June 2010


One of the highlights of each year for me is the results of the Bulwer-Lytton contest. What in the name of Mickey Spillane is that, you ask? Well, it’s a bad writing competition, in which people around the world try to out-do one another in the task of coming up with the worst first line of a (hopefully) unwritten novel. The inspiration for this annual event is Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford launched hundreds of Snoopy’s literary efforts:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Bulwer-Lytton was not a complete washout as a writer (among other achievements, he’s credited with coining such expressions as “the great unwashed,” “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and “the almighty dollar,” as well as writing one of the earliest science fiction novels, Vril: The Power of the Coming Race), but the opening line of Paul Clifford has gained him immortality. So if you’d like some laughs, please check out the 2010 results of the San Jose State University-sponsored contest.

Incidentally, I entered the contest for the first time this year, and invite you to compare my entries to those that won, and see which is least deserving:

A great man once wrote, “the pen is mightier than the sword” (of course, he was talking about quills, not those crappy pens you get at Big Lots for a buck 99 a dozen that make a big blob on your paper the first time you use them), but then he never saw a light saber open up a man like a Minnesota bachelor farmer preparing that foot long walleye he’d caught while ice fishing that afternoon for dinner.

Neuronic whip in hand, Rigelian bounty hunter Rocco Beefheart strode into the End of the Universe Cafe and Bookstore, determined that professional wrestler-turned galactic dope dealer Steve “Head of Stone” Krenshaw–who was even then ordering a pineapple-mango latte with a double shot of Denebian whiskey and a Cobb salad, his first real meal in a week–would not evade the strong arm of justice this time.

Even though he hated the moniker “gunslinger,” the dark-eyed, medium-height, slightly-stocky, straw-haired, tawny-skinned, pigeon-toed, palamino-riding Man with Four Fingers (his pinky had been shot off by the sheriff of Tombstone during a game of hearts gone horribly wrong) had to admit that the term fit him to a tee.

Zombie hunter Lex (“they call me ‘The Law’”) Rowsdower moved as stealthily as a puma through the shattered ruins of the Zippy Mart, hoping to find even as much as an uncontaminated can of Beanie Weanies to keep him going on his relentless pursuit of the undead creatures whose motto was, “no guts, no dinner.”

The dame came flouncing into my office like she just walked off the jiggle line at Pervy Pete’s Porn Palace, dolled to the nines in the worst make-up job I’d seen since the last time Tammy Faye turned on the waterworks.

Chief Detective Sychowski had no use for Mrs. Cavendish, the local amateur sleuth who fancied herself the reincarnation of Jane Marple, but had to admit that when she stuck her big schnozz and blue hair into a case, the police department usually got results, followed by an ACLU lawsuit.

(Hat tip: Dave Pepper on Facebook.)

–The Rev. Laurie Hafner, pastor of Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Church, riding in a Gay Pride Day parade float in Miami in April, dressed as Glinda the Good Witch, and no, you can’t make this stuff up

There’s breaking news from the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 decision has decided against the Christian Legal Society in its effort to challenge the reigning orthodoxy at Hastings Law School in California. According to the Associated Press:

An ideologically split Supreme Court ruled Monday that a law school can legally deny recognition to a Christian student group that won’t let gays join.

The court turned away an appeal from the Christian Legal Society, which sued to get funding and recognition from the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law.

The CLS requires that voting members sign a statement of faith and regards “unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle” as being inconsistent with that faith.

But Hastings said no recognized campus groups may exclude people due to religious belief or sexual orientation.

The court on a 5-4 judgment upheld the lower court rulings saying the Christian group’s First Amendment rights of association, free speech and free exercise were not violated by the college’s decision.

“In requiring CLS — in common with all other student organizations — to choose between welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold, Hastings did not transgress constitutional limitations,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the 5-4 majority opinion for the court’s liberals and moderate Anthony Kennedy. “CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings’ policy.”

