Last week was an interesting week for me, what with the Virginia earthquake on Tuesday and the two day Fellowship of Presbyterians Gathering in Minneapolis on Thursday and Friday.
I did not make it to The Gathering so I have been trying to follow it from my vantage point over here on the Left Coast. News and blog articles about the event are starting to appear, but it was fascinating to track the Twitter comments and interactions during the meeting. However, what I found was that while the tweets were interesting and helpful they were not enough to help me connect all the dots to understand what the Fellowship is and where it is going. (Guess you had to be there… ) What follows is not so much reporting on the Gathering but sharing my impressions from and about the social media content related to it. As Scott Keeble (@skeeble99) put it:
Gotta love overreactions to 140 char. summaries of a conference you aren’t at.
If you want to play along at home you need to check out the tweets with the hashtag #mn2011. As the meeting was getting underway I did comment that I did not see a lot of use of the #pcusa hashtag and by implication there was a distancing from the institution. Several friends of different theological stripes informed me that it is indeed common practice to only use the conference hashtag and that nothing sinister should be seen in the use of hashtags. I stand corrected and apologize for casting aspersions where nothing should have been read into it.
Now, if you want a good look at the best play-by-play of the event you need to check out the constant stream of tweets from Carolyn Poteet (@cvpotweet) who was the unofficial live-tweeter. Her stats say she is only at 1034 tweets ever — I would have sworn that she had 10,000 in one day last week! Of course, she hit her rate limit a couple of times and to get the complete picture you need to also check the tweets from @TomJHouston which she co-opted to keep the info coming while her account was in time-out. Carolyn, thanks for all your efforts! Your tweets helped tremendously to follow along. (Generally tweets I quote but are not identified as from another source came from Carolyn and I trust that my quoting her in what follows does not stray from Fair Use.)
Also be aware that there were times when the participants split up into breakout sessions so if you see tweets sent at about the same time but on very different topics that is probably what is happening.
Moving on from the reporting to the “conversation” the first thing that impressed me was the theological breadth represented by those tweeting from The Gathering. In particular there are several people I know that I don’t think were at the meeting to sign up for the New Reformed Body but were checking out the Gathering for other reasons. I trust that they will provide their thought in the blogosphere in the near future. Based on the Twitter activity I make a back-of-the-envelope calculation that about 5-10% (100-200 people) of those present probably held viewpoints contrary to the view of orthodoxy the Fellowship seems to be promoting.
In addition, I was pleased to see at least three of the “big four” from the General Assembly at the meeting. The GA Moderator and Vice-Moderator were there — Moderator Cynthia Bolbach made some well-received comments towards the end of the meeting, judging by the tweets, and Vice-Moderator Landon Whitsitt was his usual self providing a nice stream of insightful comments throughout the meeting. (More on this later) If I understood the tweets correctly, GA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons was also in attendance and spoke briefly — as Seth Normington (@revnormsy) put it “Brief, rather opaque comments from ga stated clerk, gradye parsons. Nice of him to attend. Blessings, good sir.” There was
no mention of GAMC Executive Director Linda Valentine being present and likewise but I saw no identification that anyone else from the GAMC was in attendance. [Update: Thanks to Jody Harrington’s comment below where she commented that Linda Valentine was at the conference. The text above has been adjusted appropriately.]
That leads me into a few observations about the meeting gleaned pretty much exclusively from the tweets:
- Besides the breakout sessions there were also discussion groups. It looks like the higher governing body professionals and officers were grouped together in their own groups. I did not see an explanation of this and am curious why.
- Carmen Fowler LaBerge (@csfowler2003) informs us “#mn2011 registration info: 950 clergy; 575 elders; 53 church administrators; 20 PCUSA staff; 68 presbytery execs. 300 didn’t indicate.” (That would be 1966 total)
- Carolyn also tweeted the answer to one of the nagging questions I had: “Primary diff from New Wineskins – tone.” Another time a speaker is quoted as saying “I felt like New Wineskins got hijacked by angry people.”
- Leslie Scanlon (@lscanlon) of the Outlook provides us with some of the descriptions of where the conservatives feel they or the denomination is – “Some metaphors used at #MN2011. Deathly ill. Stuck in a box canyon. Car sunk in swimming pool. #pcusa”
- Because it is Twitter with a 140 character limit the acronyms were flying. Two that I had to recalibrate my brain for were NRB – which to this group means New Reformed Body but I normally think of as National Religious Broadcasters – and the FOP (or FoP) – which of course here means Fellowship of Presbyterians but in my day job is a professional organization.
- There were questions from afar about the diversity in the Gathering but I did not see the questions answered. However, at one point Carolyn tweets this telling comment “Potty parity at #mn2011! First time in my life I’ve ever seen a line at the men’s room but sailed through the ladies’!”
