From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] All in favor

Date Wed, 13 Aug 2003 17:38:15 -0500

Note #7880 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

All in favor
August 13, 2003

All in favor

Theological task force consensus: There's got to be a better way

By John Filiatreau

CHICAGO - Members of the Theological Task Force are questioning whether the
characteristically Presbyterian way of doing business - by way of passionate
advocacy, parliamentary procedure, Robert's Rules of Order and up-or-down
votes - is the best way to go forward.

One of the first decisions the 20 members of the task force made, more than
two years ago - by consensus - was to make all their decisions by consensus.

To this day they have not taken a single vote.

The decision to forgo voting, the keystone of Presbyterian "process," came
out of nowhere. At least that's how the Rev. Gary Demarest, the task force's
co-moderator, remembers it: No one member made or championed the suggestion.
It just was.

Rev. Vicky Curtiss, an Iowa pastor who has become the task force's "guru" on
process issues, said the decision made itself while the task force was
drafting the part of its covenant that says it will "model a respectful,
loving process of discernment and dialogue." (Curtiss notes that the covenant
says decisions will be made consensually "whenever possible," not "always,"
and the group may one day resort to voting.)

Demarest, a retired pastor from California, and co-moderator Jenny Stoner, an
elder from Vermont, had assumed that it would be business as usual - largely
a matter of finding and serving the will of the body, meaning the majority.

And Demarest meant to get right down to the head-butting: He thought the
first item on the agenda ought to be the issue that had created havoc in the
church for three decades and prompted the creation of the task force -
whether sexually active homosexuals should be eligible for ordained ministry
in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

But he was blind-sided by Elizabeth R. Achtemeier, a retired professor of
Bible and preaching at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, a prominent
evangelical in the PC(USA). Achtemeier was adamant that the task force would
not tackle the toughest question first. That would be a disaster, she said.

Achtemeier won her point, thus having a deep and lasting effect on the task
force, although she died in October 2002, at age 76, after attending only two

The early decision to seek a common mind instead of proceeding to a clash of
adversaries was a key to what has happened since:

The task force, which at the outset was spoiling for (and dreading) a fight,
has become a worshipful community of Presbyterians who respect and like each
other and realize that their common faith is vastly more substantial than
their differences - although the differences remain, and are not

They have found common ground in what the Rev. John Wilkinson, a member who
works as a pastor in upstate New York, called "the universal lordship of
Christ, the central position of Christ" in Presbyterian belief.

To the growing frustration of some in the church, they still have not
formally discussed the ordination issue, which they have taken to calling
"the elephant in the room."

For two years, they have talked instead about theology, Christology,
ecclesiology, Biblical interpretation and Presbyterian history and polity.
More significantly, they have prayed, sung and taken Communion together, with
the result that the spirit of their meetings has become increasingly

The Rev. John "Mike" Loudon, the evangelical Florida pastor and task force
member who often has expressed frustration with the group's long silence on
the gay ordination issue, says he no longer thinks, as he once did, that
liberals are by definition "non-Christians." He still believes they're
wrong-headed on many theological issues, but now, he says, "I've come to
believe that these are people with whom I will one day walk in Heaven."

That's a profound change of heart.

And it's one that clearly has come about, to one degree or another, in all of
the task force members - and transformed them as a group.

Demarest spoke last week of his "growing feeling of joy" that the task force
is "dealing with (its business) differently - in a very relational way." He
added: "I'm feeling as much joy in my one-on-one conversations (with members)
as I have in the gathering. I'm telling you, the Holy Spirit is doing

"How different it would have been if we had started with debates on the
ordination question!" member Barbara Everitt Bryant, an elder from Michigan,
mused during the group's recent meeting here.

Loudon said he senses that the task force, after its two years of groundwork,
is "just about ready" to "touch upon" the gay ordination issue. (The
"elephant" is on the agenda for meetings in February and August of next


The Rev. Mark Achtemeier, the Iowa seminary professor who replaced his mother
on the task force, said its experience "has been profoundly transformative,"
and the question now is "how you reproduce an effect like that in the church
at large."

Several members have been talking wistfully for a year or more about how they
wish they could share their experience with the whole PC(USA).