That’s correct–CLS did seek an exemption (the term “preferential” is simply pejorative) from the school’s policy, based on the organization’s unquestionably religious character and convictions. Such exemptions have, in the past, been routinely granted in various settings because the United States has typically recognized the unique place of religion in society. It has long been recognized that for the state to demand that people violate their religion-based beliefs requires an extraordinarily high standard. For instance, churches are routinely exempt from laws that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, because it is seen as a violation of conscience to require an organization that believes homosexual conduct to be wrong to hire someone engaged in exactly that conduct.

What Ginsburg and her colleagues are saying is that now, in order to receive benefits routinely conferred on other groups, religious organizations must knuckle under to the the prevailing state orthodoxy regarding homosexuality. The potential pernicious effect of this ruling is enormous–you can look for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, for example, to take this and run with it in their effort to have tax exemptions denied churches. You can also look for the religious left to use this as a way of advancing their agenda, as the Rev. Barry Lynn says in an e-mail that just came to me:

Americans United for Separation of Church and State praised today’s Supreme Court ruling upholding a policy at Hastings College of the Law that prohibits school-subsidized student clubs from engaging in religious discrimination.

“This decision is a huge step forward for fundamental fairness and equal treatment,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

Continued Lynn, “Religious discrimination is wrong, and a public school should be able to take steps to eradicate it. Today’s court ruling makes it easier for colleges and universities to do that.”

If I read that correctly, what Lynn seems to be saying is that in his view, religious organizations must toe not just the state’s line on sexual orientation, but the United Church of Christ’s line (Lynn is a UCC minister). In other words, religious discrimination is wrong, but only when practiced by people who don’t buy into Lynn’s view of homosexuality. Discriminating against religious believers in traditional sexual ethics, on the other hand, is hunky-dory. Expect more of this–lots more–out of both the religious and secular left in the days ahead.

Over at the Puritan Board, folks are discussing our actions this morning, and raise some good questions that I’d like to take a shot at answering. In particular, “Chaplainintraining,” a candidate under care in the EPC, raises the following issues:

1. No matter how much the committee states otherwise, I see this as stripping the power from presbyteries.

I don’t know how this can be. Presbyteries are still free to take either a complimentarian or egalitarian approach to women’s ordination, though it is true that complimentarian presbyteries won’t be able to impose that view on a congregation that has a woman teaching elder that is coming into the EPC.

2. The EPC considers the issue of female eldership as a non-essential, but is moving in such a way that we are now defined by a non-essential. They are talking about redrawing presby borders in such a way that each complimentarian presby would be neighbored by an egalitarian. This proves that each individual presby is now defined by a non-essential.

I’m not sure why this “defines” us. It is a practical response to a practical issue: what to do about congregations that wish to enter the EPC who have female teaching elders. We could have told them to go elsewhere, but because we consider this to be a non-essential, we chose to welcome them. Once having made that decision, we needed to set up a process for admission that would allow everyone to live and work together while respecting everyone’s convictions. There is no sense in which this binds anyone’s conscience, as I will explain below.

As for the matter of presbytery boundaries, I think Chaplainintraining is ignoring the fact that there’s a lot more going on. Given the number of congregations that have or are going to enter the EPC, some adjustment of boundaries (which are hardly divinely inspired) was going to be necessary in any case. Taking into account the presence of female TEs, and the convictions of the current presbyteries, seems to only make sense.

3. Questions were raised on why this was one-way road and that a complimentarian church could not move to a differing presby if surrounded by egalitarians. The answer was that no one is forcing a complimentarian to take on a female elder, but complimentarians would be forcing egalitarians from not taking. I understand the concept in general, but it is still catering to the left. I can see where a strong egalitarian presby could deny someone like a Wayne Grudem who is openly and strongly opposed to female ordination. They would deny someone like him because they do not want to deal with it.

To me, this point indicates an unfamiliarity with the way the EPC works in practice. The idea that a presbytery that has taken an egalitarian position would exclude a complimentarian is, I think, far-fetched in the extreme. The whole point of this exercise is that we are bending over backwards to respect everyone’s convictions.

