Doing the Right Thing – Presby-style

For those of you new to this neck of the woods, we’re covering some classes we took at a “Synod School” first talked about here. In last week’s episode, we told you about our birdwatching class. This week we tackle the Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

Quite the change-up, don’t you think?

I warn you, this will be a longer post than usual, but have no fear! I’m including a TL:DR summary for those of you too busy for a five-minute read. (Just scroll down to the heading in orange to skip all the actual blood, sweat and tears that went into this post.)

Now, for those of you still with me… aww, I love you guys so much!

The class I took was called “The Letter from Birmingham Jail as Confessional Statement.” In short, we were discussing the recent overture that was made for the Presbyterian Church to include King’s letter into their Book of Confessions.

And just so we’re all clear, whenever I mention the Presbyterians, I’m talking about the main branch – the Presbyterian Church (USA). Often abbreviated PC(USA).

(Presbyterians are big on acronyms.)

Here’s a few fun facts:

  • The PC(USA) has only had their Book of Confessions since 1962. I didn’t know that. I figured it’d been around since… well, I’m not sure what I thought. I just figured it was longer than 1962.
  • In a previous post I said nothing is ever taken out of the Book of Confessions, so once something is added it’s permanent. Turns out I misspoke. There’s no actual rule stating nothing can be removed, only that it’s never been done. (This has nothing to do with today’s post; I just wanted to correct my previous statement.)
  • Most Presbyterians have never read the Book of Confessions. Nor do they own it. This, despite it being a history of their Church’s beliefs and completely free on the PC(USA) site.
  • I do not own, nor have I ever read, the Book of Confessions.

Okay, glad that’s out of the way. Now let’s get this puppy underway with a quick history lesson.

Dr. King wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail in response to another letter printed in the April 12, 1963 newspaper. That letter was signed by eight clergymen from various denominations and one rabbi, all of them white.

King had been arrested the morning of April 12 (this was on Good Friday) after a nonviolent protest, so someone smuggled in the newspaper for him. Not too pleased at what he read, he began writing his response to their letter in the margins of the newspaper. Eventually he was allowed some legal pads.

Here’s the letter from the eight clergymen: A Call for Unity. The link includes a little background on the men and you’ll note, these are not bad men. They agree change is needed, but that it should be “properly pursued” in courts. They continue:

We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely. (…) such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically
peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems.

In other words, “You need to stop doing your peaceful things because it’s making angry people do bad things.”

Of course, the clergymen weren’t the only ones concerned about the violence “incited” by the protests. Please note that while King’s response was finished relatively quickly, they could find no one to publish it until August. Even liberal publications were nervous about associating themselves with King.

Another thing you’ll notice if you bothered to read A Call for Unity: it signed by a Presbyterian.

Rev. Ramage was moderator of the Alabama Synod and according to the document I linked, was described as a “humble peacemaker.” In 1965 he was forced out of his pastorate by segregationists. Meaning they were not so keen with his peacemaking.

Fast forward to the present…

At the last General Assembly in 2018 (GA is the national meeting for Presbyterians and is held every other year), the Presbytery of the Twin Cities (right here in Minnesota!) made this overture:

On Adopting the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” written by the Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. as a Contemporary Statement of Faith (But not with Constitutional Standing)

Four people from the Twin Cities Presbytery were in my class (two of them were at the wine party). You’ll note their overture said, “not with Constitutional Standing.” This means they weren’t asking for it to be included in the Book of Confessions.

After much discussion and reflection, the GA was not opposed to their overture but said there was “no category” for a Contemporary Statement of Faith without Constitutional Standing. So again, after much discussion and reflection, the overture’s wording was changed to include Constitutional Standing.

(By the way, if Presbyterians come across sounding a little anal to you, there’s a reason for that. They are.)

There are two slogans that get bandied about quite a bit by Presbyterians that are quite apt for our discussion. The first one is “Decently and in Order.”

Mostly it refers to their process of government, but somehow it just kind of describes them as a whole.

I truly believe that if there’s a roomful of people in complete chaos and you throw a Presbyterian in their midst, by the end of the afternoon a committee will have been formed and a resolution presented for the entire group to vote on and adopt.

Afterwards they’ll have a potluck dinner.


The second motto for Presbyterians is one I really, really love: “Reformed and always Reforming.”

Now you put these two mottos together and you wind up with a church that’s quite open to change, as long as they have a whole lotta time to think, discuss, study and reflect on it.

A really long time…

During one of our sessions, the instructor explained the constitutional process for the church. It was not unlike a civics lesson.

