But the Commission’s output does not stop there. They also have posted a number of Resources, their Minutes and Meeting Documents, an active blog with embedded YouTube videos they have produced, a Twitter account (@mgbcomm), and a Facebook page. There has also been a lot of discussion of the Commission’s work on the individual blogs of Tod Bolsinger, the chair, and commission member John Vest. You can not say that this Commission was trying to be stealth about their work.

Let me make some comments first on the report in general so if you just want to see my comments on the recommendations you can jump down a bit.

The report begins with the usual front pieces including the recommendations and an executive summary. The main body of the report begins right up front with their vision:

We envision a larger geographic canvas, a secure frame of constitutional accountability, and creative, collaborative leaders experimenting in creating missional communities for sending disciples into to the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It then goes on to unpack that vision a bit before going on to assess the state of the PC(USA) specifically and the context of the changing world around us.  I know that the Commission is promoting a later piece of their report as the “if you are only going to read one thing read this…” but for me I think the preceding section on Presbyterians in a Post-Christendom World is a great reality check for anyone who tries to simplify the current context the denomination finds itself in.

So based on that what’s the nature of the recommendations the Commission is proposing? They say:

So instead of affirming structures that only protect us from the dysfunction of a few, we offer a proposal for the “maturing, motivated, and the missional”; that is, those who are willing to work together to draw upon the historic values of our past and faithfully reinterpret them to engage a far different world than any of our forbearers imagined.

Another way that they have been describing it is a denomination that is “Flat. Flexible. Faithful.” They then offer these suggestions that come out of their conversations:

  • Reengage the Pew in Presbyterian Shared Life, Mission, and Governance
  • Growing in Cultural Proficiency to Engage an Increasingly Multi‐Cultural Context
  • Develop Capacity to Lead Congregational Transformation
  • Rebuild Trust

The report then gets into details of their work — if you are interested in it go read it. In summary, they talked with anyone and everyone from the denomination they could get into a room with them. In addition they conducted surveys of the wider church through Research Services. They are a little bit vague on consultations with other denominations and I would be interested in seeing more here since I think there is a lot to learn from some of our Presbyterian brothers and sisters around the country and the globe.

I must admit that in my early thinking about this Commission I was anticipating some more concrete recommendations about what the PC(USA) should look like going forward. We will see if it is for better or for worse, but the Commission report does lays out a lot of models as examples of what is being done now without recommending or favoring any specifically, except to the extent that they got included. They basically invite the church have at it.  So in order to create the space for that to happen they have eight recommendations that fall into three categories.

Synods
This may be the recommendation that has gotten the most press and many see as “getting rid of synods.” Yes, the very first recommendation in the report is to strike Book of Order section G-3.04, but read the recommendations carefully and you realize that a lot of what we now know as synods continue in some form under their proposal. The Commission describes it as Repurposing synods.

Synods as a judicatory court governing body council would disappear but similar work would go on in different forms. The Commission proposes that most of the ecclesiastical work would be carried out in five Regional Administrative Commissions at the General Assembly level (Recommendation 3). Similarly, the judicial structure would be revamped to continue to provide for an intermediary judicial level (Recommendation 4). And each of the current synods would bring to the next GA a plan for what is going to happen to its assets, projects and programs (Recommendation 2). We will have to wait and see what diversity of proposals there are to this repurposing.

Since this set of recommendations seems to continue synod activity in a modular form it is interesting to speculate about alternate options for synods. As I will discuss in a moment the report recommends providing a new flexibility at the presbytery level and it might be worth considering the possibility of extending similar flexibility to synods rather than the compartmentalization.

I should also note the significant transitional infrastructure that comes with the transformation of the synods. There will be a committee to set up the Regional Administrative Commissions and to clean up the polity wording for the Constitution (Recommendation 3). Another committee would work on setting up the new PJC structure. Finally, there would be a commission that would be empowered to act on presbytery and synod rearrangements in the interim until the Regional Commissions are empowered to do so.  This final Commission is important because it will allow the denomination to act more rapidly on presbytery restructuring rather than waiting for the next regular General Assembly.

