Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lots of action over at the new Berkley Blog 

The Berkley Blog continues, but at a slightly different address.

Go to jimberkley.blogspot.com for the latest postings.

Jim Berkley

Saturday, March 11, 2006

This blog is my blog 

Just in case anyone is confused, this blog is purely the ideas and opinion of Jim Berkley. It does not speak for any organization or institution. It is not associated with any group.

If you find something good in this blog, thank you. I hope you find it useful.

If you dislike what you read, please be sure you dislike what I have actually written rather than what you may assume I've written. Then you can blame me, if you want. Just don't blame any others. They have nothing to do with what I write.

I am leaving this blog active because of the many articles in it that are linked to in other places. I am currently blogging, however, at another address: http:/jimberkley.blogspot.com. You can go there to read further commentary along the lines you find here from months past.


Jim Berkley

Monday, November 01, 2004

I've not quit! 

I have received notes of concern that the Berkley Blog has gone stale, without new postings. Appearances can be deceiving!

I've changed addresses, but the Berkley Blog lives on.

Go to http://jimberkley.blogspot.com for the continuation of the Berkley Blog, now with the ability to add your comments.

Sorry to leave you gasping for more since early September! Thanks for checking in. Just add this new address to your "favorites" list and check back regularly. I'll keep this old address alive, too, so that former links continue to work.

See you in the new place!

--Jim Berkley

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Two strikes: we're out: part 3 

Following what he wrote in the previous posting, I asked CPA William Quinton to help me understand more: Don't we already have some standards other than pure profit for Presbyterian corporate investments (see MRTI website)? We don’t invest in tobacco. We are divested from companies like Boeing and General Dynamics because of their major profits from military hardware. I don't think we'd have invested in Mustang Ranch in Nevada (a legal brothel), no matter what the returns. What keeps those decisions from violating prudent investor policies?

Again, Bill had helpful answers:

You have mentioned one of the thornier problems: When does socially responsible investing become inconsistent with the trustee's fiduciary responsibilities?

In socially responsible investing, organizations deliberately constrain their investment managers from investing in the stock and bonds of certain kinds of companies. The most typical examples for organizations like churches are investments in cigarettes, alcohol, and munitions.

By limiting the investment possibilities, it logically follows that the investment returns will probably be lower. (Generally, historical records on socially responsible investing show a slightly lower investment performance and slightly higher expenses associated with implementing and maintaining the socially responsible investment policy, as compared to non-social investing).

Socially responsible investing is completely appropriate in the context of an organization being consistent with its principles and philosophy, as long as the majority of beneficiaries of that invested money agree with the social objective and with the cost in terms of lower investment returns.

There's the problem. When the investment in question is a cigarette company, virtually no beneficiary has a strong desire to own the cigarette company or receive its profits. General consensus is easy to reach.

However, it is hard to imagine that the vast majority of beneficiaries will want to divest from Israel. There are probably some beneficiaries with very strong feelings to the contrary. There is no consensus.

Therefore, what the General Assembly views as a socially responsible divestment may be viewed as a deliberate conflict of interest with the Board of Pensions’ and
Presbyterian Foundation's fiduciary responsibilities by some of the beneficiaries and/or trustors.

And remember, most of the money in question is not the PCUSA's money. This is money that either belongs to someone else (pastors, church secretaries, janitors, etc.), or has been given to the PCUSA in trust for a restricted purpose.

Socially responsible investing works as long as the beneficiaries are in agreement with its purposes. But trustees can never forget that their first allegiance is the stewardship of the money for the benefit of the beneficiaries and/or trustors. We who would make decisions about it must never forget that it is not our money.

So, then, other than calling G.A. back into session to rescind their resolution, what CAN be done when a poor decision like the divestment one is made?

Well, if it becomes a choice between trying to follow a General Assembly directive or obeying the law, I would think that cooler heads would allow federal law to prevail here. Thus if the direct effect of the General Assembly resolution simply CANNOT be fulfilled legally, then I would hope that reasons for that would be spelled out loud and clear and right up front by General Assembly Council, who were given the responsibility to carry out the General Assembly directive.

Once this is done, and the implications are terribly clear, G.A. commissioners would seem to have a decision to make: do they come back together in a special session to either change or reaffirm their resolution (in a doable form), or do they simply concede that they made a mistake with their resolution and allow the necessary solution to occur in spite of what they once decreed?

It would seem wise that the wide-open, plain-to-see, fully disclosed nature of any undoing of the resolution be emphasized. The process definitely shouldn't be done by unknown persons in back rooms who hope no one is paying attention.

Two strikes; we're out: revisited 

It is great to learn from people smarter than I am, and I get plenty of opportunity!

Today, one of those folks, elder William C. Quinton of Parkway Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, took the time to provide some excellent background information on situations such as our Israel divestment issue. He has given me permission to pass on to you the counsel he gave me, and I do so with pleasure.

Bill writes:

I am a CPA and CFP. I am also a financial advisor. As such, I wanted to try to shed a little light about the comments of the Board of Pensions (BOP) and the Presbyterian Foundation. I don't pretend to be a lawyer, but I have a little bit of knowledge about fiduciary responsibilities.

Current U.S. Pension law, ERISA, makes it illegal for any conflict of interest to creep
into an investment decision. All decisions must be made solely in the interest of participants and beneficiaries and exclusively to provide them benefits. Under the old Prudent Man rule and the new Prudent Investor rule, a trustee must be free of conflicts of interest in managing a trust's investments, and must act solely in the interest of the beneficiaries.

The BOP echoed these rules in a paragraph in the BOP divestment discussion letter: "Even if there were such a policy, the Board of Pensions must, under current law, act for the sole and exclusive benefit of Plan participants. That is, the Board of Pensions manages a portfolio so that Plan members can and will receive the benefits to which they are entitled. That is our goal as fiduciaries of benefit plan money. The Board of Pensions, while free to adopt principles of socially responsible investing, cannot manage the portfolio entrusted to it with any end in mind other than ends related to the future availability of benefits to participants."

So, you see, their position saying that they may not be able to carry out the instructions of the G.A. is not whimsical on their part. What they are not saying, but what the very real problem is, is that the divestment decision may cause them to violate their sworn duty as directors. In other words, carrying out the G.A. directive may cause them to violate the law.

This is why the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation are using "genteel" language about how the divestiture may never happen—they may not be able to carry out what appears to them to be an illegal instruction. There may be no way for them to follow the divestment directive without exposing everyone to lawsuits for violating their fiduciary responsibilities.

If the General Assembly were to stick to their guns and force a massive divestiture, then I would imagine the board of directors would resign en masse. I also imagine that the PCUSA would be hard pressed to find anyone to serve as a director in those

The question that is probably being debated in the MRTI committee and on the boards is: "Can there be any way to do a small divestiture that will not damage portfolio returns, or cause us to violate our fiduciary responsibilities?" There may be, but my personal opinion is that any divestiture of anything will trigger immediate lawsuits from some of the beneficiaries and/or trustors. It is just too hot a topic

What the GA and most everyone else may be forgetting in this whole process, is that very little of this money is the PCUSA's money. Most of it belongs to others, or has been given to the PCUSA in trust for a restricted purpose.

There is nothing wrong in doing divestitures using one’s own money. The only one who can get hurt is oneself. However, it is horrible stewardship to do divestitures using other people's money.

This brings up some obvious questions that I’ll cover in the next posting.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Two strikes; we're out 

This year, General Assembly initiated "a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel" for action by the General Assembly Council. Like it or not, this is what commissioners voted to do, and divestment is what is supposed to result from this action.

But ever since, wheels have been in motion to soften, frustrate, or ignore the action. I have written about one-sided Möbius Decisions and the dearth of true options available to change the decision. Two agencies would eventually need to do the divestment: the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation. We have now heard from both, and neither sounds like it will do any such thing.

The Board of Pensions's reply was first reported. I commented on their statement on August 26. They obviously don't plan on divesting any time soon, if at all. That's one strike.

Now, we have a comment from Mark Klemm, senior vice president of development for the Presbyterian Foundation. He is quoted in a Layman Online news story as saying, "The fact is, nothing may come of all of this," referring to the G.A. instructions on divestment. That's strike two.

So what is the case? We have two entities, thought to be under the authority of the General Assembly, the highest ecclesiastical authority in our denomination. Both now are essentially saying that they cannot be governed by a General Assembly resolution. With only two entities that can carry out the will of the Assembly, the two strikes means that G.A. has struck out.

