Faith PCA Watkinsville, continued

A follow up post to “I might get excommunicated for this.

It’s been one month since I went public about my indictment from Faith Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Watkinsville, Georgia for contempt toward the church and its leaders for speaking out in various ways about my experience of abuse in the church.  The last several weeks have been overwhelming on multiple fronts.  I’ve been thankful for the love and support I’ve been shown by family and friends outside of Faith, folks who in many cases have known me well since childhood and college, speaking up about what they know of my character and reaching out to me with words of encouragement.  The post has been viewed thousands of times and reblogged by some of the organizations I’ve found most helpful and insightful over the last several years for expanding my own understanding of abusive dynamics, including A Cry for Justice and The Wartburg Watch.  As a result, I’ve been contacted by dozens of women who have had similar experiences in the PCA and other denominations.  They tell me, “I wasn’t in a position to stay and fight– thank you for speaking up for the rest of us.”  They say, “Standing up and telling your story gives me courage to speak up about mine.”  I’ve known, in the abstract, that these women exist– in the PCA alone, statistically, there are tens of thousands of abuse survivors.  Sadly, it’s not uncommon for abuse victims to be excommunicated or fired from church jobs for reasons surrounding their experience of domestic violence.  It’s even more common for women to be misunderstood, pathologized, shunned, or to experience various pressures to return to their abusers or shut up about their experiences. Being on the receiving end of that in a closed group is isolating and demoralizing, and when those in the group insist up and down that you’re the problem, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one.  But there are many of us, and we’re finding one another and giving voices and faces to this phenomenon.

I attended a Session meeting on October 3rd to formally answer the indictment.  Before I discuss the meeting, it will probably be helpful to define some terms and describe how PCA polity (i.e. church government) works.  The Session is the governing body of a local Presbyterian church, comprised of teaching elders (ordained clergy, the pastors of the church) and ruling elders (regular church members who are elected to become elders.)  Faith has two teaching elders and three ruling elders, all men.  In the PCA, women aren’t allowed to be elders, so not only are women not allowed to preach or become clergy, but women also can’t occupy decision-making, governing leadership roles in the church.  This means that when a disciplinary case like mine is put on trial, there are no female jurors; only male elders can be members of the court and render a verdict.  “Presbyterian” refers to a hierarchical system of courts.  The Session is the lowest court.  The next rung up the ladder is the Presbytery, which is all of the elders from the churches in a particular region, and above that is General Assembly, which is all of the elders from all of the Presbyteries in the denomination.  All three courts are required to follow a church constitution called the Book of Church Order, or BCO.

So, back to the Session meeting on October 3rd:  I prepared a formal response to the Session’s indictment, which you can read here:  formalresponsetosession  The Session read their indictment to me out loud and I read them my response.  About 20 minutes of discussion ensued, during which they told me that the trial would be decided by the Session, that nobody could attend except witnesses the Session approved in advance and only while giving their own testimonies, and that witnesses could only be members of Faith.  None of this is mandated by the Book of Church Order.  The pastor had spoken with an assistant in the denomination’s office who had said this was how it had to be; I challenged that.  I invoked a section of the BCO requesting a “reference,” i.e. asking the Session to give original jurisdiction to the Presbytery due to clear conflict of interest or “manifest prejudice.”  I said they needed to appoint a different prosecutor than the attorney who mediated my divorce.  I insisted on an open, public trial (which is the default position of the BCO unless the court takes a special vote to make it a closed trial.)

I received an email from the Session a few days ago indicating that they had not acceded to my request for a reference and were planning to move forward with their proposed trial date at Faith.  In reply, I cited the following rules from the BCO:

-The accuser shall be required to testify on the demand of the accused (BCO 35-1).
-A member of the court who has given testimony in a case becomes disqualified from sitting as a judge if either party object (BCO 35-11).
I notified the Session of my intention to call each of them as witnesses and then disqualify them from sitting as judges, in effect forcing this up to the Presbytery.  Disqualifying them will be my first act if the Session convenes a trial, resulting in there being no court to hear the case.  If the Session refers the case to the Presbytery, this could get very interesting.  I already have two related formal complaints before the Presbytery that have gone unaddressed for procedural reasons for more than a year, but if the Presbytery moves forward with a trial, then they’ll be putting me in a position to cut through evasiveness and procedural delays.  I will maintain my insistence on an open, public trial.  Church members are required to testify on pain of discipline if called, and outsiders can also serve as witnesses.  There are abuse experts who have corresponded directly with church leaders about this situation.  There are dozens of witnesses I can call and hundreds of pages of email I can submit into evidence demonstrating the truth of everything I’ve said and showing clear reasons why a Christian in my shoes might feel conscience-bound to speak out in the ways that I have.  Failing to hear relevant testimony is one of many grounds for dismissal on appeal.  Trials have to be recorded and transcribed if the verdict is appealed to a higher court, so either the Presbytery fully hears me out and renders a just decision or this all goes up to General Assembly.

