Category Archives: Media

Presbyterians And Brexit

On the eve of the referendum in the United Kingdom on whether they should leave the European Union I wanted to very quickly look at where various Presbyterians stand on the issue.

To my knowledge, the only top governing body or denomination that has taken a stand is the 2016 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland which endorsed remaining in the European Union. In the article the convener of the Church and Society Council, the Rev. Sally Foster Fulton, says that it is a work in progress and remaining is the only way to influence the transformation.

While the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has not taken a stand, they did publish an article to help people understand the referendum and think about it.

And some churches have been hosting debates as well including the London Kirk and Craigy Hill Presbyterian Church.

If there is another official denominational voice on this please let me know and I would be happy to update.

There are some prominent individual voices that have weighed in so sticking with the Church of Scotland one of those voices is the Hanna Mary Goodlad, the Moderator of the National Youth Assembly, who was highlighted in a separate article articulating reasons to stay. She tied it to her trip to the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Centre and Cemetery in Bosnia where more than 5,000 people are buried, the scene of the worst European genocide since World War II. The message was Europe is more peaceful and stable if it is united.

There are prominent individual voices on the other side. One of these is the Rev. David Robinson, the immediate past Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, who says that after spending no small amount of time studying the issue:

[Democracy] is for me the key issue. Those who make our laws should be accountable to those for whom they are made. The elected should answer to the electorate. The demos needs a democracy. And the European project is fundamentally at its core anti-democratic.

And for a very different perspective, from Northern Ireland we have the Rev. David McMillan of the Free Presbyterians who favors leaving. The article in the Irish Times talks about his view that the European Union was prophesied by Daniel and that “this union of nations would bring to a close ‘the Times of the Gentiles'(the end of the world)”.

I will leave it at that.

Our prayers are with the UK tomorrow as they make this important decision.

Church of Scotland 2013 General Assembly — Church And Society Report On Israel

UPDATE: The revised report is out – a few comments below.

I have been watching with interest the unfolding drama around the Church and Society Council’s business that will be before the 2013 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland next week. More specifically, in the midst of recommendations concerning climate change, education and oversight and franchise related to the Scottish independence vote, what has garnered international attention is a special report on Israel and the “promised land.” (Those are not my scare quotes but the style used for the report title.)

While my close attention may seem reasonable considering the extensive debate now going on about this report, what interests me more is the parallel to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 220th General Assembly last year. In both cases, the focus for those inside the church seemed to be on business related to human sexuality. But the business related to Israel and Palestine — in the case of the PC(USA) it was divestment from companies who “profit from non-peaceful pursuits” — caught the spotlight outside the church.

Even before the Assembly last summer in the media and social media the divestment proposal was being debated.  At the PC(USA) Assembly itself there were individuals lobbying inside the convention center (but not on the floor of the Assembly or in the committee room). And by the narrowest of margins, 333 to 331, the Assembly chose not to divest. The Assembly did approve a boycott of products made by Israeli companies in facilities in the occupied territories.

For the Church of Scotland the lightning rod was not divestment, or the specific recommendations of the Council per se, but the special report The Inheritance of Abraham? A Report On The ‘Promised Land.’ As you might guess from the question mark and the quotes around use of the term promised land, the report concluded that the modern nation of Israel does not having a scriptural basis for its existence. The response was swift and loud with coverage in the mainstream media (e.g. BBC, Herald Scotland), Jewish media (e.g. Haaretz, Algemeiner ) and internationally (e.g. Jerusalem Post, AP via ABC News, The Daily Beast). It has also caught the attention of bloggers outside the immeadeat circle including His Grace at the Cranmer blog.

There are also voices in the media speaking out in sympathy with the report including a Scotsman article about a prominent minister critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

In response to the commotion a meeting was held between Church of Scotland representatives and members of the Jewish Community in Scotland. The report was removed from the web site and a statement about the meeting posted in its place. The report is being revised with a new introduction and it is planned to be ready for the Assembly next week.  In the statement the Church of Scotland reiterates four points:

  • There is no change in the Church of Scotland’s long held position of the right of Israel to exist.
  • The Church condemns all violence and acts of terrorism, where ever they happen in the world.
  • The concern of the Church about the injustices faced by the
    Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories remain firm,
    but that concern should not be misunderstood as questioning the right of
    the State of Israel to exist.
  • That the Church condemns all things that create a culture of anti Semitism.

To put a fine point on this, the distinction that they seem to be making is not the right of Israel to exist, but the lack of biblical support for the modern state of Israel.

While the report is gone from the official site it is available from another source. It begins with an introduction briefly outlining the recent history of the issue in the Church of Scotland and then lays out the topic of the paper:

There has been a widespread assumption by many Christians as well as many Jewish people that the Bible
supports an essentially Jewish state of Israel. This raises an
increasing number of difficulties and current Israeli policies regarding
the Palestinians have sharpened this questioning.