I am left wondering two things: First, if indeed the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation do not need to follow the command of General Assembly, why wasn't G.A. told this BEFORE they made the resolution that has caused all the uproar? If the resolution is essentially toothless and unenforceable, it is worthless. And if it is worthless, why subject the denomination to the international avalanche of criticism and ill will--and angry parishioners showing up at their pastor's door? If G.A. cannot control the actions of either subordinant entity, why weren't we told at General Assembly that this divestment part of the resolution is nothing more than a broad hint to the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation?

Second, if General Assembly CAN dictate to the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation what they are to do, then what is going to be done about what appears to be the beginnings of failure to respond appropriately by both entities? Can a subordinant entity in effect thumb their nose at General Assembly and simply get away with it? And if they are now, what is the process to bring them back into line and effect what General Assembly willed? It would be good to hear from our Stated Clerk about this.

Why is this important? I have said before that I don't personally agree with the decision of the Assembly about divestment. I think it was a poorly rendered decision. But if in this case staff and subordinant entities are able to reverse or ignore a resolution the General Assembly has made, what is to keep them from doing the same with policies on ordination standards, per capita payments, same-sex marriage, sexuality curriculum, re-imagining, and any number of other hot-button items?

The truth is that General Assembly intentions are at times ignored or hindered. The Washington Office has been terribly remiss in removing our name from letters opposed to the Federal Marriage Amendment. Curriculum publishing very adroitly delayed mandated revisions of the sexuality curriculum until years later, when it found an Assembly it could convince to allow them to delay indefinitely, which they have done. Some presbyteries routinely walk all over our ordination standards and get away with it, no matter how G.A. votes.

This is wrong and must cease. We cannot allow the hard-won decisions of General Assembly to be simply ignored, whether we like them or not. Thus, I'll keep before you the various ways that this Israel divestment issue is handled in our process. It's a good case in point, whether one is delighted that it is being blunted or appalled.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

More document creep 

Some of you are following the storied life of a 1987 provisional study paper that hit the big time through document creep. The paper has been cited repeatedly as if it were policy concerning the controversy about Congregation Avodat Yisrael in suburban Philadelphia.

The newest chapter of that exalted life concerns an editorial by interim editor O. Benjamin Sparks of the Presbyterian Outlook. Sparks writes, inexplicably: "A majority of Presbyterians subscribe to the 1987 document and do not believe we should evangelize Jews." At least three errors are contained in that sentence:

First, Sparks seems to assume that everyone knows what "the 1987 document" is, because he doesn't reference it by name. Well, that 1987 document was a provisional study document commended to the churches for study and comment. That's all.

If one really wants to know our theology on Jewish-Christian relationships, one would be far better off to read the Bible (say, Romans 9-11, or the Book of Acts) or go to our Book of Confessions, which, in case people haven't noticed recently, IS what we believe as Presbyterians (see 6.037-042, for example, or 3.16 or 9.41-42).

Second, he claims that a majority of Presbyterians subscribe to that 1987 statement. How could that possibly be true? A majority of Presbyterians don't even know it exists! And how have Presbyterians "subscribed" to it? There has been no vote, other than in 1987, when a few hundred General Assembly commissioners sent it out to the churches for their comments. There are approximately 2.4 million Presbyterians who have never subscribed to anything of the sort. Even if he is projecting what Presbyterians WOULD do if they had voted on it, I think Sparks is wrong. I would hazard that no majority of Presbyterians would consider the relationship of Jewish people with God a sufficient, saving relationship, such as a relationship with God through Jesus Christ would be.

Third, he continues on to say a majority of Presbyterians "do not believe we should evangelize Jews." Again, where does he get that? Not from Scripture. What are the Gospels about? Jesus and his disciples evangelizing Jews. What is the Book of Acts about? The disciples and others very effectively evangelizing Jews. To whom did Jesus, the disciples, Paul, and others go first in spreading the Good News of the Kingdom of God? To Jews.

But now, out of embarrassed reticence, we would exclude this one ethnic group from evangelization and thus from liberating salvation? I don't think so! Nor do I think the majority of Presbyterians are that callous. Evidently Sparks and I would disagree on this call.

But there's more. Not leaving well enough alone, Sparks betrays an amazing elitism: "As biblically and theologically educated people we do not fall for extreme fundamentalist teachings...." Ouch! "Extreme fundamentalist teachings" like what, believing that Jewish people need Jesus Christ as their Savior, too? That lovingly reaching out to Jewish people with the Good News within their socio-cultural milieu isn't religious imperialism or to-be-scorned proselytism, but rather is classic contextualization of the Gospel? Are these ideas that so-called biblically and theologically educated people have long ago spurned as extreme fundamentalist teachings?

I suppose what is "extreme fundamentalism" depends on one's vantage point. For some people, anything more conservative than their particular position gets so written off. It's a handy ploy, but not one to employ that is very noble or informed or, actually, very liberal.

Finally, Sparks has his facts just slightly off. He writes about "outrage over continued funding for Avodat Yisrael." The funding for this particular congregation was never in jeopardy. General Assembly did not vote on whether to yank their funding. What G.A. did choose to do was disapprove part of an overture that would have suspended funding for any future congregations such as Avodat Yisrael. Or, to put that in the positive, G.A. voted to allow possible funding for other churches such as Avodat Yisrael. Sparks's error is minor, but in these controversial matters, accuracy is essential.

Accuracy about both the 1987 study document and the 2004 G.A. decision seems to be quickly fading in an effort to jam the lid back on Pandora's box, carelessly opened by General Assembly.

Document slide 

Well, the time has come to coin another term to accompany "document creep": document slide.

If document creep is the phenomenon of heaping on a lesser document the authority of a policy document, document slide is the reverse phenomenon: taking an authoritative document and trying to make it something less.

The 216th General Assembly passed a resolution that had this wording in part: "Refers to Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) with instructions to initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel, in accordance to General Assembly policy on social investing, and to make appropriate recommendations to the General Assembly Council for action."

Commissioners, whether for or against the resolution, were quite sure that G.A. had set in motion a process that would end up in divestment from Israel. So was everyone else. That's what the news picked up on, and that's what a lot of the furor is about still within the Jewish community.

But this week in a Presbyterian Outlook editorial by interim editor Benjamin Sparks, that resolution has undergone document slide, and now only proposes "studying the possibility of divestment." G.A. only "voted for MRTI to study divestment," as he put it a second time. Do you see how what started out as "instructions to INITIATE a PROCESS of phased selective divestment" and "to make appropriate recommendations ... FOR ACTION" [emphasis added] has now slid into "STUDYING the POSSIBILITY of divestment" or studying divestment? That's classic document slide.

Again, I need to say that I would rather not see divestment. I think it was an ill-advised decision by General Assembly.

But I also must say that doctoring General Assembly intent AFTER the fact is not the way to go about changing things. MRTI is obviously supposed to begin the called-for action of divestment by indicating to General Assembly Council which companies from which to divest. MRTI was not given only the task of studying the possibility of divestment. That's blatant revisionism--whether by accident or intention.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Let the games begin! 

That General Assembly resolution that INSTRUCTS the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) "to initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel"--remember that resolution that has sparked so much controversy? It has now apparently been downgraded to a mere "request."

That's right. The backpedaling continues. An action of the General Assembly--one I don't particularly like, personally, but a full-blooded decree by the one body that has the most authority in our denomination--is systematically being relieved of its teeth, and thus its intended effect.

Previously I have written about Möbius decisions and I predicted that it will be interesting to note how PC(USA) staff and entities deal with this "fine kettle of fish." I invited people to "watch what IS done [about a G.A. decision others cannot legally rescind]. It will tell you about how our system actually works, instead of how it ought to work."

We've had at least three opportunities to see that at work. The first evidence was when Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick broadened and softened the wording of the resolution by adding that divestment was only for those firms harming people, making it a little more palatable. Second, the chair of the G.A. committee that produced the resolution, Bruce Gillette, perpetuated the revision when he picked up the same language in a letter sent to the Philadelphia Inquirer and linked to July 26 by the Witherspoon Society.

We now have a third opportunity in the form of a notice on the Board of Pensions (B0P) website.

This notice accurately reports the actual action by G.A. So far, so good. But then it states: "So, as things stand right now, there is no policy of the denomination to divest securities of companies profiting or investing in Israel." True, depending on what the meaning of "is" is.
There is no policy YET, but MRTI is instructed to develop one. There's no policy, but there is definitely the intent.

But what happens to the intent of General Assembly, which is, remember, THE authoritative body at work here? The BoP story continues: "Even if there were such a policy, the Board of Pensions must, under current law, act for the sole and exclusive benefit of Plan participants." Which means? It means the Board of Pensions will probably decide to ignore the policy, unless they are inclined to figure out a way it financially benefits those of us whose pension money is under their investment care.

