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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Bossism in the Presbyterian Church?

By sheer chance, searching for something else in the New York Times online archive, I came across the article reprinted below. Although it sounds like an editorial, it was located in and amongst the regular news articles. (I'm not sure newspapers made a very sharp distinction between editorial and news content back in 1896.)

The subject is "Bossism in the Presbyterian Church." The writer makes the case that the General Assembly is easily manipulated by its own staff, and that its decision-making processes make it difficult for the commissioners elected by the presbyteries to influence the outcome.

What's remarkable to me is that the argument is strikingly similar to that being advanced by proponents of the "Foothills Overtures" that will be up for consideration by this summer's General Assembly, calling for more controls on any one Assembly's power to make decisions.

But here's the thing: the author of the article, who's sympathetic to the liberal wing of the church, is complaining that it's the conservatives who benefit from the way the Assembly does things! (This is the polar opposite of the situation with this year's Foothills Overtures, which have been advanced by disaffected conservatives who are upset with the Assembly's social-justice pronouncements.)

The "bossism" charge is, of course, an allusion to New York City's notorious Tammany Hall political machine, then in its full manipulative glory. The Assembly's then-Stated Clerk, the Rev. W.H. Roberts - who served in that post for 36 years - is cast in the role of Boss Tweed.

The issue in question is the notorious Briggs Case, by which an earlier Assembly had judged Professor Charles Briggs of Union Theological Seminary in New York a heretic, on account of his un-fundamentalist approach to scripture (Briggs was a noted professor of Old Testament; the "Brown-Driver-Briggs" Hebrew lexicon, of which he was a principal author, is still in wide use today).

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," as the old French proverb goes.

It's been well over a century that the complaint about staff domination of the General Assembly has been raised. I suppose one could respond by saying that, 120 years later, it's high time the General Assembly made some changes!

On the other hand, one could respond by observing that this complaint is merely a perennial "sour grapes" reaction on the part of Presbyterians who disagree with decisions the General Assembly has made.

You decide.

New York Times, May 18, 1896, p. 4.

Bossism in the Presbyterian Church

Professor Charles Briggs
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church meets this week at Saratoga. The result of its action will be watched with interest and some anxiety by those who dread what they consider the undue centralisation of power in the Assembly. Originally the Assembly busied itself chiefly with the broader interests of the Church: its missions, home and foreign, and its inter-denominational relations. Of late it has asserted itself more and more in matters hitherto considered the special prerogatives of the lower courts. It constituted itself a heresy court, and made manifestoes on the most abstruse topics of theology. Then, finding that its dictation was not relished by the seminaries, it attacked them and sought to dominate not only their orthodoxy, but their financial administration. Having succeeded in some measure, it has of late sought still further extension of its power. The condemnation of Prof. Briggs logically resulted in the withdrawal of Church recognition from the institution with which he was connected, and which steadily supported him. This, however, was soon seen to be of very little moment. Union Seminary continued on its way, received students under its instruction, and sent them to the Presbyteries for examination on the same basis as did the various Congregationalist, Methodist, and other theological schools. They were received or not, according to their individual opinions, without regard to the source of those opinions. The sharpest examinations failed to discover traces of heresy in them, and there seemed to be danger lest the ground gained in the condemnation of the Professor should be lost by the indorsement of the students. The conservatives hit upon a plan, which they carried through in a way worthy of the methods by which New-York has been governed politically, and “jammed through” the Presbytery of this city an apparently harmless question, addressed to the Assembly, as to what was the Presbytery’s duty in regard to the students. With the Assembly entirely under their control, it was not difficult to get an “injunction” against receiving the students.

The boycott seemed to be complete. But this was a longer step than some even of the conservatives were willing to take. They began to realize that the dominating power of the Assembly, with which they had no fault to find so long as it affected simply men with whom they did not agree, was being extended over one of their most ancient rights and privileges, the right of judgment as to the qualifications of candidates for the ministry as well as authority over ministers. Were the Assembly a continuous body, or had it even as much of continuity as Congress, it would be different. It is, however, in fact a popular convention, largely composed of men, both ministers and laymen accustomed to rule, of procedure, and absolutely at the mercy of skillful tacticians, as has been repeatedly evident in the past few years. Some of the strongest conservatives in several Presbyteries, therefore, have joined hands with liberals in the right of judgment as to the qualifications of candidates for the ministry, as well as authority over them after ordination.

Stated Clerk William Henry Roberts
The situation is complicated by the peculiar constitution of the Assembly and the fact that it is largely under the control of one man. The Stated Clerk of the Assembly has by virtue of his position peculiar influence. He is in charge of the general statistics of the Church, gives notification of all action of the Assembly, is Secretary of all hold-over committees, and in general has to do with everything and everybody. The present Stated Clerk Is the Rev. W. H. Roberts, D.D., of Philadelphia. He has magnified his office. For several years he has carefully manipulated the different Assemblies. He has selected the Moderators and then acted as their adviser. He has nominated the committees, drawn up the legislation, pulled wires for his favorite benevolences, let recalcitrant seminaries and unruly Presbyteries feel the weight of his displeasure, and in general comported himself exactly as any political boss.

Here is really the most serious element in the situation. Natural conservatism is amenable to influence and increasing knowledge. Bossism allows no influence of any kind. The Presbyterian Church is a great power in the land, in its wealth, its education, its intelligence. If it could during the next two weeks throw overboard the influences that have been checking it, and declare for the right of men to do their own thinking and come to their own conclusions, untrammeled by ecclesiastical bosses, it would be a great thing for the Church.

(Photos are not from the original Times article.)

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