What GA Decisions Mean to the Church

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.



5 Responses to “What GA Decisions Mean to the Church”

  1. Frank Norment Says:

    Why should Presbyteries go bankrupt to pay per-capita dues. Simply do what a lot of teaching elders do–ignore their vows. Presbyteries ignore per-capita and see what happens.

  2. Linda Lee, mukilteo Says:

    One of my heroes, Rev Bruce Larson, used to encourage Spiritual growth by having us focus on the questions that God is placing on our hearts now. Sometimes, I have to stop, listen, and clue into what God is wanting to say through
    those burning, longing questions about the church and the
    Mission before me.
    Focusing on that question, trusting God for the answer, helps us see more clearly how we can act in this time, in this place, in God’s power and will.
    Mary, you re helping us ask the right questions.
    May God prompt us to see the questions and the answers
    from Christ alone.

  3. C. A. Talley Says:

    As I wrote elsewhere, your disappointment is evident, too. But, is it true that the only sin present at the GA was to be found in the actions/words/thoughts of those labeled progressive or liberal?

  4. I read with great interest your comments on GA220. Please accept these responses in the spirit of my candidacy for moderator, “Creating New Relationships in Christ.” I write to foster understanding, not to discredit you are change your mind. Perhaps you will find my perspective useful. Obviously I have no control over how the Holy Spirit may or may not use my words.
    I found the commissioners unwilling to accept any dramatic change. As you pointed out, the status quo won the day. I’m not sure that was a bad thing. I would like to think the commissioners heeded the words of one of my liberal heroes, William Sloane Coffin: “If you are at the edge of an abyss the only progressive step is backward.” (Credo, p. 93) I sensed that the commissioners were hoping to do that by their votes. They voted against all controversial changes and asked the PCUSA to live with what we have for at least two more years.
    We didn’t take the chance of encouraging same gender marriage, and refused to send an overture to change the Constitution or to adopt an “authoritative interpretation.” We didn’t want to create the chaos that would have accompanied elimination of synods or creating non-geographic presbyteries. We didn’t risk rendering the General Assembly impotent by making per capita optional. (Who knew conservatives were so much in favor of local option? I know, a cheap shot. Forgive me.) We valued stability over distressing change. I always thought that was a conservative value.
    Three things troubled me the most about the assembly that came out in your comments.
    First, there seems to be a great divide in how we interpret and use scripture. Repeatedly, those who identified themselves as conservatives claimed scriptural authority for their position, and denied any other interpretation. This is so troubling on so many fronts. Are we to value proof-texting over context and apologetics over theology? That’s what these speakers seemed to be doing. There seems to be no room for serious study of scripture because we have reduced it to words on the page. To state or imply that disagreement on understanding of scripture denies the authority of scripture goes way too far. You can’t get any biblical society to agree on interpretation, whether it be the Society of Biblical Literature or those studying Dispensationalist prophecy. To move forward together we must quit using scripture as a club to beat the other into submission.
    Second, you indicated you were most troubled with the Stated Clerk’s advice to the Moderator and his concurrence that in matters of legislative procedure, we must separate the Confessions from the Form of Government. I may not completely understand it the way you do, but I think his point was that we cannot turn the Book of Confessions into “law” except by direct action. The confessions state many things with which I think you would disagree … or at least I hope so. Referring to Romans Catholics as pigs and papists, and condemning all non-Christians and Roman Catholics to hell is seen today as a product of the historical context in which the confession was written. I’m also sure you would not want certain parts of the Confession of 1967 used as “law.” While I regret the way this ruling disallowed a true discussion of the issues, I also believe the maneuver ruled out of order was intended to re-introduce something on which the Assembly had already decided.
    Finally, I am most troubled that we have reduced orthodoxy in the PCUSA to how one stands on the issue of full inclusion of LGBT(Q?) people in the denomination. As much as people point to Christology, scriptural authority, atonement, or salvation, it all boils down to homosexuality. Really? Seriously? This issue has driven such a wedge between us that we have trouble even worshipping together and sharing communion. When it comes to orthodoxy, where are the challenges to prevailing Arminianism in the PCUSA, to say nothing about the heresy of Dispensationalism? I believe these are a much greater threat to our Reformed understanding of the Christian faith than the expression of love between two loving same gender people.
    Thanks for reading. Blessings on you and your ministry.
    Randy Branson
    Graham, Texas

  5. Truth Tolife Says:

    The primary obstacle blocking the way of Progressives, be they political or ecclesiastical, has always been the written word. For the political progressives, it is the Constitution; for the Reformed progressives, the Confessions and Scripture. To the writers and ratifiers of the written word it’s primary benefit is its immutability. From the Ten Commandments forward, the written word was designed to set forth, indeed in stone, the basic constructs, rules. In the case of the Constitution, the written words can only be changed with great deliberation, and widespread agreement. Similarly with the PCUSA’s Confessions: they can only be changed by General Assembly proposal, ratified by 2/3 of the presbyteries. As for the Scriptures, they can’t be changed at all. The power of the written word is immutability.

    Since the 1920s, progressives have sought to diminish the power of the written word by using the word’s own immutability against it, arguing that the more intransigent a document is intended to be, the less deference we should give to it. A statute–passed today, repealed tomorrow–is enforced strictly according to its plain language, as understood by its ratifiers; while a Constitution, intended to guide the ages and to be changed only with great deliberation, is interpreted according to its “spirit”, but not it’s actual words.

    In politics, we hear of the “living Constitution”. It is precisely because the written words are so difficult to change that judges must “breath” new life into them–that is, declare new meaning to the old, intransigent words–lest the document become brittle and break. In other words, judges must break the Constitution in order to save it from breaking.

    We see the same strategy played out in the PCUSA: the Confessions, designed through the ages as the Church’s agreed-statements of the meaning of Scripture, do not bind, but merely instruct. And Scripture itself is now left for each one to interpret, as God individually reveals.

    This construct, that nothing is immutable, leads of course to instability, tension, anarchy. If there is no standard meaning, if the basic ground rules are subject to individual interpretation, we have reached once again the time of the Judges: when everyone did what was right in his or her own eyes.


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