4. We are told that this is being done in order to not bind one’s conscience on the issue. When someone pointed out that a presby would still have to vote to allow a church to move, and that if one’s conscience was bound towards complimentarian they could still not vote to allow the church to move. The response from the committee was that if you are against a female elder in every situation then you are in the wrong denomination (this is just wrong. Someone might have joined the EPC for one of their other distinctives. Maybe someone has a more charismatic view of the gifts. That could be reason for being in the EPC). So in other word’s the conscience of the egalitarian matters, but the conscience of the complimentarian doesn’t.

Wrong. No one is bound to vote in any particular way on any particular issue. Quite frankly, I have a hard time seeing a presbytery saying, in essence, we will take you in, but once we have admitted you, you have to get rid of your pastor. By virtue of being in the EPC, churches have agreed that the matter of women’s ordination is a non-essential. If you are going to contend that not only will your own church not have women TEs, but no other church may either, anywhere in the denomination, you are saying that you no longer agree with one of the items that was before you when you came in. Complimentarian presbyteries don’t have to have women TEs in their membership. Insisting that those congregations can’t go anywhere else in the denomination strikes me as manifesting an uncharitable spirit that is counter to the ethos of the EPC.

5. I think this does lead to future problems. Paedocommunion is not an issue currently, but what if it became one in the future? History would show that we should allow for those who believe in paedocommunion the opportunity to serve in a presby that would accept a TE who practices such. Really where would the line be drawn? If our Essential of Faith is the only thing that we have to agree on, then a whole laundry list of things could ultimately divide the various presbyteries.

I think this point is off-base. The issue that confronts us with regard to women TEs is not just theological or biblical, but has to do with the ministries of real, live individuals and congregations whom we have decided we will not, as a denomination, turn aside. Matters such as paedocommunion don’t involve whether a person loses her job, and a congregation loses a leader. Yes, we may have to decide whether such matters fall under the heading of essentials at some point, but I don’t think they are the same kind of issue.

6. Several people mentioned that we are suppose to strive for unity among the brethren but this recommendation divides. The response from the committee was, “No it doesn’t.” No qualification was really given. I can’t see why they would think that.

The answer was pointing to the reality, I think, because the proposals enable us to remain united as a denomination by allowing for a plurality of practices that doesn’t bind anyone’s conscience. We have never had a uniform approach to this question, and I know of only a relative handful of people who would want one. But that doesn’t mean we cannot continue to be united in faith and mission.

7. Doesn’t the CRC allow female ordination (correct me if I am wrong please)? If so, then why not join them vs. rewriting the constitution?

Chaplainintraining objected to the implicit suggestion that those who take a PCA or OPC approach to this question might be better off there, and then makes the suggestion regarding egalitarians. Enough said.

8. They are suppose to present the final recommendation in the morning. They removed it at the last second to rewrite it. So this means that we will not even see it until the morning docket and then somehow expected to vote upon it within a few hours.

The changes in question are minor.

A couple more items. “Jack T” writes:

I would note on your item #3 that a complimentarian pastor in an egalitarian presbytery is in a position of being forced, because he is subject to the discipline of the presbytery which includes women. So why can’t his church leave if they don’t want their pastor forced into such a situation? Or do EPC presbyteries not have that kind of authority over pastors?

At least potentially, every congregation is in this boat. In the EPC, every congregation has the choice of whether to have women ruling elders, who of course have an equal voice and vote in presbytery as any male ruling elder. No presbytery has the authority to prevent this, or to refuse to seat a woman RE elected as a commissioner. Quite frankly, a congregation that is unwilling to work with women in presbytery under any circumstances really is in the wrong denomination.

Finally, “Scott1″ who says he is in the PCA, writes this:

The process underscores the way in which this denomination was chartered- intentionally, to be “in the middle” meaning between confessional, biblical reformed and mainline, liberal and apostate.

