It’s a Brave New World. No longer will the members of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) have to seek out God’s will together to know the mission of the Church. Instead, the Stated Clerk Search Committee has nominated a “priest and prophet” to lead the denomination to utopia.
I will reserve personal judgment as to whether J. Herbert Nelson will serve the people of the PCUSA well or not until we have enough experience with him in that office to make an educated assessment. But from what has been released by official PCUSA news outlets so far, and especially the Vimeo announcement by Rev. Carol McDonald (moderator of the Stated Clerk Search Committee), things do not look at all promising.
Having spoken side by side with J. Herbert at a Wee Kirk Conference, and having interacted with him a few times subsequently, I find him to be a warmhearted, engaging, high energy person, committed above all to social justice causes. I like him personally. Our understandings of the gospel are very different. But that is not at the heart of what bothers me about his nomination to become Stated Clerk.
My deep concern is that Rev. Nelson has no background or skill set to actually do the job detailed in the official job description of “Stated Clerk.” The qualifications which he is touted for having in fact bear little relevance to the work of that office. No doubt he is a charismatic speaker, and is committed to the church, and has served a number of roles in the denomination, and is eager for the job. To hear the Search Committee moderator’s reflections on J. Herbert’s qualifications, one would think he is being selected as Head Bishop or Pope to lead us into a Brave New World. Rev. McDonald thrills to the idea that “…he will call us to be who God is calling us to be in this 21st Century.” He will be “…priest and prophet to us within our denomination.” He will build bridges and speak with prophetic voice. He will lead us into a golden age. He will usher in the Kingdom. The lion will lie down with the lamb. (Those last three sentences were my own addition.) And so on and so forth.
However, the job description of the Stated Clerk is more prosaic than messianic. Its duties and responsibilities are divided into four categories relating to: Administration; Ecumenical and Interreligious/Interfaith Ministries; the Constitution; and meetings of the General Assembly. I would estimate that 80% of the work is administrative and bureaucratic, needing someone with an authoritative grasp of the Constitution as well as of the interrelationship of all the moving parts of PCUSA bureaucracy. There is nothing about making pronouncements to the world, acting as priest and prophet, speaking eloquently as the voice of the denomination. The Stated Clerk’s role is not to lead the Church anywhere, but to correctly interpret the Church’s Constitution to keep the denomination from straying from its self-determined principles. He/she is to create the structure needed for General Assemblies so they may “do the business of the Church,” and to prepare budgets that accurately reflect the will of the GA in its purposeful spending. The Stated Clerk prepares dockets, transmits reports, receives overtures, ensures preservation of records, sits as a member of various delegations, reports decisions of the GAPJC, is an ex-officio member of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution and of the Advisory Committee on Litigation, and conducts general correspondence of the PCUSA. It is an administrative calling, neither priestly nor prophetic in nature.
Unfortunately, to date we ignoramuses (who have no inside scoop) know nothing of Rev. Nelson’s qualifications to carry out the published job description. A look at his employment history does not instill confidence that he is the right person for this calling: no evidence of parliamentary wisdom; no history of bridge-building among disparate groups; a highly partisan figure focused on one edge of the larger denomination’s stated goals; a trailblazer rather than an interpreter of ecclesiastical maps.
I hope I am wrong, but so far the fawning adulation over J. Herbert Nelson by the Search Committee makes me wonder if they truly read the job description before they made their choice. Perhaps in the coming days they will roll out evidence of his abilities to actually handle the job for which he is being nominated. If so, and if it is strong, well and good. If not, batten down the hatches.
Perhaps the words of King George III upon hearing the news of the demise of another Nelson (Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson) apply here, mutatis mutandis, “We do not know whether we should mourn or rejoice.” In this case, time will tell.