Following the GA vote, the next step is for a committee to study the matter carefully and make their recommendation at the next GA in 2020. If they say yes, definitely proceed, then the GA studies it for their next meeting in 2022, where the delegates (equal number of ministers & elders) will vote on it. If they vote “hell-yeah-let’s-do-this,” it goes to individual presbyteries for a vote. These individual presbyteries will give it to their churches for input beforehand (again, pastors and elders get equal vote). If 2/3 of the presbyteries agree with their own “hell-yeah,” it then goes to the 2024 GA for ratification.

If you’ve been keeping track, this is a six-year process at a minimum. Things can get delayed at any point. For instance, with regards to this overture, they are still in talks with King’s family on the copyright. So as of right now, there’s not even a committee in place for the initial study period.

You see how “Decently and in Order” comes into play?

Obviously it would be a whole lot faster if we had a top-down form of government. All we’d need is for the Big Man on Top (let’s face it, it’s usually a man) to say his thing and boom, there it is.

Alas, Presbyterians insist on everyone having a say. And that is why we have this ponderously slow process.

Yet, in spite of this, reform does happen and that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Consider for example a couple of overtures that went to the same GA (I found them while hunting for the exact wording of the Birmingham overture):

  • Ovt 049  On Affirming and Celebrating the Full Dignity and Humanity of People of All Gender Identities.
  • Ovt 050  On Celebrating the Gifts of People of Diverse Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities in the Life of the Church.
  • Ovt 051 On Praying for a Movement of the Spirit to Engage Presbyterian Congregations in Nation-Wide Action to Prevent Gun Violence.

Granted, I have no idea what the outcome was on these (they didn’t ask me), but I appreciate the fact they were on the docket and getting discussed.

And while I have no proof of it, I have an inkling that might have been the whole point of this Birmingham overture – getting the Letter out there and read.

Someone in the class had asked if it was really necessary to include King’s letter to our Confessions. “Can’t we just ask churches to read it and conduct studies around it?”

To that, one of the Twin City clergy replied, “Sure… but would they?”

And there’s the rub. By getting the Letter on track for Constitutional standing, they are forcing churches to pay attention to it. And if they read it – if people are honest with themselves – they should feel convicted by it.

(Just to be clear, though we in the pews are not reading the Book of Confessions, any clergy worth their salt would let us know about any changes or additions.)

We certainly had some dynamic discussion in our class regarding King’s words, let me tell you. Even though most believed it wasn’t really a Statement of Faith as our confessions are meant to be (and in truth, although it’s an incredibly important document, I have to agree with them), they felt an urgent need for action. To get off our comfy White Moderate couches and do something.

On the final day we had a time for open discussion. Two of the comments stayed with me, both of them made by male clergy:

You know, as I read King’s letter over and over, I felt so angered by my own inaction. But also frustrated because I didn’t know what to do and I kept thinking, I wish someone would tell me. And then it occurred to me – you know what? African Americans don’t owe me anything. Women in MeToo, they owe me nothing. My Native brothers and sisters, they don’t owe me a goddammed thing. This is on me. I have to educate myself. Learn the issues; figure out what to do. It’s on me. I can’t be forcing my (*airquotes*) white-mans-guilt on anyone.

And the other guy:

I’ve been thinking… I’ve had a pulpit now for nearly 27 years and never once have I used it. I’ve never really said what I thought. And you wanna know why? It’s because I don’t want to have that meeting on Monday night. Or the angry phone call Sunday afternoon. I mean, seriously, what am I afraid of? I’m a white Cis-Male, American citizen, well-educated and in my 40s. I’m secure. I’ve practically got a freakin’ capital P over me for crying out loud. I can always get another job. I don’t have the problems so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ have. And here I’ve got this pulpit and never use it! … so that’s what I decided I’m going to do. I’m going to start using it.

I wish I’d thought to get his name so we could all shower him with letters and cards.

Keep the faith, you big lug. You’re making us proud.

And so ends this really long episode of Synod School for the Wannabe Activist.

Stay tuned next week (or maybe the week after, kinda busy right now) when we’ll learn more about the Enneagram and Why We Are the Way We Are.

AKA: why this blogger has always made a lousy activist.


  1. The Presbyterians are considering adding Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail to their Book of Confessions.
  2. You’ll likely never read the Book of Confessions – who does? – so don’t worry about it.
  3. You’ll likely never read Dr. King’s letter either, but you should. Here’s a link: READ THIS.
  4. And here’s a link to the crib notes version because, you know…  LAZY VERSION.
  5. Presbyterians have a really, really, really slow method for reform. But at least they have a method. So cut them a little slack, okay?
  6. Sometimes clergy say just the right thing. Let’s hope they live by it. (As should we.)
  7. You should consider adding more reading time to your schedule. Just sayin.

21 thoughts on “Doing the Right Thing – Presby-style

  1. CJ – I confess that I don’t get the point of all this. You did a nice job with all the historical context about King’s letter. The institutional acceptance of it is beside the point in my mind. If individuals want to read it and use it to improve the world – great!

