In the seventh and final chapter, Weston gives his insights into how to deal with present conflicts; what he referred to in the Introduction as the “competitive church model.” It requires strengthening the loyalist center. Central to that aim are the following:
Make the constitution real. Let the presbyteries decide. Let the presbyters rule.
I think Weston’s discussion about the constitution and the Book of Confessions goes right to the heart of the matter. Up until the 1920s, the Westminster Confession served as the standard. Conservative forces persuaded the General Assembly to require subscription to the five fundamentals. However, it was later determined (and I think rightly so) that the General Assembly may not unilaterally impose doctrinal standards on the rest of the church. Such standards would have to be sent to presbyteries for their ratification. As Weston astutely points out, this does not mean that there may never be a set of essentials for the church.
In hindsight, I think the leadership of the denomination failed in the 1920s. While they rightly reversed the imposition of standards on the church neither did the leadership propose that denomination enter a time of discerning what was essential for the denomination. Weston points to the Adopting Act of 1729 and the provision that would allow individuals to declare scruples. However, my understanding is that the Adopting Act applied to only Chapters 20 and 23 of the Westminster Confession and the rest remained binding. There were still non-negotiable essentials. It seems to me that the decisions of the 1920s and 1930s left the denomination in confusion about where it stood in relation to the authority of the constitution.
Weston writes of the merger between the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the United Presbyterian Church in North America in 1958. A committee was established to write a new confession headed by Edward Dowey. The result was the Confession of 1967. However, more significantly was the idea of creating a Book of Confessions that would contain not only the Westminster and the new confession but several Reformed confessions. The net effect was to strip any confession or the confessions as a body, of any authoritative status. The default authority became the Book of Order.
Weston, and I with him, sees a need for some confessional standard that gives coherence to the church. He shies away from giving a specific prescription. He notes that the work being done in the Stated Clerks office to reframe the Book of Order has some hopeful signs.
It is with Weston’s second prescription, let the presbyteries decide, that I may differ with. (I say “may” because I am still not settled on this matter.) When writing about the confessions Weston writes:
I am not suggesting that each officer of the church must subscribe to every article of the confession of confessions. That issue was well settled by the Adopting Act. It is the task of the ordaining body – presbyteries in the case of clergy, sessions in the case of elders – to seriously consider whether officers of the church sincerely to the essential and necessary articles of our confession. (108)
As I wrote above, the Adopting Act left some things open to presbytery discretion but others were held essential. It is one thing to make a determination about a position that may be at the margins of what has been deemed essential, but quite another for individual bodies to pick and chose on a wholesale basis what is and isn’t essential. Any institution must have some things about which there is universal agreement. Otherwise, why exist.
Weston points out the “reserve clause” in the Book of Order, which shows that the presbytery is the basic constitute unit.
The jurisdiction of each governing body is limited by the express provisions of the Constitution, with powers not mentioned being reserved to the presbyteries, and with the acts of each subject to review by the next higher governing body. (G-9.0103)
Weston rightly points out that the church grew out of presbyteries linking with other presbyteries to form synods, which eventually lead to general assemblies. He looks to the fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s and Kenyon Case in 1974 (requiring ordination candidates to fully embrace the ordination of women) as examples of cases where the denomination imposed an unyielding standard on the whole church.
I don’t dispute that either of these cases may not have been the best solutions but again I do question the idea that everything can be up for grabs as to what is essential in any given presbytery. This strikes me as leaning to far in the other direction. The presbyteries originally linked with each other because of common theology and mission. I think that need exists today.
Finally, Weston raises the issue of presbyters rule and the need to put leadership in the hands of those ordained to lead and trust them to do so. He believes, as do I, that the experiment with youth elders, non-presbyter advisors and youth advisory delegates (at GA) is a failed one. He also is critical of the undue influence of professors and specialized clergy in the life of the church. We have to return to a model where those elected to oversee actually provide the oversight.