Presbyteries
The Commission is recommending something that has been proposed before ( 217th, 218th, 219th ) but overwhelmingly rejected, the idea of flexible presbyteries. The Commission does put two provisions on the recommendations that makes it different from previous proposals. First the flexible presbyteries are only for missional purposes and not for more general purposes of affinity (but I would speculate there is a thin line between the two). Second, there is a sunset clause and these flexible presbyteries are provisional and only for trial purposes and at the end of the trial at midnight on December 31, 2021 these golden carriages turn back into pumpkins and everyone goes back to where they started. And one of the things the Commission emphasizes is that at the presbytery level nothing has to change.

The details are pretty straight forward: It takes ten churches and ten ministers to form a presbytery. (But the report says churches on average only have 56% installed pastors so maybe it would really take 18 churches to come up with 10 pastors.) Under Recommendation 6 if you have the requisite number you can form a non-geographic presbytery for missional purposes. The churches remain connected to their geographic presbyteries of origin, can split their per capita between them, have voice in meetings of the presbytery of origin, and have to have the approval of the presbytery of origin for matters regarding property or for division and dismissal.  For churches moving between geographic presbyteries it would work the same way.

Associated with this is Recommendation 5 which forms the previously mentioned commission to act on behalf of the Assembly in matters regarding presbytery and synod reorganizations.

Racial Ethnic Ministries
One of the hot topics this Commission faced was racial ethnic ministries in the PC(USA). This has to be dealt with if synods are to be repurposed because, as the report says (page 73):

It is widely acknowledged, and factually irrefutable, that Synods have been the traditional Safe Haven for matters regarding racial ethnic Ministry. This truth emerges from two (2) primary factors, Critical Mass and Sociological Necessity.

The Commission emphasized this relationship and formed a Racial Ethnic Strategies Task Force as part of their Commission to specifically address this and their report is included in the body of the main report.

In response to this need the Commission recommends (Recommendation 8) that a National Racial Ethnic Ministries Task Force be formed.  The recommendation begins:

In light of what we have heard in our conversation with the church identifying a critical condition concerning lack of confidence in the substance and direction of racial ethnic ministry, we recommend

It goes on to specify the groups the members of the task force should be drawn from and to state that its charge is to “review, assess and explore the call to, responsibility in, and vision for racial ethnic ministry within the PC(USA).”

Trust
One final area the Commission noted was the break-down of trust within the denomination. They write (page 41):

Of all the “non‐structural issues” that we have identified, perhaps the single greatest gift that this Commission can raise up for the church is to say as loudly and as clearly as we possibly can that there is a crisis of trust in our denomination and that it, more than anything else, is the single greatest threat to the vitality and future existence of the church.

Congregational leaders don’t trust presbyteries. Presbyteries don’t trust synods. Synod leaders see themselves as the “breakwater” protecting the church from the General Assembly (which might be the least trusted system of all.) As the report from our Commission’s Racial Ethnic Strategy Task force states, “Also prominent in the Commission’s polling of the Church were the expressions of deep and abiding mistrust – fueled by a general absence of meaningful connection to the national, regional and even local judicatories.

There is no specific recommendation to rebuild trust but they explain it this way (page 43):

Perhaps the greatest effect of our proposals is that it will by necessity bring the church closer. Now, for congregations to have more flexibility they will necessarily practice discernment within both presbytery and General Assembly processes. While the flexibility to experiment comes with built‐in mechanisms to insure relational and constitutional fidelity, the true test of our trust will come as we allow room for others to create presbyteries that are different than our preferences and maybe even contradictory to our convictions.

