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Friday, September 25, 2015

Thornwell's Revenge?

A collection of overtures sent by South Carolina’s Foothills Presbytery to next summer’s General Assembly is attracting a lot of buzz. Some remarks are favorable, but the vast majority of reactions I’ve heard are negative.

Given that the professed intention of the overtures is to streamline and systematize the Assembly’s ponderous and sometimes chaotic docket — a common source of complaints, voiced especially by first-time commissioners — then why the skepticism about these overtures?

It’s because, to many observers, the Foothills overtures seem to mask a darker intention. The friendly- and benign-sounding goal of taming the Assembly’s docket hides a deeply reactionary goal of stifling nearly all change and hobbling the Assembly’s ability to manage its own rules.

Here’s what the eight Foothills overtures do:

1) Devote each General Assembly to considering one of the six Great Ends of the Church (F-1.0304) on a rotating basis, considering in that year only matters that pertain to that Great End. Constitutional amendments could only be considered every third Assembly (which, with a biennial meeting schedule, means every six years). Even then, no amendment could be considered that has not achieved prior endorsement by 15% of the presbyteries.

2) Proposed social-witness policy statements must have the prior endorsement of one-third of the presbyteries.

3) For the next three General Assemblies, block the Assembly’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy from proposing anything to the Assembly. The only way for that group to get any business before the Assembly would be for them to convince a sufficient number of presbyteries to generate overtures.

4) For each General Assembly, allow one-fifth of the presbyteries, on a rotating basis, to send their executive presbyter (or whomever most closely approximates that function, if they don’t have one) as an advisory delegate with voice.

5) Require a supermajority of two-thirds of the presbyteries to ratify any constitutional amendments, and require the next General Assembly to ratify any amendments that do gain that level of support, before they could become part of the Constitution.

6) Allow presbyteries to abstain from voting on proposed constitutional amendments (presently they may only vote “yes” or “no,” with any failure to vote being counted as a “no” vote).

7) Allow presbyteries and synods to overture the General Assembly to amend or suspend any of the General Assembly’s Standing Rules (presently they can do this by asking their elected commissioners to do so).

8) Presbyteries and synods may do the same for the Manual of the General Assembly.

In placing a contingent of presbytery executives on the floor of the Assembly as watchdogs (overture 4), and in giving presbyteries and synods control over the Assembly’s own rules (overtures 7 and 8), the Foothills overtures significantly weaken the Assembly’s ability to control its own destiny. In allowing presbyteries to dodge the responsibility of voting on constitutional amendments, overture 6 allows presbyteries to rudely ignore any amendment — notwithstanding the fact that the Assembly considered it important enough to ask presbyteries to vote on. In requiring a two-thirds supermajority for amendments, overture 5 embodies a deep fear of change.

Overtures 4 through 8, therefore, go way beyond mere conservatism to make the church captive to reactionary politics. They resuscitate, for the ecclesiastical context, the sort of States’ Rights and nullification procedures that the United States of America fought a Civil War to overcome.

As for overtures 1 through 3, these seek to summon, like the biblical Medium of Endor, a particularly scary ghost whom Presbyterians have not seen since the late 1800s: the ghost of James Henley Thornwell.

Thornwell was one of the church’s most brilliant theologians and would have been numbered among the greats, were it not for one fatal mistake on his part: he sullied his intellectual reputation by arguing vigorously for slavery as a biblically-sanctioned institution. He did so by promoting a deeply-flawed theological principle he called “the Spirituality of the Church.”

By this, Thornwell meant that the church ought to consider only “spiritual” matters. Because he considered slavery a legal rather than a spiritual matter, he believed the church had no business even talking about it. Such decisions belonged to secular government. Church councils — be they presbyteries, synods or the General Assembly — did best by avoiding such topics altogether.

Thornwell would have made a lousy Old Testament prophet.

The first three of the Foothills overtures sound like pages torn from Thornwell’s polity playbook. They treat social witness policy — as the mid-nineteenth-century Southern Presbyterians treated slavery — like some malodorous topic that doesn’t belong in polite ecclesiastical society. While recognizing that, every once in a while, the church may have no choice but to address such “unspiritual” matters (holding its nose all the while), they so limit the church’s ability to do so that Presbyterians would rarely, if ever, be able to speak truth to power.

It’s incredible to me that, in the twenty-first century, States’ Rights and “Spirituality of the Church” principles like these could gain traction in any segment of the PC(USA).

The Assembly will of course give them due consideration. It's the Presbyterian way.