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February 11, 2008: ACSWP

From the acronym-soup files: one of the most prolific and controversy-generating business producers for the General Assembly is a group known as the ACSWP (Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy; pronounced, A - C - SWAP).

There are four different kinds of things ACSWP produces: policy statement, resolution, study document, or social engagement report.

The four kinds are described in the Manual of the General Assembly -- which is a document that commissioners and advisory delegates should get comfortable using. The Manual has the "local rules" for the General Assembly. On page 65 of the Manual (page 71 if you have it open on your computer in Adobe Acrobat), there is a description of the documents used to make a social witness policy.

(As an aside, the ACSWP page lists five kinds of documents produced; the additional document being an Advice and Counsel Memorandums which is described as follows:

An “Advice and Counsel Memorandum” (also known as an “A&C”) provide relevant background, context, and possible consequences of General Assembly action on overtures, reports, and actions that recommend policy direction or action on social witness. An A&C may also be addressed to the General Assembly Council members as the Council deliberates, prepares recommendations for, or implements policies of the General Assembly.

Thus, ACSWP has provided that it may lobby the General Assemby Council and the General Assembly as it sees fit -- all on the GA's dime. This is consistent with the behavioral pattern of ACSWP -- which has been to generate its own work and have the General Assembly approve it in language of "instructing the ACSWP to ...")

The description of the requirements for making social witness policy are somewhat Orwellian. Consider the general rule and the first specific application, "All social witness policy documents developed by General Assembly entities, including special committees of the General Assembly (see section 1. above) must meet the following requirements:

a. The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy will be responsible for the process of developing and recommending social witness policy to the General Assembly. If any other entity is involved in processes of developing and recommending social witness policy, then appropriate consultation and linkage with the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy shall be undertaken. (emphasis mine)

That's as close to a monopoly as you will see in the church. This group must be "consulted" and "linked" in any development of social witness policy. I am trying to think of the right picture -- the best I have is juggernaut.

So, what are the topics that ACSWP is going to bring to this year's assembly? The Presbyterian News Service reports there are eight different pieces of business coming from ACSWP: Iraq, homelessness, the Gulf Coast post-Hurricane Katrina, energy, serious mental illness, pay equity, voting rights and electoral reform, human rights in Colombia, and a new NCC-affiliated social creed.

Now, I understand that issuing statements can be an important thing. That said, consider how much time and energy is going to go into evaluating and debating these documents -- very little. Why? Because there is not much time. These are not one-sheet statements; they often are complex pieces of analysis coupled with complex recommendations.

The problem comes when one of these little-read, little-debated pieces of business gets approved because there is not enough time to devote proper attention to it. Then, the backlash is felt ... not by the General Assembly, because it has adjourned ... but by the pastors and people in congregations who read about it in their local paper. This is the reason why most pastors will tell you that they cringe each time the Assembly convenes; and their prayer is that the GA will not do anything to embarrass their local congregation.

Seriously, is there a realistic expectation that commissioners are going to be sufficiently briefed and competent to make public pronouncement about Iraq and homelessness and the post-Katrina relief efforts and energy and serious mental illness and pay equity and voting rights and human rights in Colombia and a social creed? And take action to correct the loss of 40,000 plus members annually. And address the question of why congregations are leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). And answer the challenges to the constitution.

What is amazing about all of this is that ACSWP is consistently controversial (anyone remember the representatives from ACSWP meeting with Hezbollah?), is expensive, and ultimately has no binding authority. "No social witness policy documents shall use language that implies the conscience of individual members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is bound by General Assembly statements or recommendations."

It may not be binding but it does leave a mark.