The best suggestion so far is mostly whimsy: Divide the denomination into
125,000 theologically and culturally diverse groups of 20, and have each
group meet three or four times a year for five years.

The task force members hope to find a more practical way of making theirs a
"trans-local experience" - one that can be reproduced at the congregational
or presbytery level, among the PC(USA)'s numerous "affinity groups," or even
at the church-wide General Assembly.

"I wonder if it's too much of a stretch," Achtemeier said.

The task force's first tangible product - "Seeking Peace, Unity and Purity,"
a video to be released next month that explains the "forward-by-consensus"
process and includes a sample Bible study led by member Frances Taylor Gench,
a seminary professor from Virginia - is a step in that direction. Members got
their first look at it during last week's meeting, and pronounced it a hit.

"I think it's terrific," gushed Barbara Wheeler, a seminary president from
New York City. "I think we should send it to the Sundance Festival!"

Milton "Joe" Coalter, a seminary professor and librarian, was less effusive,
expressing concern that too much might be made of the video as the first
fruit of the task force's work. He said people in the church should be
cautioned that it's a "preliminary" and part of a work in progress.

Sharon Youngs of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) jokingly suggested
an alternate title: "PUP: The first litter." (The second is in the works
already: a presentation on the character and mission of Jesus Christ, by Mark

Several task force members have said that they don't want to simply write a
paper for the 2006 GA to approve or reject. They're trying to imagine another
way to package and present their contribution to the church, lest it become
what one member called "another written report that sits on a shelf gathering

So far, they are stumped - but intrigued.

Wheeler's excitement was audible last week when she asked her colleagues: "Is
it really possible that we ... might design a different process for GA and
others to use when they receive our report?"

"I'm so excited about the possibility that Presbyterians might actually do
business differently," she added. "... It never occurred to me before this
meeting that that would be possible in this denomination."

Wheeler said she has always thought, devoted Presbyterian that she is, that
"Robert's Rules of Order were brought down from Sinai."

The Rev. Lonnie Oliver, a pastor from Atlanta, said the group ought to
consider using "visual communication rather than something on paper." He
imagined GA commissioners "seeing the whole Assembly through the lenses of
peace, unity and purity," and engaging in deep exploration of "the role of
prayer and discernment in decision-making."

Loudon, who doesn't want to settle for more "expressions on paper (for GA) to
endorse or not," said he can imagine an Assembly "just dealing with this
report for the whole week, or five days."

"It sounds like a crazy idea," he added, "but then it might be possible to
deal with it with all the passion and the time required." He said he is
intrigued by the idea of "sending out a process" along with a product.

Speaking of crazy ideas: Demarest said the task force might actually "reach
outside the Reformed tradition" for a way of proceeding, and might even
contemplate "the possibility that God spoke to somebody besides Calvin."

The force's task now, Curtiss said, is figuring out "how to invite others
into the role that we now have." But she warned her colleagues: "The way of
the church is the way of suffering, in part. I think we are going to be in
for a time of suffering as a task force."

Mary Ellen Lawson, an elder from Pennsylvania, said she was excited that the
group is "exploring other ways of making decisions" - getting beyond what
Jose Luis Torres-Milan called "the Presbyterian way - 'Let's take a vote' ...
creating a win-or-lose situation."

Modeling a different way of making decisions, said the Rev. Jack Haberer, a
Houston pastor, might in itself be "something to contribute to the larger
church." But he said he remains a bit skeptical. "I want to see the fruits,"
he said.

Achtemeier said the group will be successful if it can "present Christ to the
PC(USA) in a way that is relevant and vital, and addresses us in our sin."

"We have to do something," Loudon said. "It just breaks my heart that the
denomination lost 41,000 members last year."

Coalter reminded the others that "ultimately, our experience is not the goal;
it's what kind of experience we're going to generate in the church." If the
task force brings "a novel process" to an Assembly, he said, it will have to
grapple with the problem of "how to prepare the church" for it. He said the
2006 GA may be "only the beginning."