Well, okay. But we can count on MRTI to get right on the work G.A. has given them, can't we? Don't be so sure. The BoP statement warns a little ominously: "The Board of Pensions has representatives of both its staff and its Directors on the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee of the denomination. That Committee does not act in haste." I may be wrong, but I think that is officialspeak for "don't hold your breath."

Combine that with the next two indications of a lack of enthusiasm for the task G.A. has given them: "the General Assembly's request may be quite difficult for the Committee and General Assembly Council to implement and administer" and "our representatives will be diligent, prayerful and thoughtful advocates on behalf of the members of the Benefits Plan of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)." In other words, "this will take a loooooong time" and "we're going to look out for pensions over following G.A. direction."

But the clincher is the one word I alluded to at the beginning: "request," as in "the General Assembly REQUEST." Apparently, according to this B0P news story, G.A. simply made a friendly "request" for MRTI to look into what is now seen to be an onerous and unwelcome task that will probably never get implemented.

See. The word games have begun. This is how General Assembly intent gets lost among those desiring to do something altogether different. The "something altogether different" in this case is actually something I would prefer, but NOT at the cost of the precedent of getting away with frustrating the obvious intent of General Assembly.

If the G.A. instruction is to be reversed, it would need to be done by commissioners in a special session of the General Assembly. It ought not be done by just any clever writer with the stroke of a pen.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Fuzzy logic 

When the heart gets too precariously involved, good thinking sometimes takes a back seat. Vice President Dick Cheney provides a cogent example.

Recently he mentioned gay marriage in a speech, and, since his personal opinion apparently contradicts the President's and Republican platform's position, it was big news. Cheney is a father, and he has a daughter who is a lesbian. Here's part of what he said to an audience that included his daughter when asked about gay marriage: "With the respect to the question of relationships, my general view is freedom means freedom for everyone. ... People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to." He then went on to say that states should decide about gay marriage.

Think about the notion that "people ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to." What kind of argument is that? On the face of it, it's patent nonsense.

Should pedophiles be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to? Should parents and children, brothers and sisters, be able to enter into any kind of relationship they want to? Should 40-year-olds and 11-year-olds? Should physicians, lawyers, psychiatrists, and pastors be able to do so with their patients, clients, or parishioners? Should three, four, five, or more people be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to? Should necrophiliacs? Obviously we have a number of criteria for what is allowed, supported, or promoted when people want to enter into a relationship.

The criterion of two complementary genders is as ancient as Creation and as biblical as a civil and Christian institution can be. It is the basis for families all around the world, across cultures, and among religions.

Having a daughter caught up in the sexual confusion and anarchy of our times is tragic, even for a Vice President. It does not, however, provide sufficient reason to abandon all reason in order to mouth insupportable contentions--the kind of thoughtless blather that sometimes gets thrown about in Presbyterian conversations on the subject, as well.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Peer pressure 

Sometimes it takes a fresh perspective from someone outside our denomination to make something become crystal clear. Today, for me, that perspective came from an assistant editor for Baltimore's "Jewish Times," Barbara Pash.

In one of the clearest and most dispassionate Jewish accounts of the Presbyterian-Israel controversy, Pash writes: "Despite a shrinking membership, the PC (USA) remains one of the strongest Protestant denominations in this country, according to the Reform's Mr. Pelavin. The 'main-line' Protestant denominations such as Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and United Church of Christ 'pay a great deal of attention to each other,' he said. "

That last line really caught my attention. Mainline churches DO seem to spend inordinate energy paying a great deal of attention to each other. Like a row of students preening at a locker room mirror, our eyes flit from ourselves to the others, always comparing ourselves with the others: Are we as contemporary? Have they discovered some new trend we haven't yet found? Have they signed on to the liberal cause du jour ahead of us? Who is looking the most avant-garde?

Wouldn't it be great if our eyes were on a world that needs to hear and experience the Good News of Jesus Christ and needs to see Christians consistently acting in a manner appropriate to our calling? Wouldn't it be great if our eyes were fixed on Jesus Christ, who alone should command our ultimate attention?

We mainline churches certainly do seem to pay a lot of attention to each other--as we slide together into irrelevance, like aging kids whose social lives peaked in high school and have gone downhill ever since.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

The return of Möbius decisions 

The Presbyterian Church (USA) isn't the only organization making "Möbius decisions"--one-sided calls without adequate input from other viewpoints. A group I sometimes think some folks want the PCUSA to become--the American Psychological Association (APA)--is equally capable of lapsing into the Möbius decision-making mode.

Christian psychologist Warren Throckmorton, PhD, writes about the decision of the APA Council of Representatives to support same-sex marriage and parenting. It could be a poster child for Möbius decisions:

I don't know whether to be comforted that the PCUSA isn't the only institution making Möbius decisions, or alarmed that such silliness is widespread. At any rate, it doesn't bode well for judicious decision making in general.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The return of document creep 

A while back I wrote about "document creep," where a document handled by General Assembly for one purpose is later held up as if it were approved for another purpose. One example from 1987 was "a provisional statement for study and comment" titled “Toward a Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews.”

That provisional, tentative, unofficial study guide seems to have taken on mythic proportions in recent months and weeks, due to the controversy about congregation Avodat Ysrael in Philadelphia and, recently, the General Assembly resolution about Israel. It is now being held up as "the commitment of the Presbyterian Church (USA) made in 1987" by no less than the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly.

A "commitment" we made? No. A provisional study document was approved for circulation and comment. It was the beginning of a process toward a policy, it appears, but it then seemed to go nowhere (probably because the theology was weak). But now it is being hauled out as some kind of major "commitment" the PCUSA has made, a theological and moral justification for other actions.

Here's the pertinent part of the statement made by Clifton Kirkpatrick: "All of these actions are consistent with the commitment of the Presbyterian Church (USA) made in 1987 in A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews, 'never again to participate in, to contribute to, or (insofar as we are able) to allow the persecution or denigration of Jews.'"

Compare that to G.A. committee chairman Bruce Gillette's statement in "Perspectives": "All of the assembly’s actions this year are consistent with the commitment of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) made in 1987 in A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews, 'never again to participate in, to contribute to, or (insofar as we are able) to allow the persecution or denigration of Jews.'"

Besides the obvious use of identical wording, it appears that the document creep begun by Kirkpatrick has been picked up and carried on by Gillette. The publication "Perspectives" is "an online publication of the Office of General Assembly." Thus, here for the second time, we are seeing the misapplication of a study paper by the one office that most ought to know better!

Certainly any of us ought to feel personally responsible "never again to participate in, to contribute to, or (insofar as we are able) to allow the persecution or denigration of Jews." That's a good and necessary decision to make. But the approval of a provisional study paper has not enshrined that as an official commitment of the PCUSA to which we can hold people accountable.

I would hope in the future that both our Stated Clerk and the Office of General Assembly would be a little more accurate with their citation of authority for an action. Furthering document creep is not consistent with truth telling.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Task Force wraps up 

DALLAS – The Theological Task Force talked polity in the morning and alternative means of decision making in the afternoon. In between they worked in committees. It was an anticlimactic day in Dallas, as none of the discussion sparked the passion the previous day’s subject matter had.

Joe Coalter (see member bios) had a couple of amusing things to say about Presbyterian polity, as he introduced a draft polity paper that eventually we’ll all see in a final form. He said something to the effect that “our church has chosen in some areas to speak with less clarity than we would wish, and in others with more clarity than we would like.” And later he said that in polity, Presbyterians seem to “strive for a measure of equilibrium rather than logical consistency.”

A time of reflection on “what was conducive to receptivity to the Spirit’s leading” produced mainly expected comments on fellowship, singing, Communion, collaborative work, fine teaching, careful framing of questions, and so on.

Jack Haberer noted that historically, “If you want to have revival, then confess your sins to one another.” It appears that some of that good work happened in the closed sessions, since Haberer added, “We confessed our sins and talked about how we had been sinned against.”

Mark Achtemeier gave away a little more to my prying ears, when he reflected to the group: “I was most aware of how many surprises there were in that conversation [behind closed doors] and how many people were in places different than I might have expected.” He mused about how the group was “profoundly engaged,” and how little they were “fixed and entrenched.”

I don’t know, but for my comfort level, co-moderator Gary Demarest may be a little too intoxicated with his first experience with meeting behind closed doors. He wasn’t supposed to like it so much—or employ it as often! Looking back, he disclosed: “I entered those closed sessions out of anxiety, because I feared someone manipulating the process or violating the trust placed in us. But you didn’t come close! Each person brought total integrity to the use of that privilege.”

Mark Achtemeier asked when was the appropriate time for using other means of discernment, such as seeking consensus. Vicky Curtiss replied: “It really should be reserved for when a body is significantly divided.”