Weston closes the book with brief comments on perspectives offered by Jack Rogers and Jack Haberer on problems with the church. I will not delve into that here. He closes the book writing:
Here is what I think of as the Loyalist Text from the Book of Order:
The Presbyterian system of government calls for continuity with and faithfulness to the heritage which lies behind the contemporary church. It calls equally for openness and faithfulness to the renewing activity of the God of history. (G-4.0303)
All in all, I think Weston has done a tremendous service for the church in writing this book. As I wrote at the beginning of this series, any typology has it limitations. By necessity a typology is reductionistic. I think this typology captures the major forces driving the conflicts within the church and I think Weston focuses our attention on the critical issues that have to be addressed. I don’t know to what degree the present Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force used this book in their reflections on the issues but it appears to me that it has had significant influence. My major area of disagreement is about having a denomination without universally applied standards. I am not certain that is what Weston is advocating in the book but if so, I am not in agreement. Still, that leaves us with the question of what to do about standards and Leading from the Center is an excellent resource.
Chapter 6 – Practical Principles for a Competitive Church
Chapter 6 is a brief review of three significant episodes in the life of the Presbyterian Church. Weston is looking to our history for clues on how to be a church that deals with competition in a healthy way.
The first episode is the conflict that arose in 1729 between competing groups in Pennsylvania and New York about total subscription by ministers to the Westminster Confession. Some did not believe certain aspects of the confession to be as essential as others, while others wanted total allegiance. The compromise solution was to allow individuals to declare they had scruples with portions of the confession and let the governing body decide if the issues were essential or not. If the disputed issue was deemed non-essential, then everyone was to welcome the dissenting minister into ministry.
Weston sees an act adopted in 1758 as ancillary to the 1729 decision. Fractious conflict had developed in the years leading up to 1758 with some actively seeking schism. In an effort to address these concerns the following act was adopted:
That when any matter is determined by a major vote, every member shall either actively concur with, or passively submit to, such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. Provided always, that this shall be understood to extend only to such determinations as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine and Presbyterian government. (86)
The second episode is the controversy of the 1920s examined in earlier chapters. Concerning the decisions of the 1920s, Weston writes:
They settled on three points that all have resonance for today: (1) that no governing body of the church can, by itself, declare essential doctrine; (2) that tolerating difference in nonessential doctrine is a basic constitutional principle of the church; and (3) that church officers have a right to the freedom of conscience that protects dissent, but not defiance and schism. (88)
Weston goes on to show that in ways parallel to events of the mid-eighteenth century, the general assemblies of the 1920s and 1930s, after developing a strategy for addressing essential doctrine, went on to address the problem of those who actively promoted schism.
The third episode is our current dilemma. The present Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force is modeled on the Special Commission of 1925 with one very notable exception. The Special Commission was made up almost exclusively of loyalists. The present Task Force is made up mostly of people who have been clearly identified with one or the other wings of the church. As it is a task force and not a commission, it was not bound by the representation standards of the Book of Order. While it is a very diverse group balanced between men and women, there are two Ministers of Word and Sacrament for every elder. Weston sees the task force as an extension of our Presbyterian heritage in trying to find a balance between essential standards and toleration of differences.
As I read this brief historical overview and reflected on our current divide, it strikes me that our current problem differs in a significant way from the two previous cases. The first two cases were largely addressing theological or doctrinal positions with little direct implication for ongoing ethical behavior. The current controversy goes directly to the question of what constitutes ongoing ethical behavior for ordained persons in the denomination. To me, that adds a whole other layer of complexity.
Chapter 5 – What is Normal in the Presbyterian Church?
Weston is using the word “normal” here to mean what is typical for the PCUSA. I think the best place to begin with this chapter is the conclusion. After reviewing some fascinating statistical data Weston concludes:
What is normal in the Presbyterian Church? To believe that God is and loves us, that Jesus Christ is our savior, that nothing is more important in life than religion. To believe that the Bible shows God’s active involvement in all creation, but is not meant to be read as inerrant in each detail. To believe that the gospel is a gift we should bring to the world, not an imposition, because all faiths are not equal, but Christ alone is absolute truth, and God will judge all in the end. To go to church to worship and work, to pray and pay, to be friendly and faithful. And not least, to loyally serve the Presbyterian Church as it is.
