Thursday, July 8, 2010


Be wise as serpents, Jesus said.

But we weren't.

When Ron Kernaghan, my friend from back in our undergraduate days, asked me to edit a document for the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy of the Presbyterian Church USA, I first declined and recommended a couple of other friends, not Presbyterians.

But within a day I felt God's call to take on this task and emailed my change of heart.

I read through over one hundred pages of digressive jargon about "middle axioms," "ultimate warrants," and Calvin's concept of "third use of the law."

I trimmed this down to 20 pages that were somewhat clear and readable, given what I started with.

Ron, Gloria Albrecht, David Cortes-Fuentes and other readers on and off the committee each read and edited further until the ACSWP was satisfied with the product, an update of the 1981 Nature and Value of Human Life policy of the southern branch of the Presbyterian Church, before the reunification in the late 1980s.

Ron expected this updated text to pass easily in committee and in the voting of the General Assembly's plenary sessions. After all, it wasn't controversial compared to some of the ACSWP's other policy statements on same-sex marriage, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and immigration laws in the US.

All it said was;
* Being made in God's image with "dominion" defines both the nature and value of human beings (Genesis, chapter 1).
* We are blessed by God with life on this earth, and that blessing gives us certain responsibilities.
* We are again blessed by God's coming to earth in human form and "reconciling the world to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19)--aka dying for our sins.
* This redemption gives us more responsibilities--to follow Jesus and bring good news of God's reign to others.

Pretty simple, really. Beautiful.

But during the last two years, all through the meetings of the ACSWP, Carmen Fowler (editor of the Presbyterian Layman) sat at a computer recording every word.

On Sunday when Committee 11 of the General Assembly in Minneapolis began meeting, two observers (not commissioners) presented a series of objections to item #7, now called On Living a Human Life Before God. These two were Justin Marple of Niagara Falls, NY, who later admitted to being on the board of Presbyterians Pro-Life, and a younger friend of his, also with PPL.

On Monday Commissioner Jon Ashley of de Christo Presbytery in southern Arizona and New Mexico presented to the committee's parliamentarian a motion to disapprove the whole document with a two-sentence comment that it was not needed. The 1981 statement by the southern Presbyterians and item #6 on gun violence were enough to fill the request of the GA in 2000.

On Tuesday when the committee got to this item #7 on its agenda, a commissioner moved to endorse it, and it looked as if 11.07 would be sent to plenary with the committee's approval.

But then Ashley stood up and spoke against it. He didn't like the idea that Jews and Muslims as well as Christians trust in the early covenants. He wanted case studies on euthansia, abortion, etc., not just this shorter text. He felt it should not be a completely reconceived paper but a slight revision following the southern Presbyterian 1981 text. He wanted footnotes and the full 100-plus pages of the earlier draft. He didn't like the definition of "reformed." Etc.

Then he charged that 11.07 omitted the idea of being created in God's image. It didn't emphasize Jesus being sent to us and dying for us. And why wasn't prayer mentioned as a key part of moral discourse?

Suddenly, however, someone called the question, and a vote was taken on whether to approve 11.07. Approval went down with 41 opposed, 1 in favor, 10 abstaining.

That left Ashley's motion to disapprove the document. During a ten-minute break, I pointed out to him that B covers being in God's image and that C is all about Jesus' incarnation and dying for us.

"Prayer is in there," I said. "It's in this part about "Being open to God's Holy Spirit."

"No," he said. "It doesn't say 'in prayer.'"

When Committee 11 came back to order, the vote to disapprove 11.07 and attach Ashley's paragraph of comment was 25 to 15 with 10 abstaining.

On Wednesday Ron and the ACSWP planned ways to resuscitate 11.07 when it got to the floor of the whole plenary. We hoped that a few strong speakers in favor of it, such as James Hudnut-Beumler, Dean of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University, would show the assembled commissioners that this document was highly respected and needed.

But by 5:30 Thursday afternoon the commissioners were tired. They had slogged through debate over a new form of government and added a new confession (from South Africa) to their set of creeds.

Maybe few were listening when Hudnut-Beumler spoke and presented a substitute motion to receive 11.07 as a study paper to be distributed electronically at no cost.

Marie Bowen, president of Presbyterians Pro-Life, came to a microphone and charged that 11.07 was "not well-written, rambling, and does not have a main point."

"It presents a process of moral discourse that we need to have before us in a culture where we just shout labels at each other," argued another commissioner, Jay Wilkins.

But then the new PCUSA moderator, Cynthia Bolbach, saw only 1-2 people at microphones waiting to speak and said "I think we're ready to vote." The substitute motion was defeated 56% to 42%.

Most of the commissioners weren't in the mood to re-examine what Committee 11 had done. After all, the next item was a call to boycott Arizona for its handling of immigration problems, and in the evening same-sex marriage would have to be debated and voted on.

A man with white hair spoke vehemently against 11.07, and Dee Cooper was standing at a mike hoping to speak in favor when Bolbach again cut things off with a vote.

Disapproval (with the same comment presented by Ashley on Monday) passed with 538 in favor, 119 against, and 10 abstaining.

Ashley, Bowen, and a few others with strong ties to Presbyterians Pro-Life killed this harmless affirmation of humans being blessed by God and called to responsibility. 11.07's guidelines for moral discourse will not go out to all the Presbyterian churches in the country.

It looks as if moral discourse is so difficult that we can't even get as far as passing thoughtful guidelines on how to do it.

In fact, highly organized efforts of the Christian right had carefully targeted and defeated this little document--from Carmen Fowler's sitting in on ACSWP meetings to Marple, Ashley, and Bowen saying things about 11.07 that were not true.

Meanwhile, those of us who spent many hours working on this document still thought that reasonable discussion and debate were possible.

We were blind-sided.

Photos: 1) Commissioners pray at 4 pm before voting on a proposed change to ordination standards that removes seuxal criteria, 2) Catherine Snyder, chaplain of Virginia Tech, talks with Justin Marple of Niagara Falls, NY.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Finding Relief at GA 2010

Being a Commissioner at the Presbyterian Church USA biennial meeting, this year in Minneapolis, is hard work.

There are hours and hours of committee meetings. At some points it's boring; at others it's extremely painful--the initiative you care about has been voted down, or something you really disagree with has passed.

The solution of the Reverend Ron Roberts, representing the Presbytery of Missouri Union, was to seek solace in Solitaire, as item #19.03 was being discussed in committee.

Titled "On Making a Statement Regarding Violence Against Pregnant Women," 19.03 turned out to be a anti-abortion wolf in sheep's clothing. Maybe Roberts knew this all along--anyway, he tuned out.

In another case, immediately after 11.07 "On Living a Human Life Before God" was voted down in Committee 11, Social Justice Issues B, I walked over to Bible scholar David Fuentes-Cortes to commiserate--but I found him deeply engrossed in Sudoko.

We had both put hours into 11.07--but he is a theologian and is part of the Advisory Committee for Social Witness Policy, which had worked for ten years to craft this statement.

He cared a lot--he had to retreat from the present moment into a game.