Going back to that bullet point about the tone of this group, I was struck by how positive the official portion of the meeting was. That did not completely extend to the Twitterverse, but I’ll talk about that below. Based on the 140 character reports the leadership of the FOP is in communication with, and maybe even working with, the OGA leadership. It was also made clear that “we are not calling anybody apostate,” and “will not seek to demonize the #PCUSA in any manner.” And one final quote on this – “One of the ways this won’t be a spin off to a new denom (quickly), is b/c we don’t want to lose relationships w/people we love.”
Two big topics at this meeting that are inexorably linked are the New Reformed Body and theological beliefs, usually referred to as the Essential Tenets of the Reformed Faith.
Coming into the meeting the FOP had made it clear that the NRB (yes, I can throw acronyms around too ) was going to happen but that there were a lot of details to be worked out. The impression I got from the Twitter reporting and discussion is that enough details have to be worked out and now this is a train that has left the station and is headed for the announced constitutional convention January 12-14, 2012, in Orlando. But the FOP clearly hopes for the NRB to continue in some form of partnership with the PC(USA). One comment was “the degree to which the NRB can relate back to the PCUSA, and we hope it can, baptisms, ordinations, permeable boundary.” Another said “hopefully we can share some HQ functions – missions, theology and worship…” One of the themes I found most helpful was the description of what they are about in this sequence of tweets from Carolyn: “like-minded church to unite around a common purpose. from Phil 2:1-2,” “we’ve created such a broad tent that there’s no center pole. we need to establish essentials again,” and “need to make clear abt what’s at the center rather than police the
boundaries, so people can determine if it’s a good fit for them.”
Related to this is the question of standards. At the Gathering the NRB was described as an “empty warehouse” waiting to be filled. That is to be done this Fall when draft documents are posted on the web site, regional gatherings are held, and they are finalized at the constitutional convention in January. There is a clear intent to define or state the Essential Tenets of the Reformed Faith. But this led to a lot of Twitter conversation about the standards. There were comments about the return of subscription. While not necessarily advocating subscription, @BenjaminPGlaser, who was at the meeting, asked in a tweet “I wonder how many of the ministers/ruling elders at #mn2011 could affirm the WCF w/out major qualification…” (WCF is of course the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document that Presbyterians historically have included in the standards that needed to be subscribed to.) There were also references to Machen, particularly his final sermon recently republished in Theology Matters. To that TwoFriars commented “Machen’s fundamentals are NOT Reformed essentials, FYI.” Along a similar line Landon Whitsitt (@landonw) commented “I’m struggling to reconcile the fact that the “essentials of faith” being thrown out at #mn2011 are classicly Evangelical, not Reformed.” Craig Goodwin (@craiggoodwin) had a number of thoughtful comments about standards and in response to Landon asked ” …are Evangelical, not Reformed. Can’t be both?” It will be interesting to see what this discussion produces throughout the Fall leading up to the January meeting.
Going forward I suspect the real hard questions will not revolve around the theology, although they probably should, but around the “Three P’s”, yes pensions, property and power. To put it bluntly – can you take it with you when you leave? From the Q&A portion of a presentation on the NRB Carolyn tweeted “lots of Qs about per capita, pensions, etc. A – we’re not giving answers
at this point, don’t want to get tangled in the details.” This turned out to be a bit deeper than it seems — they put off some of the discussion of details to a breakout on Friday but they are also putting off details until the relationship of the NRB with the PC(USA) is more clearly defined.
I want to look at this topic of the relationship between the NRB and the PC(USA) in more detail another time after the presentation videos are posted and I have had a chance to digest them. Let me just say here that three possible models were proposed: 1) This might be accomplished with union presbyteries – a polity solution that already exists. [ed. note – I should have seen that before now!] 2) Create the category of affiliate churches or affiliate presbyteries like the current affiliate members. Requires new polity language. 3) Leave completely. Regarding this, Carolyn quotes Jim Singleton: “Singleton – yes, this is gonna be messy!!”
Now, a couple of weeks ago in my pre-Gathering piece I suggested that this event was a Rorschach Test for those who had issues with the PC(USA). Well, I see now that I was right in concept but wrong in scope. This event was a Rorschach Test for the whole PC(USA) and maybe even for American Presbyterianism more broadly. But after the broad reaction that the very first Fellowship letter last February engendered I should have expected that.
