From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Writers gather this weekend to contemplate new Auburn Affirmation
08 Feb 2001 12:36:31
Note #6376 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
Writers gather this weekend to contemplate new Auburn Affirmation
The intent is to preserve space for dissent within the church
LOUISVILLE -- Eight Presbyterians will be gathering this weekend in
Baltimore to consider updating an historic church document that -- amidst
the doctrinal debates of the 1920s -- refused to narrowly define the
theological principles that undergird the denomination and ended over a
decade of dominance by fundamentalists.
The Rev. David Bos of Louisville - who issued a call for a new Auburn
Affirmation from the pulpit of the often controversial, gay-affirming
Downtown Presbyterian Church in Rochester, N.Y., last fall -- is one of the
The group will be debating whether to amend the old paper, draft a new one
or come up with an as-yet-unclear covenant of dissent for folks who simply
cannot conform to theological views that have recently changed the
constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), to flatly forbid the
ordination of sexually active gays or lesbians to any church office.
The notion has appeal for activists among church's left. It has gotten,
according to Bos, backing from outspoken organizations such as the More
Light Presbyterians and That All May Freely Serve, two pro-gay ordination
groups; the Voices of Sophia, a stridently feminist coalition; and even
Semper Reformanda, a caucus which understands its role as providing
theological reflection on issues facing the church.
But among more moderate leftists, the idea is evoking more curiosity than
"We've determined that we need to begin by defining what we see as the
crisis in the church, much as the writers of the original Auburn Affirmation
did in their time. But it is hard to say exactly what we'll do. The group
has never gotten together before," said the Rev. Bear Ride, director of the
Peace Center at United University Church in Los Angeles and a member of the
board of the More Light Presbyterians. "The consensus among us is that the
church has really strayed from faithfulness to the gospel and the broad
principles on which it was founded, (including) tolerance of different
opinions. There really is a parallel to the controversies of the '20s. It
does seem to have gotten to that point.
"Some issues," said Ride, "are different. Some are the same. But people
are not free to express different theological (ideas) without causing great
furor in the church."
The "great furor" Ride describes is what Bos outlined in his September
sermon when he argued that "reactionary forces" within the denomination --
like in the 1920s -- are manipulating faith as a way to advance their own
political agenda and to change the character of an historic tradition. Back
then, Presbyterians were called to subscribe to five fundamentals of the
faith in order to be ordained: inerrancy of scripture, the virgin birth,
the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ and
the performance of miracles by Christ that superceded the laws of nature.
The fifth tenet was understood to be the physical return of Christ by some.
Drafted long before it was ever made public at Auburn Seminary in northern
New York, the Auburn Affirmation was a document that argues, in a nutshell,
that Presbyterians must "safeguard liberty of thought and teaching of its
ministers," prohibit restricting the church to rigid interpretations of
scripture and doctrine, or, value ecclesiastical authority over how the
Spirit sways a conscience.
In other words, it set the parameters broadly, and its principles were
essentially ratified by the 1927 General Assembly when it removed the
necessity for every minister to subscribe to the fundamentals by declaring
that presbyteries, not the General Assembly, have the authority to decide
what clergy within their boundaries affirm theologically.
That is precisely the legislative outcome many liberals seek: giving
presbyteries authority over their pastors in an overall church climate that
allows dissent. Conservatives held that view when the national church
approved the ordination of women in the 1950-60s; liberals then argued
against it. Both sides have flip-flopped their 1950-60s stance in the
The moderator who appointed the commission that integrated much of what the
Affirmation said into the Assembly's position, was Charles Erdman, a
conservative who wanted to keep alienated factions within the church and
pled for moderation within his own constituency. Primarily, the Assembly
affirmed the right of conscience and clearly said no to the idea of a litmus
test of five doctrines that ministers must affirm.
