July 8, 2012
Hundreds of decisions were made in the course of this week’s General Assembly. Tracking the business is a little like maintaining a baseball scorecard. Some runners may get on base but never make it to home plate. The weather may delay the game. An error may be offset by a brilliant field catch. The final score is only one indication of what happened during the game; but the routine plays, the hand signals, and the errors throughout the game reveal the true condition of the team. To carry this analogy into the PCUSA, the Big Decision not to change the definition of marriage is an indicator of something, but throughout the week, there were other less-publicized decisions that demonstrated where we really are as a church. What I would like to do today is list the actions and moments that may not have made the news but which indicate, to me at least, that our denomination is in a serious slump and suffering from injuries.
1. The false start by the Moderator, Neal Presa, who originally supported the candidacy of his Vice-Moderator Tara McCabe, despite her conducting a same-sex wedding on April 28 in Washington, D.C. She resigned on Wednesday in anger but not repentance, and was replaced by Tom Trinidad of Colorado Springs. The Moderator of the Assembly apparently did not believe that violation of one’s ordination vows disqualifies one from high denominational office.
2. In our polity, proposals were made that would have strengthened top-down governance and control of the church through the
• elimination of elected synods and appointment of regional administrative commissions to replace them. This part of the Mid-Councils Commission (MCC) report (05-12) did not pass.
• requirement that presbyteries pay all per capita due to synods and GA even if their congregation do not. This measure (03-02) passed.
• severe limitation of business coming to the assembly from presbyteries and commissioners, but not from GA entities. 03-01, Rec. 3, did not pass.
Except for the per capita decision, which was expected, the proposals to reorganize and redirect business upward did not prevail. Presbyterians value their representative form of governance and desire the initiative for business to come from below, not from above. By turning back the MCC Recommendation 6 to form new (provisional) non-geographic presbyteries, however, the Assembly demonstrated not a unified vision of bottom-up innovation but an allegiance to the status quo.
3. On the sexuality issue, we averted immediate disaster as reported on Friday, but this vote to retain the traditional definition of marriage did not represent a resounding affirmation of Scripture’s witness nor the authority of our Confessions, but the political reality that a constitutional amendment could not muster presbytery ratification. As one retired PCUSA official said privately, “When it comes to the moment of truth—pressing the button on the keypad—commissioners vote on the side of unity in the church.” But with this action comes more Presbyterian double-speak:
• Postponement of “The Decision” for two years of study, as if the denomination has not been hashing over this topic for decades. This “solution” creates a limbo period for those on both sides of the aisle, for those who desire an immediate affirmation of gay marriage and for those who consider a change in the marriage definition to be the deal-breaker. Without a definitive decision on this matter this year, churches are prone to ambivalence about their relationship with the PCUSA.
• The implication (or desire) that non-compliance will be permitted in the meantime. A few commissioners admitted that they have not waited for the church to complete its discernment on gay marriage to start conducting same-sex weddings. Their admission is either a dare or an implicit dogma: the left can defy the constitution, but the right can’t prosecute while the subject is under scrutiny. For scofflaws, it does not matter what the constitution says. “People are going to do what they’re going to do” (Naegeli Law No. 137). But historically, in a time of discernment, churches have been courteous and patient with the process and declined to defy the standing rule until the Body has decided the matter. No more, it seems.
4. Cutting loose the Confessions from ecclesiastical decision-making. The Stated Clerk advised, and the Moderator ruled, that the proposed constitutional amendment to change W-4.9000, the definition of marriage, did not contradict the Confessions because “the confessions themselves do not agree with each other, but are rather a progressive representation of what the church has believed through history.” This ruling is based on false information (i.e. that the confessions disagree on the matter of marriage between and man and a woman, which they most certainly do not). But by saying what he did, the Clerk perpetuated the myth that our conduct is not based on what we believe (i.e. the confessional part of our Constitution) but on the rules we set (i.e. the Book of Order). This official ruling (of the Moderator, concurring with the Clerk’s opinion) was a second “official” statement rendering the Confessions irrelevant to everyday Presbyterian life (the first being the GAPJC’s decision in Parnell v. San Francisco). To me, this was the low point of the Assembly and a cowardly failure on the part of the Clerk to fulfill his office at a moment when it really counted.
Having said this, isn’t it ironic that liberals before the 2010 Committee on Confessions demanded a retranslation of the Heidelberg Catechism in order to remove the reference to “homosexual perversion” in Q. 87? Why would they feel this was important, if the Confessions really do not order our life together doctrinally? The church is not of one mind about where our authorities lie, and frankly, these erroneous rulings are causing ecclesiastical osteoporosis. Ultimately, and perhaps very soon, we will not be able to stand without breaking weakened bones.
5. Withholding all means of ‘relief of conscience’. I outlined this outcome in a previous post but it is worth saying again that if the church is going to depart from its historic faith and Presbyterian ethos to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of GLBT persons, in all fairness it must provide relief of conscience for those they insist must stay in the denomination. To differentiate from the denomination at large a congregation and/or presbytery needs to be able to cease participation in the Board of Pension benefits plan, have freedom to form new presbyteries or to adopt presbytery-wide ordination standards, withhold of per capita, or ultimately leave the denomination with property. All of these avenues were closed off at this Assembly, leaving evangelicals with huge dilemmas on how to differentiate from a wayward denomination.