This assumption of biblical support is based on views of promises about land in the Hebrew Bible. These
views are disputed. The guidance in the Bible, notably the
interpretation in the New Testament, provides more help in responding
to questions about land and covenant. It also provides insight
(discussed later in the report) into how Christians might understand
the occupation of Palestinian land by the state of Israel, threats to
Middle East peace and security, human rights, and racial intolerance,
especially in the forms of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

It continues…

In general terms there have been three
main ways of understanding the promises about land in the Bible:

  1. A territorial guarantee
  2. A land held in trust
  3. A land with a universal mission.

The report then discusses each of these different understandings and begins the summary by saying:

Promises about the land of Israel were never intended to be taken literally,
or as applying to a defined geographical
territory. They are a way of speaking about how to live under God so
that justice and peace reign,
the weak and poor are protected, the stranger is included, and all
have a share in the community and a
contribution to make to it. The promised
land in
the Bible is not a place, so much as a metaphor of how things
ought to be among the people of God. This ‘promised land’ can be
found — or
built — anywhere.

vision of the kingdom is not for one limited area of territory, it is
a way of anticipating how things can be
if people are obedient to God. Metaphor and symbol are often used by
the Biblical writers. Words such as
‘widow’, ‘stranger’, ‘orphan’, ‘wilderness,’
‘neighbour,’ ‘Egypt,’ ‘exodus’ and ‘exile’ have
symbolic reference…

Now, I have to take pause at that first line where it says the promises were “never intended to be taken literally.” [emphasis mine] I do see the point of the piece in a modern context and do accept that the ultimate goal of being a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) is that the Kingdom may encompass all of the earth. But the book of Joshua has a lot about specific physical geography as those in the second generation at the end of the exodus take position of the land that God has given them. A similar argument could be made about the return from the exile. Considering all of the history that revolves around that I personally have a hard time taking that part symbolically as the report suggests. The question really seems to be how the promises of the Old Covenant get transformed in the New Covenant?

The conclusion brings us back to the modern situation:

From this examination of the various views in the Bible about the relation of land to the people of God, it can be concluded that Christians should not be supporting any claims by Jewish or any other people, to an exclusive or even privileged divine right to possess particular territory. It is a misuse of the Bible to use it as a topographic guide to settle contemporary conflicts over land. In the Bible, God’s promises extend in hope to all land and people. Focussed as they are on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, these promises call for a commitment in every place to justice in a spirit of reconciliation.

The report then reminds readers of eight points previously agreed by General Assemblies. These points include the inequality of power in the region, that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal, that the human rights of all peoples should be respected, that negotiations need to resume and that the Church of Scotland must remain in dialogue with ecumenical partners and not do anything to promote illegal settlements.

For those who are familiar with the ecumenical statements regarding this area I would point out that the Kairos Palestine document is frequently quoted in this special report.

So, we wait to see a number of things. First, how the introduction is revised to reflect the discussions that were held last week. Second, how the Assembly receives the report — and keep in mind that it is nothing but a recommended report until and unless the Assembly adopts it as an official position of the Kirk. Finally, we will see what sort of reaction there is from the various groups within and outside the Kirk to whatever action the Assembly takes.

UPDATE 17 May 2013: The Church of Scotland has posted the revised version of the report. In addition to new opening Preface and Context sections notable revisions have been made through out the document to clarify the language. For example, the line I took issue with above, “Promises about the land of Israel were never intended to be taken literally, or as applying to a defined
geographical territory” has been revised to now read “To Christians in the 21st century, promises about the land of Israel shouldn’t be intended to be taken
literally, or as applying to a defined geographical territory.” This is typical of the changed tone of the paper as it has been re-framed as a document intended to reflect and speak to modern Christian thought.

“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

“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

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…

Haven’t I Seen That Somewhere Before?


Last month when the Fellowship of Presbyterians was rolling out the new Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians they debuted and explained the new logo and the preferred acronym (that would be ECO not ECOPs).

At the time someone tweeted or blogged that the logo reminded him or her of X – and I have been looking back and trying to figure out who I saw say that both to give them credit as well as to be sure what X is. My failing memory tells me that they suggested the logo for Presbyterians for Earth Care shown above.

Well, after they mentioned that I started seeing similarities to other logos.  I have included two examples above, one from the Friends of Calvin Crest and the other for a non-denominational church in our area.

Now to be clear, the Calvin Crest logo is not a deciduous leaf but a pine needle cluster or maybe a pine cone. But the look and feel is sure similar.

The presbygeeks out there know that this variation on a plant theme is nothing new for Presbyterians…



Yes, each of these global Presbyterian seals rocks the burning bush theme adopted by Presbyterians long ago.  (Clockwise from upper left – old Church of Scotland seal, current Church of Scotland logo, Free Church of Scotland, United Free Church of Scotland, old Presbyterian Church in Ireland, current Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, Malaysian Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in Canada, and Presbyterian Church of Taiwan)

[Note: Please see the comment by Alec below with a correction and some fascinating history of the symbols.]

