Monday, November 28, 2005

Light and Longing from the Middle of the ABC Muddle - The "Center" Speaks on Target

One of my favorite sources of information on the ABC crisis comes from the blog, “ABC Views from the Middle.” Authored by two avowed centrists, executive ministers Susan Gillies and Dwight Stinnett, they typically offer extremely helpful insight into the soul of the American Baptist experience as they see it. Today, Dr. Stinnett penned a report on the recent ABC meetings in Green Lake, filled with keen observation, painful soul searching, and an almost plaintive admission of denominational failure.

First, he confesses to mixed feelings about the words added to the “We are American Baptists” identity piece. But, unlike so many on the left, his reasons are not rooted in a reflexive “creedaphobia” or fear of “creeping creedalism.” Rather, he muses that matters of sexuality belong more properly to discipleship concerns and a focus on morality and behavior.

Second, Dr. Stinnett, objects to the changes in wording due to a fear that such actions will inevitably raise the stakes of the conflict by raising false hopes and expectations.

Third, he objects to the “inability/unwillingness of the General Board and the General Secretary to find Christ-centered, compassionate ways to implement policies and resolutions within the limits of their authority—and to say so clearly and publicly.” Here our voice from the middle sounds more like a PSW objector on the right.

And, fourth, our truly candid member of the General Executive Council admits that the frustration being experienced by congregations in the ABC with their Valley Forge leadership is shared by the “majority (yes, the majority) of our churches.” Heretofore, the prevailing VF mythology has required professing the ABC to be a relatively content 80% majority of loyal American Baptists with perhaps a 10% fringe group on the left and another 10% fringe group on the right.

Dr. Stinnett’s remarkable analytical overview includes some heart-rending admissions of corporate failure and telling predictions of potential disastrous consequences (terrorism or revolution) if these trends remain unchecked.

Due to the insightfulness of Dr. Stinnett’s blog, I have included it in full for your careful consideration. "His Barking Dog" provided the bolding of lines referenced in this introduction.

Board and GEC Recap
By Dr. Dwight Stinnett

Susan – I am sorry for my absence. No doubt you are frustrated by my silence because we promised one another to do this together. There are probably plenty of other things about me that you find frustrating. I want you to know that I do not take you for granted. I wish everyone had experienced your caring compassion in the same ways that I have.

Since there has been a little “distance” since the General Board and GEC meetings, I will venture to speak to those—even if it may not be appropriate.

I don’t think it is any secret that the Indiana-Kentucky Region (INKY) presented a petition to the General Board in June. It was a complex proposal that was appropriately introduced and duly received its first reading. As is the usual course of such proposals, it was worked on during the Summer and received its second reading at the November General Board meeting. As a result, the document “We Are American Baptists” was amended, adding the following line to the section “A Biblical People:”

Who submit to the teaching of Scripture that God’s design for sexual intimacy places it within the context of marriage between one man and one woman, and acknowledge that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Biblical teaching.

In one sense, there is nothing new here. Essentially the content of the ABCUSA Policy Statement on Family Life (7036:6/84) and the ABCUSA Resolution on Homosexuality (8200:10/92) were added to the document that the General Board had previously adopted as “an expression of Christian faith representative of American Baptists.”

In another sense, it is new to see something like this in our statement of faith. I confess that I have mixed feelings about it. I agree with both the “Statement on Family Life” and the “Resolution on Homosexuality.” And I have no problem with the expectation that ABCUSA (and ABCUSA is not to be confused with any Region) teaching and behavior should be consistent with both. Indeed, statements adopted by the General Board should be sufficient. My uneasiness is in the elevation of such issues to the level of faith. But that uneasiness is not because I am moved by the tiresome charge of “creedalism.” I am uneasy because both marriage and sexuality, while important, remain peripheral to my core faith beliefs. To me these are morality and behavior issues; they are discipleship concerns and flow out of my faith. While very important (and essential considerations in ordination), they are neither the objects nor expressions of my faith.