If you want to compete and win in the Presbyterian Church, you have to play to what is normal. Play to the pillars, the loyalists. Show them the connection between what you propose and what they already believe and do. (77-78)
Most of this chapter is an analysis of data from the Presbyterian Survey 1994-1996 combined with independent research Weston did himself. He segments the denomination into four groups used by the Presbyterian Survey: Members, Elders, Pastors, and Specialized Clergy. The last group is ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament who are serving in some capacity other than pastoral ministry. Each of these groups exhibits some different characteristics with regard to demographics and values.
Using the self-identification of survey respondents, Weston uses classifications of conservative, moderate and liberal as a proxy for identifying the three parties we he has been discussing in the book. Weston used the 1994-1996 Survey for his data. Out of curiosity I entered his data into a spreadsheet and added the same data from the 2003-2005 Survey. Here are the four modified charts:
As you can see from the charts there is a right leaning majority among members and elders, a less pronounced lean to the right by pastors, and a left leaning majority among specialized clergy. What I found fascinating about the change to the more recent data is a decrease in the number of moderates in all four groups. The first three groups show a greater number of both conservatives and liberals, although the increase in conservatives is greater. For the specialized clergy, there was growth only among liberals.
It is important to keep in mind that pastors and specialized clergy make up less than 1% of the denomination but 50% of the voting bodies that govern the church at the presbytery, synod and general assembly levels. Consequently, if the general assembly elders and minister of word and sacrament contingents are representative of their broader groups, then half should have a distribution like the elders and half like ministers of word and sacrament.
There are a number of interesting findings in this chapter and I will highlight just a few.
First, Weston makes this rather startling observation:
Among theological conservatives, there are 89 married ministers for every divorced one; for those in the center the ratio is 16 to one; for liberals, there are 7.7 married people for each divorced person. An extraordinary extension of this pattern is that for ministers in church agencies or governing bodies (that is, presbyteries, synods, or General-Assembly-level bodies), the married-to-divorced ratio is 2.2 to one. (73)
It is interesting to contemplate what impact these numbers might have in terms of leadership for addressing family issues and sexuality, two issue that are at the top of the cultural agenda right now.
Second, Weston writes that the very conservative in the church are very much like most others in the church except for a few specific positions. However, the very liberal is the group least likely to reflect the character of the broader church. Yet what both have in common is that they are far more likely to have been life long Presbyterians. Most Presbyterians (I think it is about 60%) are not life long Presbyterians. Weston suggests that this reluctance to leave at the extremes may be in part because it is all these folks have known. They have never had to choose denominational home based on their congruence with its vision. This confirms a suspicion I have been developing, especially since being on the GAC.
Third, Weston presents and interesting analysis of perceptions of denominational leadership. He did a survey of the General Assembly Council (I am assuming about five years ago.) He found that 13% were conservative, 60% were moderate, and 27% were liberal. He found that liberal and moderate members of the Council perceived that they were twice as many liberals as conservatives with the majority in the middle. Conservative leaders believed their were three times as many liberals as conservatives and a plurality made up the middle.
Also, Weston wrote:
This leads us to findings related to church staff. The Presbyterian Panel includes a group of clergy serving on presbytery, synod, and national church staffs. This group is the most skewed to the left, with a six-to-one Democrat-to-Republican ration, almost not theological conservatives, and no political conservatives at all. This puts them considerably out of step with the conservative-leaning and predominately Republican Presbyterian Church. Yet this group also reports the highest rate of valuing their Presbyterian affiliation as part of their Christian identity.
What could account for this? The staff clergy also have a far higher rate of birthright Presbyterians than any other group. This could explain why clergy who are much more liberal than most pastors seem to wind up in the church bureaucracy, rather than moving on to a more liberal denomination. (76)
Chapter 4 – The Half-Finished Story of the Fidelity and Chastity Competition.