So what got American Presbyterians sidetracked?  There are a couple of exceptions

other logos




… and that BPC logo does have the burning bush. But for the most part American Presbyterians, and a couple more I threw in, tend to use the cross as their dominant theme.

cross logos
(Tempting to leave this as an identification challenge but here are the logos: Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, old United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Presbyterian Church of Australia, and the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa.) You can spot the burning bush or flame symbolism there in some of these, but the central motif has become the cross.

Where logo design goes from here will be interesting to see.  If early American Presbyterians had a logo they did not use it much. I don’t know if it was simply because they did not feel a need to have a brand identity or maybe it was not worth the extra cost to print it on their documents, or maybe they though it came too close to violating the Second Commandment. Maybe some research on that sometime.

But these days it seems necessary to have a logo for brand identity, and if it is simple and can be reduced to a small size for your online avatar all the better. ECO clearly thought that having a unique (sort-of) logo was a worth while endeavor to put early effort into.

We will see where it takes them.

How Do You Get Your Message Out? New Development In Standing For Moderator

Well, as much as I have spent time discussing the Moderator election for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, today’s brief note on new approaches brings us back to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

A couple of days ago I got an interesting Tweet from one of the candidates standing for Moderator of the General Assembly of the PC(USA).  It reads:

@nealpresa: Receive alerts of mod candidacy by texting word, “PRESA” to 56512. For email alerts text “PRESA (your email)” to 56512 #fb #pcusa #ga220

So now we can get mod candidacy alerts by text message. I believe this is a first.

This is actually a very smart move if you are aiming for a particular demographic.  Consider a meeting of a youth group (youth ages 14-20) that I was at last Sunday afternoon. They were discussing an upcoming activity and the youth chair needed a piece of information from the adviser.  The adviser asked “Can I email you that.”

“No” replied the youth, “text it to me.”

I can’t speak for this as a national trend, although I suspect it is, but for most of the youth and young adults that I work with on various things (and this includes my own kids) by far the number one means of communicating is by text message on their phones. If you haven’t noticed, phones are not to talk on any more but devices to send and receive text messages.  (And I sometimes suspect that one appeal of contacting your parents by text is that your friends don’t know its your parents you are texting to as opposed to having them overhear you on the phone.)

Email? Too complicated for the easy stuff. Twitter? Interesting, but not the way to hold a conversation. Text messaging is the simple method of communicating one-on-one for youth and young adults.

This does of course beg the question of whether there are enough commissioners who would want to get updates by text message to make this approach worth while.  It will be interesting to find out. And yes, I have texted in to be added to the distribution list but no alerts yet.

So how do you go about doing this? Well, the “text to” address of 56512 belongs to a direct marketing firm called Guide by Cell that offers various audio, mobi and text packages.  It must be pretty affordable because the budget for a Moderator campaign is capped at $1500.

As I said, it will be interesting to see how this new media works out for Rev. Presa. Stay tuned…

(And yes, there is other Moderator news this week, but I’m going to let that run a bit further before I do more with it.)

“The Medium Is The Message”… Again

Well, I am back on the grid after a series of trips and time in the wilderness – a literal wilderness not a spiritual one.  I have a number of ideas outlined from this time of camping, work and reflection and hope to get them worked up as blog posts shortly.  This includes some thoughts on Landon Whitsitt’s book Open Source Church, which played into what I want to talk about today.

In my brief time back on the grid a bit over a week ago the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) released the PDF version of the new Book of Order and initially charged for it.  This was a break from tradition, both for the PC(USA) specifically as well as for Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in general. There was an initial uproar about it and a few days later the decision was reversed. As Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons tweeted (@gradyemp) “I will confess that we have not explained well the move to charge for the download.” With that the controversy quickly died down — We have returned to normal and all is right with the world again.

First, thanks to all who wrote me with the update that the download was once again free. I did catch it just before going off the grid again but did not have time to properly respond.  Now I have had a chance to reflect on this a bit.

Some observations:

1. Once again “the medium is the message” and the medium now is Twitter.  I have found it interesting how quickly a topic can get circulated via Twitter.  As one article says, “Twitter Does Not Supplant Other Media, It Amplifies It.”  This change was quickly amplified on Twitter and that is where the majority of the questions, answers, guesses and complaints were circulated, all in 140 characters or less.

2. As I indicated in my initial response the move to charge crossed a line that I am not aware that any other Presbyterian or Reformed denomination had previously crossed. (Please correct me if I missed one.) This does not mean that the PC(USA) should not have taken this route.  The fact that they started down this road, even if they quickly turned back, is an indication that cost recovery needs to come from somewhere, especially if sales of hard copies are dropping as more people acquire the electronic version. If the Book of Order is to support itself then as sale of print copies decreases it only makes sense to charge for the electronic copies. I am pretty sure that was the rational behind the move. The other alternative is that initial publication costs be funded through per capita.

