Item description for Broken Covenant: Signs of a Shattered Communion by T. Williamson Parker...
The history of the Presbyterian Church between 1926 and 2006 reveals a pattern. In the courtroom, it is called "the preponderance of evidence." That pattern discloses an ongoing accommodation to the world - the bartering and brokering of a precious gift from the Lord, the church's moral authority. "Broken Covenant: Signs of a Shattered Communion" traces the squandering of that moral authority by the Presbyterian Church (USA). The documentation that is cited in this book invites an inevitable conclusion. The denomination has abandoned its constitutive commitment to Christian faith and ethics, thereby forfeiting its claim to be called the Church of Jesus Christ. No rational observer disputes the fact that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is dying. What remains at issue is the question, "Why?" By what alchemy did a denomination's passion for influencing American culture result in its irrelevance? How did Presbyterians who sought to renew their church accelerate its approaching demise? Blending archival evidence with the onsite observations of a churchman, theologian and journalist, Parker T. Williamson offers answers to these questions. "Broken Covenant" is not a book for wishful thinkers. It is a documentary narrative for those whose engagement with the future values the lessons of history.
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Reflections by a true theological warrior May 17, 2008
Those who are advocates of a renewed (and reformed) Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) will always give a standing ovation to Parker Williamson. He is aware of its history and has been ever vigilant in his attempts to return that denomination to its truly Reformed roots. The fact that he has failed in his efforts individually and with others is not due to a lack of either passion or skill but rather because the administrative structure within the PCUSA was specifically constructed to prevent people like Williamson from succeeding.
Williamson describes how and why the administrative structure was created in the first place in great detail. He connects the dots when he illustrates how the Louisville power structure is not in tune with the average Presbyterian sitting in the pews. This disconnect has resulted in loss of more than 50% of the membership in the past forty years. Were it not for apathy and longevity, the precipitous slide in membership would have been even greater.
This book is not easy reading because of the great detail it provides on numerous incidents within the denomination. It also lacks an index, which is the main reason, I only gave it four stars. Despite its shortcomings, it is must reading for anyone interested in a case study of the decline of a great mainline denomination, particularly because the book is written, not by some professor but rather by a true theological warrior who has been on the frontlines for over forty years.
Samuel J. Orr III Beaver, PA
Deserves to be read Mar 4, 2008
Though Williamson's focus is mainline American Presbyterianism over the last eighty years, this remarkable work is important to anyone who cares about what is happening in the mainline denominations.
Rev. Williamson has provided a very needful analysis for anyone who honestly seeks to better understand the current situation in the PC(USA); this does not mean that everyone who reads it will agree with his conclusions in part or entire - only that they need and deserve very serious consideration and response.
From the outset, I must offer two cautions to a reader. First, a very large volume of information, analysis, and opinion is presented; this cannot be absorbed quickly. Second, I found the experience of reading this book somewhat unpleasant, and I suspect a fair number of people would have a similar reaction. It is not overly academic - it is certainly readable; it does not suffer from any inordinate stylistic or organizational issues. (Though I must admit parenthetically, it would benefit greatly from the inclusion of an index.) A reader will be challenged to keep track of the labyrinthine ways of Presbyterianism, various predecessor denominations, and breakaway groups. But the real difficulty resides in its content. "Conservative" and "traditional" Christians will be grieved at the picture Williamson provides - though these may find it hard to escape Williamson's conclusions; those who are happy with the trajectory of the denomination will likely be offended that Williamson believes this trajectory to be both extra-Christian and wrong; those who identify as "moderate" may well find it divisive and negative - and object to the fact that the information is presented at all.
Broken Covenant: Signs of a Shattered Communion opens with a rehearsal of the Machen controversy. Rev. Williamson sees the decisions of the 1926 and 1927 General Assemblies to actively refuse to require adherence to specific and definitional tenets of Presbyterianism and historic Christianity as the root cause of many of the denomination's (and its successors') subsequent failures. Williamson also advances (and supports with direct quotes from Presbyterian partisans) the idea that the strategy that led to the triumph of the Auburn Affirmation has provided a template that has recurred in one form or another on many issues - particularly whenever a minority position sought institutional dominance. He draws a self-conscious parallel between the Swearingen Commission (1926) appointed to assure the "purity, peace, unity, and progress of the church" and the PUP Task Force (2006).
A cursory history of Presbyterianism in the 30s, 40s, and 50s is provided. Williamson observes the shift toward more economic, political, and social emphases; toward an increasing tendency to seek governmental and multinational solutions; and toward centralization, ecumenicalism, and mergers which both created distance between Presbyterian policymakers and ordinary Presbyterians and substantially removed institutional accountability to Presbyterian members. [When covering this period, Rev. Williamson problematically mentions some parallel developments in the PCUS and other streams of Presbyterianism; one cannot attribute these directly to the church's response to the Machen controversy, but the merger pressure may account for them.]
Next Williamson addressed the Book of Confessions and C-67. After removing required adherence to specific doctrines, a self-evident yawning gap emerged between the denomination's working theology and its professed theology; by the 1960s it seemed no longer credible to claim adherence to Westminster, yet Presbyterians in the pews would not accept the removal of Westminster. Williamson argues that the adoption of the Book of Confessions offered a way for the denomination to transform Westminster into a revered and treasured historic document, but, by adding contradictory confessions, to introduce enough ambiguity to permit virtually unfettered denominational action. Equally important, C-67 allowed a far more subjective and mercurial view of Scripture (though every other confession at the time did not); this paved the way for Scripture also to be relegated to the status of revered and treasured historic document. [It is important to note that Dr. Edward Dowey, chairman of the committee that drafted C-67, and several subsequent denominational officials and insiders have confirmed this view of the function of a Book of Confessions and C-67.]