The response of the congregation at Faith has been mostly silence– a lot of tense politeness or avoidance, a few folks being friendly, one or two subversive Facebook likes– peppered with a couple of instances of savage rejection.  The church’s only public response after I posted my blog was the following statement on its Facebook page:

Hi everyone! You may have seen Faith Presbyterian Church’s name mentioned on social media lately in regards to an internal, church discipline matter that the person involved made public. Unfortunately, there is much more to these issues than what has been publicized but our position is that social media is a very poor forum to engage with this matter. Out of respect for the people involved and the Rules of Discipline established by our church’s denomination, we will not be commenting publicly any further on this matter. If you have questions or concerns regarding this matter, we welcome you to set up a time to speak with one of our pastors who could discuss the views and policies of the church with you, as well as any parts of this specific matter that are of public record. Thanks for your understanding!

Issuing a formal indictment to put someone on trial is an inherently public act, especially when the church indicts someone who works in ministry.  In this statement, the church postures as though it’s taking the high road by objecting to social media as a forum for discussing these issues.  In reality, the church has ignored or deflected multiple attempts over several years to meaningfully address these issues in any open, accountable forum.  Disallowing any forum where an issue can be openly discussed and then criticizing someone’s choice of forum is an example of the “no talk rule.”  In a dysfunctional system, nobody is allowed to talk about the problem.  If you talk about the problem, you become the problem.  I reposted the church’s response on my Facebook page and asked in what forum they’d prefer to engage these issues.  I was again met with silence.  Nevertheless, commenters on various threads said that I was not giving the church a chance to tell their side, therefore I was the bully.

One member of Faith’s ministry staff went on social media and bizarrely accused me of carrying a gun around in my bag.  When I made it clear that this was categorically untrue, he withdrew the comment, but wouldn’t say whether he had repeated that accusation to others in the church.  During the Session meeting on October 3rd, several friends showed up and stood outside holding “Justice, Not Abuse” signs in a show of solidarity.  The same staff member walked out of the church and confronted them all, making negative insinuations about my character.  When I messaged him about these incidents privately, he refused to speak with me and blocked me on social media.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  There’s a lot that could be said about bystander dynamics and moral reasoning that elevates conformity to a group as an overriding principle in practice, even as the results of the group’s actions become increasingly grotesque and out of line with its purported values.  Ultimately, these are what the apostle Paul referred to as fleshly, rather than spiritual dynamics.  “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.  And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)

The church can’t proclaim the Gospel to the world credibly if it doesn’t follow the teachings of Christ in its own ranks.  When the church doesn’t effect justice for the oppressed, it renders its corporate worship unacceptable to God (Isaiah 1:13-17).  When individual Christians ostracize and refuse to make things right with other Christians, they render their individual worship unacceptable to God (Matthew 5:21-24).  Whether the righteousness you’re practicing is real or fake is ultimately demonstrated by what you do to people.  It’s especially evident in how the church treats widows, orphans, and foreigners, i.e. those who are most susceptible to being on the losing end of power dynamics in a group.  I could argue PCA constitutional principles all day long, but this is ultimately a spiritual issue that cuts to the core of what the Church is.  Are we the authentic, visible presence of Christ in the world offering good news to downtrodden people, or are we a self-serving bastion of power and control that tells people outside of a particular demographic and life experience to “conform, shut up, or go away?”

The first time I brought my “Justice, not Abuse” sign into worship, the sermon was on Isaiah 56.

This is what the Lord says:

“Maintain justice
    and do what is right,
for my salvation is close at hand
    and my righteousness will soon be revealed (Isaiah 56:1).

May it be so.  Come, Lord Jesus.

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