Chapter 4 is the first of two chapters addressing the question posed by Part Two of the book: Where are we now? Weston gives a quick summary of events that have led up to today. He writes of Presbyterian denominations merging into the Present Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1983. He writes of the upheaval in the culture and the church beginning in the 1960s and the resulting membership decline. Particularly significant, he notes the move away from the Westminster Confession as the confession of the church to having a Book of Confessions. This had the tendency to move constitutional authority away from confessions and to the Book of Order. (The PCUSA Constitution is seen as two parts with the Book of Confessions as Part I and the Book of Order as Part II, with the scripture above both.) The changes over the years have brought the denomination to place of intense competition similar to the period of the 1920s.
Weston singles out the “Fidelity and Chastity” portion of the Book of Order as the prime example of competition within the denomination. The “Fidelity and Chastity” moniker refers to section G-6.0106b of the Book of Order added in 1996:
Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
Starting with the 1970s, Weston gives a very good summary of the events that led up to this amendment and then chronicles the ramifications sense. He walks us through the Definitive guidance offered on issues related to homosexuality in the 1970s, permanent judicial commission rulings, the Keeping Body a Soul Together report to the General Assembly in 1991, and the proposed G-6.0106b amendment to the constitution in 1996 (ratified in March, 1997.) From this point he chronicles the events since that time to defend, soften, or remove this section from the Constitution. The conflict surrounding this and other topics led to the formation of the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force that will be bringing their report to the General Assembly next month.
I am not going to recapitulate all this chapter offers. I think it is an excellent summary of events for anyone wondering how we got here. Actually, I thought his opening two paragraphs for this chapter sum up present circumstances well.
The best way to see if loyalist competition is still driving the church would be to find an issue so divisive that the loyalist majority is forced to choose a direction for the church. No issue has been more divisive in the Presbyterian Church recently than homosexual ordination. This issue came to a head in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at the 1996 General Assembly and in the struggle over the fidelity and chastity amendment to the church’s constitution. The story is not over, but the fidelity and chastity amendment – now section G-6.0106b of the Book of Order – is a milestone in the loyalist reassertion in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) today.
The Presbyterian Church has maintained a consistent witness that homosexual behavior is a sin and the homophobia and civil discrimination against homosexuals are also wrong. In the past quarter century liberals have steadily increased their efforts to convince the church that homosexuality is not wrong, while conservatives, much less steadily, have been irritated by the church’s support of homosexuals. Somewhat to the surprise of both sides, the church has not changed it position much on this issue despite increasing pressure from both wings and growing weariness in the center. (47)
All in all, a pretty good summary, although in the last paragraph I would have concluded the second sentence by saying “irritated by the church’s support for legitimizing homosexual acts.”
Chapter 3 – Just Right: The Loyalist Constitutional Church of the Special Commission of 1925.
Chapter 3 picks up where the story of Machen and friends left off in Chapter 2. The 1925 General Assembly was a critical turning point. The denominational judicial commission had ruled that New York Presbytery had improperly licensed ministerial candidates who did not affirm the virgin birth. Yet the liberals and loyalists joined to elect Charles Erdman of Princeton Seminary as the moderator of the assembly. It appeared at the time that the liberal wing was ready to walk.
To address the controversy, Erdmann created the The Special Commission of 1925, commissioned with the task of finding a way to preserve the peace, unity, and purity of the church. (Is this sounding familiar?) The commission had fifteen people, mostly loyalists. They were mostly big steeple pastors and heavy-hitter business types.
Leaders of the various factions were invited to address the commission. As Weston writes:
The conservatives maintained that the cause of unrest was that there was a naturalistic liberal party in the church that was not Christian, which was being tolerated by the sleeping majority of the church. The conservative solution was to make the Presbyterian Church take a stand on the essentials of Christian doctrine, thereby driving the liberals out. This was the strategy behind the five points. The liberals, on the other hand, maintained that there had always been tolerance for diversity of opinion in the Presbyterian Church and that the problem came from dogmatic conservatives trying, unconstitutionally, to make everyone toe the line. This was the strategy of the “Auburn Affirmation.” (31)
The commission came to define the problem as one of disagreement between those who were sure of doctrine and those that were less sure. Weston included the following quote from the commissions report to the 1926 General Assembly.