“Consensus seeking needs to have more discussion,” someone suggested—and just about all it takes in the TFF for something to be taken seriously and then done in all seriousness and rigor is for someone to suggest.

Here are some random tidbits you might find useful:
· They’re aiming for a final report in September 2005.
· The next meeting begins at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, October 13, and runs through about 9:00 p.m. on Friday, October 15, 2004, somewhere in or near Chicago. (They’ve met before in Hickory Hills.) Among the items to be covered are the Holy Spirit and "power and empowerment." And, significantly, they’ll begin to “test consensus” on such issues as ordination standards and “manner of life” (sexual ethics). This was described as seeing “How far can we go in getting consensus?” Are you ready to be enticed? This “may include some recommendations on what we want the church to do and be.” Come watch!
· The meeting after that begins the evening of March 2 and runs through the evening of March 4, 2005, probably back here at the American Airlines Training Center near Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Before that meeting, the first draft of an outline of the final report will be “developed by someone,” as it was put.
· Look for the release of another resource piece by the TTF on church history/polity, featuring presentations by Joe Coalter, Barbara Wheeler, and John Wilkinson. This PowerPoint presentation on a CD should be out by the end of the year.
· It looks like two written items will come out of this meeting. One is a press release about this meeting. This is their take on what they did, and it was supposedly released today, but not to this press member. You’ll probably see it before me. The second is a yet-to-be-approved (by e-mail) letter to be sent to all the congregations. It’s meant to lower or clarify what people’s expectations of the TTF should be. I think. It wasn’t all that clear.

With those announcements, worship, and a word from Barbara Wheeler against “a culture of complaint” and “the counsel of despair,” the Theological Task Force adjourned into the scorching Texas night.

Micro-mini accommodation 

I’ve been doing some more thinking about Theological Task Force member Stacy Johnson’s fundamental framing of the question before the Presbyterian Church. He posed it this way: “Where does a gay or lesbian person, whose sexual orientation is firmly established, who is a baptized member in good standing of a congregation, and who desires to enter into an exclusive, committed, permanent same-sex relationship fit, according to the church, within the grand gospel drama of creation, reconciliation, and redemption?”

That’s a noble-sounding question. Earnest. Penetrating. Capturing the best-case scenario, so that no one can carp about pretenders, or outside activists, or promiscuity, or serial monogamy. No, the question points to a very specific instance—which exists all too rarely.

Statistically speaking, fully reversing church policy for the specific kind of homosexual man or lesbian woman Johnson describes would be doing so for one in twenty thousand persons. If we would come up with a plan for those whom Johnson describes, we would probably accommodate less than .005% percent of the U.S. population, while alienating the majority of Presbyterians and grieving God.

We’d have to newly embrace what as few as .0164% percent of homosexual persons in our country seek, leaving the remaining 99.98% percent yet outside the pale for Presbyteriansm, who would still probably be called exclusionary. Obviously, a tailor-made deal for this group is a solution for only a tiny, tiny slice of the population.

How do I come up with those figures? It’s a combination of research, estimation, and math. Here’s the basic data:

· The population of exclusively homosexual persons is thought to be somewhere around 2%.
· How many are baptized members in good standing in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)? Well, if they were Presbyterians at the same ratio as the rest of the population (unlikely in a church that calls their behavior sin), .82% of them are Presbyterian members. Let's use that number.
· Now, of those, how many are or want to be in exclusive, committed, permanent same-sex relationships? Here the news gets depressing. In trying to find an estimate of the rate of monogamy among gay couples, I discovered the results of reputable studies (some by homosexual researchers) referenced on the NARTH website and an AOL discussion site. The scientific studies reported figures such as a 0% incidence rate, 2% monogamy, 0% after five years (sexual exclusivity was actually a key factor in breaking up committed relationships); some surveys reported up to 50%, 63%, or 80%, although the meaning of “monogamy” was probably fishy. The fact is that promiscuity is shockingly high among homosexual men, and so permanence and exclusivity can be found, but aren't common. But let’s be generous; this is a group of Presbyterians, after all. Let’s figure, say, somewhere between 2% and 30% want and would practice exclusivity and permanence.

Do the math, and that means we’re talking about as few as .0164% and as many as .25% of homosexual persons in general. That works out to between 2 and 34 persons per presbytery, a figure large enough for just about everyone to know someone who fits this category.

Knowing and generally respecting such a person, it’s then easy to extrapolate that person’s characteristics as representative of the character and conduct of homosexual persons in general. But such a profile is not the norm, when actually the person may represent as few as .0164% of homosexual persons!

It makes no sense to reverse the plain, historic, biblically consistent, and God-given moral standards of the Presbyterian Church to try to accommodate homosexual practice--and yet leave 99.98% of homosexual persons still unaccommodated!

How much better simply to remain faithful to the Word as Christians have always interpreted it!

Task Force members talk! 

DALLAS - Despite another closed session on Thursday afternoon (2.5 hours this time) that I couldn’t attend, the Theological Task Force (TTF) did actually step out of its closed-mouth mode today in a couple of public sessions. The context was Bible study in the first session and “getting inside the head of proponents of the various positions on homosexuality” in the second, and both gave opportunities to get a feel for members’ viewpoints.

Ecclesiology Bible study
The Bible study looked at “Images of the Church,” mainly using several break-out groups that each studied one book or set of books of the Bible and reported back to the whole group. They were looking for how ecclesiology was practiced, and they answered set questions to help them analyze it. As in many other similar exercises by the TTF, all opinions were heard and registered, and critical thinking about the merits of opinions was at a minimum. Everything pretty much got listed on ubiquitous newsprint sheets on the wall.

Groups worked on Luke/Acts, 1 & 2 Peter, Colossians/Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles, and Matthew. The questions asked of each set of texts included the distinctives of ecclesiology in the text, a critique of strengths and weaknesses, concrete examples, and how the lessons might be useful to the TTF.

For about 90 minutes, TTF members worked assiduously on the study and reported their findings. They were obviously trying to be objective with the texts, while at the same time there seemed to be a little strategic positioning going on in the reporting. Most of us have a tendency to find the points that strengthen our own side of an argument. I think some of that was happening, although there were examples of altruistic analysis as well.

In Luke/Acts, the intervention of the Spirit was obvious, as was both continuity and newness, shaped by the Spirit doing radical new things (as the Kingdom of God was breaking in). There could be problems with triumphalism or seeing the Church through rose-colored glasses. About informing the TTF’s work, the one reporting this group’s work said (roughly), “If the church is going to find its way past the current intractable divide, there needs to be a new dispensation of the Spirit in ways we haven’t seen before. But on the other hand, there is the need to stay connected with the church from before.”

Peter provides a strong sense of the church being the people of God, with little ecclesial structure but Christians knowing their identity amid a hostile culture. The problem was a tendency toward exclusion of anyone on the outside. They summed it up that “the household of God is a safe place to come to when facing the dangers of the world, but we need to keep the doors open—or at least unlocked.”

Colossians/Ephesians has as its distinctives the image of the Body of Christ with Christ as the Head, and holiness as a feature of the church. Personalizing the church as people was great, as was the power belonging to the Head, Jesus Christ, but there’s a quandary in trying to reform a “spotless bride.” The passages’ teaching about holiness and purity need more TTF attention, they decided.

The Pastoral Epistles do provide some ecclesiastical order and structure, and they help guarantee that both orthodoxy and orthopraxis get passed on. The qualifications for leaders give some set boundaries. But people worried about “stability becoming rigid so that we dismiss creativity,” or raising the importance of leaders in unbalanced ways. These do, however, give support to conservative movements who want to emphasize the foundations of the faith, building on the Rock.

Matthew definitely shows the ethnic and economic diversity in the early church, but there’s no church structure yet per se. It gives strong support to the church being a place of teaching, but what teaching and whose ideas?

Anything essential here?
So what among these images is essential for the TTF work? When this question was asked, here’s where some positioning began. It appeared that various persons wanted to be sure their favorite ideas were among the “essential” ones, and, I’d venture, evangelical members may not have been as strategic as the more liberal ones at this juncture.

Vicky Curtiss (see TTF biographies) added yet another image to the mix, that of teams yoked together. But she strangely emphasized how different the yoked members might be, as if that were good rather than what Jesus said about the unequally yoked.

Jenny Stoner liked the vine and branches image, adding that “the only vitality is in the branches staying together.” It seems, again from Jesus, that the vitality is instead in staying attached to Jesus, who said that he is the vine.

John Wilkinson, Mary Ellen Lawson, and Jose Luis Torres-Milan liked the image of the family of God. But Joe Coalter commented, “The church has a difficult time providing a safe place for honest conversations about things that most threaten our hopes and our holiness.” Then he added, “My problem with family is it has so much baggage.”

