Barbara Wheeler asks in her recent Outlook article, "Did the Task Force Succeed?" The answer she suggests is a mix. Where Presbyterians have agreed with the Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force, she counts as success. Where there has been contention or controversy, for her, success is elusive. The reasons for the lack of success, according to Wheeler, are primarily a sex-obsessed secular media and the "church lobbyists."
Admittedly, I am not fond of our new authoritative interpretation. I cannot imagine that something that causes so much confusion can further the peace, unity and purity of the church. Laying those objections aside, the PUP task force never succeeded because it never got started.
I was on the committee that formed the task force at the 2001 General Assembly. We developed its mandate, which was approved overwhelmingly by the General Assembly. Most of us were concerned with the lack of trust within the denomination, and we prayed that we had created something that was not church-as-usual. In response to the Confessing Church Movement, there was a desire to meet churches at the "grassroots." In fact, "grassroots" became one of the catchwords for that year’s Assembly. We purposely wanted to avoid a process that appeared heavy-handed. We did not want a group to make pronouncements from on high.
The moderator of the 212th General Assembly, Sygman Rhee, pushed for a commission like occurred in the 1920s, which dealt with the modernist-fundamentalist controversy. In 2001, our committee rejected the language of "commission" in favor of "task force" because we perceived that a commission could take action on behalf of the entire General Assembly. Instead we wanted an organic process that included "conferring with synods, presbyteries, and congregations."
The task force was "directed to lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st Century." Many of us realized that our problems would not be solved by a report of a task force. Our problems are deeper. We have an identity crisis among Presbyterians. We are unsure who we are or what our purpose is. Our fights about ordination standards reveal deeper, more fundamental questions.
Many hoped that the task force would lead the entire denomination in the hard work of theology and spiritual discernment. The task force took another route. They gathered among themselves. They worked in isolation, often behind closed doors. Although much of the task force’s work was commendable, the people in the pews were not particularly involved. Many of us only saw the task force after the discernment process was over. A few months before the 217th General Assembly, the task force was in the presbyteries "selling" their report and policy recommendations.
Imagine someone who goes to a spiritual director needing help in discernment. The spiritual director responds, "I’ll get right to work on that." Then, the director disappears, occasionally reappearing offering updates on her progress. After a few years, the director produces a written report with some discussion questions at the end. The director may have done some discernment, but the person who needs it has gained nothing. I found it telling that when the PCUSA described the work of the task force, the mandate was changed. One bulletin insert used to introduce congregations to the task force’s final report stated, "They were asked to discern the church’s ‘Christian identity in and for the 21st Century.’"
Even if the task force achieved Christian nirvana in their closed-door meetings, the rest of us have not benefited from that process. They may have changed, but we haven’t. Does the denomination in general have a better theological background to make tough decisions? Is there now a consensus of who Jesus is? Do we even understand what the problems are that face our denomination? This hard work remains to be done. Then when individuals in the denomination actually try to engage in discernment by debating the policy recommendations or making suggestions to change them, members of the task force tell us that we are being divisive. The task force believes that its job has been completed with a report and a murky authoritative interpretation. Although some decry their efforts, I believe that the affinity groups in their imperfect way are trying to do what the task force failed to do–to lead the denomination in spiritual discernment. Nature abhors a vacuum.
Finally, I am not suggesting that the problems we face solely rest on the failures of the Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force. To suggest such would make me guilty of the same failings. Unlike the rhetoric that I’ve been hearing, the task force and its recommendations are not Christ or anti-christ. We can only blame ourselves for the impasse that we’ve reached in our life together. We have looked for easy solutions, and we have allowed others to do our work for us. Let us take up the difficult tasks of prayer, worship, theology, and discernment. We have a Savior. Let’s follow him.