April 2007

In the third part of his interview with Presbyterian Outlook editor Jack Haberer, PCUSA Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick said something very interesting that goes to the heart of the turmoil in so many of the mainline churches (especially the large ones) today. Here’s the question and answer:

JH: A lot of people are saying these days that organizations that have high levels of trust can have a minimum number of rules, but organizations that have low trust need to have a lot of rules. We’re at a time when the trust level is very low, and yet the Form of Government Task Force is looking at lessening the number of rules. Your thoughts about that?

CK: You’ve left out one piece of that equation. It’s true. Organizations with high trust need (fewer) rules, and organizations with low trust need more rules. Organizations with too many rules can guarantee they are going to create more and more mistrust. I think that piece needs to be remembered.

Anywhere in this country that you get an overly bureaucratized organization with rule after rule after rule, it breeds cynicism, distrust and collapse. … If we are going to have a future we can’t build it on this kind of corporate, bureaucratic model, and the time is now. …

(The PUP taskforce) didn’t say, “We have too much distrust, so we need to tighten down Robert’s Rules, we ought to quit spending time together in worship and community-building in presbyteries, and we need to dedicate time so every item can be voted on in the agenda.” The learning of that task force, out of its own experience in the church, is that that approach of trying to shoehorn every possible rule into the Book of Order, in order to control the church, is not a prescription for peace, unity, or purity. [Emphasis mine-Ed.]

The same is true for the Constitution. What’s critical is that we really DO keep clear and maintain as much unanimity around those core, core convictions that are foundational. … This past assembly overwhelmingly adopted the theological work of the Task Force. That’s important! I think in our Constitution, and especially in those first four chapters, there is a lot of agreement about those foundations. But if we are going to be a church for the 21st century, one that’s going to have not only the ability to deal with our current differences but also to include Sudanese, and people from Burma and people from Bolivia in this, we can’t have … the current provisions in chapter 14. But we can have those core values that we do understand — what ministers of Word and Sacrament do, what’s the role of sessions, what’s the role of core standards of faith in our church.

If we’re going to be that missional church in the 21st century, what you have to do is to stand on solid ground in Christ, solid ground in those core convictions, and then give some freedom to experiment, to be a little different, and build on a sense of new relationships but also still keep some clear boundaries and clear points of reference that are core to the renewal of this church. And I think it is part of what is being brought out in the life of the church.

I would hope that even those who feel the greatest amount of mistrust, if they really would look a second time and ask, “If we really did have chapter 14 twice as long do you think we’d have more trust — or less — trust?” even most of those folks, many of (whom) chafe under some current provisions of chapter 14, many of them would say that we do need to move forward to this new form of government.

It’s the part in italics that I thinkis important, because Kirkpatrick is both right and at the same time missing a very big part of the equation himself. He is absolutely correct that the more rule-bound a church is, the more distrust there’s going to be, and that distrust results in the building of rule-bound structures. Ecclesiastical bureaucratization is one result of sin, both feeding and creating distrust that breaks bonds between members, and is the very opposite of the grace-filled communitarian life that the Church of Jesus Christ is called to. That doesn’t mean that all rules are bad, but rather that when rules become paramount in the life of a Christian community, it’s both a symptom and a cause of a breakdown in the unity to which Christ calls us.

What Kirkpatrick misses, I think, is that such distrust is virtually inevitable when a significant segment of a denomination no longer believes in the theology that is foundational to that denomination and seeks to substitute another. PCUSA is no different from the Episcopal Church or the United Methodist Church, in that at least two mutually exclusive ways of understanding Christian faith (some of which are not even Christian at all, but rather vaguely religious forms of the spirit of the age) are trying to co-exist within one institutional form. While the desire to keep everyone together is in some respects admirable, it is ultimately doomed, because the institution can’t function effectively or faithfully when it is being pulled in so many contradictory directions. The building up of rules results in large part from the desires of factions to pull the denomination in a particular direction, and as others resist, and even actively work to subvert those rules–think of the way in which women’s ordination was brought to ECUSA in the 1970s–more rules become necessary to try to prop up structures in crisis. Distrust is the natural outcome, as well as cause, of such a process.

The PUP (Peace, Unity, and Purity) report to which Kirkpatrick alludes is a perfect example of how this works. Pushed and pulled by both pro- and anti-gay ordination sides, the authors tried to avoid the hard question, and simply left it up to the presbyteries to decide on a case-by-case basis. Both sides knew that would result in a patchwork across the denomination. The antis knew that it meant that gay ordination was inevitable, and that Neuhaus’ Law (“where orthodoxy is optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed”) would eventually come into play. But the pros didn’t get the immediate, across-the-board approval that they wanted, and so weren’t entirely happy either. That meant that the struggle would go on, with mutually exclusive theologies of sexuality continuing to compete with one another, neither side able, by the logic of their position, able to accept anything other than total victory. The sad thing is that I think KIrkpatrick really does want a peaceful and unified PCUSA (I’m sure he also wants purity, he just doesn’t define it the way I would). But given the realities, that simply isn’t possible at this point, at least not without an extraordinary intervention by God the nature of which I can’t even imagine.

