Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

Part 2 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

san jose convention centerAs I explained in my last post, the Presbyterian Church USA is on the ropes, at best, perhaps even down for the count, or even fully knocked out, at worst. Though my denomination has been on a downward course for decades, what happened in our latest General Assembly meeting in San Jose, California, has brought the PCUSA ever closer to its demise. (Photo: The San Jose Convention Center, where the General Assembly convened, from my hotel room. The Convention Center is the large building with the curved roof in the upper center of the photo.)

Much of what happened in the General Assembly was quite positive. The Assembly reaffirmed the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, rather than giving in to the cultural pressure to endorse same-sex marriage. The Assembly also approved a statement that called upon Presbyterians to “Grow God’s Church Deep and Wide.”
But several actions of the General Assembly have stirred up a storm of concern among many Presbyterians, as I demonstrated in my last post. Not all of them have to do with ordination and sexuality, but these are clearly the most incendiary. In order to explain these controversial actions fairly, I will quote from a letter sent by denominational leaders to churches and pastors. These leaders, who support the actions of the Assembly and who are positive about the future of the denomination, describe the contentious items in this way:

Perhaps the subject that will make the most headlines has to do with the ordination standards of our church. It is a subject with which Presbyterians are familiar and one that tends to evoke great debates and deep emotions. With that in mind, we want you to know what the assembly did—in the actual wording—in regard to ordination standards, and what will happen next.

  • By a 54% to 46% margin, the assembly voted to propose an amendment to our Book of Order to change one of our current ordination standards. The change is to replace the current language that says officers of the church must live by “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b) to this new language: Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.
  • By a 53% to 47% vote, the assembly adopted a new Authoritative Interpretation (AI) on G-6.0106b: Interpretive statements concerning ordained service of homosexual church members by the 190th General Assembly (1978) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and the 119th General Assembly (1979) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and all subsequent affirmations thereof, have no further force or effect.
  • By a 54% to 46% vote, the assembly adopted a new AI on G-6.0108 which restores the intent of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church report (2006) to allow someone who is being considered for ordination or installation as a deacon, elder, or minister to register a conscientious objection to the standards or beliefs of the church and ask the ordaining body to enter into a conversation with them to determine the seriousness of the departure.
  • The assembly left unchanged the definition of marriage found in the Directory for Worship (W-4.9000)—“a civil contract between a woman and a man.”

By its actions, the assembly has initiated a new opportunity to focus ordination on primary allegiance and obedience to Jesus Christ, as well as to Scripture and the church’s confessions. The assembly places the responsibility onto sessions and presbyteries for discerning a candidate’s fitness for ordination.

If you’re unfamiliar with the way Presbyterians do business, let me add a couple of words of explanation and commentary:

1. Out of context, the new language proposed for the Book of Order would be unobjectionable, even laudable. How wonderful that candidates for ordination “pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions.” Yet by removing the call for candidates to pledge to live by “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness,” this amendment clearly and intentionally implies that one can fulfill the standards for ordination while being sexually active outside of marriage. This would be true for both gay and straight candidates, by the way.
2. The proposed change to the Book of Order is not in force until it is approved by a majority of the presbyteries (regional governing bodies) of the church. Twice before, in 1997-98 and 2001-2, the General Assembly voted to remove the fidelity and chastity clause, but this was rejected by the presbyteries. This could very well happen again. But that’s why my next point is so significant.
3. Perhaps the actions of greatest concern are the most confusing of all. The Assembly adopted two new Authoritative Interpretations of the Book of Order. One of these revoked a 30-year understanding that homosexual behavior is sinful. The other gave candidates for ordination the opportunity “to register a conscientious objection to the standards or beliefs of the church and ask the ordaining body to enter into a conversation with them to determine the seriousness of the departure.” By clear implication, this is meant to give the governing body the freedom to decide that the departure is not serious enough to preclude ordination. In others words, even though the Book of Order currently requires a candidate to live by fidelity and chastity, a local governing body is free to decide that this isn’t required, or that “fidelity” could mean “faithful within a homosexual relationship” or something similar. (Prof. Robert Gagnon believes that the new Authoritative Interpretation actually doesn’t give such freedom to a governing body. Though I hope he’s right, I don’t share his confidence. And even if he is right, logically speaking, I sincerely doubt governing bodies and judicial commissions in the PCUSA will think as clearly as Gagnon about the matter.)
4. As a leader, I understand the need to put a happy face on a sad situation. Generally we call this spin. I must confess that I find the statement that “the assembly has initiated a new opportunity to focus ordination on primary allegiance and obedience to Jesus Christ, as well as to Scripture and the church’s confessions” to be a good example of such spin. The letter is more forthright when it says, a couple of paragraphs later: “We know the assembly actions may do little to ease the anxiety that seems to permeate our life together as a denomination. The debate isn’t new and the future holds difficult challenges.” Once again, however, spin is crouching at the door. The actions of the General Assembly didn’t just “do little to ease the anxiety.” Rather, they greatly added to that anxiety, and, in fact pushed the PCUSA into a new level of crisis.
5. Given the General Assembly’s actions to allow for gay and lesbian people to be ordained, presumably because the majority of the Assembly believed that physical intimacy between members of the same sex can be okay, I find the Assembly’s failure to redefine marriage to be particularly odd. If one believes that gay sex is right in some context, then the only context in which this could be possible, from a theological point of view, would be a marriage relationship between same-sex partners. Though I don’t believe the Bible gives support to the idea of same-sex marriage, I do believe that the only defensible position by those who allow for gay ordination would be in the case of same-sex marriage. By allowing for the rightness of same-sex intimacy, but not approving of same-sex marriage, the General Assembly has implicitly ordained sex outside of marriage. I expect the Assembly believed, rightly so, that though consistency required the approval of same-sex marriage, a vote to do this would have euthanized the PCUSA immediately.

If you’re watching all of this from the bleachers, you may wonder why some of us PCUSA types are so upset by what happened at the General Assembly. Then again, you may wonder why any of us are sticking around in a denomination that has strayed so far from biblical teaching. In order to understand what has happened and why we have responded as we have, you need a bit of history concerning the PCUSA and homosexuality. I’ll supply this bit in my next post.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus