Sunday, March 12, 2006

Loosening the Tie That Binds

It's hard to know what to say about a Presbyterian church that accepts an avowed atheist as a member. And what do you say about a pastor and session that would willfully ignore the PCUSA's Book of Order requirement (W-4.003) that those seeking membership in the church must first "profess faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior" and allow an affirmation that he "endorsed the core principles in Christ's teaching" to substitute for that required profession of faith?

How, then, to respond when this man, Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas-Austin and well-known liberal activist, uses his professional skills and contacts to write a personal opinion column that is published on the front page of today's Sunday editorial section of the Houston Chronicle publicizing this travesty?

I googled the church and learned that its pastor is Rev. Jim Rigby. Rev. Rigby invited (and received) charges made against him for violating the Book of Order by publicly presiding over a gay marriage. He said at that time that he welcomed the charges and wanted to be the subject of a test case in his presbytery. The charges were recently dismissed without explanation, so there will be no test case. I have served on judicial panels in my own presbytery and know that dismissals often come when the complainant, for one reason or another, withdraws or fails to cooperate with the investigating committee.

Here's what I have to say about this situation:

At my church, as at most churches, there are people who attend with varying frequencies who are not Christians. They are usually the agnostic, Jewish, or atheist spouses or other relatives of church members. They are most welcome to participate in the worship and life of the church in any way except for voting in congregational meetings or being eligible to teach in the church or nominated for election as an officer of the church. Sometimes the Holy Spirit works in the lives of the non-believer and the doubter and they become Christians--and sometime they don't--but they should always be welcomed.

However, it is a farce and a perversion of the Book of Order to accept as a member someone who publicly states:
I don't believe in God. I don't believe Jesus Christ was the son of a God that I don't believe in, nor do I believe Jesus rose from the dead to ascend to a heaven that I don't believe exists.
It looks like the Rev. Rigby is courting another "show trial" by creating this situation and that he colluded with Prof. Jensen to publicize this defiance of our constitution using this opinion piece which now has wide circulation by virtue of its publication in the Houston Chronicle. The question is, will someone in Mission Presbytery respond by filing charges against Rev. Rigby and members of the session of this church under the Rules of Discipline and then will the presbytery prosecute the case?

There is a lot of controversy in the church now about the recommendations from the Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church which will come before the General Assembly at its June meeting because they are being characterized as allowing presbyteries "local option" in deciding who they can ordain. Historically the PCUSA has not permitted presbyteries to make their own rules for ordination of pastors and elders, but requires adherence to common standards set out in the Book of Order. If this action of St. Andrews church in Austin is permitted to stand then we will have "local option" that allows individual churches to write their own requirements for membership.

The most basic tie that binds members of Presbyterian churches together regardless of local church affiliation is the confession that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. It is a foundational statement of basic Christian doctrine. If that requirement for membership does not have to be honored then the church is no different from the Rotary or Kiwanis Club. We are truly dissolved into a chaotic mass of "do your own thing" congregations with no unifying principle to draw us together.

For shame, Rev. Rigby and Prof. Jensen!


Elaine said...

Ok, this drags me out of lurkdom. Has this man never heard of the Unitarian church?

I'm a pretty liberal Presbyterian. This is beyond the pale.


Elaine said...

Ok, so I either leave this alone and do productive work or haul out my .pdf copy of the Book of Order.

Is it possible that Prof. Jensen was admitted as a Baptized Member G-5.0201 which does not require a statement of faith rather than an Active Member?


jledmiston said...

Hmm. Robert Jensen. Rolf Jensen. I'm wondering if they are related. One seems to delight in being among the unfaithful. One seems to hunt for them.

Why would Robert even want to join a church with a requirement to name Christ as Lord and Savior? What would be the point?

Teri said...

WOW. I disagree wholeheartedly with allowing someone to become a full-fledged member even as they profess unbelief.

However, historical presbyterianism DOES in fact allow for what might be termed a "local option" as far as ordination goes (not membership, but ordination). Presbyteries are allowed to still ordain someone who has, for lack of a better term, a conscientious objection to what that presbytery (and the candidate) deem a non-essential. That is part of what "freedom of conscience" is about.