The bottom line: unity in the Church is founded on truth. Without agreement on that, the kind of struggles that have plagued the mainline denominations for decades are inevitable.

The Boston University School of Theology (a United Methodist institution) recently hosted a conference entitled “Queering the Church.” BU has removed its page on the event, but the UM Confessing Movement kept the details. Here’s how it was advertised:

Queering the Church Conference has as its main question, ‘Can the Church be Queered, and if it can, how?’ The conference’s format is panel discussion between pastoral and practical theologians, systematic theologians, and critical theorists.

Synopsis: The conference will raise several important questions in its panels.

What happens to the church when it is queered, where queering as a verb can denote a rethinking of sexual identities as well as a challenging of normative understandings of ecclesiology and liturgy?

Can a queering of theology do more than critique and deconstruct traditional church structures, practices, performances, and self-understandings by pointing the way forward to the renewal of the church by suggesting new, more liberating and truthful structures, practices, performances, and self-understandings?

Is ecclesiology a good meeting place for queer, practical, and classical theologies? [Emphases in original]

Sadly, I couldn’t make it to Boston for this, so I’ll depend on Ray Nothstine of the Institute on Religion and Democracy for the highlights:

Speakers at the event on the Boston University campus delved into discussions of “hardcore queer theology,” “triadic unions,” “erotic relation with the divine,” and the “queerness of God.”

The first speaker at “Queering the Church” was Professor Mark Jordan from the United Methodist-affiliated Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. Jordan, in his lecture on “Theater of Divine Bodies,” deconstructed traditional Christian teachings on sexuality in favor of a radical sexual liberation theology.

There is an urgent “need to lift the ban on queer love,” Jordan concluded. “The language of the queer church is a hot breath of desire.”

Responding to Jordan was Robert Goss, a former Jesuit priest, the current pastor of North Hollywood Metropolitan Community Church, and the author of Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto and Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up. Goss identified himself as a “queer theologian in a queer church.”

“I do not deny the presence of Jesus in institutional churches,” Goss commented, “but we have to widen the concept of church beyond institutions.”  He dismissed the United Methodist Church as “a church of empty rhetoric,” because it denies ordination to practicing homosexuals.

Goss proclaimed enthusiastically that “hybrid spiritualities are the emerging spiritualities in our culture.” He noted his own personal mixing of Christianity and Buddhism within his spiritual journey.

Marcella Althaus Reid, a University of Edinburgh professor, focused on the “liberation of ecclesiology from heteroconstraints.”  Althaus Reid said, “My reflection is that the church should become a space of dis/grace, in order to allow diversity and creation in its midst.”

There’s more, but the bile is rising, and I leave it to interested readers to look at the rest. Why mainline churches tolerate this kind of stuff at denominationally supported schools I can’t begin to guess, and that’s especially the case in United Methodism, where the Book of Discipline specifically states that “The practice of homosexuality is inconsistent with Christian teaching” and prohibits the any use of annual conference funds “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”  (The only exceptions to this prohibition is that it “shall not limit the Church’s ministry in response to the HIV epidemic” or apply to “dialogs or educational events where the Church’s official position is fairly and equally represented,” which certainly doesn’t seem to have been the case in Boston.) But what’s the rule of the church when there’s a Cause to be advocated?

One of the most important evangelical leaders of the past half century is retiring from active public ministry. According to ChristianToday.com:

Legendary theologian and evangelist Rev Dr John Stott has announced his decision to retire from public ministry at the age of 86.

Dr Stott said that the final engagement of his illustrious career will be an address at the upcoming Keswick Convention in July.

Dr Stott is revered the world over for his ministry life. The world famous evangelist Rev Billy Graham testified him as “the most respected clergyman in the world today”.

One of Dr Stott’s major contributions to world evangelisation was at the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelisation held at Lausanne, Switzerland.

Dr Stott acted as chair of the drafting committee for the Lausanne Covenant, a significant milestone in the evangelical movement. As chair of the Lausanne Theology and Education Group from 1974 to 1981, he contributed strongly to the growing evangelical understanding of the relation between evangelism and social action.

Perhaps John Stott’s greatest international contribution has been through his writing. Stott’s best-known work, Basic Christianity, has sold two million copies and has been translated into more than 60 languages.

Other titles include The Cross of Christ, Understanding the Bible, The Contemporary Christian, Evangelical Truth, Issues Facing Christians Today, The Incomparable Christ, eight volumes in The Bible Speaks Today series of New Testament expositions, and most recently Why I Am a Christian.