The task force learned about one distinctly non-Presbyterian way of doing

The Rev. Gradye Parsons, the liaison to the task force from OGA, reported on
a recent national Assembly of the Uniting Church of Australia (UCA), a
denomination of about 1 million members that does all its business by

Parsons, who attended the weeklong Assembly in Melbourne, said the dominant
issue on the UCA's agenda was - you guessed it - whether or not to ordain

He said the Australian church, a 27-year-old Reformed denomination that uses
the decision-by-consensus model in all its business at every level, has
national meetings only once every three years, and its delegates handle
"roughly 10 percent" of the volume of work undertaken in a typical PC(USA)
General Assembly. The UCA approach, he said, is "more macro, less micro" than
that of the PC(USA).

He noted that the 270 delegates to the UCA Assembly devoted at least 20
percent of their time to worship and "community building" exercises.

"The nature and amount of business is strictly limited" at UCA Assemblies, he
said, and delegates don't spend a lot of time in plenary sessions debating
multiple "substitute motions" and "making elaborate verbal adjustments" of

The UCA has no Assembly committees, he said, but delegates spend lots of time
in group discussions, and officials rely on "a lot of straw polls" to gauge
the tide of delegates' opinion. He joked that "a Roberts (Rules of Order)
person" would need to take "lots of drugs" to be comfortable with the process
- although there is a "fail-safe" provision that a vote can be taken to clear
a hopeless impasse. He said the Australians believe their process "creates
better decision-making."

"It seemed to me that sensitivity to people expressing pain was higher" at
the UCA Assembly, Parsons said, and when a matter was settled, "there was
less of the victorious spirit" sometimes seen at GA. While "the speeches were
exactly the same," he said, the UCA seemed "more intentional about getting
people to listen to each other."


The issue of racism - or, perhaps more accurately, cultural chauvinism -
arose after the screening of the task force's yet-to-be-released video,
"Seeking Peace, Unity and Purity," when the Rev. Jose Luis Torres-Milan, a
pastor from Puerto Rico, asked whether Spanish, Korean and other translations
were in the works.

The answer he expected was "Of course." The answer he got was "It's too
expensive, we don't have the money."

Torres-Milan was stunned. The exchange didn't seem to register with anyone

The next morning, after what he said was a troubled night spent mulling over
"something heavy on my heart," Torres-Milan spoke sharply to the group,
saying he had been hurt by the abrupt dismissal of his suggestion. "Are we
the church? Is our church English-speaking only?" he asked. "... Are we a
problem? A financial problem?"

"For the first time, I really questioned, 'Do I belong?'" he said, "not only
to this church, but to this committee. ... Sometimes we don't realize how
much pain we cause to other people."

That provoked a powerful and moving confession from Demarest, who said he is
only now beginning to accept that he can learn "from people who, all of our
lives, we were told were inferior."

Speaking of Torres-Milan's reproof, Demarest said: "I'm aware of how little
I've heard that in my whole journey. ... I've got to hear this more, and for
God's sake listen to it more. If I can't do that, then I'm out of touch with

OGA officials quickly assured Torres-Milan that versions in Spanish and
Korean will be produced. (Although they won't be ready by the time the
English version comes out next month.)

Later in the meeting, the task force heard formally for the first time from
its (unofficial) "minority caucus" - Torres-Milan; Martha Sadongei, a Native
American; and Oliver, an African American - who together tried to assist
their colleagues in their efforts to "think out of the box."

In this case, the box has two dimensions - racism and WASP-ism.

Torres-Milan, Sadongei and Oliver said they often feel pressured to conform
to "white" notions of "decency and good order," while the values of their own
cultures are discounted.

Sadongei said her presbytery "gets frustrated with Native Americans because
of our attitudes about deadlines." Indians like to proceed deliberately and
thoughtfully, she said, and often suspend discussions with the comment,
"Well, we don't have to decide that today." She said Native Americans
instinctively make decisions by consensus - and consensus takes time.

"We only do 'Robert's Rules' when we have to get something into the minutes,"
she said. "... We have an agenda, but we don't go by it. ... We're not paper
people, and we're not time people, either. To us, 8:30 means any time after

But when Native Americans reach a decision, it stands: "It's all about making
a decision that won't have to be taken back," Sadongei said.

Torres-Milan said PC(USA) officials often say they are looking for a "team
player," but "being a community is not a game - it's life." Among Puerto
Rican Christians, he said, the point is "not building community, but being

"I am not here as a token," he said. "I am here as part of the church."