Mark Achtemeier joined Wilkinson and Coalter in ruminating about being the people of God in exile amid people who are hostile or, in many cases, indifferent.

Mike Louden wanted to be sure that holiness and purity are held up as terribly important.

Scott Anderson considered essential the idea of the communion of the Holy Spirit, and the tension between keeping tradition but making it real and present for this time and place.

So what this is is a random list of various themes and ideas, mostly not thought through thoroughly, and none prioritized or subjected yet to rigorous critical thinking. It will be interesting to see just how important it will be for persons to have lodged their choice of ecclesiological thinking on this list. Will these and only these “essential” themes prominently inform the ecclesiology of the eventual report?

Discussion on six viewpoints
The copious insights and ideas in Stacy Johnson’s lecture from Wednesday morning were unpacked in the second morning session. Johnson lead the 90-minute discussion, working through each of the six viewpoints he had delineated.

This open discussion pulled back the curtain a little, allowing people to speak their thoughts publicly. Caution is needed in reporting or reading what members said, however, because their task in the exercise was to get inside the thinking of people who hold each view, in order to understand the viewpoint, think it through, and then critique it. Thus, people often were speaking not what they believed but what someone who operated with that viewpoint would believe—and that’s a critical distinction. This is risky business when one is being quoted, but the TTF members attacked the exercise with characteristic gusto and insight.

I won’t reiterate the substance of the Johnson lecture, because that has been ably done by others—Jerry VanMarter (note chart at the end), Jack Adams, and Leslie Scanlon. What I will do is provide some quotations and color commentary about the six viewpoints.

Jack Haberer said that this one reflects a greater possibility of change for gay persons. “This position doesn’t assume change is impossible,” he said, “and if change in orientation is possible, then it’s not unfair to call for it.” This position “calls people to repent rather than indulge them.”

Mike Louden called it traditional, “consistent with the historical biblical viewpoint,” and the culturally acceptable viewpoint among the people he pastors.

Mark Achtemeier noticed how this position is definitely the easiest to connect to the Bible, given the divide between how the ancient world viewed homosexuality and the common understanding of orientation today. About why this issue is such a big deal, he added: “The emphasis is on hearing and obeying God’s Word as a test of obedience to God and a willingness to listen to Scripture. Departure from this is seen as giving up these two, which are seen as essential to Christian life… The question is bound up with faith and Christ’s ability to transform. Acceptance of modern ideas is like saying Jesus isn’t really able to deal with power in one’s life.”

After three evangelical voices, John Wilkinson charitably commended the viewpoint’s clear argument and how it takes the Bible seriously.

The most Vicky Curtiss could venture in terms of the position’s strengths was that “for those who hold this position, it is an accurate description of their reality, even though it’s not an accurate description for the whole population.” I think that’s called “damning by faint praise.”

Stacy Johnson saw how the viewpoint is argued almost completely from Scripture (not a bad thing!).

Gary Demarest said it had a certain emotional strength for him because there is almost no ambiguity.

At one point, Joe Coalter sounded like he’d heard a little too much squishy language about the authority of the Bible: “What’s at stake is the Bible: Is it revelation or myth? When does the Bible speak with a clear voice, and when can it be manipulated as something ‘biblical writers’ wrote—God speaking versus biblical writers speaking?”

Jose Luis Torres-Milan talked about a conflict within him: “The majority of my community believes in this [prohibition] position. But we have to sit down and say, ‘It’s my son or friend or elder or that good preacher or brother or sister we’re talking about. So how do you relate to that person?’ In fear, do I have to hang onto this position, because I don’t want to be uncertain?”

Thus, TTF members were ambivalent about this, the most conservative viewpoint, as can be expected. People have a hard time with reasonably absolute messages, and this viewpoint is one. What wasn’t really said very well is that this is the viewpoint with the vast weight of centuries of belief and practice behind it, as well as the witness of most of the rest of the world Christians. This is the most biblically argued viewpoint, as Johnson recognized. Here, made to look like an extremity among positions, that weightiness could be marginalized greatly.

Definitive Guidance
This viewpoint was somewhat mischaracterized by Stacy Johnson, I would think. He often referred to it as the “don’t ask; don’t tell” viewpoint. But that is not a fair assessment. The church actually can ask, but it assumes integrity in return—the fact that one would not operate with one set of convictions and yet disguise those actions by not telling. The Definitive Guidance (actually it should be called the Authoritative Interpretation or AI) names homosexual practice sin and assumes that those practicing such sin will not be devious with fellow Presbyterians. This integrity is not utilitarian, since being honest and forthright does lead to not being ordained. But it is right! There is no wink of a “don’t ask” assumed in the AI or the sneakiness of a “don’t tell.”

In addition, Johnson characterized the AI as telling homosexual persons “not to be ashamed of their desires, but not to act on them.” Again, I believe this mischaracterizes the AI, which says “homosexuality is not God's wish for humanity” and “homosexuality is a contradiction of God's wise and beautiful pattern for human sexual relationships revealed in Scripture.” In other words, the desires aren’t right, either. While the homosexual person may not be responsible for desires he or she would not want to embrace, the orientation is not good or even neutral. Even the desires need to be handled in a manner appropriate for disciples of Jesus Christ.

In discussion, Vicky Curtiss talked about viewpoints and “do-points”: “The strength may not be only within thinking but also what the church does.” The Definitive Guidance “makes a distinction between orientation and the sexual act, which is a kind of compromise.”

Mark Achtemeier quickly offered “a friendly refinement” to Vicky’s point, which he thought good. “On the one hand, this viewpoint establishes continuity with modern studies of homosexuality, but at same time it maintains continuity with the church’s traditional reading and understanding of the Scriptures.” It attempts to bridge tradition and newly acquired knowledge of the world, he said.

Stacy Johnson interjected that although it’s “a fact that it seeks compromise with practices, it doesn’t seek a compromise with modern Bible scholarship.” Johnson seemed amazed that the AI assumes that its historic Bible interpretation is correct and gives no credence to modern alternative interpretations.

Then Barbara Everitt Bryant said she recommended to a church evangelism committee not to make an effort to invite people from the gay community, because inviting them into the Presbyterian Church would be inviting them to become second-class citizens.

Stacy Johnson brought up wording from the PCUS 1977 statement, where it differed slightly from the UPCUSA statement: “In view of the complexity of the issue, the disagreement among Christians, and the variety in the character and experience of homosexual persons themselves, it seems unwise at this time to propose any one position as the position of our Church.” It sounded like a good idea to him.

But Mike Louden pointed out that “if we had taken this position, then we would need to take no position on abortion or other controversial subjects, too.”

“We need to develop criteria for when to speak unequivocally,” suggested Johnson, to which Barbara Wheeler interjected, “We did adopt such criteria six years later….”

As you can see from this inexhaustive sampling, this discussion of our current standard was varied, somewhat random, and not at all comprehensive at this point. Ideas got brought up, some got critiqued or developed, but most just kind of sat there as someone’s contribution to the discussion.

The final four
The other four viewpoints were considered in an increasingly hasty manner. About the Justice viewpoint, Barbara Wheeler took pains to tie this position to “a very large set of biblical texts that emphasize that the judger is in greater danger than the judged.” She appeared eager to stake out this particular territory as very biblical.

On the Pastoral viewpoint, Scott Anderson noted that the practical result is the same as the Consecration position—it creates space for two persons to live together. Again, Wheeler made an emphatic statement: “One can make a pretty convincing claim to be very biblical—not just particular lines, but a whole pattern in Scripture of not letting go of the lost. That’s a dominant theme. Somebody who said this is biblical would be pretty hard to challenge because of the broad themes with innumerable passages to back them up.” Again, it appeared obvious that Wheeler was strategically staking out her unwillingness to deed the biblical high ground to proponents of the Prohibition or Definitive Guidance viewpoints.

Mike Louden kicked off the Celebration discussion by saying flat out: “This is consistent with the Gay Liberation viewpoint.” Frances Gench liked the fact that “there is no double standard”—one for heterosexuals and another for homosexuals. Sarah Sanderson-Doughty added that for homosexual people, “after generations and generations of being told ‘You’re sinful,’” there is something liberating about this Celebration viewpoint. Stacy Johnson noted that “if one happens to think that using natural theology is not good in principal, this points it out.” Vicky Curtiss, emerging as perhaps the most liberal voice, introduced empowerment terminology: “This viewpoint addresses power issues. Those who claim this viewpoint claim the power of their own identity rather than being described by others” (such as their Lord God?).