The principle of toleration when rightly conceived and frankly and fairly applied is as truly a part of our constitution as are any of the doctrines stated in that instrument … Toleration as a principle applicable within the Presbyterian Church refers to an attitude and a practice according to which the status of a minister or other ordained officer, is acknowledged and fellowship is extended to him, even though he may hold some views that are individual on points not regarded as essential to the system of faith which the Church professes. (33)
This conclusion sent conservatives like Machen over the edge. As Weston notes, the battle moved from being between conservatives and liberals to being between conservatives and loyalists. Machen actively tried to split the church over doctrine but the loyalist redefined the controversy from one about doctrine to one about order. The remainder of the chapter goes on to show how Machen’s efforts ended up in him leaving Princeton to form Westminster Seminary and how Princeton came to be in the loyalist camp.
Closing the chapter, Weston writes:
By allowing competition with the constitution, the loyalist Special Commission of 1925 effectively ended the church’s civil war and, despite Machen’s best efforts, prevented a major schism. The center-right coalition that had run the church from the time of the Briggs case was displaced by a center-left coalition that has run the church of to the present crisis. (41)
This chapter finishes fleshing out Weston’s three party typology and I think it has considerable merit. The next two chapters, which I will turn to on Monday, offers Weston’s assessment of where we are now in the PCUSA.
Chapter 2 - Too Small: The Pure Conservative Church of J. Gresham Machen.
The second chapter introduces us to J. Gresham Machen, a Presbyterian professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary (1906-1929). The Liberal wing of the church successfully revised the Westminster Confession in 1903, softening its stance on predestination. This, among other events, provoked a conservative response that led the identification of the five fundamentals of the Christian Faith (inerrancy, virgin birth, vicarious atonement, bodily resurrection, and miracles). Affirmed by the General Assembly in 1910 and in 1916, the fundamentals become the center of controversy in the church and Machen became leader of the movement to repel encroaching liberalism.
The recurrent theme in all Machen’s conflicts was that he saw the Presbyterian Church as a voluntary society teaching a pure doctrine, and he did not see how he could remain in the same body with people who did not agree with all that doctrine.
Machen conceived of the church as an association for the teaching of Christian doctrine. This pure doctrine had its source in the Bible and its highest embodiment in the Westminster Confession, and it was not subject to change or development. To maintain the purity of the doctrine, the church must be tolerant, exclusive, and free from the state. Therefore, when Machen spoke of the “church” he normally meant only the content of its teachings, rather than all the phenomena one might find in the empirical Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Machen considered his group to be the truly constitutional party in the church, but by “constitution” he meant only the sections dealing with doctrine, not the larger body of material on order, government and discipline. (20-21)
Machen argued that a church, in contrast with the state, had a right to insist that those within it agree with all of its standards, and to remove any who did not. “Involuntary organizations,” he wrote, “ought to be tolerant, but voluntary organizations, so far as the fundamental purpose of their existence is concerned, must be intolerant or else cease to exist.
Machen had a conception of he church that was doctrinal, exclusive, intolerant, free, but not institutional. … (21)
Things came to a head in 1922 when New York Presbytery installed Henry Emmerson Fosdick, a non-Presbyterian and a professor at Union Theological seminary, as a pastor of a New York church. Fosdick spoke publicly against the fundamentals, provoking a response from conservative forces led by Clarence Macartney, Machen, and others. An overture to the General Assembly in 1923 called for Fosdick’s removal and for a reaffirmation of the fundamentals. Fosdick was eventually required to either become Presbyterian or vacate his pulpit (He chose the latter.) The affirmation of the fundamentals made a number of liberals and moderates uneasy and they issued the Auburn Affirmation that challenged fundamentals as essential to church doctrine. (About 1,300 of 10,000 pastors eventually signed on.) To Machen and company, this was a clear indication that there were two different religions under one roof (one being apostate) and one had to go.
