What’s the difference between Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton? Policy positions aside, two things come to my mind. Only Clinton finished his second term as president. And only Clinton had James Carville serving as a political consultant.
When then-president Richard Nixon was accused of participating in unethical and illegal activities and a cover-up, he took cover under a cone of silence. He would not dignify his critics with an answer.
When Bill Clinton was accused of unethical and illegal activities and a cover-up, he unleashed the voice of his chief political consultant. Carville, the “Ragin’ Cajun,” believed that unanswered accusations will lead a skeptical populace to interpret that silence as an admission of guilt. Not only did he respond. He did so with force, often with counter-attacks, and almost always before the next news cycle.
The rest is history.
The national leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have absorbed innumerable accusations in recent years, and they have generally held their own council; they have expressed only a Nixonian silence. With quiet dignity they have resisted the tendency to defend themselves. But their silence has exacted a high price; their credibility has suffered in many regions of the church.
Now they have taken a more Carvillian tack. No, they didn’t rush to respond. And they didn’t counterattack. But they have spoken with clarity and force. On June 12, 2007, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick and General Assembly Council Executive Director Linda Valentine sent to all the stated clerks and executive presbyters a letter and study document that respond to the New Wineskins Association of Churches (NWAC) which, they say, “has circulated material that mis-characterizes central convictions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s faith and life.”
The study document, “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord,” was prepared by the Office of Theology and Worship and is available online at www.pcusa.org/mgbconnect . Please read it. Given that the NWAC rationalizes its call to separate from the PC(USA) on charges of apostasy, this document methodically sets the record straight.
The five-page response concludes:
The New Wineskins Association of Churches has raised questions about the faith and mission of the church that must be dealt with seriously. However, the confessional and constitutional theology and practice of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) cannot be fairly censured with the careless charge of “apostasy.” Neither can the whole church be held responsible for every departure from its standards voiced by individual ministers, elders, deacons, and members. Let us all strive to recover the original purpose of governing bodies as settings of mutual responsibility and accountability in which faithful discourse deepens the church’s beliefs and focuses the church’s mission. If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind (Philippians 2:1-2).
Critics of the Louisville response have countered that the problem with the PC(USA) is not so much its doctrinal positions but its failure to discipline those who deviate from them. That accusation comes closer to the truth than those actually leveled by NWAC. But, let us consider the task of exercising discipline.
Some religious bodies do maintain careful discipline. Denominations are able to exercise scrupulous discipline if they are small in number, monolithic in mindset, mono-cultural in heritage, single-gender in leadership, controlling of all faculty appointments (from Sunday School to seminary), and constantly scrutinizing the actions of their leaders and members. According to those criteria, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) flunks. Discipline is prosecuted — as any defrocked minister can testify — but the disciplinary process delivers inconsistently. Both our diversity-in-unity and our structural democracy produce clumsiness, even as they provide a grand privilege.
Nevertheless, in the midst of such diversity, the plumb line, the standards, the confessions, the theology proclaimed in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have not abandoned the faith once delivered. We have not departed from the Tradition.
Oh, I’m not recommending that we actually follow the example of the Ragin’ Cajun. James Carville says crass things in uncivil ways. But he defended his employer with effect. And in the case of the PC(USA), our leaders have defended us with effect. More power to them. They have spoken well.