3. As the quote from the Stated Clerk above indicates the move was not done well. Again, the medium is the message. In addition to the change being made with no advance warning or interpretation the license terms of the new version were not explained.  The copyright notice it carries is the same as the print version.  Does that mean that I have to pay $10 for every computer I want to store it on? Can I store it in the cloud on something like Dropbox or Google Docs? Can all the ruling elders in a single household use the same download copy? Can a church, presbytery or synod office pay for one copy for the administrative and ecclesiastical personnel to share? Should it contain DRM measures to control the use?  I could keep on going.  While the questions are currently moot the issue is that the world has changed and that electronic use agreements can not be the same boiler plate we are used to in the paper copyright statements.

4. A couple brief quotes from Landon Whitsitt’s book are applicable here:

In so many areas of church organizational life, I believe that part of the problem we in the church have is that we unreflectively mimic what we see played out in the business world. “Business” is hard to avoid because it affects so much of our lives. [p. 148]


But when we employ modern business practices unreflectively, we begin to internalize the value systems from which those practices spring. [p. 149]

Now, those familiar with the book may comment that the book deals with orgaization and leadership while this controversy has to do with the sale of a document.  True enough, but in making the decision to start charging for it did the organization reflect on why to charge or was it reduced to a “business decision.”

5. Speaking of Open Source Church, when I saw that The Book of Order download was no longer free my first reaction was that somehow violated open source principles. (And I was not the only one.) But it was only with a little reflection that I came to realize that the Book of Order does not even come close to the Open Source Definition.  Again, Landon had a lot to say about this as well.

Let me suggest that this incident says a lot more about how we operate than whether we are willing to shell out a few bucks for our constitutional document.  It says a lot about how we communicate with each other, or don’t communicate as the case may be.  As I suggest, if we have to pay for the paper version why should we not have to pay for the digital version. (Maybe the paper version should have a premium price to pay for the materials as well as the labor of putting it together.) But it also suggests that more thought needs to be put into the differences between an electronic and paper version in regards to how they are used.

Let me also suggest that the church as a whole should be open to new models.  How about an even more radical form of the Book of Order that I have not had time to pursue yet (so go ahead and run with this if you are interested). What if the Annotated Book of Order was online as a Wiki. Yes, it would require permission to upload all the text, but the idea is that the actual text and official annotations are displayed and locked, but us polity wonks generate additional commentary and discussion on the material.  It would be possible to include preceding versions of the text for historical perspective and language from other branches for comparison.  Think of it as sort of a Presbyterian polity midrash.

It is fascinating to view the interaction here of the top-down control structure and the new instantaneous bottom-up feedback made possible through social media.  The church needs to adjust to the media in many different aspects, if not embrace it, as the technology advances.

“We Are Presbyterian” And “We Are PC(USA)”

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Ebenezer Erskine in 1680. He would become a respected figure in the Church of Scotland but later in his life he had a disagreement with the Kirk leading him to renounce jurisdiction and help lead a group that would secede and form the Associate Presbytery in 1733.  This was the second division in the Church of Scotland, the Covenanters having divided from the established church a bit earlier.

So where am I going with this?  The point is that even in the earliest days of American Presbyterianism to say that you were a Presbyterian did not necessarily mean the same thing to everyone.  At a minimum, and this is simplifying things a bit, there was a tradition from the established church that would become the mainline, but also the Covenanters of the Reformed line and the Seceders of the Associate line.  And I probably don’t need to tell you that over the last three centuries the complexity has increased and not decreased.  (As a physicist I could point to increasing entropy, but that is not the purpose of today’s post.)

Yesterday also saw the launch of a new project led by the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I was glad to see it launched because there has been some build-up to it around the Internet and I was interested to see what would come of it.  One thing I was particularly interested in was the different names for the project and how that would affect the focus.  For example, the Twitter account has the handle @WeArePCUSA but the long description is titled “We Are Presbyterian.”  If you go to the launch site the title is also “We are Presbyterian” yet in the narrative below it refers to the videos coming from a “diverse group of folks from across the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

Maybe I am being too picky here. Am I just splitting hairs with this one? As I spend my free time blogging on global Presbyterianism I am well aware that the PC(USA) is just one local manifestation of this broad and diverse ecclesiastical form. Having watched these videos the We Are PC(USA) title is very applicable, but remember this is one small slice of a bigger fellowship.

OK, soapbox mode off…

In these 16 locally-produced videos submitted to Bruce and his crew we have a great representation of the PC(USA).  If you have a spare hour I would suggest watching them. In the ones featuring individuals, each person comes across as speaking from the heart about their church and their vision and passion for it. The group ones are also interesting, particularly to listen to the individuals and where they agree and where they have different perspectives.

Bruce issued an open invitation to submit videos (with a video invite as well) and asked that they answer five questions:

  1. Who are you and how are you connected to the PC(USA)?
  2. What about the PC(USA) are you most thankful for?
  3. What about the PC(USA) are you most disappointed in?
  4. What do you believe that God is calling us to be in the next five years?
  5. What is one ministry, organization or hope that we should pray for today?