There is a related recommendation, number 7, which asks for a task force to review the General Assembly Mission Council and the Office of the General Assembly, their “nature and function … specifically with respect to their relationship with and support of mid councils as they serve the vitality and mission of congregations in our changing context. Regarding this they write:

Over and again, stories were told about the pervasive distrust of General Assembly, about the amount of resources that go into our six‐part structure, the lack of an effective and clear national strategy toward immigrant populations, and the ways in which the GAMC “competes” with presbyteries and synods for giving dollars. A flatter hierarchy with a focus on the congregation as the center of the mission of the church will not be complete until the church reconsiders the bureaucratic structures of GAMC and eliminates any competition for power or resources between the GAMC and OGA. These conditions foster a bureaucratic mentality at a time when we need to do get back to mission and ministry, doing “whatever it takes” to revitalize local congregations. [emphasis in original]

But Wait, There’s More
Now the GA junkies reading this are well aware that a commission report like this does not happen in a vacuum and there are other opinions floating around out there.

The first set of opinions are those attached to the report on PC-Biz. The Assembly Committee on the Constitution weighs in first in a lengthy discussion. They note that the first four recommendations concerning synods are a work in progress and while it contains the constitutional language to begin the process they express concern that the details are left for later.  They write

The
Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) notes that the
recommendations presume a number of constitutional amendments that are
not yet before this assembly (cf. Recommendations 3 and 4). There is
considerable risk in committing to a course of action on the assumption
that the proposed action can be accomplished constitutionally without
having the opportunity to evaluate the merits of the proposed mechanisms
for implementation.

In addition they advise that the four recommendations be taken as a single multi-part motion. While expressing concern about non-geographic presbyteries and suggesting that the end could be accomplished by affiliations that do not require constitutional changes they more suggest tweaks to the language than out-right disapproval.

That is not the case for the Assembly Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns which asks that none of the Commissions recommendations be approved and instead the present an outline for a new Racial Ethnic Ministry Commission. However, in reading through this comment I see no powers or responsibilities being granted this entity which requires it to be a commission to act on behalf of the General Assembly.

The next group to comment is the Assembly Committee on Social Witness Policy. Their comment is brief – they recommend the Commission’s recommendations be disapproved. The opening line of their rational pretty much sums up their view: “Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.” The rational is long and I will summarize it by saying that they see continued value in the PC(USA) structure and tradition and that the main cause of the decline of the mainline is the intolerance young people see in the church.

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly is much more surgical in it’s recommendation. It too sees the Commission’s recommendations as a work in progress and recommends referring portions that are focused on constitutional language. It wants a task force to refine these recommendations to address the critical and important issues.

The General Assembly Committee on Representation advises the Assembly to approve Recommendation 8 creating the National Racial Ethnic Ministries Task Force. They too note the non-traditional nature of non-geographic presbyteries and express concern for groupings by choice rather than by geography and implications for diversity.

Finally, there is a joint comment by the General Assembly Mission Council and the Office of the General Assembly that expresses much of the same interest and concern as the GACOR recommendation does. It particularly highlights the historic linkage between the synods and racial ethnic ministry in the denomination and expresses their willingness to resource the proposed task force.

The Mid Councils Review Commissioners Committee at GA has more than the Mid Councils Commission report to deal with. There are 19 business items plus the review of the minutes from the 16 synods.  Within the business items another six are transfers of churches between presbyteries and sometimes synods.  While most of the remaining items would have some interaction with the Commission report – such as 05-01 that would permit synods to reorganize presbyteries without the need for GA approval or 05-14 from the ACC that asks for an Authoritative Interpretation that non-geographic presbyteries are “only for the purposes of meeting the mission needs of racial ethnic or immigrant congregations” – three items directly address the report. Item 05-02 from the Presbytery of St. Andrew proposes the alternative of reorganizing the synods down into six to eight rather than the Commission’s repurposing scheme. Item 05-09 from the Presbytery of San Diego asks both to extend the Commission’s service to handle the presbytery reorganizations or make the new commission proposed in Recommendation 5 a successor commission, as well as proposing a slightly different plan for flexible presbyteries. Finally, in item 05-10 the Presbytery of Baltimore says that all of these changes are too much at one time and they ask the Assembly to delay the non-geographic presbytery recommendations to the 222nd GA (2016).

And in another venue one of the required questions for the candidates for Moderator of the GA to answer in the Moderatorial Candidates Book is about what they find “especially promising” about the Commission report.  All four of the candidates speak highly of the Commission report and mention the flexibility and space for creativity and creating new relationships especially the partnering between churches for mission.