Weston observes that the conservative forces attempted to address the issues at the General Assembly level rather than challenging the issues in individual presbyteries. To try to address issues through the assembly (that in some ways violated denominational polity) would have likely forced a denominational divide, while addressing issues through presbyteries might have might have pared the denomination down but not provoked a split. The specter of divide aligned the loyalists with the liberal wing even though many loyalists may have been in sympathy with the conservatives. How the loyalist handled this is the subject of the next chapter.
As someone who did not grow up Presbyterian, I am still intrigued to see how these events of 75-100 years ago still function as a template for many life-long Presbyterians. I have hit a raw nerve more than once with a variety of life-long Presbyterians in conversations simply because I was without the same template and the idea I had in mind was symbolic for them in ways that it was not for me.
Weston’s observation about the conservative impulse rings true to me from my experience. The emphasis on the doctrine to the near exclusion of institutional factors is an insightful perspective.
Next we will turn to chapter three and the loyalist party.
Chapter 1 - Too Big: The Inclusive Liberal Church of Charles A. Briggs
The first chapter introduces us to Charles A. Briggs, a Presbyterian professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York in the late 1800s. Briggs studied theology in Germany and became a proponent of the higher critical approach to scripture. His teaching spawned a series of church court cases that led to his suspension from the ministry in 1893. A couple of colleagues soon followed.
Weston gives some helpful background to the case. I found two lengthy paragraphs particularly fascinating:
On January 1, 1891, a few weeks before he delivered the address at Union Seminary for which he was tried, Briggs published a clear statement of his vision of the church in “The Advance toward Church Unity”:
[I]t is only within recent years that liberty and variety have been won within denominational lines. The victory results in the decay of denominational lines. This victory results in the decay of denominationalism; for in most, if not all, of the denominations there are those who break over the lines to the right and left and clasp hands with kindred spirits in other denominations. The conservatives are, for the most part, denominationalists, but the progressives are indifferent to denominational difference, and are most interested in the progress of the Church of Christ as a whole. The progressives [in each denomination] … are now the most powerful parties. The only hope of conservation is to unite the conservatives of all denominations against the progressives of all denominations. But so soon as this is accomplished the denominations will pass out of existence, and two great parties will divide Christianity between them. The old controversies are dead and buried; it is impossible to revive them. Those differences that gave the denominations their existence have lost their importance. … The signs of the times indicate that we are rapidly approaching … a crisis that will destroy denominationalism and make the Church of Christ one.
These words of a century ago could have been written by liberals today. Liberals today are drawn to the view that there is a vast “restructuring of American religion” that will dissolve the old denominations. If today they are not as likely to believe that “the progressives are now the most powerful parties” in each denomination, they often believe that history is on their side. Briggs makes the error here of treating conservatives and denominationalists as the same thing. Conservatives often agree with liberals that “the denominations will pass out of existence, and two great parties will divide Christianity between them.” Loyalists, however, stubbornly preserve the denomination as the living form of the church. Activists, whether of the left or the right, who miss this point, often end up outside the church. (14)
I almost laughed out loud as I read this passage and reflected on the fact that it was written 115 years ago! Not only is this worthy of reflection from the standpoint of the PCUSA but also for the emerging Church conversation. I have been in conversation with some emerging types who believe the postmodern world will usher in an entirely new state of human existence and denominations, along with many other social structures, will dissolve away. It is a historical inevitability. Mark Twain’s comment “Tales of my passing have been greatly exaggerated” comes to mind here. I do believe that we are experiencing a major upheaval and transformation of institutions but complete dissolution seems highly unlikely to me. It just isn’t clear what the new structures will look like. Briggs was predicting the imminent demise of denominations and then the culture entered a period almost hyper-denominationalism.
The basic impact of the Briggs saga was twofold. First, his vision expanded the boundaries of the church beyond that which conservatives could tolerate. They feared retreat from the Westminster Confession and doctrinal standards. Weston suggests that indeed Briggs and likeminded leaders probably sowed the seeds that lead to the abandonment of Westminster as the only confession in the 1960s.