It is interesting that about half of the things mentioned regarding the second question could apply to Presbyterianism in general and are not specific to the denomination: connectional system, joint governance on the boards of the church, confessional nature of our faith, priesthood of all believers.  Likewise, the third question had some more general responses as well: could do better with racial ethnic diversity, need to do better with youth and young adults.

I was also impressed that the spectrum of viewpoints were represented, but while the full spectrum of the theological diversity in the PC(USA) was represented in these videos, progressive viewpoints were more likely to be presented.  In particular, several presenters specifically mentioned that they were thankful for the increased inclusivity in the denomination from the passage of Amendment 10-A.  On the other hand, several of the videos stayed completely away from the polarizing issues in the church and spoke of other bigger-picture issues without having an explicit leaning left or right. And some of the videos did not answer the questions at all and one is almost half promotional for a group. But all-in-all an interesting hour of watching.

Bruce has also scaled back his plans for this project which was originally to be focused on an Internet marathon of sorts. Now he has posted the videos and is considering how much time and energy he has for another phase of the project.

Personally, I may post my own “Why I am Presbyterian” two-part blog post later in the Summer.  Two months ago I finished up a post with my conviction that if we prefer the Presbyterian form of church government we need to let people know why. Having issued that challenge I have now outlined my response and within the next month or two hope to have it ready for prime time.  But don’t expect anything focused on one particular branch – I do intend to make it a “We Are Presbyterian” presentation in the broadest sense of the word.

Further Thoughts On The Fellowship PC(USA)

Well, I have had a couple of days to reflect on the Fellowship PC(USA) letter, announcement, and white paper.  I have also had a bit of time to reflect on my own reaction and ask if I jumped too quickly.  The answer to that is maybe yes and maybe no.  More on that at the end.  But first, some comments on the white paper and the developments so far.

Time For Something New – A Fellowship PC(USA) white paper

I have now read the white paper referenced in the original letter and for those who have not read it, it is essentially an extended discussion of the same material as the letter.  In fact, the letter is pretty much a condensed version of the white paper with the meeting announcement and the signatures added.

On the side that maybe I did respond too quickly, I was interested to see that the extended discussion in the white paper addresses a couple of the issues I had with the letter.  On the topic of the conflict and decline in the PC(USA) being about more than the homosexuality issue, the white paper contains this paragraph which the letter does not:

Certainly none of these issues are unique to the PCUSA, [sic] but are all part of larger cultural forces. But what is the way forward? Is there a future beyond the decline as yet unseen? Is there a way to avoid endless fights, to regain consensus on the essence of the Christian faith? We see no plan coming from any quarter, leaving a continued drift into obsolescence.

While it does not seem to consider the broad range of issues the mainline/oldline faces, at least it acknowledges the “larger cultural forces” that are in play here.

Likewise, a couple of my other concerns are moderated in the white paper.  Regarding the diversity and inclusively, they say that they are speaking as a group of pastors but explicitly say “We call others of a like mind to envision a new future…”  Regarding the reference to the PC(USA) as “deathly ill” that was a lightning rod in the letter, the phrase is not used in the white paper but instead they say “The PCUSA [sic] is in trouble on many fronts.” (And as you can see the white paper uses my less-preferred acronym PCUSA instead of the PC(USA) used in the letter.) And finally, there is more acknowledgement of similar predecessor organizations and explanation of why a new one:

We recognize that there are still islands of hope across the church, but they do not seem to represent a movement. Many faithful groups and organizations have been devoted to the renewal of the PCUSA, and they have offered valuable ministry for many years. Yet it appears they have simply helped slow down a larger story of decline. Is it time to acknowledge that something in the PCUSA system is dying?


In many ways this [new] association may resemble some of the voluntary organizations of the past (PGF, PFR, etc.) but it is only a way station to something else. It is an intermediate tool to begin to bring together like minded congregations and pastors to begin the work of another future, different than the current PCUSA.

So some of these ideas are more developed in the 3 1/2 page white paper than they are in the 2 page letter.


It was interesting to see how quickly word spread about the original letter on Twitter and the concerns that many people expressed.  This seems to have led to two rapid responses.

The Fellowship PC(USA) saw a need to respond quickly and the day following the distribution of the letter they put out a one-page FAQ addressing some of the concerns I and others had. Specifically, they address the narrow demographic of the original group (white, male, pastors mostly of larger “tall-steeple” churches).  The response is that this letter was only the beginning of a conversation that they want to broadly include all aspects of the church.  Of course, they get another negative comment from me because in an apparent effort to say that the conversation should include more than clergy they use the phrase “clergy/non-ordained as equal partners.” (Ouch! That hurt this ruling elder.)  This has now been changed to “clergy/laity.”  Sorry, no better. At best this comes off as a technical glitch that in either wording does not include ruling elders as ordained partners in governance with teaching elders (clergy).  At worst, while probably not intended to be so, it strikes me as a Freudian slip or condescending comment that teaching elders are somehow superior to ruling elders in all this.  OK, soapbox mode off.  (And yes, if you think I am being super-sensitive about this one little detail, this GA Junkie is by nature super-sensitive to that one little detail.  Sorry if that bothers you.)

