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On being Presbyterian and progressive
... and we believe you can be both!

Theological musings

A Role for the Left

"Theological Musings" is a regular column in Network News, by Dr. Douglas F. Ottati, Distinguished Professor of Reformed Theology and Justice Ministry at Davidson College, Davidson, N.C., alternating with the Rev. Dr. Paul Capetz.

[posted here on 5-26-08]

You may be interested to know that this column by Dr. Doug Ottati has attracted the attention of the Rev. Jim Berkley, Director of Presbyterian Action at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).

In a recent note on The Berkley Blog, the Rev. Mr. Berkley offered a word of warning to the Witherspoon Society, explaining that by publishing this article, the "Witherspoon Society Invites IRS Correction," for allowing an opinion to be expressed about the current presidential campaign.

Scroll down beyond his long note to see an interesting variety of responses, a number of them in effect urging him to do something better with his time.

The Rev. John Shuck, in his blog Shuck and Jive, has had fun tweaking Mr. Berkley about all this.

We believe that the views expressed by Dr. Ottati are perfectly legitimate theological-political reflections on the current situation in our church and our nation, and do not constitute an endorsement of any particular candidate.

But whatever you think of all that, we hope you'll find Doug Ottati's theological-social-political reflections helpful.

And if you have comments you'd like to share here,
just send a note!


If you are a Presbyterian and a progressive, then this year you’ve seen some good news and some bad news in both the church and the nation.

First, some good news from the church.

•     On January 15, the Presbytery of San Francisco voted 167 to 151 that Lisa Larges, a lesbian who works for That All May Freely Serve, is ready to seek ordination. Larges registered her disagreement with the “fidelity and chastity” standard or G. 6.0106b of the Book of Order and, in accordance with the recommendation of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity, the Presbytery judged this not to be a barrier to her proceeding with the ordination process.

•     Later that same month, and by a considerably wider margin, the Presbytery of the Twin Cities voted to reinstate the ordination of my good friend, Paul E. Capetz, a Professor of Theology and United Seminary of the Twin Cities, and an openly gay man. Capetz also scrupled G-6.0106b.

So, there was evidence of progress in the continuing effort to ordain called and qualified GLBT Presbyterians.

But there was also some bad news.

•     The vote in San Francisco was close, certain to be appealed to the Synod of the Pacific, and perhaps all the way to the General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission.

•     Before that could happen, however, the GA PJC ruled in February that a gay or lesbian who is expressing dis-agreement with the wording or meaning of provisions of the constitution, but does not permit disobedience to those behavioral standards.” (Presumably, then, as a married, heterosexual male I might scruple G-6.0106b since, in that instance, I would be departing only from the belief that this is a legitimate behavioral standard for ordination.) This, of course, renders the decisions in San Francisco and the Twin Cities uncertain and problematic, and (apparently) blocks any further such actions.

Under these circumstances, many Presbyterian progressives are trying to decide whether to support overtures to the General Assembly that would allow presbyteries to consider departures from all ordination standards once again, efforts simply to delete G6.0106b from the Book of Order, or both. The first option would allow presbyteries to decide once again what the Presbyteries of San Francisco and the Twin Cities Area did decide, namely, that gay and lesbian sexual relationships represent nonessential departures from our ordination standards.

Now for some good national news.

•     The popularity among American voters of George W. Bush and the War in Iraq have plummeted to the point where both seem likely to present real challenges to the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States.

•     The Democrats managed to come up with a good, even historic field of candidates for their presidential nomination, all with generally positive inclinations when it comes to Iraq, international policy, the economic situation of poor and middle class Americans, immigration, and more.

But there was bad news on this front as well.

•     The leading Democratic candidates have managed to get caught in a protracted struggle for the party’s nomination that is not making either of them look good.

•     Their struggle is giving John McCain, whose domestic and international policy preferences seem genuinely disturbing, some much-needed time to shore-up and sharpen his national campaign.

In this circumstance, many Presbyterian (and other) progressives found themselves having to decide between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

So, which particular initiatives regarding ordination standards in the PC (USA) should we support? Which Democratic candidate should we support?

