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.
New York Times, May 18, 1896, p. 4.
Bossism in the Presbyterian Church
|Professor Charles Briggs|
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|
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.)