The FAQ also addresses the relationship to the New Wineskins Association of Churches, other renewal groups, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and why their plan is better, different, reasonable, or something like that.

The Fellowship has also updated the letter (the old link is broken) with a revised one that appears to be the same text but has a longer list of signatories that now includes ruling elders and women.  The original seven names are there for the steering committee, but the 28 names for concurring pastors has grown to 95 (including a couple of women) and there is now a category for Concurring Elders, Lay Leaders and Parachurch Leaders with 15 names. (And I suspect that this will be a dynamic document that will be updated as more individuals sign on.)

The Fellowship letter and viral response, possibly influenced by the concurrent meeting of the Middle Governing Bodies Commission, elicited a response from the PC(USA) leadership with a letter on Friday from Moderator Cynthia Bolbach, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, and GAMC Executive Director Linda Valentine.  This message, titled Future of the church: GA leaders invite all Presbyterians to join in conversation, cites not just the letter but several more conversations going on in the PC(USA) through the MGB Commission, and other task forces.  One of their concluding lines is “We ask that those who would challenge us also join with all of us across the church as we work together to make that happen.”  I also applaud their openness to the whole of the Presbyterian family as they address the letter to “All Presbyterians” and part-way through the letter say “Presbyterians everywhere long for vibrant congregations and communities
of faith, and relationships built upon trust and our common faith in
Jesus Christ.”

I mention this broad-mindedness since these developments have caught the attention of the wider Presbyterian family in the blogosphere and there are comments about it by David Fischler at Reformed Pastor and Benjamin Glaser at Mountains and Magnolias.  Within the PC(USA) ranks there is a nice analysis by Katie Mulligan who has a summary of the demographics of the churches represented by the original signatories.  (Thanks Katie. It was something I started to do, but as the signatory list became a moving target I reorganized my thoughts and it will appear as a slightly different statistical analysis in the future.)

There is also an unofficial response
from the affinity group Voices for Justice.  They reject the viewpoint
the Fellowship letter has of the PC(USA) and urge working together as
one denomination.

A Case Study in Social Media

Probably what interests me the most in all of this is how it played out.  As best as I can tell, this went viral, or as viral as something can go within the denomination, within about five or six hours.  The letter and the Fellowship group itself seem like somewhere we have been before and we will see if it plays out any differently.  How this played on Twitter is something else altogether and  I’m not sure anything like this has spread through the PC(USA) Twitter community in the same way.

So here is the timeline from my perspective (all time PST)(note: items marked * have been added or updated):

  • Feb. 2, 10:46 AM – Fellowship letter hits my email box
  • Feb. 2, 11:32 AM – Tweet from @preslayman announcing their posting of the letter – The first tweet I can find.
  • Feb. 2, 12:32 PM – John Shuck posted his first blog entry, tweeted announcement at 1:25 PM
  • Feb. 2, 3:00 PM – Tweet from @ktday that asks “what do you think of this” – quickly and heavily retweeted; beginning of the flood of tweets
  • Feb. 2, 3:17 PM – @lscanlon of the Outlook puts out a series of tweets reporting the letter
  • Feb. 2, 3:32 PM – My first blog post, I tweeted announcement of it at same time
  • Feb. 2, 7:12 PM – Time stamp on the Outlook article.*
  • Feb. 3, 2:31 PM – First tweet I saw about the Fellowship FAQ, from @CharlotteElia
  • Feb. 4, 8:56 AM – @leahjohnson posts first tweet I found about the PC(USA) leadership response*
  • Feb. 4, 9:01 AM – @Presbyterian official announcement by tweet of the denomination leadership response
  • Feb. 4, 10:10 AM – Katie Mulligan posted her blog article
  • Feb. 4, 11:07 AM – @shuckandjive announces the Voices for Justice response

Now that is what I saw.  Please let me know if you have other important events in this history that should be on the time line.  And I am going to keep researching it myself and it may grow.

So, I have to give credit to the Fellowship leadership, or at least their response team, for being able to turn around a response FAQ in 27 hours.  Nice job also by the denominational leadership for having a comment out in less than 48 hours.

In the realm of social media this is a very interesting development – that in the course of a day or two a topic could gather so much attention that the major parties each feel the need, or pressure, to weigh in on the subject.  And that the originating organization received enough criticism and critique that they so quickly issued a clarification and updated list of names.  In case you don’t think the world of communications has changed you need to take a serious look at how a topic, admittedly a hot one but one of limited interest outside our circle of tech-savvy and enthusiastic participants, has played out in just 48 hours.

And I would note that the PC(USA) is not alone in this.  In my observation of the PCA voting on their Book of Church Order amendments this year, and the ultimate non-concurrence by the presbyteries, social media, especially the blogosphere, played a major role.