This is uncharitable, mean-spirited and false. It nicely illustrates why the EPC exists.

And now let the flaming arrows fly.

It’s Friday morning, and we’ve resumed the discussion of the recommendations from the Committee on Women Teaching Elders.

First up, the recommendation on #1, adding an excerpt from the position paper on women’s ordination to the Book of Government. Emphasis is on unity in love and providing a safe haven for ex-PCUSA churches. Passed overwhelmingly on voice vote.

UPDATE: Now on recommendation #2, amending Book of Government to add provisions I mentioned yesterday to allow congregations to change presbyteries. If any will be really controversial, this will be it, since it’s the heart of the report.

The former stated clerk, RTS theology professor Mike Glodo, spoke in favor of it as a matter of mission. Those against seemed most concerned for the authority of presbyteries. After a very civil discussion, this also passed overwhelmingly by voice vote.

UPDATE: Other recommendations followed as day follows the night (with the exception of recommendation #5, a fairly arcane item that has to do with the definition of a presbytery, which was amended for clarity and referred to the Permanent Judicial Commission for examination before being voted on). As I expected, the recommendations have all passed and will now go to the presbyteries for further discussion and passage. Also as expected, the discussion was entirely respectful, with everyone concerned with maintaining the unity of the assembly.

UPDATE: Recommendation #5 passed after tweaking by the PJC.

We’re meeting at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Englewood, Colorado, and about to start the afternoon session. The docket says that what is likely to be the most controversial issue, the report of the Interim Committee on Women Teaching Elders, is scheduled for discussion in this session.

Unfortunately, the link at the EPC web site says the file is damaged, so I can’t link to it, but I can give a summary. The presenting issue is that in the EPC, the ordination of women as teaching elders is considered a non-essential that each presbytery can decide on its own (each church is free to ordain women as ruling elders or not as their convictions dictate). Some, such as my Presbytery of the East, have voted to ordain teaching elders without regard to gender; others have not to not do so. This has really become an issue since the New Wineskins churches began leaving the PCUSA for the EPC. Some of them have women pastors, and the question has been, how do we offer a welcoming environment for these congregations without some being required to compromise their beliefs?

The interim committee came up with a solution that I think is a terrific approach. It has several facets. First, it reaffirms the EPC position paper on the subject, and recommends adding selections from the paper to the Book of Government. Second, it proposes an amendment to the Book of Government that makes the transfer process for congregations clear. The committee writes:

The interim committee does not advocate running from this potential conflict but heading into it with humility and a conviction that we will honor God by treating one another respectfully. The unique ethos of the EPC on women’s ordination intrinsically implies that not all Presbyterians will be comfortable with our ecclesiastical arrangement.

While we live with this discomfort in love, we also desire to find a solution regarding the calling of women as Teaching Elders in congregations that fall within the bounds of presbyteries that have not previously approved such calls. In particular, we recognize that churches entering geographic presbyteries from the New Wineskins Transitional Presbytery, as well as other non-EPC churches, may come from women Teaching Elders already installed. We desire to provide freedom for these congregations without compromising the constitutional authority exercised by presbyteries.

That’s the intention, and I think they achieved it. The second facet of their solution is a proposed amendment to the Book of Government that allows a congregation that either already has or wishes to call a woman as Teaching Elder (or endorse one for ordination candidacy) to petition to change presbyteries to one that will allow it. It then lays out the requirements for doing so. The idea is that it permits maximum freedom on what is considered a non-essential, without forcing anyone to compromise principles. A third facet lays out a process for churches coming from non-EPC settings that is based on the same idea.

The question has been asked, why didn’t the committee allow for complementarian (non-women ordaining) to also switch if it finds itself in an egalitarian (women ordaining) presbytery? The reason is that a complementarian congregation will never be forced to accept a woman teaching elder, while the non-essential nature of the issue means that every EPC church agrees to work with whoever the congregations of its presbytery chooses to send to presbytery. In other words, the issue here is not theological or biblical, but practical.