Concluding Remarks
I have been watching the process of the Commission, I have read their report and considered the reaction to it both in the formal comments and around the web ( exempli gratia ). Blogger John Shuck will be serving as a commissioner on the Mid Council Review Committee and he has already noted that support or opposition to the Commission recommendations fall along familiar lines. It is a complex report and most would agree it is a work in progress. Maybe the biggest question is not the church’s openness to doing things in a new way but whether it is willing to take a step in a particular direction without all the “i’s” dotted and the “t’s” crossed. And support and opposition is complex as well with multiple parts and the option of supporting it in part and disagreeing in part.

What will happen at GA? It might be approved with few or just minor revisions. Maybe it will be deemed “not ready for prime time” and referred back to the Commission with instructions (and the Commission’s life extended) much as the nFOG was. More likely the different parts will see different fates. I don’t know and I am hesitant to speculate, but where angels fear to tread… If I had to predict based purely on my gut feeling I would expect that the GAMC/OGA Review Task Force and the National Racial Ethnic Task Force (Recommendations 7 and 8) will be adopted overwhelmingly. The provisional non-geographic presbyteries pieces (Recommendations 5 and 6) will be more controversial but will be adopted with some revisions and with some opposition. The synod recommendations (1-4) will be deemed still too much of a work in progress and referred to someone to work out the details and bring it back to the 221st GA.

But as with many things Presbyterian the process will probably be as important, and telling, as the outcome. I see this issue as the primary bellwether at this GA for the future of the denomination and its openness to change. It will be here that the tension between different visions of the future from different parts of the denomination can best be discerned. And that indicator will continue down to the presbyteries if any of the constitutional amendments are sent down to them. How much can we fight the seven last words of the church – “We’ve never done it that way before.” [ Hint: we have done it that way before but that is a topic for another time.] Is Flat, Flexible and Faithful what we need to be about now? As the PC(USA) looks to its future may we be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

And now for something completely different… to conclude, a bit of silliness. While reading through the Recommendations of this report with a task force here and a commission there it started to remind me of something and so I fleshed it out so we could all sing along. I think you’ll catch on to the tune…

On the fifth day of G.A. the MC Comm gave to us
5 Regional Commissions
4 Hundred pages
3 Book of Order amendments
2 Review task forces
And a request for synod plans to repurpose

Where Did The GA Go?


I arrived at work this morning, fired up my computer and sat down to livestream the General Assembly the Church of Scotland in the background as I got ready to read my email. But there was nothing there! Oh no… This GA Junkie is going to go through withdraw having expected a hit of polity this morning.

It turns out that the Assembly finished its docketed work early today and took most of the afternoon off. At least a few of the young adults took the opportunity to toss recreational objects around in the park and I suspect that a few commissioners might have caught a nap.

(And don’t worry about me – The General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland was online and they have an evening session on missions and worship with Psalm singing that I am listening to as I write this.)

Now, I can fully appreciate the frustration of at least one commissioner who wishes the down time was better placed as he tweeted “how annoying when Sat session went on till 9PM so missed Scottish & Champions League Finals.” But this break in the action got me thinking about a couple of things.

The first is the difference in workloads between different Assemblies. In looking through the reports and docket for the Church of Scotland Assembly it did strike me that this year was a bit lighter and had fewer controversial items. Checking over the GA reports page you can see that this year there were 26 councils, committees and other entities reporting to the Assembly and a total of two petitions and one overture from presbyteries.

In comparison, at the present time the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has about 115 overtures, reports from about five special committees and a commission, about 10 reports from General Assembly entities and an as yet unknown number of commissioner resolutions. The Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies has made recommendations to streamline overtures and commissioner resolutions by requiring greater collaboration and support across presbyteries for each of these to be considered by the Assembly. In addition they recommend processes to make greater use of consent agendas. Will this pare down the PC(USA) GA business to the streamlined version of the Church of Scotland Assembly? Probably not, but it will be interesting to see if it does introduce some breathing room.