Second, in essence Briggs vision dissolved the denomination in its efforts to create a broad inclusive “Church of Christ.” The institutional loyalists rejected that vision and saw it as a threat. It would appear from hindsight that they were justified in their fears as Briggs went on to become a champion of organic union between all denominations.
Weston writes that liberals were chastened by the Briggs case and a couple other notable dismissals in the 1890s. He closes the chapter by noting that:
They [liberals] learned a greater respect for compromise and for the constitution of the church. For this reason they had much greater success in broadening the institutional base of the church in the decades of the 1900s. Ultimately the ability of liberals to compromise with the loyalists – and the rejection of accommodations by the conservatives – would mean the triumph of pluralism in the Presbyterian Church for a long time. (18)
In short, the liberals wanted a church that was too big, too fast.
This is the first of eight posts discussing Dr. William J. “Beau” Weston’s book Leading From the Center: Strengthening the Pillars of the Church, published in 2003. Weston is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. (He also has a great blog called The Gruntled Center.) I have informed Beau that we will be discussing his book and he may check in from time to time as his busy schedule permits.
A few weeks ago, I reread Weston’s book Presbyterian Pluralism: Competition in a Protestant House (1997), about the dynamics of the controversies at work in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in the 1920s. Leading from the Center clearly builds on Presbyterian Pluralism and applies lessons learned to our present context. The forward is written by Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick. He clearly sees a connection between Weston’s analysis and the issues faced by the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force formed just months before the book was published. The PUP Task Force’s recommendations seem to have drawn much from Weston’s analysis. Since the PUP Task Force report will be presented to the General Assembly in about six weeks I thought it might be interesting to have a discussion about the book.
The book has three parts. The first three chapters make up the first part and answer the question “How did we get here?” Chapters four and five make up the second part and answer the question “Where are we now?” The last two chapters answer the question “Where can we go?” I will begin with the introduction today and cover each of the next three chapters over the remainder of the week. Next week we will complete the last four chapters.
Weston gives us his basic thesis in the introduction. He believes that a “competitive constitutional church” is the most desirable way to address the controversies we face. He writes:
The short version is that the best way to contain the deep disagreements that are endemic in the church is to let the opposing extreme parties compete for the central majority. The best way to direct the competition is if all parties adhere to the church’s constitution, both the procedural parts and the substantive parts. (1)
Weston believes that if we were to place folks in the denomination on a continuum we would find find vocal and motivated advocates at the extremes. A commonly held view is that there is a battle by between left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive and orthodox, to win over wishy-washy moderates. The left tends to identify itself by its ecumenical connections and the right by its doctrinal purity. The left tends to advocate dialog and the right tends to advocate decisive political conflict.
Weston challenges the notion of left and right fighting for a wishy-washy middle. Instead, he sees loyalists (as opposed to wishy-washy moderates) occupying the middle ground. There are at least three parties in competition. Loyalists are motivated by an agenda to preserve and care for the institution. He writes that they tend to value peace, unity, and purity, in that order. (3) The left and right tend to force either/or decisions and the loyalist are deeply resistant to such dichotomies.
Weston points out that the PCUSA is a constitutional church and he gives a brief history of how that has emerged. He points out that in recent decades there has been a discernible slide toward congregationalism. So much so that few in our churches have any knowledge about denominational structures and the issues they face. Most congregations tend to be more homogeneous in their make-up and it is mystifying to many members why there should be so much division at higher levels. Yet as Weston rightly observes the denomination is not homogeneous and such unity from homogeneity should not be expected at the denominational level. The competitive constitutional church gives us a constructive way to function as a denomination with left and right competing for loyalist hearts and minds, all within an environment that is respectful of constitutional provisions.
I like Beau’s basic typology and it rings true to my experience in the church and other large organizations I have served in over the years. As with any typology, it over simplifies when we try to bring it to an analysis of specific individuals. Yet when we look at the organization in the aggregate I think it describes the dynamics quite well.