Leading From the Center: Strengthening the Pillars of the Church by William J. Weston
Part III: Where can we go?
Chapter 7 – A Modest Proposal: Presbyters Rule
In the seventh and final chapter, Weston gives his insights into how to deal with present conflicts; what he referred to in the Introduction as the “competitive church model.” It requires strengthening the loyalist center. Central to that aim are the following:
Make the constitution real.
Let the presbyteries decide.
Let the presbyters rule.
I think Weston’s discussion about the constitution and the Book of Confessions goes right to the heart of the matter. Up until the 1920s, the Westminster Confession served as the standard. Conservative forces persuaded the General Assembly to require subscription to the five fundamentals. However, it was later determined (and I think rightly so) that the General Assembly may not unilaterally impose doctrinal standards on the rest of the church. Such standards would have to be sent to presbyteries for their ratification. As Weston astutely points out, this does not mean that there may never be a set of essentials for the church.
In hindsight, I think the leadership of the denomination failed in the 1920s. While they rightly reversed the imposition of standards on the church neither did the leadership propose that denomination enter a time of discerning what was essential for the denomination. Weston points to the Adopting Act of 1729 and the provision that would allow individuals to declare scruples. However, my understanding is that the Adopting Act applied to only Chapters 20 and 23 of the Westminster Confession and the rest remained binding. There were still non-negotiable essentials. It seems to me that the decisions of the 1920s and 1930s left the denomination in confusion about where it stood in relation to the authority of the constitution.
Weston writes of the merger between the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the United Presbyterian Church in North America in 1958. A committee was established to write a new confession headed by Edward Dowey. The result was the Confession of 1967. However, more significantly was the idea of creating a Book of Confessions that would contain not only the Westminster and the new confession but several Reformed confessions. The net effect was to strip any confession or the confessions as a body, of any authoritative status. The default authority became the Book of Order.
Weston, and I with him, sees a need for some confessional standard that gives coherence to the church. He shies away from giving a specific prescription. He notes that the work being done in the Stated Clerks office to reframe the Book of Order has some hopeful signs.
It is with Weston’s second prescription, let the presbyteries decide, that I may differ with. (I say “may” because I am still not settled on this matter.) When writing about the confessions Weston writes:
I am not suggesting that each officer of the church must subscribe to every article of the confession of confessions. That issue was well settled by the Adopting Act. It is the task of the ordaining body – presbyteries in the case of clergy, sessions in the case of elders – to seriously consider whether officers of the church sincerely to the essential and necessary articles of our confession. (108)
As I wrote above, the Adopting Act left some things open to presbytery discretion but others were held essential. It is one thing to make a determination about a position that may be at the margins of what has been deemed essential, but quite another for individual bodies to pick and chose on a wholesale basis what is and isn’t essential. Any institution must have some things about which there is universal agreement. Otherwise, why exist.
Weston points out the “reserve clause” in the Book of Order, which shows that the presbytery is the basic constitute unit.
The jurisdiction of each governing body is limited by the express provisions of the Constitution, with powers not mentioned being reserved to the presbyteries, and with the acts of each subject to review by the next higher governing body. (G-9.0103)
Weston rightly points out that the church grew out of presbyteries linking with other presbyteries to form synods, which eventually lead to general assemblies. He looks to the fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s and Kenyon Case in 1974 (requiring ordination candidates to fully embrace the ordination of women) as examples of cases where the denomination imposed an unyielding standard on the whole church.
I don’t dispute that either of these cases may not have been the best solutions but again I do question the idea that everything can be up for grabs as to what is essential in any given presbytery. This strikes me as leaning to far in the other direction. The presbyteries originally linked with each other because of common theology and mission. I think that need exists today.
Finally, Weston raises the issue of presbyters rule and the need to put leadership in the hands of those ordained to lead and trust them to do so. He believes, as do I, that the experiment with youth elders, non-presbyter advisors and youth advisory delegates (at GA) is a failed one. He also is critical of the undue influence of professors and specialized clergy in the life of the church. We have to return to a model where those elected to oversee actually provide the oversight.
Weston closes the book with brief comments on perspectives offered by Jack Rogers and Jack Haberer on problems with the church. I will not delve into that here. He closes the book writing:
Here is what I think of as the Loyalist Text from the Book of Order:
The Presbyterian system of government calls for continuity with and faithfulness to the heritage which lies behind the contemporary church. It calls equally for openness and faithfulness to the renewing activity of the God of history. (G-4.0303)
All in all, I think Weston has done a tremendous service for the church in writing this book. As I wrote at the beginning of this series, any typology has it limitations. By necessity a typology is reductionistic. I think this typology captures the major forces driving the conflicts within the church and I think Weston focuses our attention on the critical issues that have to be addressed. I don’t know to what degree the present Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force used this book in their reflections on the issues but it appears to me that it has had significant influence. My major area of disagreement is about having a denomination without universally applied standards. I am not certain that is what Weston is advocating in the book but if so, I am not in agreement. Still, that leaves us with the question of what to do about standards and Leading from the Center is an excellent resource.