PCUSA and BDS: Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series Presbyterian Church 2014


I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion over who allowed divestment to be voted on by the Aldermen of Somerville, MA in 2004, ushering in three years of conflict in a city that ultimately rejected divestment at the executive, legislative and judicial level (not to mention in the voting booth).

I mention this because even when some form of BDS activity gets snuck in through the back door of an institution (be it Somerville or the Olympia Food Coop), there is usually someone in the leadership of the institution heavily involved with the sneaking.

Previously, I provided an example of the type of single-issue fanatic driving anti-Israel invective and BDS-related activity within the Presbyterian Church, as well as the infra-structure that allows such activity to find a permanent home within the organization.  But, as has been pointed out over and over, the activity of those representing minority opinion (such as supporters of a church divestment policy that has been voted down time and time again) could only have gotten as far as it has if enabled by those in power within PCUSA.

And the leader whose fingerprints can be found on most of the incriminating evidence regarding attempts to force a position on the church despite the opinion of the membership is Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) from 1996 through 2008, the very period when BDS sunk its fangs into the organization swearing to never let go.

The Stated Clerk is tasked to manage the business of the Church’s General Assemblies, those bi-annual meetings when representatives from the various PCUSA governing units (called “Presbyteries”) meet to elect leaders and vote on church policy.

As I’ve noted many times in the past, Church culture has historically been built around decentralized decision-making, which means power is supposed to rest with the Presbyteries who get to vote on matters before the organization. But, like many institutions whose rules were constructed for simpler times, the Church has experienced an increasing hollowing out of democracy as specialized committees, bureaucrats and professional leaders more and more determine policy with the voting membership of the Church treated like an obstacle to be overcome, rather than the sole source of legitimacy.

This is why GA voters are always asked to vote on a flurry of measures as the assembly is winding down, committee-generated measures which many voters have little time to read, much less understand or debate.  In fact, divestment was just one of many such measures related to the Middle East (most of them hostile to Israel) voted in during the last hours of the PCUSA’s 2004 GA.

Will Spotts’ Pride and Prejudice (required reading for anyone who wants to understand what’s been going on within the Church), starts by pointing out that when Reverend Kirkpatrick summed up what he thought would be the defining issues to come out of the recent General Assembly he had just presided over, divestment wasn’t even on his list.

This is indicative of a lack of understanding among many Church leaders who have increasingly turned to ecumenical partners such as the Palestinian Christian group Sabeel for all their information regarding the Middle East while also turning a deaf ear to their alleged Jewish interfaith partners trying to explain why BDS is anathema to all but the most fringe members of the community.

Given that anti-Israel resolutions had already become a staple of General Assemblies by 2004, Kirkpatrick can be forgiven for not anticipating the outrage that year’s divestment decisions would trigger. But he has fewer excuses for the dishonest way that decision was framed to Jewish organizations and the press, especially attempt to portray calls for divestment as simply bubbling up from the grassroots (behaviors also well documented in Pride and Prejudice).

By the time the 2006 and 2008 GAs rolled around (over which Reverend Kirkpatrick also presided), I was deeply involved in covering votes the church took to rescind divestment (in ’06) and confirm that decision (in ’08).  And at both conclaves, attempts to suppress voices critical of Church policy were on full display as anti-Israel partisans increasingly took central stage and, more importantly, took over the committees created to restore some sense of balance to PCUSA’s Middle East policies.

And during all that time, leaders like Kirkpatrick – rather than listening to what GA members were telling them in vote after vote – continued to portray previous GA “reverse” decisions as simple pauses on the way towards restoring the “status quo” of the pro-divestment Presbyterian Church from  2004-2006.  And given how much power continues to be centralized into the hands of the few within the organization, those few stand on pretty thin ice when they try to portray their behavior as a simple response to the will of members.  For, as with so many things BDS-related, within the Presbyterian Church some people’s opinions are more equal than other’s.

In doing a little “where are they now” research, I stumbled on this brief Wikipedia article on Reverend Kirkpatrick.  And while I generally recommend against reading too much into material from this particular source, I thought it was telling that the last of the four sentences that make up his entry simply states “After serving the denomination through twelve years of declining membership, Kirkpatrick chose to step down from his position.”

Such a brief article didn’t have time to point out that during a period when PCUSA’s death spiral was apparent to all, it’s Stated Clerk (like many of its other leaders) had other priorities.