6. The Q factor, raised when a commissioner asked what the Q in LGBTQ meant, and the moderator of Committee 13 said, “queer.” The commissioner thought it meant “questioning,” which she as a youth appreciated, because she wasn’t sure about the orientation of her sexuality just yet. Later the Moderator talked about the queue for the microphone, which he had to spell in order to differentiate from the Q everybody else had in mind. But going back to the youth commissioner’s comment, it seemed to me that YAADs were getting a pretty heavy dose of the gay agenda, based on the number of rainbow stoles they were wearing and their microphone comments. What I find sad and appalling is that youth, who are still learning and easily confused about sexuality anyway, now are confronted by a political advocacy group inviting them to explore the possibility they might be gay, or worse, urging them to experiment with homosexual practice as part of their “sex education.” [I’m not saying that is what is happening with the YAADs at GA, but homosexual education is required at junior high schools and, in some states, grades schools, according to Linda Harvey, who addressed the OneByOne lunch on Tuesday.]
So the GA game was not the PCUSA’s finest hour, and the team is dealing with injuries that may not heal. Not to say spiritual disciplines and training in godliness wouldn’t help avert the looming crisis. But now that the GA All-Star break is over, it is time for coaches across the country to go back to teaching the fundamentals of discipleship, promoting obedience to Jesus Christ and God’s way revealed in the Scriptures, and retraining theologically. The Coalition will do its part to provide materials for study, bibliographies for referral, and other helps for Presbyterian decision-makers learning to choose the Way of Life.
This was my last post for presbycoalition.wordpress.com, uploaded here also to make the transition to my personal blog. I am not dropping the subject of GA—believe me, I’m just getting started!—but exercising my freedom to delve into topics of my choosing as time goes on and things happen. Thank you for your interest and encouragement through the week; and again, I apologize for promising to write everyday and then not carrying through as consistently as I had hoped.
May 16, 2012
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) now must deal with the first situation anyone can remember of a presbytery directly refusing to act on the decision and order of a General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC). The question is, what recourse is there for dealing with such a flagrant disregard of their ordination vows and the basic understanding of Presbyterian governance (found, for instance, at F-3.0206, “Review and Control” by a higher council)?
Understand that the drafters of the motion believed that they were acting consistent with their vows, that they are applying the love ethic of Jesus accurately, and that they have a right to defy a judicial ruling. The questionable biblical hermeneutic and theological error is the first problem, of course. The WHEREASes of the motion represent sloppy doctrine, disconnected “points” that actually do not follow one after the other, and therefore yield an illogical conclusion. Nothing new here; this is what we have been working with, and tolerating it as we have for decades is now yielding bitter fruit.
Illogic notwithstanding, the bottom line is this, “We, the Presbytery of Redwoods, refuse to carry out the PJC’s Order.” Naegeli’s Law No. 137 kicks in: “People are gonna do what they’re gonna do.” When they set their course, nothing will stop them: not a sense of covenant, not biblical obedience, not the knowledge that their actions will crumble the church, nothing. In San Francisco Presbytery a year or two ago, our interim executive presbyter actually said in a presbytery sermon before a controversial vote, “we should do the right thing [in the context, meaning ordaining gays], even if it destroys the church.” So how is that not a violation of a vow to preserve the peace, unity, and purity of the church?
If this were a civil situation and a party refused to perform according to the court’s directive, a law enforcement representative would haul them in to court, they would be ruled in contempt and levied a fine or jailed. Unfortunately, we have no “law enforcement” arm of church governance (I presume God’s judgment at the right time will have to do). It is a serious question I am sure was calculated in the defiers’ strategy: is there anything anybody can do to stop them? The hubris is breathtaking.
But let us engage in the question for a moment. What could be done? Various ideas are proposed, among them:
1. The Synod installs an Administrative Commission in the Presbytery, and
a) orchestrates a reconsideration of the action; OR
b) presumes renunciation of jurisdiction and remove the staff, replace the council, and issue the rebuke as directed; OR
c) dismantles the Presbytery and redistribute its members to existing, surrounding presbyteries; OR
d) enacts other ideas my readers will come up with
2. Ask the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) to issue an advisory opinion on what has happened.
3. File a remedial complaint against Redwoods Presbytery. This puts us on course for an infinite loop, since the presbytery clearly has rejected judicial authority. So what if the GAPJC rules that the presbytery has acted in error? Without any sort of enforcement other than the untried, untested ideas outlined above, this presbytery thinks it can get away with open defiance. This is fodder for anarchy, folks, and a major humiliation to the historic church that was characterized by “decency and order” since its inception.
Our system of governance works only if peace, unity, and purity—all three—are held together without compromise by theological consensus, even agreement, on essential tenets of the Reformed faith (belief); unwavering obedience to Jesus Christ and the will of God as revealed in Scripture (behavior); and true covenant in community with one another. Redwoods Presbytery, with its Tuesday resolution, has broken covenant with the denomination, promoted a false gospel, and promoted disobedience. Who has the standing to call them out and declare them a rogue faction of the PCUSA?