Dr Stott has said that he would greatly value prayers to be said for him in the challenges and opportunities involved in his latest transition.

Stott’s book Basic Christianity was one of the first that I read after becoming a Christian in 1977. He helped me understand a great deal that was mystifying to one coming out of my non-religious (though strongly ethnically Jewish) background. He has been used by God in countless mighty ways, and his public ministry will be missed. He is in my prayers and, no doubt, those of millions of other Christians.

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church spoke to Episcopal communicators yesterday as part of her continuing strategy to turn ECUSA into the vaguely spiritual arm of the United Nations. Her address is not at the ECUSA Web site, but there’s an article about her speech. See if you can tell who’s missing:

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori challenged a gathering of Episcopal Communicators April 25 to engage gifts such as proclamation, witness, storytelling, moviemaking, language, images to help usher in the biblical vision of shalom, of equality and justice for everyone.”There is something gravely and sinfully wrong with a world where the division between the rich and poor continues to expand, where some still live in palaces and recline on ivory couches while others starve outside their gates,” she told about 120 parish, diocesan and national church communicators from around the country.

“In our day, the prophets still speak for a world where the hungry are fed, the ill are healed, where all children are educated and no one is denied the basic necessities of life.”

While the Episcopal Church is increasingly focused on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a basis for its mission and work, telling the story of how churches are engaging the United Nations guidelines for eradicating poverty is part of the “important framework for what shalom might look like,” Jefferts Schori told the gathering, which is meeting in Virginia Beach through April 28.

So is incorporating chaos theory — that very small changes in initial conditions can lead to radically different results — into mission, she said. “Each and everyone sitting here is capable of changing the world. Somewhere, somehow each one of us has the capacity to tame the chaos around us and turn it toward the peace of shalom. So where are the prophets? Who’s going to speak those words? Who’s going to do that work?

“What you or I do in this moment can bring hope or wholeness somewhere,” she said. “The language or images we use can inspire or move others to be change agents themselves … to move people to a different place. Your ability to tell stories like these can inspire others to change the world.”…

Living shalom will require a focus on relationships, the willingness to try some new and untried things, and to employ the kind of creativity “that has its roots in courage, to honor the gifts and dignity of those whom polite society would rather ignore,” she said.

“Courage comes in a myriad of forms, beginning with the mundane. When was the last time you challenged a litterbug or a parent applying undue force to a misbehaving child?”

Borrowing an image from Hinduism of a fishnet with a jewel at each junction of the web that reflects every other jewel in the net, Jefferts Schori encouraged the gathering to cultivate a sense of fundamental unity, to see connections, find common ground, in an attempt to build greater unity among people and positions that seem remarkably disparate.

“If we could see ourselves as a jewel like that, reflecting and involving every other jewel, we might begin to respond differently. You do reflecting work when you offer a vision of hope, a story about where God is at work or an invitation to enter into suffering of others,” she told the communicators.

While thanking communicators for their ministry within the church, she added that their task is to “challenge the injustices and death-dealing realities around us and to inspire and encourage others to build toward God’s dream of shalom of life abundant, not only for ourselves but for every creature in the cosmos.

“Prophets have two tasks, to critique what’s unjust and to offer strength and comfort to the despairing,” she said.

And not a word about that Guy who is supposedly at the heart of Christian mission.

This is the sort of thing that convinces one that Jefforts-Schori is using her current position as a stepping stone to the UN Secretary-Generalship. The idea that Jesus Christ might be the answer–even part of the answer–for the world’s problems–even some of the world’s problems–is simply foreign to her. She doesn’t seem to think like an ambassador for Christ, but like a government bureaucrat trying to find a way to make life a little better for some people. She talks about “God’s dream of shalom” (which presumably is lib-speak for the Kingdom of God), but thinks that we can bring it about if we can just make our political and economic systems work more for poor people.

Here’s some free advise to the Bishop: give up your day job. What you really want to be is a roving cheerleader for the UN. Do it, and let someone who actually cares about the mission of the Church–proclaiming the gospel of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the eternal life found in His name–take over the reins.

The PCUSA’s Salem Presbytery has decided to postpone voting on a resolution apologizing for…well, what a bunch of other people did. According to the Greensboro News and Record:

Area Presbyterian Church USA congregations have postponed voting on a resolution calling for apology, or “acknowledgment of wrongdoing,” for the Nov. 3, 1979, killings in Greensboro.

The procedural motion—whether to vote on an amendment to the resolution or to postpone that vote—was debated as strongly as a vote on the resolution itself might have been. But delegates voted 99-83 to postpone debate until July 21.

The original resolution, presented in February by the Rev. Jim Dollar of Greensboro’s Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, called for apologies, not just acknowledgments.

As part of the postponement motion, delegates called for a broad commission to study the issue and report back.