So here I am commenting on it 72 hours after it broke.  Was my first response reasonable?  As I comment above, it was on only one piece of the evidence and it took me a couple more days to find time to read the white paper.  But then again, maybe it was.  The situation developed rapidly and having my own rapid response to the letter meant that the initial concerns I raised were among those addressed in the clarification the next day.

Now the big question – is all of this a good thing?  I will leave the ultimate answer up to each of you.  I have, in a bit of a play within a play, personally demonstrated what I see as both the negatives and the positives — my initial response was not as well developed as it could have been but in the reality of the new social media world it helped (I would hope) to propel the conversation forward.  Don’t we live in interesting times…

So where from here?  It will be very interesting to see what further role social media plays in this going forward.  Will this discussion become a topic for more narrowly focused groups who continue their work off-line, or will the new realities force or require this topic to remain viable in the extended social media community of the PC(USA). It will be interesting to see, and I would expect that if this Fellowship initiative is to really propel discussion of the future of the PC(USA) they will need to embrace the reality of the connected church.  I think we need a hashtag.

Web 2.0 And The Internet Are Changing The World — Follow-up

Last week the journal Nature published a news piece, Peer Review: Trial by Twitter , about the changes that social media, blogs and instant communication are having on how science is done, or more specifically, how science is reviewed.  For those thinking about this sort of thing in any realm I would suggest you have a look.

I won’t rehash the history of this, you can check out my earlier post, but here are a couple of the good lines in the new article about how things have changed:

Papers are increasingly being taken apart in blogs, on Twitter and on
other social media within hours rather than years, and in public, rather
than at small conferences or in private conversation.

To many researchers, such rapid response is all to the good, because it
weeds out sloppy work faster. “When some of these things sit around in
the scientific literature for a long time, they can do damage: they can
influence what people work on, they can influence whole fields,” says
[David] Goldstein [director of Duke University’s Center for Human Genome

For many researchers, the pace and tone of this online review can be
intimidating — and can sometimes feel like an attack. How are authors
supposed to respond to critiques coming from all directions? Should they
even respond at all? Or should they confine their replies to the
conventional, more deliberative realm of conferences and journals? “The
speed of communication is ahead of the sheer time needed to think and
get in the lab and work,” said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a postdoctoral fellow
at the NASA Astrobiology Institute in Mountain View, California, and
the lead author on the arsenic paper. Aptly enough, she circulated that
comment as a tweet on Twitter, which is used by many scientists to call
attention to longer articles and blog posts.

and finally

To bring some order to this chaos, it looks as though a new set of
cultural norms will be needed, along with an online infrastructure to
support them.

The article then has a good discussion of where fast, open reviews have been tried as well has whether or not they worked.  It also outlines some interesting ways that social media and Web 2.0 are being integrated into the traditional infrastructure.  I’ll leave it for those interested in this sort of thing to have a closer look.

Web 2.0 And The Internet Are Changing The World — An Example From The Scientific Community

Here is an interesting case study that might be of interest to the Church Virtual/Open Source Church/Wiki Church types out there.  In watching this unfold in my professional life I found some interesting parallels in what happened with the reaction to this scientific discovery and what I think about regarding how the church does theology and polity in a Web 2.0 world.

While I want to focus here on the interaction that took place in the on-line world, let me briefly describe the announced scientific discovery behind this so that you have some context.

Back on December 2 a team of researchers associated with the NASA Astrobiology Institute published an interesting paper in Science magazine and held a press conference hosted by NASA to announce and discuss their results from bacteria they found in Mono Lake, California.  This bacteria appears to, at least partially, substitute arsenic for phosphorus in the chemical building blocks of the cell.  These building blocks could include enzymes and proteins.  There is a good discussion of the science related to this in articles from Wired, Science Daily, and a NASA article.  The abstract, but not the full article, is publicly available from Science. (Those readers in academic or research settings may have institutional access to the full article.) Interestingly, while researching this story I found an article from last Spring in The Times (of London) that has much of the scientific story at that time.  If you are not familiar with the biology and chemistry behind this you might not realize that, if the results hold up, this is a very significant scientific discovery.  At a minimum, they have discovered a life form that can live in an extreme, and normally very toxic, environment.

Well, this story went “viral,” if you will pardon the expression.  The press conference was streamed and, having been tipped off by a colleague that it was “going to be interesting,” I followed along and heard the news and the discussion.  There was plenty of coverage of the event across the news spectrum ( for example PC Mag, The Boston Globe, The Telegraph, just to name a few in addition to those above)  as well as the blogosphere (e.g. WeirdWarp, The Curious Wavefunction ).

Now, previous controversial discoveries raised a bit of professional chatter as well as some brief media attention and then usually disappeared from the radar to all except those who really cared.  (an example in a moment)  This announcement took a different path — five days later a widely publicized critique also went viral.  The original critique by Rosie Redfield appeared on her blog as a way, as she puts it, to clarify her thinking.  This was picked up by Slate and then spread to other blogs and developed a life of its own with one asking if this was a NASA publicity stunt and another wondering if this is “flim-flam.”  In short, the new Web 2.0 allowed for scientists to “wonder out loud” to both their colleagues and the public and media at large as well as providing a platform for the general public to discuss and weigh in on a discovery which was not necessarily in their realm of expertise.