Opposition to rigid biblical interpretation and to altering historic
patterns -- alien to what Bos calls Reformed and Presbyterian principles --
is what he says is driving the writing team, which includes Bos, Ride,
former Yale Divinity School professor the Rev. Letty Russell; the Rev. Bob
Brashear of New York City; longtime activist Elder Virginia Davidson of
Rochester's Downtown Church; and the Rev. Robert McAfee Brown of Palo Alto,
Calif., a powerful preacher and prolific writer, who has reportedly agreed
to be one of 25 Presbyterians who refine the actual document once it is on
Bos insists that the intention is to draw the circle wide, not to push
conservatives out, but to keep diverse voices in. "What we want is to get
rid of any trace of a subscriptionist mentality," he said, citing,
specifically, what is known as G.60106.b, the constitutional provision that
prohibits ordinations of practicing gays.
Then, and unlike now, the denomination's progressives were not opposing a
constitutional amendment -- but rather policies of the General Assembly,
which are, easier to buck. That is one of the reasons why current Auburn
Seminary President Barbara Wheeler hasn't endorsed the idea of a new
affirmation, although she has publically urged contemporary liberals to
learn from the strategies used in the 1920s to win over moderate
conservatives to more liberal views.
To the constitutional criticism, Bos says that every facet of the
fundamentalist controversies of the 1920 do not mirror the church's problems
today. But the theological core of the debate, he argues, is the same. In
his words, the struggles, separated by about 80 years, are "far from being
out of sync."
Some liberals are waiting to see what happens. Others are worried about
Barbara Kellam-Scott of Palisades Presbytery, the spokeswoman for Semper
Reformanda, says that organization is intrigued enough by the idea to study
the Auburn Affirmation, along with other documents, during its pre-Assembly
gathering this June.
It is the "mushiness" of the project at the moment that is a deterrent to
more dialogue, she says. "But as a body, we're interested in David's call."
The Witherspoon Society, which posted Bos' statements on its Web page, and
the Covenant Network, perhaps the most visible liberal political group, are
more circumspect: waiting to see what happens at the June 9-16 General
Assembly where, according to the Covenant Network, 38 overtures will be
introduced attempting to change or delete the current constitutional
provision that prohibits the ordination of sexually active gays and
The most frequent criticism of Bos' proposal among liberals is that now may
be a bad time to make a potentially strident statement, because the church's
theological current may be shifting.
"The original Auburn Affirmation was issued in response to what was seen as
an intolerable situation. We are very hopeful that the church (now) is
moving in a positive direction," said Pam Byers of the Covenant Network, who
is encouraged that, to date, 48 presbyteries have voted not to explicitly
prohibit gay unions in a constitutional vote that is under way now.
Only 20 have voted to do so; 105 have yet to vote.
"The church in the last few years has made good use of the unity and
diversity conversations," says Byers, who has been one of the liberal voices
at Bible studies called by left- and right-wing Presbyterians -- a delicate
process she doesn't want to jeopardize after just breaking years of no
But the meantime, the far left wants to be ready when it is time to speak.
Ride and Bos aren't timid about telling folks that a covenant of dissent is
one of the possibilities that could emerge in the brainstorming. That is,
of course, an option should the constitutional provision prohibiting gay
ordination not be rescinded in the wake of the coming Assembly. If so, its
signers may be open to judicial action for defiance of the church's
"What happens at this Assembly could affect the eventual shape of the
document," says Bos, who is clear that the writers will probably not have a
document in-hand by June.
While the nebulousness of the project to date is off-putting to some, it
attracts others. Russell -- who pastored a church in Harlem early in her
career and who is widely published as a feminist theologian -- is one of
"I want to see what could be done, if there was something to be done," she
says, describing her response to the invitation to speak in Baltimore to
what she, also, considers a crisis in the church. "We need to look at that.
I'm not saying we'll make it better, but we won't paste it over. There are
materials that are published (about) groups who are trying to take over the
church from the right. That's quite serious. I, like others, am serious
about keeping the church together.
"But," she said cautiously, "we have to look and see what's going on.
Compromising in the middle doesn't always make things better."
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