One of the other interesting things this year is how little contentiousness there is at the Church of Scotland General Assembly. It seems that today’s session wrapped up early because time was allotted for debate on various topics and the debate was short and generally harmonious. It struck me earlier in the week how both the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland considered their respective marriage reports and each was adopted smoothly with no changes. At their last GA the PC(USA) debated their marriage report for some time and through a series of interesting, to say the least, parliamentary actions the minority report was added to the distributed report along with the main report. I was struck by the difference in how the PC(USA) and Kirk reports were handled. (I will have a bit more to say about the Kirk and Free Church marriage reports in a day or two.)

The PC(USA) has a reputation for several late night sessions during it’s GA while every day this week the Church of Scotland has done all its work without an evening session and they are on track to adjourn tomorrow afternoon. While one afternoon recreation time would be nice at the PC(USA) GA I am not holding my breath. In the PC(USA) there is a particular ethos about the Assembly part of which encourages these long debates and tremendous work loads.  I don’t know how much the recommendations from the Review Committee will help, but they might help. In a couple cases I am not sure I agree with the recommendation, but that is a topic for another time.

The bottom line is that if your only exposure to a Presbyterian general assembly is the General Assembly of the PC(USA) I want you to know that it is an anomaly in the amount of business and strength and length of debate compared with the wide diversity of other general assemblies and general synods around the world. It is not that these other meetings are just an excuse to get together – most years they all deal with very important issues. And sometimes they do deal with an overwhelming amount of work, like a couple of years ago when the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was working on a new Directory for Worship and had to send it back to the committee to return the next year. But that is the exception and not the rule and usually a GA has a good balance of routine and celebratory work with a limited number of controversial items of business.

Your experience my be different and in spite of all this I am still looking forward to the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA). But for the moment, my lunch hour is up and I think we are on the last report on international mission at the Free Church GA. And to all the Church of Scotland commissioners and delegates I hope you enjoyed your unexpected sunny afternoon in Edinburgh.

“A Vast Diversity Of Interpretation” — Redwoods Presbytery Expresses Their Disagreement With The Spahr II Decision


The biggest news in the Presbyverse right now is the motion passed by the Presbytery of the Redwoods objecting to the decision and punishment and failure to overturn those on appeal in the most recent disciplinary case against the Rev. Jane Spahr (the Spahr II decision).

In case you have missed it, this past Tuesday was the first stated presbytery meeting of Redwoods Presbytery since the PC(USA) General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission heard the appeal in this case and upheld the decision from the Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission trial. Teaching Elder Spahr was found to have committed “the offense of representing that a same-sex ceremony was a marriage by performing a ceremony in which two women were married under the laws of the State of California and thereafter signing their Certificate of Marriage as the person solemnizing the marriage.” In addition, she was accused of persisting in this since the first disciplinary action (Spahr I decision) and of violating her ordination vows by failing to be subject to the authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order.

At the Presbytery meeting, in the Stated Clerk’s report of the GAPJC decision, a motion was introduced that laid out a series of reasons the judicial decisions were wrong and concluded with this resolution:

Be it RESOLVED that the Presbytery of the Redwoods opposes imposition of
the rebuke set forth in the decision dated August 27, 2010, as
inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Constitution of the
Presbyterian Church (USA), and the faithful life of ministry lived out
in this Presbytery.

The full text of the resolution is available from the Presbytery (with a follow-up letter from the Stated Clerk), MLP web site or Mary Holder Naegeli’s blog.

Let me begin with some polity observations.  We need to be clear at the onset that the Presbytery resolution is an objection or protest. The rebuke has been made and registered.  The Presbyterian News Service article about the resolution says this from the Presbytery Stated Clerk:

“Perhaps the majority, perhaps all of them, thought they had removed the
rebuke but I don’t see how it is in the power of the presbytery to do
that,” Conover said, adding that he had about 30 minutes notice on the
Clark motion before the beginning of the meeting.

The article goes on to say that Laurie Griffith, manager of judicial process in the Office of the General Assembly affirms this as well with the article saying that “The rebuke stands, whether Redwoods Presbytery reads it publicly or not.”