Because nothing is really known about what happened that day and the Presbyterian Church’s role in the murders.

The amended resolution calls on the Salem Presbytery, about 150 congregations in north-central North Carolina, to acknowledge wrongs done to residents of the Morningside Homes community and the city on Nov. 3, 1979.

On that date, Klansmen and Nazis clashed with Communist Workers Party organizers planning a march and rally.

Five CWP workers were killed and an additional 10 people were injured. All defendants subsequently were acquitted in criminal trials. A civil jury found the city and some Klansmen liable for one wrongful death.

After the vote, Dollar said he was just glad the resolution was still alive.

“I thought it was dead as the discussion was taking place,” he said. “If we just keep talking, a shift will happen and a transformation will take place.”

Perhaps Presbyterians will stop killing Communists, or shooting back at Nazis, or invading others’ personal space, or whatever it is they’re doing that requires them to engage in this kind of public self-flagellation. . Or maybe the Presbyterians of central North Carolina will stop wasting their time venting their guilt about stuff they had nothing to do with. Now that would be a shift worth happening.

OK, this is officially cool:

For the first time astronomers have discovered a planet outside our solar system that is potentially habitable, with Earth-like temperatures, a find researchers described Tuesday as a big step in the search for “life in the universe.”

The planet is just the right size, might have water in liquid form, and in galactic terms is relatively nearby at 120 trillion miles away. But the star it closely orbits, known as a “red dwarf,” is much smaller, dimmer and cooler than our sun.

There’s still a lot that is unknown about the new planet, which could be deemed inhospitable to life once more is known about it. And it’s worth noting that scientists’ requirements for habitability count Mars in that category: a size relatively similar to Earth’s with temperatures that would permit liquid water. However, this is the first outside our solar system that meets those standards.

It’s not a certainty, and at least one big name is saying that just because the conditions may be right doesn’t mean there actually is life basking in that red glow:

“I expect there will be planets like Earth, but whether they have life is another question,” said renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in an interview with The Associated Press in Orlando. “We haven’t been visited by little green men yet.”

I never doubted that this day would come, and I don’t doubt that life beyond Earth will one day be found, maybe in my lifetime, maybe not (whether it will be sentient life or not is another matter, of course). The idea that the God who is Creator would restrict His bringing forth of life to just one planet in the universe has always struck me as extremely unlikely. I can’t wait for the next development.

Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, has decided to take a walk, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

By a vote of 195-4, Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon has decided to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) with the intention of joining a more theologically conservative Presbyterian body.

“I think it is a fairly clear and compelling voice, which is what the presbytery asked for and what the congregation has given the presbytery,” said the Rev. Rick Wolling, pastor of the congregation, which voted at a 6 p.m. closed meeting yesterday.

“I didn’t go to seminary to do this. It’s hard. And yet I think there’s a real strength and joy in doing a hard thing that we believe God is calling us to do.”

I hear that. The Pittsburgh presbytery will likely let them go, but at a price:

The vote, which took place with four observers from Pittsburgh Presbytery present, does not end the matter. The congregation will continue working with a presbytery negotiating team to come up with a proposal for Beverly Heights to keep its building, in exchange for what the presbytery calls “a substantial mission gift.”

That proposal, with the yet-to-be-decided figures, will be presented to the June 6 presbytery meeting. It will be discussed at that meeting, but not voted on until the September meeting.”

I love it–“a substantial mission gift.” I’m sure they don’t mean it that way, but it sounds like something the Mafia would say to a local drug dealer when letting him keep his business in return for a cut of the profits. But hopefully the spirit of separation will be amicable:

Jay Lewis, stated clerk of Pittsburgh Presbytery, was one of the observers. Presbytery representatives had spoken to the congregation on April 15 in an effort to persuade them to stay but did not speak last night, he said.

“We were pleased by the formality with which the vote was taken, and with the open and above-board practices in the meeting,” he said. “The presbytery and Beverly Heights have each expressed their sadness at the end point of the vote.”

Beverly Heights’ eventual destination will likely be the EPC, though that will probably wait until at least after our June General Assembly:

Beverly Heights is part of the New Wineskins Association of Churches, theologically conservative congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA). That group has developed a proposal for congregations that wish to leave the denomination to affiliate with the much smaller Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church will not be able, however, to approve that plan until its own June meeting, when it will vote on a proposal to create a non-geographical transitional presbytery for incoming congregations from the more liberal body.

Although it is his intention to seek affiliation with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, “I’ve not had one word of conversation with the EPC yet,” the Rev. Wolling said.

Beverly Heights would be in the Presbytery of the East (if it doesn’t go the New Wineskins transitional presbytery route), and since I’m on the committee that will be dealing with churches seeking membership in the presbytery, I’ll have an early opportunity to get to know them. I hope I’ll have that privilege in the foreseeable future.

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