If you were leading in such a situation, what would you do? It would be good to listen to the voices of those agonizing over their place in the denomination. You might want to step up to the plate and help clarify what you do and don’t believe. At the least, you’d assure congregations that you are striving to work things out in accordance with what you're hearing.
Don’t hold your breath if you’re in the PCUSA. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the highest staff officer of the denomination, has given his response to this real-life scenario in a letter to the stated clerks of presbyteries.
His response starts out giving some hope: “The assembly called [us], as we face difficult issues, to be engaged in ‘processes of intensive discernment through worship, community building, study, and collaborative work.’ The assembly also encouraged us prior to decision making to engaged in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, discernment of the will of God, and seeking to hear God’s voice through the voices of those in our community.” (emphasis added)
Then, though, Kirkpatrick gets to what his letter is really about and expresses concern (read, opposition) to the following:
- “Actions by a presbytery that in essence set aside the assembly’s authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 and require subscription to all or specific constitutional standards.”
This means that conservative presbyteries, like San Diego, cannot set standard tenets for ordination. This is in spite of the fact that ordination vows require adherence to the “essential tenets” of Reformed theology (which are nationally undefined).
- “Establishing answers that are required of candidates for installation and ordination, or determining in advance answers that will be unacceptable.”
This goes against logic. If churches and presbyteries examine candidates, it must be on the basis of the responses they expect. Whenever a company hires an employee, the interview process is designed to seek out qualifications, suitability, experience, and the like. Presbyteries should not expect particular compatible beliefs from candidates.
- "Proposals to grant congregations – based on a super majority vote or other criteria – to leave the denomination with their property in the event of schism."
Let no presbytery grant grace to a departing congregation. Although Mark Tammen, the legal eagle of the PCUSA, blithely states that they “dismiss” four or five congregations every year, he fails to mention the financial consequences of this, given that “dismissed” congregations either pay for their property (again) or forfeit it.
- “Actions to restrict presbyteries from fulfilling their G-9.0404d responsibilities to transmit their per capita assessments to synods and General Assembly.”
This is to keep congregations, and then presbyteries, from withholding money from the national offices. Even though the PCUSA's permanent judicial commission has judged per capita to be a “voluntary donation,” Kirkpatrick’s office still enforces it as a tax.
- “Mandates that presbyteries seek to place on sessions for procedures or content for the examination of candidates to be elders or deacons beyond those specified in the Constitution or its authoritative interpretations.”
No presbytery should dare to establish standards for its churches.
- “Yes these are difficult days for many of you. But it is in times like this that we most need to seek the spirit and mind of Christ and to be faithful to our Constitution, as we seek to build up the church in faithfulness to its Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Does not Kirkpatrick sense that the people in the pews are speaking the spirit and mind of Christ that they have discerned? Is the Stated Clerk’s office the only source of Christian wisdom?
Rather than listening to “seek God’s voice through the voices of those in our community,” Kirkpatrick is trying to silence those very voices. While he attributes his admonitions to the authority of the constitution, he has choices. He can choose to proactively implement the whole constitution or just the parts he’s interested in. The Stated Clerk’s office has effectively ignored egregious moral violations of the constitution while sniffing out every possible challenge to the money that might flow into the national offices. Ironically, by ignoring the one, he has caused the other.
Another blogger, and even some who have written me, have compared the attitude of the Stated Clerk’s office to the establishment of Rehoboam’s reign after his father, Solomon, died.
Then King Rehoboam went to discuss the matter with the older men who had counseled his father, Solomon. “What is your advice?” he asked. “How should I answer these people?”
The older counselors replied, “If you are willing to serve the people today and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your loyal subjects.”
But Rehoboam rejected the advice of the elders and instead asked the opinion of the young men who had grown up with him and who were now his advisers. “What is your advice?” he asked them. “How should I answer these people who want me to lighten the burdens imposed by my father?”
The young men replied, “This is what you should tell those complainers: ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist—if you think he was hard on you, just wait and see what I’ll be like! Yes, my father was harsh on you, but I’ll be even harsher! My father used whips on you, but I’ll use scorpions!’”
(1 Kings 12:6-10)
Rehoboam follows the young men's advice. The direct result of that choice was the division of Israel into two kingdoms. It never recovered and both kingdoms eventually were conquered.
Whither the PCUSA? This is a time when a witness of grace from the “top” could result in healing and hope. Instead, the march to division and destruction goes on.
Keep praying--keep the faith,