Two days ago I reported on the travesty which occurred last Saturday in Portland at the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons had asked some of his denominational employees to fashion a short worship service to commemorate the lives of shooting victims in Charleston and Orlando, and it was the first agenda item on the docket for Saturday afternoon. The leadership deliberately designed this service not simply as an ecumenical affair (inviting leaders from other Christian denominations to help lead) but also as an interfaith event (inviting one leader from an anti-Christian religion — Islam).
Not surprisingly, the Muslim man, Wajdi Said, led the assembly in a prayer in Arabic from the Qur’an, and then proceeded to speak a prayer to Allah in English seeking the conversion of all there to Islam, and demoting Jesus to a status equal to other prophets, including non-biblical ones (Ishmael and Muhammad). The final part of the liturgy he read was something he, together with the denominational designers, must have created — it was a prayer based on four passages from the Qur’an (there was nothing recognizable from the Bible), and was in printed form as well as projected on screen for the assembly.
There was no visible negative reaction from the assembly, but a few days later the Stated Clerk received a protest letter written by a Korean Presbyterian and signed by 25 Assembly commissioners ( just under 5% of the 594 registered commissioners), drawing attention to the disgraceful judgment of those who had planned and permitted this act of casual blasphemy.
On Wednesday afternoon, Parsons read what has been billed as an apology concerning the matter (the apology begins at the 2:44:54 mark of the linked video). It was carefully scripted, intending to ease hurt feelings without accepting any responsibility. Even the timing seemed planned to convey disdain for those who’d lodged the protest. At the end of business, just before the dinner break, the moderator called for announcements as commissioners were packing up. She turned things over to the Stated Clerk, who first announced that colorful ribbons could still be attached to prayer nets around the plenary hall. Then he gave directions for the community dinner about to start in the Portland Room. Then he paused, and without a word of introduction or explanation launched into the reading of his prepared statement as a final announcement:
“During the interfaith prayer service on Saturday in response to the killings in Charleston and Orlando, a prayer was offered that went beyond what had been scripted. It was an offense of the head, not of the heart; it came from one seeking to be authentically gracious, as part of the healing service. Some commissioners found it offensive. When in relationship with people of other faiths, sometimes we can inadvertently be offensive when meaning to be sensitive and ecumenical. It was never the intention of the one offering the prayer to offend any of us. Nevertheless, we offer an apology to all those who were offended.”
What is wrong with this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad apology? Where do I begin?
First, the fact that this statement was relegated to the obscurity of announcements at the end of the afternoon, when the least number of listeners would be there, without any advance notice or introduction, shows the lack of importance this matter held in the Stated Clerk’s mind. It is an silent snub of the protesters, disdainful of their viewpoint.
Second, either out of ignorance or intentionally for reasons of obfuscation, Gradye seems to equate “interfaith” and “ecumenical,” but the latter deals with relations among those of the same faith, whereas the former deals with relations among those of different faiths. By doing this, he hides the fact that he and his team concocted the plan to allow a follower of Allah to lead Presbyterians in a prayer dishonoring to the Trinity.
Third, in this “apology,” you’ll notice that Gradye never mentions exactly what the offense was, only that the one who prayed “went beyond what was scripted.” The implication is that if only he had stuck to the script, everything would have been all right. Is he really so spiritually tone-deaf as not to realize that inviting a Muslim, or any follower of a different god, to lead Christians in worship, is just plain wrong from a biblical point of view, regardless of the script followed? He never admits that his team came up with this idea, and didn’t see anything wrong with it.
Fourth, he exempts Mr. Said from any serious blame by saying he was trying to be authentically gracious, and that this was an offense of the head, not of the heart (whatever that means). I suppose by this Gradye is saying that when Mr. Said prayed to Allah that all the assembly be led to the “straight path”, thereby becoming Muslims, he really believed this to be the best option for Christians (who otherwise will end up in hell according to Islam), so he was being both authentic and gracious as a Muslim.
Fifth, when Gradye reports that only “some commissioners” found this situation offensive he implies there is room for doubt as to whether any transgression really occurred — perhaps it was just in the minds of the “super-sensitive” that a wrong happened, and ruffled feathers can be smoothed with some conciliatory words. But in fact, the true implication is that if most commissioners did not find this offensive, then indeed as Marcellus says in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” The PCUSA has much greater problems than one instance of blasphemous outrage at a General Assembly.
Lastly, and most egregiously, Gradye places the focus of blame upon Mr. Said. although he essentially excuses him by implying that “Muslims do what Muslims do — what else would you expect? He meant well, after all.” By doing this, he shifts attention away from his own wrongdoing of approving the invitation in the first place, and appears magnanimous in offering an apology on behalf of the misguided Muslim. And what is the apology? “We regret that you felt offended,” not, “We repent for having done something truly offensive to God and to His believing family.”
When I heard Gradye’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad apology, I couldn’t help remembering the golden calf incident in Exodus 32. Moses is up on Mt. Horeb receiving the 10 Commandments, and he’s been gone a long time. The people of God have grown impatient and turn to Aaron, Moses’ older brother. “Where is the God of Moses? Make for us a god we can see and believe in, who will lead us into a good future — to that god we will give our allegiance and worship.” So Aaron collects their gold and melts it, fashioning a gold calf and presenting it to the people, who respond with enthusiasm. Aaron is so moved by their joy over his leadership that he declares the next day will be a “feast to the Lord.” Meanwhile, on Mt. Horeb Yahweh is watching, and His wrath begins to burn white hot. He sends Moses back down the mountain, and when Moses sees the golden calf and the revelry of the people, and Aaron’s self-satisfaction, he confronts his brother with his own white hot anger. “What did this people do to you that you have brought a great sin upon them?” Aaron responds first by blaming the people, and then blaming the golden calf: “You know this people, how their hearts are evil. They came to me and said, ‘Make us gods to lead us forward.’ So I had them give me their gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out popped this calf.”
Can you imagine what would have happened if Aaron had tried to further justify himself by saying to Moses, or to Yahweh, “Hey, the people meant well. This was only an offense of the head, not the heart. We were just trying to be sensitive and ecumenical. But if you were offended, we regret that we hurt your feelings”? I imagine that there would have been no further references to Aaron in the Bible, either dispatched by Moses or incinerated in the fiery wrath of God.
I pray for Gradye and the rest of the PCUSA leadership that they will jettison their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad apology, and bow before God in full repentance, following that up with a public confession of their wrong-headedness and the assurance that they will never treat the glory of the Lord so cavalierly again.