Let’s drill down on this for a moment. In Book of Order section D-11.0403e about the degree of censure it ends with this line: “Following such determination and in an open meeting, the moderator of
the session or permanent judicial commission shall then pronounce the
censure.” In the decision Charlotte v. Jacobs (GAPJC decision 215-09) the Commission clarifies that “Unless there is a stay of enforcement in place, censure takes effect immediately upon the pronouncement of the decision at trial…” The Presbytery PJC decision did specify a stay in the event of appeals so with the exhaustion of the appeals the rebuke pronounced at the conclusion of trial on August 27, 2010 would go into effect with the decision by the GAPJC on February 20th, 2012.

Bottom line – they can express opposition to the rebuke, but under our polity the rebuke decided upon and initially imposed 21 months ago by the Presbytery through their own judicial commission became effective earlier this year.

What have they done? First and foremost, the Presbytery by a 74-18 vote has effectively registered a protest to the current authoritative interpretation of the PC(USA) Constitution. And, if I understand the news reports correctly (and I would welcome someone who was there to provide more accurate information in the comments) the resolution did not stop the Stated Clerk from reporting and distributing the decision, but it stopped the decision, including the rebuke from being read. Based on usual practice the rebuke has been read at lease once and probably twice before after the PPJC trial and the SPJC appeal.

I have spent a good deal of time in the last 36 hours working through GAPJC decisions and the Annotated Book of Order to see if I can find a precedent. I am not aware of one but I invite anyone to comment if they are aware of a previous similar presbytery action. From reports on-line it appears that others are not aware of a precedent either. The Louisville Courier-Journal has this in Peter Smith’s column: “Jerry Van Marter, director of Presbyterian News Service, said he knows
of no other case where a presbytery has refused to carry out a court
directive.” And in her blog Mary Holder Naegeli, an experienced watcher of these things, says “I cannot recall in almost 25 years as an ordained minister ever witnessing open defiance of a direct PJC order.”

What next?  The PNS article says:

Laurie Griffith, manager of judicial process in the
Office of the General Assembly said there “are two possible options for
redress if anyone wanted to raise the issue” of the presbytery’s
refusal.

“Each presbytery submits a ‘compliance report’ to
the GAPJC, which is reported for information to each General Assembly,”
she told the Presbyterian News Service, but it’s always been just pro
forma
.”

The other option, Griffith said, “could be a
remedial complaint against the presbytery, but remedial complaints are
not usually used to challenge disciplinary processes.”

My only comments on the remedial complaint is that 1) while they are not usually used to challenge disciplinary processes this resolution appears to be without precedent so “usually” is the operative word and 2) it strikes me that this is not so much an issue with the disciplinary process itself as with the Presbytery’s response to it and enforcement of it.

[Please see update at the end of this] Now, I want to mention one non-polity issue that – if correct – I do find disturbing. Reports have mentioned a significant media presence at the presbytery meeting for this item.  If the media were there just expecting the reading of the decision, that is one thing.  There seems to be a feeling, and I have no independent confirmation of this, that the media was made aware of the counter-motion in advance and were there for a sensational story. In itself that is still OK, we have open meetings… except note what the Stated Clerk said above – that he “only had about 30 minutes notice [of the motion] before the beginning of the meeting.” Presumably the same goes for the Presbytery Moderator who had to handle this business. (If the Moderator had notice but the Clerk did not then the Moderator and the Clerk need to talk more.) It strikes me as a break with our much-valued “mutual forbearance” and “peace, unity and purity” if the mainstream media was given notice to be there but those charged with the decently and orderly conduct of the meeting were not.
[Important update: Did get information from someone who was there and it was their impression that the media was there for the reading of the censure. In fact, they observed one reporter grumbling because they had already written the story and now had to rewrite it.  I stand down from my concerns expressed above.]

I might have a lot more to say about this later, but there are more pressing events for a GA junkie upon us now and I will postpone any further thoughts on this, possibly indefinitely. If you want more coverage you can get it from all the usual suspects including…

Enough for now — This will have reverberations for a while to come in many forms and on many levels. We will see where this leads.  Stay tuned…