GAPJC Rules: Believe As You Will—We Won’t Stop You
May 1, 2012
The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) released its Decision and Order this morning, agreeing on all counts with the Synod of the Pacific PJC (SPJC) to affirm San Francisco Presbytery’s approval of Lisa Larges’ ordination. “The Presbytery properly exercised its prerogative in determining that the Candidate did not depart from the essentials of Reformed faith and polity.” The Commission did not sustain any of the eight specifications of error put forward by the Appellants, comprising seven elders and one church session within San Francisco Presbytery. The decision puts to rest all procedural questions related to the ordination of committed homosexual persons and enshrines the rule that ordaining bodies (presbyteries and sessions) have sole discretion to determine doctrine and biblical interpretation related to candidates.
In the Decision, the Commission quoted and affirmed the statement within the SPJC’s decision I have commented on before (with thread to follow) but recall here:
“ . . . a vast diversity of interpretation of scripture and the confessions regarding human sexuality evident in the record is also manifest across the churches and members of the denomination. Such thoughtful disagreement among reasonable and faithful Presbyterians is itself an important and faithful part of the Reformed tradition.”
Some key points in the Decision:
1. The Commission went back to the Swearingen Commission Report of 1926-27, which in its view gave presbyteries full authority to determine whether a candidate for ordination adheres to the necessary and essential tenets of the Reformed faith.
2. The Bible is not the only voice that shapes the belief of Presbyterians, citing the array in the Book of Confessions, which is identified as “an instrument of reform” and requiring “discernment and interpretation when its standards are applied in the life and mission of the church.” And since the GAPJC also lifted up the “vast diversity of interpretation” statement from the SPJC decision, it also sees the many voices within scholarly debate as equally valid for shaping the church’s life.
The Decision can be read as upholding the so-called Knox Authoritative Interpretation as a basis for presbytery autonomy in ordination decisions, though Knox was never cited in this decision.
Appended to the Decision and Order were two concurrences with different messages. The first represents the lament of the minority on the panel. The four commissioners concurred with the decision because there was no constitutional way to prevent it after the deletion of the fidelity/chastity requirement and given the history of precedent leading to this outcome (Adopting Act of 1729 à Swearingen Commission). The authors wrote:
While we concur with this assessment of where the PC(USA) is as a denomination, we lament that it is in this place—where differences over matters of human sexuality have become so diverse and divisive, where slim majority votes create huge shifts in the communal life of the denomination, and where every decision the church makes in this area is a sweet victory for one side, and a bitter defeat for the other, ultimately causing entire congregations to determine that they can no longer remain in fellowship with the denomination. . . . In many respects the denomination has been transformed by a culture of sexual fixation rather than being transformative of that culture.
They go on to demonstrate how the church has lost its moral authority to speak a transformative gospel to the culture because “we have been unwilling to discipline ourselves. . .”
I am gratified that these four also included a quotation from the preliminary Swearingen Commission Report (1926) in which that panel acknowledged that the reason why it could trust presbyteries with ordination decisions was that they were in general agreement about the content of the faith. If this were not so, they said, “our difficulties would be multiplied greatly.”
These words have turned out to be prophetic, and the sad unraveling of our biblical and confessional integrity is taking place. The four commissioners quoted Swearingen’s call for spiritual revival, a return to our knees in confession and repentance, and renewal of our allegiance to Christ. I urge us all to read this and weep before the throne of truth and grace.
The second concurrence by only two other members of the GAPJC basically says we Appellants were wrong to say that the scriptures are clear on the matter of homosexual practice and that we did not follow the same rules of interpretation on this topic as we might have on any other topic. According to them, we made “little reference to contemporary critical analysis or contextual differentiation.” Further, they go on, the matter does not rise to the level of “essentials of Reformed faith and polity” nor is “the ordination of a gay or lesbian person . . . so critical that it would compromise or undermine the ‘essential and necessary’ character of Reformed doctrine.”
In the eyes of our PCUSA judicial system, we have been defeated. In the eyes of God, we have stood faithfully for what is true and covenant-keeping. We conducted ourselves well through the process, and gave the GAPJC lots to think about. We believe they have erred in their conclusion, and it will be the undoing of our denomination. We can only commend the PCUSA to God’s mercy at this point.
Where does this leave Lisa? She remains under care of San Francisco Presbytery, but her work with the organization that was validated at the time of her examination for ordination is coming to a close. If she secures a new call, I believe it will be necessary for her to undergo another examination, but this Decision makes that outcome predictable and probably a formality only. I sincerely wish her well as she determines her next steps.