In the Consecration consideration, Lonnie Oliver wondered out loud: “Do all of these positions have biblical-theological integrity from a Reformed perspective?” Stacy Johnson replied, “That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Do any of them have it?” Mike Louden said that this viewpoint does promote monogamy, and Jack Haberer noticed that “it gets us out of bed, because the focus is on relationships and not sex.” John Wilkinson liked that “the emphasis on order plays to my Calvinist leanings and quest for order and clarity; it feels like a particularly Reformed commitment.” When others spoke of its Trinitarian nature, Barbara Wheeler noted that this viewpoint is “more given to the doctrine of God, and raises questions about what is the doctrine of God in the other positions.”

By then, lunch was overdue, and off they went. Most of the afternoon was spent in closed session to conclude their personal sharing on the subject of homosexuality. This, I believe, does conclude the handling of the subject for the time being. We expect some kind of news release that will be approved before adjourning on Friday evening.

Okay, now what?
So there you have it. Any guesses as to where the Theological Task Force is headed? I’m still in the dark.

They have talked about lowering or clarifying the expectations placed on them. They’re feeling the intense scrutiny and enormous expectations of the denomination. They bemoan the mission creep that has occurred in common perception of their original charter.
One begins to wonder if their “solution” won’t be a rather benign statement, a do-it-yourself tool kit of various discussion-enhancing resources they’ve been producing, and a nod toward their own experience as evidence that people of vastly different persuasions can coexist. But I would hope it is much more.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Task Force back into black box Thursday 

DALLAS - The Theological Task Force (TTF) reworked their schedule first thing on Thursday morning. While the original agenda provided no further time for work on ordination standards, the TTF obviously had unfinished business from their extended closed session on Wednesday. Thus, they will reenter the black box of closed session again Thursday afternoon at 1:30 for an indeterminate period that may end around 3:00.

In addition, they will have an open discussion of Wednesday's Stacy Johnson presentation about six viewpoints on homosexuality. This 11:00 Thursday discussion will supply at least some indication of TTF members' understanding of the conflicting opinions in our church.

These changes in the agenda are probably a good sign, indicating the seriousness with which the TTF members are addressing this subject matter. It most likely indicates the obvious as well--that the differences of opinion within the TTF is precluding easy consensus.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Theological Task Force meets in black box 

DALLAS – I am observing the meeting of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (TTF), convening this week (August 3–6) near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. High on its agenda is discussion of our ordination standards.

But just exactly what they’re thinking and saying is frustratingly hidden away in a black box of their own making. The TTF voted (17 for, 1 against, 2 abstain) to go into executive session all afternoon and early evening of August 4, excluding all of us observers. In that session, they planned finally to delve into what task force members believe about the ordination and unions of practicing homosexual persons. This is where the TTF gets down to the brass tacks, but it did so apart from any public scrutiny.

The prior evening, the TTF met briefly to check in with one another, worship, and set their agenda. It was in this meeting that a motion was entertained to go into executive session the next day. Rev. Mike Louden, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Lakeland, FL, and the most outspoken evangelical of the group, was about the only one to say anything about it—a simple “I’m opposed.” Others acted and voted as if it were a necessity already anticipated.

On Wednesday morning, August 4, worship was followed by a brilliant three-hour lecture by task force member Stacy Johnson, an associate professor of systematic theology at Princeton Seminary and an attorney as well. He comprehensively covered six different approaches and beliefs Presbyterians hold about homosexuality, ranging from prohibition to praise, from condemnation to celebration and consecration. John Adams of The Layman Online has written an excellent account of the lecture, which means I don’t need to. Johnson attempted to “get inside the head” of proponents of all six viewpoints, explaining what they think, why they think it, how it would play out in ordination and holy unions, and what problems accompany the viewpoint.

For the most part, Johnson was able to accomplish his task in an accurate and even-handed way, although enthusiasm of presentation or chosen wordings at times betrayed a hint of attitude here or there. But not enough that I could tell you which viewpoint was his! Even for those of us who have been deeply immersed in the controversy and thought we’ve heard most of the arguments, Johnson provided stimulating ideas and insights into various factions’ thinking. Such typology clarifies ideas and provides handles—much like Jack Haberer’s GodViews does for factions within the denomination.

After the afternoon with barred doors, the task force reconvened in open session again at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday evening, an hour later than previously planned, due to a need to continue closed discussion after dinner. Their mood was somber and terribly tight-lipped. They were neither full of smiles nor ready to engage in conversation. Eye contact was minimal, as was the energy level in the room. They seemed tired and wary—maybe even a little bummed out. As a member of the press, I felt distinctly unwanted among temporarily edgy people who normally go out of their way to be warm and involving.

What does this mean? One can only guess. The official account of what transpired was brief and perfunctory: They had engaged in a half hour of personal prayer. Then they discussed three questions for the next several hours:
1. How have you encountered God’s grace as you have engaged in issues surrounding homosexuality—whether through the study of Scripture, life encounters with others, or membership in a denomination that is in conflict over matters of sexual orientation?
2. How have you encountered sin—in your own life as well as elsewhere—having been part of a church that struggles over issues surrounding homosexuality?
3. In the midst of our church’s struggle over issues surrounding homosexuality, what have you encountered as signs of resurrection and hope—points at which God is working in you and through your struggle as a denomination to bring new life?

They reported that no decisions were made, since decisions cannot be made in closed sessions. Yet, when they recessed for the evening, several people moved to gather, somewhat glumly it seemed, to work on tasks or further wrinkles that appeared to have arisen from the closed meeting. There seems to be some sense—at least among some—of a need to bring more resolution to what they had studied and discussed. But TTF members were loath to converse at all, much less venture the slightest hint about their black-box discussion.

So that’s it for now—and it’s dreadfully little to go on. The rest of the listed agenda for the meeting does not deal with ordination standards. Unless something in the form of a revised agenda or perhaps a public statement appears from a writing group, these few crumbs are all the church gets for now from what has become a secretive society.

A fine kettle of fish 

The PCUSA decision to enter into a process for phased, selective divestment from multinational corporations doing business with Israel has produced a firestorm of reaction worldwide. There are a lot of people mad at Presbyterians and decrying our General Assembly's poorly thought-out decision. PCUSA staff members are scrambling to answer angry messages, clarify what was decided, and defend the actions.

It's not as if groups like Presbyterians For Renewal haven't been saying for years that our socio-political decrees are a mess, that decisions are made from ignorance and propaganda, and that this particular issue demands caution.

So what can be done about this fine kettle of fish?

National commentator Alan Dershowitz wrote a commentary in the Los Angeles Times that calls the PCUSA action "such a ludicrous, wrongheaded position" that "bursts with bigotry and ignorance." He concludes: "Unless the church rescinds this immoral, sinful and bigoted denigration of the Jewish state, it will be 'participating in' and 'contributing to' anti-Jewish bigotry and the encouragement of terrorism."

If only it were that easy! We're stuck with the resolution for the next two years, thanks to the beginning of our experiment with biennial assemblies. So now what happens?

Let's suppose that upon further consideration, level heads in the denomination begin to realize that the General Assembly decision actually WAS a ludicrous, wrongheaded mistake. Can General Assembly Council rescind the General Assembly action?

Not constitutionally. GAC is supposed to act to carry out GA actions. The lower body cannot tell the upper body that it was all wet. GAC cannot undo what GA has done. Only GA can undo what GA has done, and it doesn't meet again until June 2006.

GAC might kind of fudge a little and drag its feet in carrying out the General Assembly mandate. They could so narrow the divestment criteria that nothing fits. They could delay producing and approving the criteria. This would not be a tactic unknown in the Presbyterian offices. A similar tactic was used to keep the still-flawed sexuality curriculum available even though General Assembly had given the order to revise it in 1999 (it's still not done). But that's a sly tactic that does through deviousness what is not allowed in fact. GAC shouldn't venture there.

Can national staff just decide that they won't follow the GA orders, or that they will change them to suit their new understanding, thinking in retrospect that GA made a mistake that they need to correct? Again, they can't do this legally. They do not "know better than GA," although they've been known at times to think they do. Theirs is to follow GA directives, not alter them.

But, again, there is no end of ways that staff COULD redirect its efforts to in effect undo the mess that GA made. While it might be nice to get out from under the legitimate criticism that GA brought on, again, such staff action would be improper. Delaying tactics, reframing what was once clear (although wrongheaded) so that it would be more palatable, simply ignoring the GA directive to do what they decide is better--none of these is a legitimate staff prerogative. Theirs is to carry out the will of GA, even when it wasn't a very sterling example of expressing its will.

Already Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick has just slightly rewritten what GA approved. In a statement hoping to clarify matters, Kirkpatrick wrote that divestment would be considered for "those companies whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli."

