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April 17, 2008: License to Speak for Me

Recommendation #40 is an ACSWP paper I inadvertently jumped over yesterday. It is entitled "A Social Creed for the Twenty-First Century and Recognition of the Centennial of the 'Social Creed of the Churches of 1908.'"

I have a growing impression that ACSWP is angling for unlimited license to speak for me. Quoting from the report:

3. Direct the General Assembly Council (GAC), through the Presbyterian Washington Office, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, and other appropriate offices, to publicize and interpret this "Social Creed" as a concise consensus statement of existing policy and to affirm its holistic vision of necessary changes for our society to meet the challenges of sustainability and globalization;

A "consensus" statement? The General Assembly would be saying that all Presbyterians are in complete agreement with every word in this creed as interpreted by those agencies?

That's crazy.

Approving this action item would be like signing a spiritual blank check and handing it over to a stranger. Oh, I can already hear the protest of that analogy: Trust us! We've worked really hard on this!

No, it is time to break that pattern.

(Look, I know that this blog is reading like one negative post after another. Years ago, when I went on a roll like this, I had a friend call my notes the "Eeyore Epistles." More recently, I was in a meeting where someone was described as a cave-man: a citizen against virtually everything. I hate thinking of myself as that guy; but if the shoe fits...)

The problem is that these ACSWP recommendations simply perpetuate the way we have always done things -- the way that is resulting in a visibly quicker pace down the slippery slope towards extinction. It is the same observation here that I identified in the GAC Mission Work Plan -- there is a blurring of the responsibilities of serving the church and being the church.

Recommendation #40 is an old institutional model where the home office speaks on behalf of the local outposts. Friends, let us be blunt: the home office does not speak on behalf of the local outposts. It is folly to presume it does -- in fact, worse -- it is an error to allow it. Yet we continue to approve and fund this habit.

"A Social Creed for the Twenty-First Century" is strongly grounded in God's promises of life in abundance for us and the whole creation and focused on the themes of globalization and sustainability.

Does that really match up with what Presbyterians believe? I am in favor of improved situations for workers, yet I also am aware that entrepreneurs and small business owners are not all exploiting employees. I would love for the expense of health care to not be an issue, but there are some very real questions about who should pay and who should decide who pays. This recommendation's absolute support for unions "by working for: ...the rights of workers to organize, and to share in workplace decisions and productivity growth" is a disincentive for entreprenuerial initiative. Read in the best light, things are not as clear as this paper would suggest; read in the worst light, it is a one-sided indictment of capitalism that does not reflect the stance of many, many Presbyterians.

What does this paper mean when it says "God's promises of life in abundance for us and the whole creation"? The paper means a long list of things, including:

"God's promise of life in abundance for us" means a socialist Garden of Eden, here and now. Is that what Presbyterians believe God has promised? If put to a vote, I would be willing to guess that the answer is no.

Another thing to consider is how this statement would be used in the future. Many commissioners will be overwhelmed by the amount of material they are required to handle, will not be equipped or experienced enough to read these statements critically, and will be discouraged from analyzing too closely because there is not enough time. However, when it is approved, this statement will be used for years as "the discerned mind of Christ by the 218th General Assembly (2008)" as if it were unanimous and unambiguous.

How could commissioners effect real change at this Assembly? Two suggestions. Both are radical, but think this through:

1. Presume a "no" vote until there is compelling reason to vote "yes." Making such a presumption would be the exact opposite of what happens now. The current method of operation is that the General Assembly is a rubber stamp for what the agencies want to do. Again, let us face the obvious: what we are currently doing is not working.

Instead, the standard for a "yes" vote should be, "Will this actually, realistically, likely equip us toward being the church God has called us to be?" If that standard cannot be met, the vote should be no.

2. Require an affirmative vote of the presbyteries before approving social policy. Raise the bar for what is required instead of lowering it. That is, submit all of these papers for presbytery voting -- widen the playing field. If the papers are not clear enough or persuasive enough, they do not become policy. If it took a majority of the presbyteries to approve -- a presbytery that failed to vote for lack of interest would have the effect of a
"no" vote -- it would limit policy on behalf of the church to that which the church actually supports. It also would eliminate the pattern of being stuck with statements because there is not enough time for debate.

Just as we would not give a signed blank check to a stranger, so we should not lightly yield the responsibility for speaking on our behalf.