From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSAnews] Church leftists may draft new Auburn Affirmation

Date 09 Feb 2001 12:37:52

Note #6379 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


Church leftists may draft new Auburn Affirmation

Intent is to preserve space for dissent within the PC(USA)

Note: An earlier version of this story (notes numbered 6375-6377) contained
some unconfirmed material. The Presbyterian News Service regrets the error.

by Alexa Smith

LOUISVILLE -- A group of Presbyterians will gather this weekend in Baltimore
to update a historic church document from the 1920s that refused to narrowly
define the doctrinal basis of the faith and essentially brought an end to
more than 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 controversial, gay-affirming Downtown
Presbyterian Church in Rochester, N.Y., last fall, is one of those who will
take part.

	The group will be debating whether to amend the old document, draft a new
one or come up with a new covenant of dissent for church members who cannot
conform to the theological views that have recently changed the constitution
of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to flatly forbid the ordination of sexually
active gays or lesbians to any church office.

	The notion has appeal for church leftists, and according to Bos has the
support of members of 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 that sees its role as providing faithful theological
reflection on issues facing the church.

	Among more moderate leftists, the idea is evoking more curiosity than
outright support.

	"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," said the Rev. Bear Ride, director of the Peace Center at
United University Church in Los Angeles, and a member of the board of More
Light Presbyterians. "But it is hard to say exactly what we'll do. The group
has never gotten together before.

	"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 are different," Ride added, "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 mentions is what Bos outlined in his September
sermon when he argued that "reactionary forces" within the denomination --
as in the 1920s -- are manipulating faith as a way to advance their own
political agenda and change the character of a historic tradition. In the
'20s, Presbyterians wishing to be ordained were called to subscribe to five
fundamentals of the faith:  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 by some to be the physical return of Christ.

	Drafted long before it was ever made public at Auburn Seminary in northern
New York, the Auburn Affirmation 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;
and refuse to rank ecclesiastical authority above the conscience swayed by
the Spirit.

	In other words, it set the parameters broadly. The document was 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 authority to decide what clergy
within their boundaries must 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 argued against
it then. The sides have flip-flopped their previous stances in the current

	The moderator who appointed the commission that integrated much of what the
Affirmation said into the GA's position was Charles Erdman, a conservative
who wanted to keep alienated factions in the church and pleaded for
moderation within his own constituency. The Assembly affirmed the right of
conscience and clearly said no to the idea of a litmus test of doctrines
that ministers must affirm.

	Opposition to rigid Biblical interpretation and to changes in historic
patterns that are alien to what Bos calls Reformed and Presbyterian
principles is what he says is driving the project, which will involve about
25 Presbyterians. Among them are a Yale Divinity School professor, the Rev.
Letty Russell; the Rev. Bob Brashear of New York City; and Elder Virginia
Davidson, a longtime activist from Rochester's Downtown Church.

	Bos insists that the groups' 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.

	In the 1920s, the denomination's progressives were not opposing a
constitutional amendment, but General Assembly policies, which are easier to

	Bos acknowledges that the church's problems today do not mirror every facet
of the fundamentalist controversies of the 1920s. But he says the
theological core of the debate is the same.  In his words, the two
struggles, although separated by about 80 years, are "far from being out of

	Some liberals are waiting to see what happens. Others are worried about the

	Barbara Kellam-Scott of Palisades Presbytery, the spokeswoman for Semper
Reformanda, says her organization is intrigued enough by the idea to study
the Auburn Affirmation, and other denominational documents, during its
pre-Assembly gathering in June.

	It is the "mushiness" of the project at the moment that is a deterrent to
more dialogue, she says, adding, "As a body, we're interested in David's

	Some in the Witherspoon Society, which posted Bos' statement on its Web
page, and in the Covenant Network, perhaps the most visible liberal group,
are more circumspect. They're waiting to see what happens during the June
9-16 General Assembly in Louisville. According to the Covenant Network, the
GA will receive 38 overtures that would change or delete the current
constitutional provision prohibiting the ordination of sexually active gays
and lesbians.

	The most frequent criticism of Bos' proposal among liberals is that this
may not be a good time to make a potentially provocative statement, because
the church's theological current may be changing.

	"The original Auburn Affirmation was issued in response to what was seen as
an intolerable situation," said Pam Byers, of the Covenant Network. "We are
very hopeful that the church (now) is moving in a positive direction."
Byers said she is encouraged that, to date, 48 presbyteries have voted not
to explicitly ban gay union ceremonies in a constitutional vote under way

	Only 20 have voted to approve such a ban. Another 105 presbyteries 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
in Bible studies shared by left- and right-wing Presbyterians -- a delicate
process she doesn't want to jeopardize in its infancy after years of no
conversation at all.

	In the meantime, the left wants to be ready when its turn comes to speak.

	Ride and Bos aren't timid about telling folks that a covenant of dissent is
one of the possibilities that could emerge. That is an option, of course,
should the constitutional ban on gay ordination not be rescinded.  In that
event, its signers might be open to judicial action for defying the church's

	"What happens at this Assembly could affect the eventual shape of the
document," says Bos, who said he doesn't expect the writers to have a
finished document in hand by June.

	While the nebulousness of the project is off-putting for some, it clearly
appeals to others. Russell, who is widely published as a feminist
theologian, is one of those.

	"I want to see what could be done, if there was something to be done," she
said, describing her response to the invitation to go to Baltimore. "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 we have to look and see what's going on. Compromising in the middle
doesn't always make things better."

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