At this point, Rev. Williamson shifts from a chronological approach to a topical one. It is here that he brings a wealth of memory and personal experience to the task; the topics treated are thoroughly covered, mostly well documented, and decidedly persuasive. These thematic sections make up the largest part of the book. He addresses the transformation of salvation from the model traditionally understood and presented in Scripture and by the historic church universal to a model of 'salvation as liberation' that focuses on systemic political, social, and economic transformation. The emphases of unfettered "liberation theology" led to some truly bizarre actions: support (including financial support) for the Black Manifesto and later the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, support for Marxist movements that led to damaged and destroyed relationships with many of the Presbyterian churches in targeted countries, uncritical support for Daniel Ortega, financial gifts to Robert Mugabe and others. He documents "the PC(USA)'s problem with Jesus" from the Kaseman case to recognizably pagan practices at general assemblies, to the re-imagining movement, to the actions of PC(USA) related seminaries. Williamson also addresses the denomination's treatment of human sexuality and of abortion as outgrowths of its commitment to a theology of liberation.
The chapter, "Minority Rule" addresses more recent history with a focus on how the denomination arrived at its current position. He cites the explicit strategy of one faction in the church as articulated by Dr. Barbara Wheeler. He also addresses the failings and missteps of the various renewal movements in the PC(USA). This chapter reads like a post-mortem on the PC(USA) renewal movements' loss of momentum from 1997 to the present. [I found most of his opinions on this topic accurate - or at least consistent with my observations.] Williamson concludes with a couple of very thoughtful and encouraging chapters that consider the future. He particularly emphasizes the role of the laity in Reformation and what would be required to restore the church's moral authority.
I would offer several observations about this book:
1. It resists easy encapsulation. In many cases the thinking is more complex than can be explained in simplistic takeaways. (For example, Williamson emphasizes a correlation between membership losses and the lack of required affirmation of specific tenets, but this is not a simplistic assertion that all or even most departing members are motivated by disagreement with the doctrinal drift implicit in that. While such disagreements account for many departures, many others stem from what is termed `lay liberalism' - which is also a semi-direct result of the lack of essential tenets; this is also, of course, complicated by the wider cultural shift away from institutional loyalty.)
2. Broken Covenant: Signs of a Shattered Communion should not rightly be regarded as a history. It does cover a broad range of historical information, but it neither recounts nor aspires to recount all (or even perhaps most) of the significant trends, developments, happenings, or personalities in Presbyterianism over the last eighty years. Instead, it is an argument - that a `preponderance of evidence substantiates his diagnosis and prognosis of the state of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Were he assaying to provide a history, his choices of emphasis, and lack of counter examples would be a viable criticism. As is, these don't alter either the facts he presents or the arguments he advances.
3. Rev. Williamson rather frankly examines the failures of the renewal movement within the PC(USA). I found this particular section thoughtful and helpful in understanding current and recent events. A recurring theme emerges - the same weaknesses have plagued `conservative' and `traditional' Presbyterians over the years, the same institutional resistance has been present, the same strategies have worked to empower certain progressive minority factions, and the same predictable (and in some cases easily manipulated) reactions have been seen from the bulk of ordinary members.
4. The sheer magnitude of systematic institutional corruption boggles the mind. Instances abound of employees failing to follow the express provisions of the Book of Order or the actions of General Assemblies - yet these still immorally continued to draw salaries and retain their positions. Instances of false information provided to Presbyterians, of abuse of power, of hiring public relations firms to spin national actions, of `ecumenical money laundering', of morally inexcusable behaviors defy belief; yet they are well documented in Williamson's book.
5. Contrary to popular belief, Rev. Williamson does not document a simple qualitative decline of the PC(USA) (and its predecessors) since the 1960s. That there has been a continuous and extreme numerical decline is beyond dispute. Rev. Williamson also portrays a kind of gradual theological erosion among ordinary members (and an increasing toleration of extra-Christian theologies and morally dubious political stances). What is not presented, however, is persuasive evidence that suggests a corresponding gradual descent into institutional unfaithfulness, political radicalism, or increasingly corrupt practices. Instead, the very same beliefs, practices, rationales, tactics, and even words used have been remarkably consistent - and consistently at odds with the beliefs and understandings of large majorities of Presbyterians. Arguments that shock and astonish today were being advanced in the 60s and 70s. Rationales for supporting, for example, violent political movements were identical then to what they are today. It is true that there is a decline in membership numbers; and it is true that `conservative' and `traditional' Presbyterians perceive a qualitative decline; but this perception does not seem to be borne out by the details. The theological departures occurring today that trouble `traditional' Presbyterians are not new developments. By finding a common root in the triumph of the Auburn Affirmation, Rev. Williamson has managed to highlight, not change, but a remarkable consistency. I believe this needs farther exploration - both because it defies `conventional wisdom' and because it fits the evidence.
My largest criticisms of the book are: 1. It gives more focus to some areas than I think is warranted, and correspondingly, it gives less focus to others that I believe require more. However, that is, I think, a matter of perception - and in many cases Rev. Williamson's choices reflect the issues of concern to many `conservative' Presbyterians. 2. Readers may disagree with some of Rev. Williamson's particular interpretations of specific individual events. This would, of course, be true of any commentary on such a wide array of incidents. I believe this mild complaint is counterbalanced by the fact that the overwhelming volume of material supports Williamson's arguments admirably. 3. As I mentioned earlier, this can be a difficult or unpleasant book to read - it requires a considerable investment of time to even be able to meaningfully comment on it. I am conscious of the fact that many readers may avoid it for that reason. However, I believe this would be a mistake. In short, Rev. Williamson has produced a remarkable work that deserves the time and effort it will require of a reader.