That's not exactly what the resolution says. It talks about "divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel, in accordance to General Assembly policy on social investing." Nothing here about causing harm or suffering to Palestinian or Israeli people. Language similar to that is somewhere else in the resolution. The divestment part speaks only about companies "operating in Israel."

This is a test of our polity. General Assembly has made a dunderheaded decision. It's two years until General Assembly will meet again and can revise or rescind such a decision, which only it can do, not a lower body or national staff members.

Keep an eye on what DOES happen, however. There's no polity-approved relief in sight. But that probably doesn't mean nothing will be done. Watch what IS done. It will tell you about how our system actually works, instead of how it ought to work.

And who said biennial General Assemblies were a good idea?

Monday, August 02, 2004

Möbius Decisions 

The Presbyterian Church is being poorly served by what might be called “Möbius decisions.” If you’ve never heard of a Möbius decision before, don’t worry. This is the inaugural usage of the term.

In mathematics, a Möbius Loop is a strange figure that has only one surface. Picture a foot-long length of wide Christmas ribbon lying flat on the table. Take one end and twist it 180 degrees, and then tape it to the other end, making a loop with a half twist in it. That’s a Möbius Loop, a one-sided figure.

Although a Möbius Loop may be fascinating in mathematics, Möbius decisions at General Assembly aren’t good for the church. What’s a Möbius decision? It’s a one-sided decision, where Presbyterians arrive at major conclusions through a process that hears and considers basically one side of a complex, multi-sided issue—usually far removed from the theological expertise and core competency of the Assembly.

It usually happens like this: 1) Some enthusiastic activist brings an issue to General Assembly. 2) This party—perhaps a group like the Advisory Committee for Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) or the General Assembly Council or a set of commissioners with a passion—has a definite opinion about what G.A. should do, and thus marshals considerable forces to see that it is done: experts are brought in, special-interest groups are rallied, denominational entities weigh in with their clout, and influential denominational staff members may put in a good word. 3) Overture advocates and entity reports receive considerable time and attention in committees, far more than random commissioners enjoy. 4) So this issue juggernaut rolls right through committee and plenary, with big-gun invited experts, lots of presentation time, endorsements by Presbyterian officials, and momentum focused on just one side.

It’s not that there aren’t sporadic voices on the other side. It’s just that they haven’t come to G.A. with the kind of single-minded interest and verbal ammunition to counter the onslaught of the enthusiasts. The particular issue isn’t typically their area of expertise. Something they read or hear simply just strikes them as odd, and they think “Someone needs to speak up about this.” If they’re brave, such commissioners do speak out, but it is practically impossibly for such random voices to have much effect on the Assembly. They are usually few, scattered, uncertain, and overwhelmed.

And thus, it is not at all uncommon to get Möbius decisions.

A major Möbius decision at the recent G.A. was the resolution about Israel and Palestine. Although there was a tip of the hat toward Israeli sovereignty and its need for citizens not to get blown up at every turn, the document was strongly tilted toward the Palestinian viewpoint. So when the committee considered the resolution, was there any invited representative of the government or interests of Israel there—or even someone representing American policy or Jews in general? Not a soul. We never heard their side of the issue from people deeply involved and committed.

In the plenary consideration of the issue, a commissioner did ask how this would affect our relationship with the Jewish people, and his perceptive question was given an answer that dodged the main point. Had that question been considered and answered thoroughly, perhaps G.A. would have come up with a fairer decision reflecting more than one side. And the resulting international furor that has ensued over divestment might have been avoided.

Another example this year is the resolution on U.S. involvement in Iraq, deemed “unwise, immoral, and illegal.” When a heads-up commissioner in plenary asked if this would make U.S. soldiers war criminals, again it wasn’t someone representing the military or even international law who answered; it was the writer of the report, a definite enthusiast, who brushed the question aside. Those who wanted the report arrived at G.A. prepared to give it the full-court press. Those with any other political persuasion—one that would actually reflect the majority of Presbyterians in the pews—did not come to G.A. with that one issue in mind. A few rose to speak rather extemporaneously, but the issue had such a head of steam that there was no stopping it through their lonely voices. And we got a Möbius decision.

In 2002, the same Möbius-decision process produced the Taco Bell boycott. Did anyone invite a representative of Yum! Brands, Inc. (the Taco Bell parent company) or even a franchisee to give the company side of the issue? Or perhaps a business professor to talk about labor relations, purchasing, market forces, and business ethics? No. When we had “expert testimony,” it was all from the side of activists, farm workers, and boycott enthusiasts. We got the inevitable one-sided decision.

So what would be a fairer and wiser process to avoid Möbius decisions? When a complex and controversial issue is to be brought to G.A. by an entity, such as ACSWP, provisions should be made to have responsible and informed counter opinions presented. Wouldn’t it seem fair for one expert to be balanced with another? There is always more than one side of an issue, and General Assembly would be honored and well-served by the opportunity to hear genuine debate about the pros and cons of thorny issues, rather than being propagandized by one side only. Many of the issues generating Möbius decisions were known to be coming to G.A., and those responsible for fair and intelligent consideration need to take responsibility for balance. It won’t arise spontaneously from commissioners, who are ill-equipped to take on a juggernaut.

It is more difficult when the issue is brought by an overture, and even more so when it comes by commissioner resolution. Yet, in committee, and through the conscientious efforts of the committee to ensure a balanced consideration in plenary, a fair and balanced set of voices can be heard. It is imperative that passion and knowledge be matched by equal passion and knowledge.
And if it is not possible to produce balancing expert testimony on the spot, an issue can and should be postponed. Delay is far preferable to unfair, unwise, irresponsible Möbius decisions that do not reflect the best thinking of the body, because only some thinking has been heard and considered.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Open letter to Curtis Kearns on the Washington Office Irregularities 

In a previous Berkley Blog, I wrote about the PCUSA Washington Office being out of control. In response to that, Curtis Kearns replied to me personally and also publicly on Presbyweb. Kearns, Director of the National Ministries Division, supervises Elenora Giddings Ivory. This is my response to Mr. Kearns, which was previously e-mailed to him personally.

Dear Curtis,

Thank you for considering both of the bones I have to pick with the performance of Elenora Giddings Ivory in the Washington Office.

Preliminary criticisms
In response to the concerns I raised about actions of the Washington Office, however, you first criticized my “loose manner” and lack of care and thoroughness. I believe I have been neither loose nor careless.[1] It seems unnecessary to attack my methodology.

While you concede that the management of the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) lobbying business was a bit of a muddle, you hold that out as an exception. However, others, including myself, view that affair as just one more of a string of questionable decisions and actions by Ms. Ivory and her office—more the norm than the exception.

In addition, it seems odd that just four months ago, you were writing me in full approval of Ms. Ivory’s work on the FMA matter. Yet now you concede that the mishandling of this matter was actually “a learning experience.” The problem is, Ms. Ivory apparently hasn’t learned. Her missteps and misstatements continue.

You state that “the office had clear policy support for advocating for the civil rights and liberties of all citizens.” True, on the surface. But you fail to say that nowhere, especially when that policy statement was being adopted, was homosexual marriage considered among those rights. That is because whenever the General Assembly made clear statements about civil rights, it also quite intentionally made very clear statements about marriage being only between a man and a woman. This continues up to the recent 216th G.A., which also very consciously added a Christian-definition-of-marriage amendment (introduced by David McKechnie) to a statement on civil rights.

Yet, a nebulous civil rights component is the one thing Ms. Ivory sees and speaks against in a federal constitutional amendment about marriage (an amendment that states what the Presbyterian Church has always professed about marriage). She cannot support the main point which should have our support by policy, because of apparent tunnel vision about a disputed ancillary issue.

Response to two charges
Then you call “not credible” my charge that the Washington Office is operating independent of G.A. oversight. However, my two examples of the office directly foiling the will of the Assembly speak otherwise, and you do fail to refute these examples.

Charge #1: I contended that Ms. Ivory was negligent at best or possibly devious by waiting six days to attempt (ineffectively) to remove her name and Presbyterian backing from a lobbying letter she knew was to be sent imminently to lobby against the Federal Marriage Amendment. You know the General Assembly action had her attention. Very deliberately, General Assembly had clipped her wings: she was not to lobby either for or against the FMA. Thursday evening that happened, and that evening she spoke to the Assembly about her need to take her name off the letter.