Departing from Twitter for a moment it is important to note that groups with opposite views have posted very specific pieces on their web sites interpreting or making suggestions related to the Gathering. More Light Presbyterians issued a call to prayer for the meeting and a related article. Individually, Janet Edwards offered a suggestion to the FOP ahead of the Gathering, as did Shawn Coons, and Adam Walker Cleaveland wanted to make sure the elephant in the room got named. Clearly this meeting had a lot of people’s attention across the denomination.
So back to Twitter and the meeting…
First, in the interest of full disclosure I would comment that I (@ga_junkie) did not tweet much but did make the one comment I discussed above that could have been considered snarky, and also a second that could be taken that way as well. Early on Andrew Johnson (@AndrewJohnsonYM) tweeted “New reformed body… no brand but Christ” which I retweeted adding “Starting to sound like the Springfield Presbytery”. (If you need the reference, Springfield Presbytery was part of the Stone-Campbell Movement that left the Presbyterians two centuries ago proclaiming “No creed but Christ” and led to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). )
The vast majority of Twitter comments I saw were constructive and contributed to the social media discussion. Yes, a lot may have had a snarky edge to them, but I found few offensive and there was a general improvement in tone when the organizers made it clear that this new group was not about demonizing the PC(USA).
Yet most of the comments, my own included, seemed to clearly reflect the lens through which the writer was viewing the Gathering. Exempli gratia:
DavidIvie1 David Ivie
#mn2011 why would a group convene to protest gay ordination and then on day one celebrate women’s ordination? no sense of irony?
#mn2011 lots of people talk about “post-denominationalism” 4 better or worse #fellowshippres is actually doing something about it
rwilliamsonjr Robert Williamson Jr
If you want to leave, I will
bid you peace. If you want to stay, I will embrace you. But I can’t
relate to the leave-but-stay option
The future of the Church is in Christ’s good hands, not conferees nor ordinands.
joyousjava Lara B Pickrel
Sometimes our churches’ panicky attempts to keep people from leaving (for the sake of numbers) feels like idolatry.
Pleasantly surprised by tone and focus of #mn2011. Did it take finally losing the vote for Presby evangelicals to get focused on mission?
Reading the events through our own lens or filter is not inherently an issue. It is what shapes our diversity and understanding of the world and the conversation and listening process for others helps us to not only see alternatives but can help us refine, sharpen or adapt our own perspective. Along those lines I have to point out and say how much I appreciated the tweets from Landon Whitsitt (@landonw) who was multi-tasking and reporting on the proceedings through both his open source lens as well as his progressive lens. This tweet captures his dual perspective:
Okay…I’m putting my cards on the table. Except for including GLBT
persons, I want a church that looks like what I’m hearing at #mn2011
Let me conclude by saying that in spite of some sharp comments in the Twitterverse I was generally very impressed by the depth, breadth, level, volume, tone, thoughtfulness and civility of the Twitter conversation around this event. But the operative word here is “around.” While the live tweeting helped me know what was going on I still feel that I am looking through a glass dimly related to where this is going. The quotes that were passed on and the sessions reported on still seemed to reflect the influence of the core group of tall-steeple pastors. There seemed to be lots and lots of discussion of a New Reformed Body but I did not sense how that might have been informed or moderated by Dr. Mouw’s comments regarding why we need each other. And I am still left with the impression that tail number four may be wagging this dog. But this is only what I see from my remote vantage point via the Twitterverse.
So, as this moves on I am looking forward to several things. First, I want to see the videos when they get posted on the Fellowship site so I have the primary sources for much of this information and I can judge for myself. Second, I await written accounts from those who were there – something longer than 140 characters. (The Presbyterian Outlook has already posted several articles by Leslie Scanlon including ones on the lead off presentations, Richard Mouw’s message, the talk by Ken Bailey, and an initial summary. There are similarly one, two, three and four articles from the Presbyterian News Service. In addition, it looks like Two Friars and a Fool are aggregating blog posts on the Gathering but I would single out Jim Miller’s which is getting a lot of Twitter recommendations.) Once I have a chance to view, read, think and digest I anticipate being ready to make some more comments about the content of the meeting.
Looking out a bit further the real test of this model as the open source community that Landon is looking at will be in the process for posting, consulting, editing and approving the new documents for the New Reformed Body. At this point I am pretty much trusting Landon’s impression of the proceedings so far in its promise for development of a Covenant Community in a participatory environment.
Looking even further ahead, there is a good possibility that both the New Reformed Body’s partnership with the PC(USA) as well as developments in the other FOP streams will require actions by the 220th General Assembly and changes to the Book of Order. Leslie Scanlon captured this quote from Mark Brewer:
“This next General Assembly is going to be wild.”
I look forward to seeing how the development process works and what product it results in. I also look forward to seeing how the broader church reacts as this progresses. This has the promise of being new territory — I like an experiment and I hope you do too. Stay tuned…