When a denominational oversight committee needs help in checking out a controversial group's questionable activities, The Presbyterian Layman is ready to oblige. Although its guidance is rarely sought by officialdom, the Layman often is first with the most.
Such was the case involving the 2.6-million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) and a tiny group it funds, the National Network of Presbyterian College Women. The feminist-oriented NNPCW, tied closely to homosexual causes, has powerful friends inside and outside the PCUSA's headquarters in Louisville, Ky.
Delegates to the church's General Assembly last June twice voted to withdraw funding from the group, but then succumbed to a last-minute carefully choreographed floor demonstration and emotional appeal (WORLD, July 4/11). They restored about $50,000 for another year, then ordered a committee to analyze the NNPCW's programs, content, and resources, and report back at next year's assembly. They also specified that new Moderator Douglas Oldenburg and Vice Moderator James Mead, a conservative, serve on the committee. Ironically, Mr. Mead, a Tacoma, Wash., pastor known as a bridge-builder between opposing factions, led the appeal that convinced the assembly to continue funding while the review takes place. (He has since been appointed the top executive officer of the conservative-leaning Pittsburgh Presbytery.)
Enter the Layman, the oldest, largest, and most influential independent renewal-minded publication serving members of the PCUSA. By all accounts, the magazine can take partial credit for the growing conservative resurgence in the denomination.
Within days of the assembly, Editor Parker Williamson and his staff explored the NNPCW's Web pages, located on the PCUSA computer server. Recommended resources included material (stored on the PCUSA server) from the heretical Reimagining movement: Delores Williams ("we don't need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff"), Episcopal bishop Carter Heyward ("Jesus was not God"), prominent Presbyterian homosexual activists, and others. Two links on the NNPCW's pages, "Sexuality and Spirituality" and "Christian Views on Homosexuality," pointed to off-site pages of other groups, which in turn contained links to porno sites and dating services for lesbians and gay men. Layman staffers easily clicked their way from the PCUSA site into porno sites via the NNPCW's links. They concluded the NNPCW was leading some college women into pornography.
To secure eyewitnesses to the findings, The Layman staff enlisted colleagues in other states to follow the links and record their findings, including dates and times.
Next, the Layman sent a copy of its evidence to Vice Moderator Mead. The following day, on July 2, the NNPCW contents disappeared from the PCUSA site, replaced by a bare home page with a note saying, "Come back soon to see the new NNPCW Web page." No explanation was given for the deletions.
Later, the Layman also delivered its findings to minister Cathy Chisholm, chair of the General Assembly Council (GAC), the one responsible for appointing the committee to review the NNPCW. Although Moderator Oldenburg said he was "appalled" to learn of the linkages, and Vice Moderator Mead said they were "unthinkable," nobody at PCUSA headquarters thanked the Layman for its work. Instead, some officials attacked the messenger.
Although he didn't dispute any of the Layman's facts, Curtis A. Kearns, director of the GAC division that sponsors the NNPCW and supervises its staff, labeled the report "somewhat reckless in nature" in a letter to Ms. Chisholm. He noted a warning on the PCUSA main page: "User discretion is advised. The PC(USA) does not endorse or control the content of pages on external sites." He conceded it was "a mistake" for the NNPCW not to have included a similar message on its site.
Not until late August did the PCUSA's Presbyterian News Service mention the controversy. It referred in a news release to anonymous "critics" who had attacked the NNPCW and used an "outdated" information packet titled "Young Women Speak" as a basis for associating the NNPCW with Reimagining God and homosexual activism. The release said staff had been too overworked to update the information (which meanwhile remained intact on the church's server).
A PCUSA news release on Sept. 22 announced Ms. Chisholm had completed formation of the seven-member review committee, which includes Mr. Mead and one other conservative, California pastor Jeffrey Bridgeman. The news release included comments of GAC communications official Barry Creech on the "complicated" issue of links to World Wide Web sites: "How far down the electronic chain of links should a group monitor to make sure its links don't lead to an inappropriate place? Some say NNPCW should have gone further or issued a disclaimer because the fact is, after the first link away from the PC(USA) site, you no longer have control over content."
The news service noted for the first time the Layman's role in the story and pointed to the full coverage of it in the Layman's September/October issue. Ms. Chisholm said she expects the review panel will meet with Editor Williamson as well as other "critics" of the NNPCW.