This morning I went to the breakfast sponsored by the Presbyterian Foundation, mainly because I wanted to hear the speaker, Stanley Hauerwas.
Before Hauerwas came on, though, there was an excellent short video on the intentional investing the Foundation has been doing in Palestine, at the instruction of the last General Assembly. Apparently we are providing microfinancing for small, mainly women-owned businesses, as well as some larger investments in renewable energy and education. I see this as a positive development and an example of the kind of investments we can make with our savings that actually help people, as distinct from giving it to large corporations who use it for God-knows-what. (Which is why various kinds of divestment are being proposed at General Assemblies.)
Having just been to Palestine in February it was good to see these folks smiling and with resources to make a difference in a very difficult situation. And it is refreshing to know that Presbyterians are a part of that. I hope the Foundation keeps up this good work and extends it into other parts of the world. Responsible investment that empowers people is a good thing.
Hauerwas was as blunt and direct as his reputation in his remarks. He talked about America, God, and Christians, basically saying that the god of America is distinct from the God of Christianity in several significant ways. “Our story is the story we choose when we have no story,” is how he described it. We perpetuate lies about “freedom,” as if every individual can invent their own story, as if we do not inherit or have given to us any story.
Hawerwas’ point was that as Christians we don’t invent our own stories; we are given a story that we are called to live into. This story is that of the God who resurrected Jesus from the dead is the same God who delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt. It is the God who brings life out of death. And there are specific ways and practices by which we embody living into this story.
To the degree that the church in America has become a subset of America and a medium of America’s story – the false and impossible story of the self-made person – it denies and rejects the story of Jesus and the Bible. The same thing with the practices that embody the American story.
Hauerwas is harsh. But he is right. Many if not most churches are outposts of the American spirit and story, wrapped in a veneer of Christianiness. The obligatory flag in the corner – or worse right up by the pulpit or altar – indicates which story rules in a place. It kind of stands there like a cop, making sure the proceedings do not stray too far from the dominant narrative. The fact that it is basically the only thing that cannot be removed tells the whole story.
We went to worship at Fort Street Church, a gothic revival structure less than a mile from the convention site. It was crowded with folks from GA. The congregation appeared to be multi-cultural; the pastor was Sharon Mook. Welcoming speeches were given by a rabbi and a local Muslim imam. (It seems to me that Jesus’ name was only mentioned minimally in this service. I wonder if that was normal, or an attempt to be hospitable and inoffensive to the interfaith guests? Or maybe just an erroneous observation on my part. I mean, on the one hand, Jesus himself made God the focus; on the other, he is our Teacher and Master, and we see everything, including God, in and through him.)
The church was decorated with dozens of national flags ringing the balcony, speaking of flags…. It was an attempt to be inclusive and global, and I appreciate that. Still, flags represent States and governments, not necessarily peoples.
Worship included a wonderful dance piece by some young people. The rest of it was the usual Presbyterian fare: lots of words. And it seems like every preacher for GA has the same assignment: “we need to listen to each other,” or something like that. Yawn.
The Assembly met in plenary on Sunday afternoon. The voting thing remains unfixed. (Rumor has it that this is a complicated negotiation between tech people and the electricians union, and some of these people don’t even come in to work until Monday morning.) Fortunately, not much voting was required for this session. The votes that were taken had the commissioners holding up colored placards.
One report came from the commission examining mid-councils, ie. synods and presbyteries. Their big recommendation is that we reduce the number of synods to 8. The rationale is that we are a smaller denomination now, synods as they are have been deemed ineffective or irrelevant, and this reconfiguration will hopefully encourage broader connections between different geographical groups. And so on.
The current staffs of synods don’t like this idea, for the obvious reason that their jobs are at stake. Not to mention losing any good things their synods may be doing. I get nervous about anything that smacks of “merger” since this is normally a strategy to manage decline, not encourage new life. And I get additionally anxious when I suspect that the agenda behind making institutions larger is making them big enough to sustain staffs and conventional programs. Generally I remain instructed by the revolutionary book I read years ago by E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful. Therefore, I think smaller synods would be more effective in supporting presbyteries in their work of supporting congregations.
I have only recently changed my view and realized that synods have a point at all. The new Form of Government gives a lot of power to the presbyteries. Lately I have witnessed some events that teach me that this increased power is ripe for abuse, and that presbyteries need some oversight. Thus, I now believe synods at least have this regulatory point. There needs to be an effective recourse when presbyteries mis-step.
At the same time, maybe synods can pool and shift resources among presbyteries so more effective mission can happen.
Anyway, my bias is against larger synods. And I am also puzzled about how this reduce-to-8-synods thing is presented as a given and now the only decisions to be made have to do with configuration. I hope the assembly overturns this recommendation and gets a bit more creative in looking at better, more local options for synods.
By far the most ridiculous initiative today was the vote (sort of) by the Assembly to poll the EP’s (by whatever euphemistic and aspirational titles they are calling themselves these days) as advisory delegates when taking votes. What? Hopefully, this does not make them official Advisory Delegates, with all the expense and privileges – voting in committee, et al.
But the point to checking with the EP’s before making decisions escapes me. I do get the idea that receiving input from folks in presbyteries leading ministry. That’s why we have a General Assembly made up of commissioners from presbyteries. Is it because the EP’s are the vanguard of innovation? Or something? Do EP’s have some particular insight into what is doable? Does that matter? I can’t believe they even want this privilege. Staff people don’t even have particular standing in our polity. Oh, and don’t poll us Stated Clerks, either. Jeesh.
It would make at least as much sense to simply poll the first 20 people walking by on the sidewalk outside the building. That would at least connect us to the wider world.