But professing not to believe in Jesus or God and becoming a member of a church? That is not a church and I hope others will see that as you have.

Quotidian Grace said...

All I know about this is in Jensen's op-ed piece that I linked in my post. In the first couple of paragraphs he recites the "affirmations" that he made in order to join, so I conclude that he joined under the provision I cited which requires an affirmation of faith.

I also wondered if he had ever been baptised, because the BOO says you have to be baptised to make an affirmation of faith. He does not address this in the article. Of course his parents could have baptised him as an infant.

You're right, the Attorney Jensen/Prof Jensen tie is eerie, isn't it?

Although Prof Jensen tries to explain why he wanted to join this church in the article, it isn't believable or persuasive is it? I wonder if the motivation is to mock the church publicly.

As for Rev Rigby, in the immortal words of Ricky Ricardo: "he has a lot of 'splainin' to do."

cheesehead said...

I too, did a double take at the Jensen/Jensen thing! LOL Half of my friends have been brought up on charges by that OTHER Jensen.

I read Jensen's article, and wanted to hurl when he wrote that he joined the church for "Political rather than theological reasons"

Isn't that why we villify some conservative evangelicals?

And yes, "some 'splainin" is in order

will spotts said...

His action (and the acceptance of it by his church) is far worse than I think is coming out here. Jensen describes a struggle going on within Christianity "over whether Christianity is to be understood as a closed set of answers that leads to the intensification of these boundaries, or as an invitation to explore questions that help people transcend boundaries." (Sounds good from a progressive viewpoint . . . but he is using the description to signify Christian as someone who does not believe in Jesus -- literally.)

Jensen goes on to say, "If one can be a Christian without accepting the resurrection, then calling oneself Christian would have no meaning beyond an expression of support for some basic moral principles that are near-universal. That is partly true; if this strategy were successful, at some point people would stop fussing about who is and isn't a Christian -- and that would be a good thing."

He is very clear that his goal is to join a Christian Church to alter Christianity. The "tolerant" answer is to look for the "work of Christ" in other religions (including atheism) -- however, for such a goal to work one must first understand what the work of Christ actually is -- otherwise, the most well meaning, tolerant Presbyterian won't recognize this in other religions. Jensen's goal is to destroy. His church's goal in facilitating him in this pursuit is . . . what? I can't think of any sound rationale for this.

Purechristianithink said...

A pastor friend of mine went through a big struggle last year when one of her elders admitted to her privately that he did not believe much of anything recognizably Christian, but had joined the church years earlier, (way before she arrived), because he wanted to be part of the good work they were doing in that economically marginal neighborhood. This was a tiny, struggling urban church that was so delighted when ANYONE wanted to join that they didn't ask too many questions. Also a church with few energetic people under 65 willing to serve on the session. We don't do anyone any favors by diluting the distinction between participation and membership.

St. Casserole said...

Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.

will smama said...

Where was the Session?

cats said...

yeah, i wouldn't let a non-believer join the congregation. they would be more than welcome to attend and participate in everything we do (non-sacramental), but... join... no.

Apostle John said...

Wow, and amen, sister!

Lorna said...

my oh my

mibi52 said...

My reaction was the same as elain's: why not go join a Unitarian church, or for that matter, why is St Andrew's a Presbyterian church and not a Unitarian one? My sympathies for some of their positions on social justice aside, a church has certain organizing rinciples. We Episcopalians do, and you Presbyterians do. They're clearly stated in our Canons and in your Book of Order. Everyone knows what the rules are going in.

So why deliberately flout them?

Some folks are drama queens. Some folks like to stir things up. Some folks just plain ole like to get attention. Methinks there is something of the last option in this situation.

SingingOwl said...

Very distressing. What is the definition of "church" after all? I suspect less than stellar motives on the part of this atheist church member. God, help us, Presbyterians or no. The church MUST have a clear voice...and if we do not proclaim CHRIST (not just "God's grace") we are not the Church.


