Friday, August 8, 2014

The Road Less Travelled

An anti-totalitarian theory/view of religious establishment is popular in America for church-state relations, one that emphasizes institutional pluralism and the importance of competing sources of authority. It is often used to defend the two religion clauses in the First Amendment to the US Constitution (Establishment clause and Free Exercise clause)*. We resist the establishment of a single official church and embrace religious pluralism, even though pluralism at the time of the Founding Fathers meant varying Christian denominations. We seek to preserve separate sources of authority so no single source of authority gains power because, the argument goes, a population with varying religious beliefs is less likely to accept or enable government concentration of power. Church leadership then it seems should look more like the servant leader model Jesus demonstrated. Is it so? That's what I begin to explore in The Road Less Traveled By, a title, which, btw, is from the last para of Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken.** It should be self-explanatory.

Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment is a paper on church leadership and their structures written by Beau Weston 6 years ago. I could neither resist the paper's title nor a name like Beau. Beau conjures up visions of enthralling entertainment. I just had to read the article! It turns out Beau's name is William J. Weston but the article did not disappoint. Here are some interesting snippets from Part 1 of  the paper. If your appetite is whetted the link to the full text of the article is at the end. There are 4 parts

Part I: Presbyterian Establishments: Built and Unbuilt
Forty years ago the church made a systematic effort to dismantle its power structure - the establishment - and dissipate its authority.  (p. 7)
An establishment is an integrated body of authoritative leaders. A mere elite, by contrast, is an aggregation of individuals who have risen to the top of various power pyramids, but who are not integrated with one another. (p. 8)
The Establishment are made of equal parts cultural commitments and structural position... To take an example from generations, the Establishment leaders believed the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, but also chose to live with the few Presbyterian officers who did not as long as the dissidents respected the polity. To take an example from today, the shadow establishment accept the ministerial gifts of women, but also choose to live with the few Presbyterian officers who do not, as long as the dissidents respect the church's order. (p. 8)
Committed loyalist Presbyterians... ended up at the heads of denominational agencies or national committees, as presbytery moderators or stated clerks, and most of all, as "tall-steeple" pastors... their authority in the church was based on years of service as commissioners and committee members. (p. 8) 
The old Presbyterian Establishment really showed its mettle in the fundamentalist/modernist controversy of the 1920s and 30s. After decades of conflict the church appointed the Special Commission of 1925 to settle things. ... The church was so grateful to the commission for resolving the controversy that in 1927, the year it made its final report, the General Assembly elected Robert Speer, the commission's best known and most Establishment member, moderator of the church by acclamation. In those days, as in ours, moderatorial elections were hotly contested between idealogically opposed candidates. It was remarkable, therefore, that all other candidates would agree to withdraw in favor of the unifying leader of the Establishment. (p. 9)
The very concept of an establishment fell into disrepute, and was denigrated as an "old boy's network." (p. 10)
The Presbyterian Church enthusiastically adopted the new spirit of inclusion. By the end of the 1970s the church had changed its rules, even its constitution,to mandate representation on the basis of sex, age, and race. The General Assembly added Youth Advisory Delegates (YADs), with real power to speak and to even vote. ... Most forcefully, the church's constitution was changed to mandate women's representation at all levels of the church, down to the local session. (p. 10)
 The church took strong steps to disperse the power and authority of those leaders who remained in place. Sessions were required to rotate members. ... Where tall steeple pastors were once the natural leaders, they were now likely to be excluded. (p. 10)
 The General Assembly took the most extreme steps to prevent any sort of establishment from having power (p. 10)
Two negative consequences followed  from dismantling the church's Establishment. One was that more and more decision-making devolved to the staff... The second problem, though, is worse than having staff make decisions: the church makes no decisions at all. The decisions of one general Assembly are undone by the next, ... (p. 11)
 So what has been the next effect of disestablishing the Presbyterian Establishment? Women, racial-ethnic minorities, and youth are indeed included at higher rates in the church structure. But the church structure itself has less and less authority. (p. 11)
Part II: Shaping Workable Presbyterian Categories
Part III:  Leadership in the PC(USA): Persons and Councils
Part IV: Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment

Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment by Beau Weston. 2008. 33 pages. Available from PC (USA) website.  URL:

*Establishment Clause: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,... and Free Exercise Clause:  or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; Source: First Amendment, United States Constitution, Available from Legal Information Institute, Cornell University. URL:

**From The Road Not Taken By Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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