The Office of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been busy this week.
1. The Stated Clerk released 2012 statistics, indicating a loss of more than 100,000 members and 200 churches and; 2. the OGA posted resources to rebut the arguments being employed by churches leaving the denomination.
The Constitutional Musing entitled “Misrepresentation of the Presbyterian Church (USA)” is introduced on the PCUSA web site: “The Office of the General Assembly has had an increase in the number of inquiries about printed materials from outside of the Presbyterian Church (USA), being distributed within congregations, that ascribe to the Presbyterian Church (USA) beliefs and standards which are meant to show that the church is no longer worthy of support. Over the past years the list of these misrepresentations have varied little and most have been answered in detail in the religious press, study papers adopted by the church or by specific action of the General Assembly. Whenever possible, the Office of the General Assembly directs those who inquire about specific conclusions drawn by these papers to resources which give a broader understanding of the issues.
“Typically the materials being circulated focus on four broad areas of concern, each of which speaks to the core of who we are as a denomination and a covenant community. In response to these recent inquiries, we remind the church about who the Presbyterian Church (USA) is both historically and in our current ministry.”
My observations here focus on timing, content and the accusation of misrepresentation. A future post will address the OGA’s resources point by point.
Timing: “Increase in the number of inquiries”
At least one presbytery asked the Stated Clerk in February 2012 for resources designed to defend against accusations and arguments raised by those seeking to leave. It seems that that response took nearly 18 months to craft and post. ECO, which officially formed in 2012, already has received 50 PCUSA churches and another 50 are in the process. Another 277 churches have been dismissed from PCUSA presbyteries to the EPC in recent years. There may yet be hundreds more, but it seems reasonable to suggest that the denomination would have been wise to have equipped its presbyteries with the material posted the last week of May 2013 many, many months ago.
The statement alludes to “printed materials from outside the PCUSA” but never identifies them. One can only speculate that the materials include some of those posted by Theology Matters, The Fellowship of Presbyterians, presbyteries and churches across the country as a part of their discernment processes. Many of those resources are aggregated on the The Layman Online.
To say that these materials come from “outside the PCUSA” is disingenuous unless you confine the definition of “PCUSA” to the staff hierarchy itself. To my knowledge, when the materials referenced above were written, the authors were active members or ministers of the PCUSA.
The OGA document goes on to allege that the materials were “meant to show that the church is no longer worthy of support.” This assumes knowledge of the intent of every author of hundreds of documents.
As no paper(s) are specifically identified it is difficult to imagine how the intent of the writers could be established. If the statement includes writings of mine (“How Did We Get Here?” or “The Altered Identity of the PCUSA presentation “) or publications of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, I can assure the reader the intent is to inform, not to agitate people or congregations to leave. Members have a right to know how their contributions are being used, who is speaking on their behalf and what those people are advocating. It is not unusual to blame the messenger, but doing so does not render the message wrong.
The denomination’s rebuttal also says that the allegations are “answered in detail.” So I wonder:
- Where are the flagrant violations of the constitution by those PCUSA ministers who went on record at the 2012 GA as performing same-sex weddings answered in detail?
- Where are those who openly admit to not believing in Christ’s divinity or the veracity of the Bible “answered in detail” by effective denominational discipline?
- Where are the findings of the Presbyterian Panel bearing witness against the growing liberalization of PCUSA clergy “answered in detail?”
The statement suggests that the “specific conclusions drawn by these papers” do not take a sufficiently broad view of the issues and the appeal is to the denomination’s official statements. However, the distance between the espoused theology of a denomination and the theology in practice of those associated with it is what’s really at issue. Further, the issue is not what the ordination vows say, but how they are lived out. Ultimately, the issue is the integrity between what is said and what is actually done. The introduction to the Theological Declaration of Barmen makes this very point as noted by Presbyterian blogger Viola Larson.
She says, “When pastors broadcast or write that the Bible is a myth and/or deny the deity of Christ as well as the existence of God they are thwarting and rendering the constitution ineffective. When Presbyterian professors and pastors insist that the death of Jesus Christ was unnecessary they thwart and render the constitution ineffective. When one past vice-moderator lowers the New Testament on to equal ground with gnostic texts, and another past vice-moderator insists others can come to God without Jesus, when the contemporary moderator unties the denomination from the confessions they are thwarting and rendering the constitution ineffective.”
She concludes that, “One can point forever to the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s constitution and other study papers, but if everyone including leadership does what is right in their own eyes there is good reason to see the denomination withering on the vine that is Christ.”
The “four broad issues” are identified in the pdf as:
1. “It is said that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has distanced itself from historical tenets of the faith, especially identifying the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture.”
2. “It is said that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has adopted a liberal political agenda as a core mission.”
3. “The decline in church membership is cited as a marker of spiritual illness and a failure of the church as a whole.”
4. “It is said that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is at odds with the global Presbyterian Church.”
The accusation of misrepresentation
Arrogance does not wear well as an attitude for church leaders nor denominational officials. It misrepresents Christ and is a poor face for the Church to the world. To allege that those who raise questions about the disconnect of the PCUSA from its historical Biblical and theological moorings are misrepresenting reality requires more than what the OGA has offered in its official musing on the subject.
The Stated Clerk’s Constitutional Musing alleges that the denomination has been misrepresented. That is a serious charge. It might be argued that charge better fits statements made by the PCUSA Musing than those seeking to call it to return to faithfulness.