Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Presbyterians and Politics: A Puzzle

Of Presbyterians and Politics

I was a seminary student in the days when there was a conservative caucus within a conservative PCUS presbytery. This was a pre-presbytery meeting at which conservatives decided what would happen at the upcoming meeting without having to deal with those troublesome liberals.

One of my professors was also the stated clerk of the presbytery and a participant in the caucus. He got a fair amount of pleasure from gathering some of “his boys” in his office and telling stories about the personalities and powers in the old denomination.

One day after the caucus meeting, he was sharing a little gossip with some of us about the proceedings. He looked at us with the characteristic twinkle in the eye and wry smile and said of the caucus, “It’s wicked, you know. It’s wicked.” Little did we realize how right he was.

In early years of ministry I was a minister of the new Presbyterian Church in America in the PCA presbytery that succeeded the old PCUS one and encompassed the majority of Presbyterians in area where I had attended seminary. It did not take long before I began to perceive that, though we had separated from the liberals, we had not separated from the politics played by conservatives. Nearly forty years later my observation is that as it was in the beginning, so it is now.

More than twenty years after seminary, when I was about to move from “up north” a Yankee took me aside and said, “You’ll do well up there. You’re a straight shooter, and they like straight shooters.” 

What I found when I moved was that there was little intrigue, little arranging behind the scenes. The system worked. Clerks were clerks. Committees were committees. There seemed to be no good ole boy networks. Deliberations occurred on the floor. I, though a unreconstructed Confederate, could actually be heard when I spoke. Arguments mattered. There was less indirection. I never sensed there was "a plan", that people had been "talked to", that the fix was in. Fewer times was I among the losing minority. I still lost, but it was not so hard to take, because all was done above board.  I seemed able to make a difference. I found the openness refreshing.

Now I have a question for the ecclesiastical psychologists and sociologists. Why? Why the so obvious differences? Is it something about the cultural differences between Southerners and Northerners? Or the historical experiences of the Northern and Southern Presbyterians? Hodge and Thornwell? Or what?


The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Here's one person's guess (Not mine): " I think it has something to do with the differences between an aristocratic and rural society vs. an industrial and meritocratic one." Worth thinking about.

One unmistakable instance of this political power thing: In one presbytery, when the first stated clerk retired, the name of single nominee was brought forward, a knowelgeable parliamentarian of exellent temperament, not old (35-40) but experienced and mature.(NOT I.) The "old guard" would not have it. They nominated one of their own and elected him just to keep the office. No "outsider" could hold that office. The one who held it would have to understand the way things were done and play the game accordingly.

Perhaps we should adopt the old PCUS practice which required anyone seeking candidacy to go to one of the "Presbyterian Guidance Centers" at a Presbyterian College and undergo vocational and psychological testing. (When I went the psychologist said I should be a lawyer instead and that I would be a below average seminary student.) At any rate, men could be labelled according to their "Presbytery personality" and then encouraged to seek calls where they might fit the institutional dynamic.

Chris Harris said...

I was kicked out of a PCA church by this mentality. His wife was also a part of this. It was damaging all pre-determined, the peacemaker was determined to set me up. No respect for my opinion or that I was a Ruling Elder. My family is still hurting and many other families hurt.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Sorry, Chris. I am afraid this kind of thing happens all too often in churches and presbyteries.

Chris Harris said...

That is sad to hear. Especially when the Church of Christ is more ruthless than the world. How do we save ourselves from the injustice of a Church of Christ?

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Chris, I have thought for a very long time that the church is capable of far more ruthlessness than the world. And, it is made worse by the fact that those who are ruthless actually believe they are acting righteously. See my Blog "Anything But Man." Again, sorry brother you have had to experience it. There are not a few who have.