So that’s the basic outline of the proposal. We’re currently discussing each element of the proposal, with the committee taking questions. New Wineskins churches are asking most of them, seeking to clarify exactly where they stand. The question just asked is a good one: can churches change presbyteries based on egalitarian views, even if there is no woman currently on their staff or foreseen in the future? The answer is no–the EPC doesn’t have “affinity” presbyteries, and sees this not as a matter of separation based on views, but rather as a relief measure for churches that are actually in a difficult situation involving a real teaching elder.

In answer to another question, it was stated that any woman teaching elder would be able to take any call that was offered and agreed upon, with the proposal opening that possibility up while currently there are many calls that women TEs could not take.

Time has run out, and we’re heading to standing committees. We’ll be discussing further and voting on this issue tomorrow. More to come.

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State plays movie reviewer in a column today, though what he’s really about is delegitimizing religious conservatives:

An interesting documentary is opening in some major cities this weekend, and if you get the chance, I’d suggest that you check it out.

Titled “8: The Mormon Proposition,” the film examines the role the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) played in helping pass Proposition 8 in California, which repealed marriage equality for same-sex couples.

It actually reversed a court decision that imposed a change in state laws that embodied a view of marriage that has prevailed for centuries, without input from the electorate. Not to put too fine a point on it.

Some statistics tell the story: Only about 2 percent of Californians are Mormons, but church members poured huge sums of money into the campaign – at least $22 million, including $3 million in the final week that came directly from Utah. Thanks to intervention by the church hierarchy, Mormons provided more than 70 percent of the budget of the pro-Prop 8 effort.

The money was used for an onslaught of ads and a well-coordinated ground campaign. As The New York Times put it, “The money financed a sophisticated media barrage that involved blogs, Twitter and YouTube videos, as well as scary (and, according to the movie, misleading) television ads, and an aggressive door-to-door campaign whose foot soldiers were instructed on how not to appear Mormon.”

Right. No young men in skinny black ties and white dress shirts riding bicycles, maybe because there’s as much anti-Mormon prejudice in California as anywhere else (lots of which has been heard from the political left since the Prop 8 campaign). As for the money and the “scary” ads, two points: first, the money spent by the two sides was almost equal; and second, according to a New York University study, the money spent by both sides was essentially wasted, changing few if any minds. So Boston’s complaint seems to basically be that Prop 8 supporters had the nerve to actually wage a campaign on behalf of their beliefs.

Religious groups have the right to speak out on social issues. But in this case, a wealthy, powerful (and mostly out-of-state) church poured unprecedented sums into an effort to write its theology into law and take away the rights of a group of people it does not like. To a lot of Americans, it just didn’t seem right. [Emphasis added.]

And this is the real point. What Boston really objects to is religious conservatives–Mormons, Roman Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, you name it–having the gall to seek to persuade the public to reject the morality of secular and religious liberals. In the view of AU, the latter is the default, normative position of American society, and therefore any efforts to oppose it is somehow contrary to The Way Things Ought To Be. Boston admits that “religious groups” have a right o express themselves on moral issues, but objects in this case for ridiculous reasons (wealthy? powerful? out-of-state?).

Most importantly, he objects because Prop 8 support for the historical definition of marriage is supposedly “an effort to write its theology into law.” Leave aside the fact that the United Church of Christ and Episcopal Church were trying to do the same thing by opposing Prop 8, an effort that gets nothing but thumbs-up from AU. Simply consider this: if religious groups have the right to persuade the public on moral issues, what is supposed to be the basis for their positions other than theology? Yes, they also–maybe primarily–make arguments that all citizens, religious or not, can understand and buy into. But where else does Boston think that any religious group gets its moral positions–the back of cereal boxes? The Harvard Law Review? Playboy magazine?

Once again, we’ve got AU performing its self-appointed role as defender, not of the First Amendment, but of liberal public policy positions. But then, you knew that.

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