This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Foothills Overtures.


The Presbytery of the Foothills in South Carolina has come up with a series of overtures to the General Assembly.  These are in response to what everyone agrees is a deep crisis in the denomination.  
Foothills Presbytery appears to believe that the root of this crisis is that the General Assembly takes controversial and unpopular (to some) stands on social, political, and economic issues.  This creates dissension and division in local presbyteries, and even causes some more conservative churches to seek to leave the denomination.  
As Presbyterians, we naturally assume that the best way to handle this crisis is through a modification of our procedures.  Therefore, Foothills Presbytery has presented a list of procedural changes that they think will solve this problem.
First, I think we need to ask whether it is true that the reason the PCUSA in trouble is because the GA takes controversial stands on public issues.  From within our churches and presbyteries, perhaps this seems to be the case.  It is what some insiders tend to grouse about.  
But I wonder two things.  First, do people outside our churches care, or even know, what the General Assembly says?  When they are seeking a congregation, do they look up the denomination’s social witness policies?  Certainly, some do.  But I am not sure I have ever met one.  Then there is the question of whether more people outside the church don’t often tend to agree with the stances the denomination takes.  
Secondly, I wonder if we would we have the same concern if the GA habitually supported war, capitalism, and conservative social values.  Maybe.
In any case, the Foothills initiatives are astonishingly disappointing and out of touch with reality.  Let’s look at them.

(If you want to read the actual document and proposed overtures from Foothills Presbytery, try this link:  

Overture #1 – The Great Ends.
The idea of having each General Assembly based on one of the Great Ends of the Church assumes that the Great Ends of the Church have something going for them in the first place.  As if having regular conversations and reflection on these Great Ends will somehow reconnect us with our truest and deepest identity, and provide a firm foundation for moving forward.  
In fact, the Great Ends are obsolete.  They assume a Christendom model, and they are almost all verbal and remarkably passive.  Look at the verbs: proclaim, maintain, shelter, nurture, preserve, promote, and exhibit.  While it is possible to assume or infer that these mean someone actually doing something, all of them can be referenced without meaningful, material, physical interaction with another human being.  All of them are remarkably inward in their focus.  The most direct words, shelter and nurture, have to do with what we do for ourselves. 
Where are more active and interactive verbs like serving, healing, sharing, receiving, hearing, witnessing, feeding, welcoming, holding, and so forth?  Where are Jesus’ own words in his: the Great Commission: go, baptize, teach, obey?  Where does Jesus ever say to “maintain” or “preserve” anything?  
The Great Ends assume a fortress mentality in which the church is this edifice on the street corner that has something to show and say… but a) never actually touches anyone, and b) never has any reason to listen to anyone else.  They assume the church is all about itself and what it has possession of, not about the world or Jesus Christ, or the Spirit who possesses it.  The good news is something the church owns, about which it will talk and even let people view.  But the strong implication is that people have to come to us.  These are not the “great ends” of a people who know themselves to have been sent into the world.
The rest of the initiatives of the Foothills Presbytery follow from this set of premises.

Overture #2 – Reaffirm Social Witness.
First, they reaffirm that social witness is a thing.  We are not like those other Christians who just want to stay spiritual and separate from the rest of the world.  I get that.  

Overture #3 – Reform ACSWP.
(That’s the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, to you non-wonks.)
I too tire of the pointless, self-indulgent, and self-important pronunciamentos that the General Assembly issues on social, political, and economic issues.  Usually these are addressed to the government or other leaders, as if they have any reason to concern themselves with our opinion about anything.  Half-a-century ago, some civic leaders may have been interested in the advice of the Presbyterian Church.  Those days are long, long gone.
To the extent that we still do this it is indeed nonsensical and ridiculous.  Nobody cares.   Except perhaps their authors and critics looking for something to complain about, nobody reads these documents, least of all the people we hope will be influenced by them.  And ACSWP?  I have found them to be paternalistic and overly concerned with political posturing.  And I agree with them on almost every issue!  (And I am still angry with them for gratuitously torpedoing the fossil fuel divestment initiative in Detroit.)  
Yet, most of the controversial and divisive decisions coming out of the GA are not these empty political statements.  Most, rather, have to do with decisions that have to be made about the mission and resources of the denomination.  
For instance, the controversial vote on divestment from companies working with the Israeli occupation of Palestine would not have been affected by this overture.  Divestment was not simply the expression of an opinion; it was about the GA’s money and how it should be managed.  The same goes for the long debate we had over ordination standards.  It was not simply expressing a position on Gays in the church; it had to do with whom we will or will not actually ordain as teaching and ruling elders.
So, fine, let’s stop making grandiose, ineffectual statements about this or that.  But we still have to decide how we are going to act as a gathering of disciples of the Lord Jesus in our lives together.  And that’s still going to make angry people who don’t like what is decided.

Overture #4 – Make EP’s advisory delegates
This is, well, idiotic.  It failed laughably (literally) at the last GA.  First of all, some presbyteries don’t even have EP’s, or are calling them by some other euphemism.  Secondly, EP is not a category in the Book of Order at all; it is under “staff”.  Why should paid staff have an advisory vote at GA?  Hello?  Why are the elected commissioners not sufficient to express an intimate experience of what is going on in local churches?  Why is this particular set of well-paid vested interests to be granted extra privilege and more power than they have already?  What great benefit has having Executives (a remarkably un-biblical title) given us over the last 50 years?        

Overture #5 – Supermajorities for BoO amendments.
Super-majorities always have the effect of empowering a minority and privileging the status quo.  They also ensure that any change has broad support.  All this assumes that the Constitution is basically perfect as it is.  If we had this in place a lot of things would not have happened, including the new Form of Government itself.  
A General Assembly can get around this restriction through the use of Authoritative Interpretations.  And, many issues that divide Presbyterians are not matters of Constitutional content.  Like the Israel-Palestine thing again. 
Furthermore, this overture fails to address the larger problem that tiny presbyteries have the same vote as large ones.  It gives undo power to small, rural presbyteries, and diminishes the power of larger, urban presbyteries.  (And we may act this year to enable even smaller presbyteries.)  Otherwise beneficial presbytery mergers are dis-incentivized because of this resulting further diminishment of their voice.  Maybe Foothills Presbytery doesn’t see this as a problem.  
We do need to change the way we vote on these amendments: perhaps it would work better to use the raw vote of all presbyters, rather than each presbytery having one vote.  

Overture #6 – Abstaining 
This one doesn’t even make logical sense.  Unless we decide only to count the presbyteries that voted, not all presbyteries, which is not what this overture proposes, we can’t decide not to count abstentions as negative votes.  Since the point is to get a majority, abstentions or failures to vote at all are not counted as yes votes, and the number of yes votes is all that matters.
A presbytery can already abstain by not voting at all.  


In any case, this set of overtures makes it harder for the church to do anything by empowering disgruntled minorities.  No it’s not the 1960’s anymore, as the document points out.  But this set of proposals indicates a mindset grounded in the 1950’s.

1 comment:

Carl said...

The supermajority idea is also counter to Robert's Rules, which generally reserves supermajority rules for situations in which the rights of a minority are threatened. What's the minority who is threatened by a supermajority on all constitutional amendments? The minority of those who don't want change of any kind, that's who!