Speaking of “not in your realm of expertise” let me comment briefly on my professional view.  As I suggest above the results are interesting.  A number of years ago I was a bit player in some research on the tufa towers in Mono Lake so the environment is not completely unknown to me.  It is a weird and wonderful place but the habitat harsh.  Anything that survives there will be interesting.  To me these bacteria are clearly a good subject to understand better.  On the other hand… I am strongly persuaded by the arguments of the critics and find the most radical conclusions about the arsenic substituting for phosphorus lacking the strong support I would look for regarding such a revolutionary conclusion.  To invoke Carl Sagan’s second best known quote: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”

In short, what has happened here is that a tantalizing and potentially extraordinary discovery has been extracted from the “traditional” scientific process and is now “owned” by the greater on-line community through the ability to distribute the information to the whole world in real time and for the on-line community to be able to interact with it.

Whether you think that is a good thing or not we must accept that it is the new reality of our society.  If you want to make an announcement of an extraordinary discovery to the world, be prepared to have anyone out there weigh in, not just your colleagues in the small academic fishbowl of your discipline.

Consider two previous extraordinary announcements.  Back in 1989 there was a claim that nuclear fusion could be accomplished on a lab bench at low temperatures – the so-called “cold fusion.”  Because the experiment was simple and the researchers published their experimental setup, physicists everywhere were trying to reproduce it, all without success.  But what happened is that the theory did not go away but a few people continued looking at the possibility even if the original experiment was not verified. (article in Wired, Wall Street Journal

Another similar, and NASA connected, discovery was the announcement in 1996 of possible life preserved in a meteorite that originated from Mars.  The publication of this finding was also accompanied by a NASA news conference and picked up by the press.  But with a unique sample and without the web it left the skeptics in the general public without a forum for discussion or criticism.  Now, with time, the scientific community sees better explanations for what was seen in the original meteorite study, but like cold fusion a much lower profile search still continues. (Good backgr
ound info

Returning to the arsenic life debate, the topic was hot enough that there was a panel discussion at the American Geophysical Union meeting regarding, not the science, but the course the reaction had taken.  This was live streamed and I enjoyed watching and tweeting my thoughts as the discussion progressed.  However, if you are looking for other Twitter messages check out the hashtag #arseniclife and the tweets by Alexandra Witze, @alexwitze, a contributing editor to Science News.  Her coverage was very good.  Some of her more thought provoking tweets about the process (names in front are the speakers on the panel – listing available from the panel moderator’s blog):

Steele: Everyone has a voice now. Is this how science will be self
correcting on a much quicker timescale?

Petit: Information is good, and messy. The more we have, the more it
flows and more robust society is

Steele: Scientists shd have more responsibility to understand effect of
what they say to public.

Harris: Does refusing to engage in conversation ever help one’s case?
(Not that this happened here.)

Oremland: I think not engaging hurt us. Gave us appearance of being

Petit: Peer review worked fine. It put out a hypothesis that’s being
chewed on pretty hard.

Steele: If you stick to peer review process are you being elitist?

Sperling: there is a time needed to get things right. Blogosphere will
claim it’s about conversation, but they want scoop #arseniclife

Oremland: Point is about human response to things without time for

One final detail on this – while the researchers would have preferred to have responded in the traditional “comment and reply” format, the nature of the response in the blogosphere did persuade them to publish a non-traditional reply to the criticism that had been distributed.

Going forward it will be interesting to see how quickly these claims are verified or contradicted.  It will also be interesting to see how quickly the viral nature of this news dissipates.

Regarding what this means for any organization and it’s interaction with modern society and culture I encourage you ponder this case study and come to your own conclusions and lessons.  Having reflected on this for almost a month now, let me share a few things that come to mind.

1) The easier access to information and the ability to discuss it has changed society.  Just as Luther’s German Bible and the Authorized Version of the English Bible put God’s word in the language of the people, the Internet now puts all manner of information at our finger tips.

2) But maybe this information is too easily available.  As the final tweets suggest “there is a time needed to get things right” and time is needed for reflection.  Do we get information too fast to be able to put it in context and reflect on the meaning?  Do we get too much information to be able to process it properly?
3) What is the responsibility of those of us with formal training in these areas to others who are trying to figure out what is means?  How do we communicate if what we view as being responsible is viewed by the general population as being elitist?

4) What have 8-second sound bites, a 24/7 news cycle, and 140 character messages done to our ability to communicate and discuss complex or deep concepts?  Are we looking too quickly for the bullet point or the executive summary with out looking for what is behind it or how it fits into a bigger picture?

Anyway, those are questions that come to mind for me.  Your mileage may vary.  But have fun with it.