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March 26, 2008: Tracking the Trinity

More today on the need to read everything carefully.

Recommendation 12 is a simple statement: The General Assembly Council recommends that the 218th General Assembly (2008) commend for study in PC(USA) congregations a study guide and accompanying DVD for "The Trinity: God's Love Overflowing."

What do you need to know about this?

1. The action is "commend for study." The items "commended for study" are a study guide and DVD for a paper previously "received" (which is different than "approved") -- specifically, at the 217th General Assembly (2006). The Trinity paper was already received and commended for study. This recommendation is not an invitation to re-visit and re-evaluate the paper produced by the Office of Theology and Worship.

2. On the other hand, it may end up doing just that.

As reported in Presbynews, "The original recommendation from the General Assembly Council called for the Assembly to approve the paper. An amendment during the debate changed the word to 'receive' when some commissioners expressed concern that the word approve meant endorsement. While a majority of the commissioners were uncertain about endorsing it, they were ready to commend it to congregations for study."

The Trinity paper caused a firestorm after the last Assembly. (Read here, here, here, here, and here. These are illustrative of the controversy; not exhaustive -- there were plenty more from which to choose.) For Charles Wiley, who was the point person from the Office of Theology and Worship, the controversy was somewhat surprising. See and hear his comments here.

So, why would this year's General Assembly take up and debate the merits of the Trinity paper? PC-biz does not provide links to the study material or the video; but when it does, the questions will come up about whether the study material adequately represents the emphases of the original paper -- and whether an endorsement of the study materials will be considered an endorsement of the original (that was only "received").

Again, the point of this post is how important background reading and preparation are for commissioners and advisory delegates. Just doing a surface reading of the General Assembly Council's recommendation does not tell the whole story (not a criticism of the report; rather, an indication of the kind of work commissioners and advisory delegates need to do to be prepared).

Watch what could happen: the recommendation will probably go to Committee 13: Theological Issues and Institutions. It would be an action item to consider. On its face, there is not much to suggest that there is any controversy -- good heavens, all they are doing is requesting that study material be approved. It gets slated on the docket for Monday morning. When it comes up, an advisory delegate asks, "What's the difference between 'approving' and 'commending'?" The resource person says something to the effect that "approval" is an endorsement, "commending" is not an endorsement. The advisory delegate moves that the committee recommend "approving" the study materials. "Let our 'yes' be 'yes'," he says, "We want people to use it and approval would have more weight than commending." Because there are other items of business and this does not seem particularly controversial, the amendment gets approved and the recommendation gets a voice vote in committee without any further discussion.

Then, because it is a voice vote in committee, it gets placed on the "consent" docket items for the plenary floor. Let's say that Committee 13 is scheduled to report on Wednesday afternoon. Wednesday afternoon rolls around and several other committees have gone through their reports. About 4:30, Committee 13 begins their report. The Assembly has handled a number of items "without objection" or by voice vote. The consent docket is moved and approved without objection.

At this point, the Assembly has approved the study materials for the Trinity Paper. The denominational publications could go out, "Available now: Study Materials for the Trinity Paper, approved by the 218th General Assembly (2008)." Accurate? Yes. Could it be read to mean that the 218th General Assembly (2008) approved the Trinity Paper? Also, yes, it could be read that way; but that would be inaccurate.

In the newspapers and on-line immediately after the Assembly, the headlines read, "Presbyterians Approve Trinity Formula: 'Rainbow, Ark and Dove'." Without reading deeper into the story -- if it is well-written, and there is no guarantee for that -- commissioners reporting back to the presbytery are surrounded by others asking, "What were you thinking?"

Friends, let me just urge you to start your preparations -- now. If you wait until the last minute or don't prepare at all, you will be end up wondering what were you thinking.