With relatively little discussion and no real opposition, the council approved an “interim statement” on Iraq — on important matters, the council is allowed to make interim statements on behalf of the PC(USA) between meetings of the denomination’s General Assembly. This statement, drafted by the council’s staff leadership team, points out that two General Assemblies, in 1998 and 2000, have called for the lifting of economic sanctions against Iraq.
The statement calls for Presbyterians to pray for leaders of the U.S., Iraq and the United Nations, and for the Iraqi people who suffer oppression and those who are fearful of war. It asks for prayer that Saddam Hussein will cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors and stop threatening violence. It asks Presbyterians to “urge restraint on the part of our own government” and to urge “negotiated solutions to international problems rather than the resort to military violence.”
It also calls upon national leaders, including President Bush and members of Congress, to refrain from language that labels certain people and nations as “evil” and others as “good;” to oppose ethnic and religious stereotyping; and “to allow the decisions of the United Nations regarding the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq to run their appropriate course, without undue pressure or threats of pre-emptive unilateral action in the meantime by the United States against Saddam Hussein or Iraq.”
Vice moderator breaks tie on news service report
The proposal to approve a paper clarifying the role of the Presbyterian News Service failed by the narrowest of margins — a 21-21 tie that was broken by the council’s vice-chair, Vernon Carroll of Montana, who at that moment was moderating the meeting and thus in a position to cast the tie-breaking vote.
Gary Luhr, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Communications, of which the news service is a part, explained before the vote was taken that the paper was written as an attempt to clarify questions that arise “with some regularity” about the role of the news service — and to ensure that the denomination’s “institutional voice” would be included in stories the news service writes, particularly on controversial subjects.
Luhr pointed out that the Presbyterian News Service has won awards from the Associated Church Press for “best denominational news service,” and “we’re very proud of that . . . Nobody is proposing that we turn the new service in to a public relations office. That’s not the intent.” Saying that the denomination’s “institutional voice” should be included in Presbyterian News Service stories is not a way of saying that denominational leaders should be able to “spin” the news service’s stories, Luhr added, but of saying that when many Presbyterians are speaking out on controversial issues — including special interest groups – those stories should include as well the opinions of denominational leaders and an explanation of the church’s official policies or positions.
The news service already is governed by editorial guidelines that say it shall operate “with freedom and integrity,” shall “report the facts accurately, clearly, fairly, impartially and promptly,” and shall adhere to the ethical standards of the Associated Church Press.
Despite assurances from both Luhr and the News Advisory Council that no attempt was being made to restrict the editorial freedom of the news service, some Presbyterian journalists have voiced significant concerns about the proposal.
John Bolt, a council member who works as an Associated Press bureau chief in West Virginia and who was a member of the News Advisory Council for six years, argued for the defeat of the paper regarding the role of the news service.
Bolt said he’s a journalist by trade, “a journalist by God’s calling.” And while the paper is “innocuous” on its surface, “I worry about the implications buried in this language. I worry about a different administration in a different time grabbing onto some of the language in the document and using it to in fact spin.”
Already, Bolt said, there has been an example of the first paragraph of a news service story being changed at a General Assembly “because it didn’t exactly sound right” to some of those in leadership. The real audience for the news service is Presbyterians in the pews, Bolt said, “not the people at 100 Witherspoon,” the PC(USA)’s headquarters in Louisville. “The Presbyterian News Service exists to report on the church for the church,” he said. “It is not the institutional voice for the church.” Marj Carpenter, a council member who’s a former General Assembly moderator and former Presbyterian News Service director, said she thought the measure should be defeated – but in case it wasn’t, she also proposed changes in the wording to remove language about what the news service “should” do.
“If we tie their hands too much I guarantee you Presbyterians will find something else to read,” Carpenter said, “and it won’t be out of 100 Witherspoon no matter how many communications experts we hire in different divisions” at the PC(USA) headquarters.
Report brings ‘great pain’
At its meeting Sept. 28, the council also heard a report — for information only — regarding the Independent Committee of Inquiry that has been investigating reports of physical and sexual abuse of children by Presbyterian missionaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire or the Belgian Congo, between 1945 and 1978. The inquiry involves allegations that the late Rev. William Pruitt, a missionary in the Congo who later served as associate pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church in Dallas and who died in 1999, had sexually abused children, a charge he denied before his death. Eight women, the daughters of other missionary workers in Africa, had brought allegations of abuse against Pruitt in Grace Presbytery in Texas, an investigation that, in accordance with PC(USA) constitutional procedure, stopped when he died.
The full council has not yet seen the inquiry committee’s report — it will not be made public until Sept. 30, to give the committee time to discuss the report with the survivors of the abuse before it is publicly released. But the council’s executive committee was briefed in closed session Wednesday on the inquiry committee’s work.
“When you receive the report, you will read the committee’s inescapable conclusion that a significant number of missionary children in the Congo were victims of physical and sexual abuse,” Barbara Renton of New York, chair of the General Assembly Council, said in prepared remarks Saturday. “You will also find that if our previous administrators and field personnel acted more aggressively and decisively on information they had, further abuse might have been averted.”
Renton added: “The executive committee felt great pain upon hearing these findings.”
And she said the inquiry’s report has 30 recommendations, at least some of which suggest ways for the denomination to prevent abuse in the future, and that in response to those recommendations “we must act to preserve the integrity of the church.” Renton said the executive committee has directed her to appoint a work group to consider the recommendations and to suggest changes the denomination might make in its policies or procedures.
The council and its committees also spent some time this week talking about ideas — trying, for example, to define better what the council’s role is, and having conversations in small groups about the council’s “strategic vision” — a process the council’s leadership is using to clarify what it sees as the PC(USA)’s most important work, in part because economic realities are forcing the denomination to make hard choices about what it can and cannot afford to continue to do. The ideas being discussed at this meeting were organized around the six Great Ends of the Church, as listed in the denomination’s Book of Order.
Mission Initiative steering committee named
On Saturday the council also was given the names of people who will be on the steering committee of the Mission Initiative, a five-year campaign to raise $40 million from big donors to support international mission work and new church development in the PC(USA).
The steering committee co-chairs are Lucimarian Roberts of Mississippi and Bill Saul of California, and its members are: Tim Hart-Andersen, Minnesota; Joanna Adams, Illinois; Edmundo Vasquez, New Mexico; John Huffman, California; Melva Costen, Georgia; Youngil Cho, North Carolina; Al Puryear, Virginia; Erin Cox-Holmes, Pennsylvania; Letty Owings, Washington; Fred Denson, New York; Chuck Ford, California; and John Williams, Kansas.
Roberts and Saul said earlier this week they are pleased that people who disagree with each other on some of the most controversial issues in the denomination are willing to serve with each other on the Mission Initiative steering committee — a sign, they hope, that the Mission Initiative will help draw Presbyterians together.