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.