    1. Well, I guess the point of it is the same as in any blog post — it was something I was interested in (the week-long class gave me a lot to reflect on) so I decided to write about it. Sometimes it hits the mark, sometimes it doesn’t. Such is life.

    1. Those comments filled me with hope as well. I seriously wanted to hug them both, and I’m not a huggy person!
      Thanks for the comment. Some of my favorite people are Episcopalians! 🙂

  2. Thank you for this post. I had not heard even though I am a member of a PCUSA church. Many years ago, we left the PCA church because of their attitude toward women and because we found a PCUSA church in the small town of Montrose CO that actually accepted us. Anyway, it’s nice to get updated. But being PCUSA I think means we’re a little more laid back. However, now I will have to check to see if we have a Book of Confessions on our shelf. It’s very possible but we have so many books (and so little time).

    1. Oh hey, we know Montrose! Driven through there several times. (We used to live by Fort Morgan.)
      I wouldn’t have known about any of this if it wasn’t for the Synod School. It was quite the eye-opener. And I agree, the PC(USA) is far more laid back than the others. I don’t think I could stand it if they weren’t!

    1. UCC’ers and Presbyterians are often in a race to see who can be the most progressive — though maybe it just seems that way. 😉
      The Enneagram class was great fun and highly illuminating. I’m still trying to unpack it all!

        1. Oh yikes, it might be another week yet of waiting. Sorry about that! Got knee deep in renovating our kitchen. Like, literally, on my hands and knees updating the 70s era linoleum. (A blog post in itself!)

  3. Take a bow, and just for the record, I started at the beginning.

    Good stuff…Humor is like sugar, it makes the medicine easier to swallow. This article is good medicine and needs to be read, respected and abided by.

  4. A fair amount of this was TL;DR. I propose a new rule (yeah, I know, it’ll take a while to discuss it): discussion on all proposals should be completed before the potluck begins. (And the casseroles need to be listed prior to discussion beginning, just to give a little extra motivation…)

  5. Well, here’s my own personal take on all of this, for what it’s worth. (And yes, I realize the previous sentence is a bit extraneous, as that’s the point of the comment section, sharing a personal take. I’m a wordy kind of guy and I can’t always let go of that.) I’m just pleased that there is a DISCUSSION going on, in whatever form, even if that form entails a years-long process. So many organizations/faiths/societal groupings/a certain political party don’t even consider the possibility of discussion, instead relying on what has been the guideline for longer than I’ve been alive: We have our credos and none of them are to be bucked in any manner whatsoever unless somebody important in the hierarchy passes on and there’s a subtle shift in alignment, resulting in a new representative on the higher court who doesn’t quite grasp the concept of strictly-regulated lemmings.

    That sounds a little harsh. But I think you know what I mean. I’ve never been a fan of “because that’s the way we’ve always done it”. I firmly believe in “let’s regroup and think about it”. Life is fluid; minds should be, as well.

    On a personal note, I think you might have just convinced me to post a piece that I’ve held in abeyance for quite some time, one concerning my own turmoil about organized religion and personal freedom. I may not be quite there, but you have certainly opened a door that I’ve been eyeing with some hesitance…

    1. Sadly, there are far too many churches caught up in dualistic thinking – bad/good, right/wrong, heaven/hell – that they have completely lost sight of love. Which is what Jesus was all about, yeah?
      I would be most interested in reading anything you had to say on the subject of religion, though I completely understand your reluctance. It’s dangerous waters, I find. Sad, really…

  6. This was so interesting. I have no connection, knowledge or any real impetus to learn of religion or religious groups, other than out of curiosity or need to understand something. But as a human being, this, this this! Taking it to a personal perspective, I would like the Presbyterians to take over our Parliament please. To discuss something in a measured, pro-active way, with humanity, and then have a Pot Luck afterwards, once a way forward has been decided upon; gets my vote. It’s a lesson for us all. Our Brexit shenanigans have now dragged on for 3 years and NOT ONE person in the country knows what will happen next, whether we’ll leave the EU, when, or even how. If only we’d taken this process the Presbyterian way, we’d still probably have it all sorted and got on with our lives a darn sight quicker. I love the 2 quotes, real food for thought. Sorry, for rambling, but this post really spoke.
    I love your confession that you haven’t read the Book of Confessions! 😉

    1. Historically speaking, Presbyterians haven’t always made the wisest moves (they were heavily involved in Prohibition), but at least they have a method for changes. So in a large sense, there’s a sense of freedom in making decisions because you know if it turns out bad, you can always change it later. Which should be a lesson for all of us, right?
      And please, never apologize for rambling. It is the source of all the best comments. 🙂

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