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
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
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.