"We are a divided Christ," Oliver pointed out. "We have to figure out how we
can be more inclusive in our decision-making processes." He said African
Americans could inject needed qualities of "spontaneity, flexibility and
creativity" into PC(USA) polity.


Most members seem to agree that the cohesion and sense of community that have
developed among them are owed largely to their speaking "common language of
liturgy" - and that worship must play a key role in the renewal of the
Haberer said communal prayer, worship, and especially the sacraments, can
change the dynamics of any group dramatically. "When bread and wine are
brought out, people just come together," he said. "There is a sense of ...
relaxation. ... I can't describe it, but I can feel it. ... There's some kind
of power in this thing."

He noted that John Calvin described the sacraments as "the way God chooses to

That revelation, Wheeler said, is more than an abstract ideal; it's something
one can actually feel. As an example, she cited worship during General
Assembly, when the church's "whole cultural problem," so near at hand, seems
to disappear momentarily. "It happens," she said. "I don't think we make it
happen ... but it's something that happens in our real life."

Leanne Van Dyk, a guest of the task force and a professor at Western
Theological Seminary, told the group that "worship practices are at the heart
of order and discipline" in the church, and that the sacraments in particular
are essential to church revitalization.

Baptism is crucial to how Christians "live out their unity with Christ in
this community of believers," she said, and its meaning should be reinforced
more often in the life of the church. She added that "the language of
Baptism" should be "much more prominent in our weekly worship."

"I feel even more strongly about the Lord's Supper," she said, calling the
Eucharist "a powerful shaping practice" and "a feast of memory, communion and
hope." She said a weekly Communion service at the seminary where she teaches
"has transformed the community." She said such transformation is always a
benefit of "liturgy done well and thoughtfully and frequently."

Charles Wiley, of the PC(USA)'s Office of Theology, Worship and Discipleship,
agreed with Van Dyk, saying, "There may be no practice more important to the
renewal of the church that the reaffirmation of Baptismal vows ... the
foundation of our discipline with one another."

Wiley said Presbyterians also might benefit from celebrating the Lord's
Supper more often. He said Calvin "thought every service ought to be a
service of the Word and Sacrament," at a time when most churches offered such
services only once a year.

He added that the "passing of the peace" in worship can and should be a more
meaningful ritual - although, if people aren't taught why it is significant,
"they're going to wind up just saying hi." But the gesture is potentially an
eloquent demonstration of Christian reconciliation, he said, "a concrete
practice that conveys an embodied truth" - an expression of "the forgiveness
we extend to one another" that reflects the forgiveness Christ extends to us.

Wiley said liturgy is an important aspect of what he called "ordinary
discipline" in the church, a system of practices - "always local, relational,
restorative ... always face-to-face" - through which Christians, and
especially pastors and elders, help each other "live up to the vows and
promises they have made."


A frequent topic was the perennial nature of conflict in the Presbyterian

Wilkinson, the group's historian, described Presbyterian squabbles as far
back as 1729, when the Philadelphia authors of the Adopting Act included a
compromise provision that dodged the hot-button issues of the day and
forestalled schism - until 1741.

The task force studied and discussed a theological battle of pitched camps in
the 1920s that might have been a rehearsal for the current brouhaha.

"Conflict and compromise have been the very warp and woof of Presbyterianism
from the beginning," Wilkinson said, adding that, given the Presbyterian
brand of polity, "conflict is almost guaranteed to happen."

He suggested that there is comfort in knowing "that it's not the first time
we've been here." Haberer agreed, saying, "Our conflicts are just this year's

Achtemeier defied his colleagues to cite "any period in the history of the
church that has not been marked by major conflict."

The group seemed to find little comfort in the identification of
Presbyterianism with dissent and conflict; Coalter said it implies "a pretty
dour view" of prospects for peace in the church.

"Is there no rest for our denomination?" he asked. "Is there no peace? ...
What is it about Presbyterians?"

"Peace, to me, connotes tranquility ... rest ... comfort," said Achtemeier,
noting that Calvin's life was marked by bitter conflict almost to its end:
"He had four years of relative calm, and then he died."

"I'd take four years," Coalter said quickly. "I'd even die at the end of it."

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