Now, in negligence cases, courts often use the Prudent Person Rule, asking, “What would a prudent person do in this situation?” What might Ms. Ivory have done if she were to follow due diligence as a prudent person? (1) That night (July 1), realizing the import of the G.A. order not to lobby on the issue, she could immediately send an e-mail to whoever would be sending out the letter, asking them to by all means not send the letter yet with her name on it. (2) The next morning (Friday, July 2), she could phone around until she was sure she had the proper party to definitely delay the letter until after Friday evening.[2] (3) Beyond the point of reconsideration on Friday night (July 2) or Saturday morning (July 3), she could phone and/or e-mail the letter-sending party and say that definitely she should not be a co-signer of the letter, making it absolutely clear how crucial it is that her name be removed before the letter is sent. (4) When she returned to her office after the holiday weekend, she could follow up to make sure the message got through and had been properly effected. Such due diligence would actually have accomplished what General Assembly mandated.

What did Ms. Ivory do instead? She sat on it for six days.[3] Her “compliance” was too little, too late, too inadequate to accomplish her purpose, and too briefly tried, since further action effectively performed ought to have kept her off the letter, which was distributed with a July 13 date.

Surely this cannot be the kind of performance you consider satisfactory for top management. Is there not reason to question the effectiveness and attitude of someone with so little to show for such inadequate efforts?

Charge #2: I contend that the Washington Office immediately took an action that the General Assembly had just gone on record as disapproving. You say I “fail to accurately characterize the action.”

You, however, characterize the action in an idiosyncratic way: “The Lackawanna Overture sought to redefine existing General Assembly policy approved by the 209th General Assembly (1997).” How would anyone know that? Nowhere in the Lackawanna Overture is that 1997 policy even mentioned. Nowhere in the overture rationale is that 209th G.A. mentioned, although a number of other General Assemblies are referenced. Nor does the minority report mention the 209th G.A. policy report.

What one does find when reading the overture and what one heard in the debate about the overture and the minority report is this:
·   The need for the overture proved suspect.[4]
·   Commissioners chose not to advocate funding the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF).[5]
·   The minority report was likewise defeated.[6]
·   A desire not to promote abortion played into the disapproval.[7]

I fail to see how in voting overwhelmingly to disapprove the overture, commissioners were deferring to an older, unnamed, unknown policy. They had no way to know that. They were saying, however, that the items advocated by the overture were not actions they wanted to advocate, for a number of reasons. Thus, your contention that “the 216th General Assembly simply refused to redefine existing policy” lacks weight.

You say G.A. “did not condemn support for international family planning agencies.” Technically, you are right—a refusal to support is not the same as a condemnation.[8] However, G.A. did decide overwhelmingly that, among other items, it did not want to call upon “the president and the Congress of the United States of America to reverse the recent policies and directives that have reduced and withheld appropriations to the United Nations Population Funds.”

Yet that’s exactly what the Washington Office decided to urgently advocate, while General Assembly’s “No!” was still fresh. They seem to have found in standing policy technical license for their advocacy, in spite of the clear will of this General Assembly. Over such a controversial issue, it is inadvisable for the Washington Office to engage in strong public advocacy on the side opposite G.A. All those commissioners who had thought they had put that proposal to rest had a rude awakening when they saw what the Washington Office did in spite of commissioners’ successful efforts to defeat the idea. If one’s goal were to make Presbyterians cynical about any ability they might have to halt a denominational juggernaut, this would be exactly how to do it!

Clarity, license, and accountability
You wrote: “You accuse the office of defying General Assembly policy but clearly that was not the case.  The office was justified in issuing its Action Alert.” You are incorrect on the first count, and I would beg to differ on the second.

First, nowhere do I mention “defying policy.”[9] Second, the commissioners decided for good and compelling reasons that advocating for the UNPF was somewhere they didn’t want to go. Yet, the Washington Office did go there, almost immediately. That, I would consider, could legitimately and responsibly be called “ignoring the General Assembly.” So, third, the office was not justified in issuing an Action Alert.

You conclude by saying the Washington Office staff “looks to those to whom it is accountable to help keep it honest.” Assuming this isn’t saying that I have no right to criticize, I would contend that the office definitely needs further accountability. That accountability could have come through self-accountability by Ms. Ivory, but that hasn’t produced satisfactory results. It could have been through your stepping in as supervisor to direct a subordinate, but instead, you provided excuses. Without further action by you, it appears that logically the accountability for keeping the office honest must now fall on the shoulders of your supervisor and/or the General Assembly Council. It would be sad, were that to become necessary.

A greater policy forgotten
There is a final thought about policy that needs to be raised. The Authoritative Interpretation on homosexual practice and ordination—the A.I. that was so hotly debated again this year and once again reaffirmed, as it always has been affirmed—is official Presbyterian policy.[10] It’s authoritative in our life and practice, as its name implies. And it says, among other things, that “homosexual practice is sin,” and that “the New Testament declares that all homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith and life,” and “homosexuality is not God's wish for humanity.” That’s our bedrock policy. It hasn’t changed.

Yet, why is it that when the Washington Office speaks on matters related to homosexuality, one would think that the PCUSA is either neutral about homosexual practice, or maybe even favorable toward it? Hardly a word of a prophetic nature is said against this prominent error of our time. What we hear instead is personal rights or civil rights, as we did in the Washington Office FMA statements.

Don’t we have a distinctly Christian response to offer from our Washington Office, rather than a secular political response?

If the Washington Office truly “makes an honest effort to follow established policies and guidelines and to helpfully interpret them to the church and larger community” as you say, why the absolute silence on the sin of homosexual practice?

A simple request
As you can see, I respectfully beg to differ with you, both about the significance of how the Washington Office has blunted recent efforts of the General Assembly to control its actions, and about the form and substance of my Berkley Blog posting that you questioned. I believe you are wrong, and demonstrably so.

With great care and with thoroughness that probably tries a normal person’s attention span, I believe I have presented to you sound arguments and tight, rather than loose, reasoning. I have documented my statements. I also believe that from the volume of correspondence you have received from others, and the letters of outrage being posted daily on Presbyweb and other websites, you have a larger crisis on your hands than you may have expected. It won’t just go away.

Your response now to the church is crucial. Can you see fit to offer a simple admission of error and apology? If so, such a magnanimous act—along with some measure of assurance that the Washington Office has turned over a new leaf and will operate differently in the future—would be gratefully received. 


James D. Berkley
Minister Member
Seattle Presbytery

1. I wrote my Berkley Blog from careful analysis of what Ms. Ivory wrote, from personal observations at General Assembly and elsewhere, from background knowledge, research, and consultation with others, and from a long history of unsatisfactory attempts to get a sensible or appropriate answer from her, not just on this particular issue. This was neither a first encounter with Ms. Ivory, nor a knee-jerk reaction!

2. The point after which the matter could not be reconsidered, not Saturday, as you contended.

3. From July 1 to July 6, she did nothing, even though for two days she was still “at work” at General Assembly, and even though as a top-ranking official rather than an hourly laborer, she could be expected to perform vital responsibilities even during a holiday period. After a very long weekend, she got back to her office on Wednesday, July 7, and then wrote one e-mail, (apparently to the wrong party) and made one phone call (to the same ineffective party). That was the meager extent of her attempt to obey direct instructions from no lesser an authority than the General Assembly.

4.  The presbytery was highly concerned about population growth. The committee and assembly, however, heard that runaway population growth has waned to the point where concern about sustaining populations is now being raised.

5. The presbytery’s overture advanced several means to stem population growth, one of which was lobbying the U.S. government to fully fund or even increase funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF). This would seek to change the policy Congress and the Bush administration have taken out of concerns about UNPF approval of and involvement with forced Chinese sterilization and abortions, and the promotion of legalized abortion by the UNPF. Commissioners disapproved the overture in both committee and plenary.

6. The minority report directly sought to salvage parts of the overture, such as the necessity to control increasing overpopulation and to oppose any restriction to the availability of “reproductive health measures.”

7. The catchphrase “comprehensive family planning,” widely understood to include advocacy for legalized abortion, is not to be found in the overture or rationale (although you use it five times in a single paragraph when describing what the overture meant to do). Alert commissioners in the committee and plenary, however, knew that providing “substantial funding” for “reproductive health services” was yet one more way to impose so-called “abortion rights,” even in countries where culture and religion are opposed to the taking of the life of unborn children.

8. It is interesting that concerning another matter, Ms. Ivory argued that such failure to approve was the same as condemnation, in order to justify opposing the Federal Marriage Amendment. Which way do you want it?

9. I wrote about what the General Assembly expects and demands. I wrote of the Washington Office’s determination “to ignore General Assembly.” I used the phrase “disregard the will of the denomination.”

10. The ultimate policy of the PCUSA is the Bible. But since people dispute the meaning of the Bible, we have Confessions to instruct us about what the Bible says. But since the Confessions and other parts of our Constitution are, themselves, disputed, General Assembly must, from time to time, step in as judge and say, “This is what our Constitution means.” That statement is, of course, an Authoritative Interpretation.

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