Rev Dave said...

Well, Grace, I guess the challenge for us is whether we have the backbone to actually stand up against this or just sit and whine about it.

As a Minister of Word and Sacrament, I'm most likely have standing to bring charges against the session in this instance. Admitting someone who says such things as a member is msot definitely grounds for a remedial case against the sesssion.

As a former attorney, who at least lives in the state (if not the presbytery as well, I don't know the Texas presbytery boundaries) would you be willing to lay out such a case and submit it to the appropriate presbytery PJC?

I'd gladly co-sign such a thing.

Rev Dave
Member, Presbytery of Wyoming

Quotidian Grace said...

Rev Dave--

It is best if a complaint is made by members of Mission presbytery and I am in New Covenant presbytery.

I have emailed a pastor in Mission presbytery that I know and asked if he can find out if a complaint is being filed or if he and others will file one.

I'll keep you posted. May I let him know you would be willing to co-sign if needed?

Quotidian Grace said...

I need to amend that previous comment--shouldn't have answered it without checking on the rules.

I just went back and looked at the Rules of Discipline in the BOO. It appears that only a member of this church could bring a complaint against
the session and pastor for admitting Jensen to membership.

Any Book of Order jocks out there who can confirm that?

Also, there are time limits to filing--and we don't know when he was admitted. Time may have already run out.


Anonymous said...

I am a minister member of Mission Presbytery. I did not know about this latest outrage by St. Andrew's until reading the article today, 3/14/06---after finding it linked from Since that session and its moderator are in the business of flouting their defiance of PC (USA) polity, this latest thing is not all that surprising.
RE: earlier charges against Rigby--the first investigating committee did not follow the prescribed process in refusing to affirm charges. After an appeal, a second investigating committee followed prescribed process and refused to affirm charges. Reportedly because 2 of its members wanted to avoid a conflict!!! I don't know what they think we already have if not a "conflict"! I cannot understand how anything but a trial could have followed given just the stuff that was public and affirmed, and the orchestrated effort among certain members of Mission Pby to lionize an otherwise silly twerp for being so "courageous and prophetic". Pathetic.

I believe you will see a complaint filed. It just takes time for these things to come to light and go thru the pipeline.

j,too said...

I hope they're proud of themselves. Really, what a silly bunch of juvenile deliquents.

Jim said...

This would be a disciplinary case since Rev. Rigby ignored W-4.2003a. D-0203b reads: "An offense is any act or omission by a member or officer of the church that is contrary to the Scriptures ot the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). D-10.0102 states that the statement of offense may be submited by:
a. a person under jurisdiction of a governing body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) making an accusation against another;
b. a member of a governing body receiving information from any source that an ofense may have occured which should be investigated for the purpose of discipline; or
c. self-accusation.

Jon said...

"faith in Jesus Christ"?
Sounds like just another in an ever growing list of "non-essensial" essentials in the PCUSA. I wouldn't get too caught up in what the Book of Order actually says. The PCUSA has shown a remarkable ability to ignore it (and Scripture) when it is inconvenient to whatever the governing body wants to do.

Quotidian Grace said...

Isn't that the truth, Jon! And then they whine about loss of trust in denominational structures and officers--Doh!

tonya said...

My heart is breaking while reading comments that are filled with what I believe to be un-Christian tones and words. My definition of a Christian is someone who reaches out to others with love and compassion. I believe I learned in Sunday school (both in a Southern Baptist class and in my class at St. Andrew's Presbyterian - taught by Rev. Jim Rigby) that Christ himself made it his mission during his short life to reach out to the lepers, the prostitutes and others who were deemed outcasts by society? If those of you casting stones would spend your time researching Robert Jensen's work, you would find that he has devoted most of his life to making the injustices of the world known to the greater public in hopes of encouraging people to reach out and help each other. This is why St. Andrew's (a congregation I'm proud to be included in) chose to accept Robert Jensen into our fold - because the "Christian thing" to do is to love all and Mr. Jensen and the congregation of St. Andrew's does just that.