At the same time, this is consistent with our pattern of behavior. American Baptists of all varieties have sought to have their issues endorsed at the highest level. It cannot be reduced to a question of “right” or “left,” “fundamentalist” or “liberal.” All across the spectrum it is done. Key documents tend to become exhaustive catalogs of behaviors and expectations because we cannot practice discernment and discipline. (And then we merely ignore them, because they don’t mean anything). And that is what I find really troubling.

I am also concerned about the inclusion of this line in our statement of faith because raises the stakes. It has the potential for increasing the conflict, not resolving it. In particular, it may raise false hopes and expectations. And I am concerned that we have set a pattern for the future. Will every issue become a candidate for inclusion in our statement of faith?

Nevertheless, this move was could be predicted because of the frustration that the majority (yes, the majority) of our churches are experiencing over the inability/unwillingness of the General Board and the General Secretary to find Christ-centered, compassionate ways to implement policies and resolutions within the limits of their authority—and to say so clearly and publicly. As that frustration mounts, the chances for thoughtful action go down. If left unchecked, terrorism or revolution will result. As supposed leaders in this denomination, we must own up to our failure to lead through this frustration.

From another arena, I am not sure how public the General Executive Council (GEC) actions are, but I will venture to comment on them as well.

There were three actions of GEC reported to me (and everything I have to say is based on the accuracy of that report).

First Action: That the GEC express in writing a desire for PSW to remain in the Covenant of Relationships.

Second Action: That GEC appoints a group of people to craft and implement an intervention strategy that would engage PSW and all the other parties who have engaged in this process so far to bring to conclusion in a given time frame and report back to GEC in April of 2006.

Third Action: Building upon its action in the Spring of 2005, the GEC has observed a confluence of events that are symptomatic of a need for a comprehensive reevaluation of the very character of what it means to be a denomination in this day, and that we accordingly resolve to put in place a process to review the Covenant of Relationships to include a review of our values, structure, and decision-making processes that would form the basis of a new relationship together.

I affirm all three actions. We should not have gotten to this point without taking such action.

In particular, the Third Action is both significant and long overdue.

The debates around the Commission on Denominational Unity (CODU) report in 1997-98 exposed fundamental flaws in our organizational culture—in particular our inability to deal with deeply divisive concerns in constructive ways, especially if it means setting limits. The debates in the midst of Common Budget Covenant negotiations (which were not common public knowledge) also indicated to me a growing disregard for our covenantal life together. I concluded two years ago that our covenant life together was nominal at best.

I am not certain where this conversation will lead, but I hope that it is not too late. If the covenant partners (all 39? of us) cannot agree how we will be legally autonomous but covenantally interdependent at the same time (and also persuade/teach our churches what that means) then ABCUSA will dissipate into irrelevance.

Susan, a long time ago (too long ago) you asked me what I wanted. It is time to be obtuse—probably something you have come to expect from me. I want ABCUSA to act like a healthy family, not a madhouse full of self-centered juveniles.

You have never known me without a beard. While I have had a moustache since high school (grown in response to the rule that we couldn’t have one), beards have come and gone. The present facial hair was grown ten years ago while I was in Russia teaching Baptist pastors. The longer I was there, the more those students came to trust me and to ask more personal and pointed questions. Questions like: How much did I make? Did I tithe? Did my wife and daughter wear jewelry? Did I do baptisms in a stream or in a baptistery? Why do Americans hate Russians?

As Spring came and the time for my departure neared, I was asked about my beard. I knew from Russian history that Peter the Great had outlawed beards as part of his drive to modernize and westernize his empire. But there seemed to be more to it than that—at least among these young Baptist pastors.

I pressed to clarify the issue, and finally they were able to say: “What if your church doesn’t like it?” I was a little surprised that they did not ask about my wife or daughter, but were concerned about my pastoral relationship with my church—the household of God I was privileged to lead. When I understood what their question was, I could answer without hesitation, “Then I will shave it off.”

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