Worship on Tuesday took place in the plenary hall. The practice of worshiping in the same place where the assembly does its business is a good one… in theory. It will probably work better for the rest of the week, when the plenary is in session. But on Tuesday, worship featured a relatively small number of people, scattered across a huge space, with most sitting in the back. In other words, it was what we experience in far too many of our churches every Sunday. The excellent Korean choir was situated on bleachers way off to the right. And those of us not right up front had to view the proceedings on TV screens.
An excellent sermon was preached by Lark Labberton on Matthew 7:24-8:10. He talked about the need to back up our words with our touch, that is, real actions. We’re been celebrating the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper at every worship service, an innovation of former Moderator Neal Presa, and something I am finding very moving and spiritually nourishing.
I slipped in to watch several committees on Tuesday, finding all of them mired in inconsequential discussions of procedure. That is, not addressing the substantive issues they are here to address, but spinning their wheels in mind-numbingly boring technicalities of motion- and amendment-making. Parliamentary procedure is supposed to facilitate the fair making of group decisions. Today it seemed to stifle many attempts to actually discuss anything. Instead of having conversations, committees were hamstrung by the rules.
This of course is the Presbyterian disease. It’s like we don’t really carewhat gets done as long as it is done the right way. We have this faith in procedure that seems to think that if things get done the right way it somehow guarantees that the right thing will get done.
It is also discouraging to observe how many of the commissioners in committees were using their laptops to play games while all this parliamentary wrangling is going on. (Solitaire was most popular, though at a distance it is difficult to distinguish from FreeCell.) Before huffing about irresponsible commissioners, I want to suggest that if we are boring them to the degree that they seek some way to more fruitfully pass the time, this is a problem. It’s like they don’t even care about the intricacies of procedure. Imagine that! Maybe if we could figure out how to get to the substantive issues commissioners are here to discuss, they would be more engaged and actually pay attention.
One of the handy ways out of this mess is to make a motion to refer. This has the twin benefit of avoiding conversation entirely – except the lengthy debate about whether and to whom to refer something – and making it look like a committee is making progress on its agenda, when really it is avoiding its agenda. If it refers enough of its assigned work, a committee could even finish early!
The Presbyterian bureaucracy is an efficiant machine in this regard. Well-dressed officials from Louisville and Philadelphia have years of experience in making impressive presentations about their particular corporate entities; it is easy for them to impress the newbies who make up most committees. “They look like they know what they’re doing; why don’t we just let them handle this?” is the sentiment. So the tendency is to refer matters to the guys in the suits.
This is what I saw happen regarding the overture to divest from fossil fuel companies. The committee did not discuss for one second the matter they were sent here to discuss. They politely listened to the advocates and witnesses, then decided to refer the whole matter to the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) group, which was set up years ago in an effort to encourage the Capitalist institutions in which the church invests its money not to act like Capitalist institutions.
In this case the Capitalist institutions in question are among the worst on the planet: oil, coal, and gas companies. The committee was convinced that divestment was unwise because it is important for us to maintain a dialogue with such companies. If we sell our stock in them, we lose our place at the negotiating table. Although what we have to talk about with such enterprises escapes me. The devotion to and effectiveness of these companies at pillaging, destroying, and poisoning God’s creation is legendary. Just sitting at the same table with them is to give the finger to the simple Lord Jesus who walked lightly on the earth.
What are we supposed to suggest to them in these negotiations with, say, Exxon-Mobil? “Please stop producing fossil fuels”? Seriously? Because that is the only thing we could possibly and morally have to say.
How can we continue to preach the gospel with our mouths and reject the gospel with our money? How can we support the mission of local churches by means of income derived from companies whose work daily contradicts, undermines, and cripples that very mission? Should we do evil that good may result? Does that work?