My answer comes from my short-lived baseball career. Years ago in northern New Jersey, I played Little League for a team with forest green caps sponsored by the JD Construction Company. I wasn’t very good. (Hey, have you ever tried to get a Brazilian father to play catch?) Anyway, our coach tried valiantly to teach us how to play the game, and he must have told us a thousand things, but I only remember one. “Keep your eye on the ball, kid.” His point was that, in baseball, where the ball is and what you do with it is almost always essential. Yes, it’s easy to get distracted by other things that are going on, e.g., a friend yelling something from the bench, planes flying overhead. But then you lose sight of the ball, and that is almost never good. So, straight from Coach Smith, here is my answer: we should keep our eyes on the ball. Let me say what I mean.

First, consider ordination. The Peace, Unity and Purity Report offered a theology of conversation and discussion for the church in contentious times plus an argument that Presbyterian polity allows candidates to depart from ordination standards in ways that Presbyteries deem nonessential. When the GA adopted its recommendations, in effect, it asked presbyters to judge whether or not GLBT sexual relationships represent nonessential departures from the ordination standards published in the Book of Order. Please note, however, that any judgment on this question finally presupposes the same thing that any judgment for or against deleting G-6.0106b presupposes, namely, a substantive theological argument or position on human sexual relationships. But a theological argument or position on the basic substantive issue at hand is precisely what (for a variety of reasons) the Task Force did not furnish.

In this circumstance, a basic task of the left is not just to decide about the relative merits of attempts to reinstate the recommendations of the Task Force or of deleting G-6.0106b. It is to present arguments in favor of the judgment that committed and mutual gay and lesbian sexual relationships fall within a theologically normative understanding of human sexual relationships, and then to press for changes in church and world that accord with this judgment.

Among other things, this may include “commissioning” some short and clear outlines of substantive theological arguments in favor of the judgment that gay and lesbian sexual relationships may fall within the theologically articulated norm of faithfulness, and making these outlines available to persons and groups. If it also includes pressing to restore the possibility of scrupling G-6.0106b, then it should do so only as an interim, ameliorative measure together with pressing for what is judged as a matter of theological and ethical principle to be right and good, namely, the removal of barriers to the ordination of called and qualified GLBT persons who are involved in committed and mutual relationships, and the recognition of same sex unions and marriages.

Next, consider the question, Hillary or Barack? Many of us have our preferences. (Just before the Pennsylvania primary, a friend told me he might find it easier to vote for my dog, Sugar, in the fall than for H.C. In exit polls, a significant minority of the Pennsylvanians who voted for Clinton said they wouldn’t vote for Obama in the fall if he turns out to be the nominee. ) Even so, whether to support one or the other of the remaining candidates as they fight for the nomination is not the most important question facing Presbyterian (and other) progressives in this election. (And, remember, Sugar is not at all likely to be on either major party ticket.) The far more important thing is to articulate responsible arguments and positions on the main issues of the day, e.g., Iraq, the economy, and immigration, support the candidate in the fall who will best advance those positions and, in the case that this candidate needs to be pushed further, to go ahead and push him or her both before and after election day. In short, after eight years of W. and his many accomplishments, both foreign and domestic, our chief electoral responsibility seems nicely summarized by a sticker I saw the other day on another friend’s car: “Enough is enough. Vote Democratic.”

It really all comes down to this. Those of us who count ourselves Presbyterian progressives have recently had our ups and downs. We face a variety of challenges and also a number of strategic decisions, but if we keep our eyes on the ball, we will see that there is a continuing and clear role for Presbyterian left, namely, to frame explicit theological and ethical arguments about substantive issues of faith and life, to bring these into public conversations and debates, and to press church and society to act.

If you have comments you'd like to share here,
just send a note!


Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


John Shuck’s new "Religion for Life" website

Long-time and stimulating blogger John Shuck, a Presbyterian minister currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., writes about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.

Click here for his blog posts.

Click here for podcasts of his radio program, which "explores the intersection of religion, social justice and public life."


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood -- by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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