Amendment B fails – where does this leave us?

April 27, 2009 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

This past weekend, two presbyteries voted against Amendment B – the Book of Order amendment to G6.0106b that would have removed the fidelity/chastity rule – making it easier to ordain lesbian and gay people as deacons, elders or ministers in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  This time around the vote was much closer than in the past, indicating a shift in cultural and scriptural beliefs on the subject.

I’m going to write two articles on this – this one and one to come.  Today’s article is about where we are left (in my personal interpretation) by the combination of this amendment failing and the changes to Authoritative Interpretations made by the 218th General Assembly in 2008.  The next article will be on where we should go from here politically, with my recommendations for the progressive, conservative and moderate factions.

What happened?

The 218th General Assembly took three important actions related to ordination standards:

1.  Removal of all prior Authoritative Interpretations.

As part of the same resolution that sent Amendment B to the presbyteries, the General Assembly stated:

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.

That has the net effect of throwing out all prohibitions on gay ordination other than G6-0106b.  It also throws out all PJC precedents that are not based on G6-0106b.  We are left with the Authoritative Interpretation on ordination standards that was part of the PUP report, stating that ordination standards are not defined nationally, but that each ordination decision is a local decision and individual to the person in question.  Plus, there is one new AI ….

2.  Authoritative Interpretation on ordination standards

The General Assembly passed a new Authoritative Interpretation:

That the 218th General Assembly (2008) to approve the following authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 of the Book of Order:

the requirements of G-6.0108 apply equally to all ordination standards of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Section G-6.0108 requires examining bodies to give prayerful and careful consideration, on an individual, case-by-case basis, to any departure from an ordination standard in matters of belief or practice that a candidate may declare during examination. However, the examining body is not required to accept a departure from standards, and cannot excuse a candidate’s inability to perform the constitutional functions unique to his or her office (such as administration of the sacraments).

Some call this a codification of “local option”.  I think it’s simpler than that.  It’s a codification of “individual option” – the classical Presbyterian idea that each ordination decision is made based on the individual to be ordained.  Each of us is sinful – none of us are perfect.  The question that Sessions and Presbyteries face is this – can this person do the job, is there a call, and are this person’s particular sins so heinous as to preclude their ordination?

It’s important to remember that each presbytery or session gets to make this decision based on the candidate in front of them.  And it’s also important to remember that this is done in person – with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

In a GA PJC case from earlier this year, the PJC made it clear that G-6.0106b was a mandatory standard in the Book of Order.  The decision practically warned that any future cases involving a clear departure from this standard (should it survive, which it has) would preclude ordination.

It is my sincere hope that this AI will stop the “fly-over” disciplinary cases that have been filed by the most extreme conservative members of the denomination.  Some cases have been filed by people who do not know the candidate, did not attend the meeting, and are at most only peripherally affected by the ordination decision.

3.  Amendment B
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The General Assembly sent to the presbyteries the following amendment to G-6.0106b:

b. Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament. 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.

I’ve only included the G-6.0106b amendment – there were corresponding amendments to G-14 regarding instructing Candidates on the rules.

This is the amendment that failed.  It was closer than ever (at this point 69-89 with voting continuing) but it still did not pass.  In my second post, I will talk about the climate that exists today to cause this near-success, and what that means for the future.

So Where are we now?

At this point, we need to turn to case studies.

Case 1 – a straight candidate for an ordained position, who is married and faithful to the spouse but unchaste at some point in the past (before marriage, perhaps even with the current spouse).  It is highly unlikely that this candidate will be asked about prior sexual practice.  It is also highly unlikely that the candidate will self-acknowledge this sin, or even consider it a sin.  If the issue does not come up, this person is ordainable.  If the issue does come up in the examination, the examining body would be required to decide whether or not the sin is a sufficient departure from standards.  Other bodies/people could only challenge through a disciplinary case alleging continuing conduct or lack of repentance.

Case 2 – a straight candidate for an ordained position is either married and unfaithful or single and engaging in sex.  This is a continuing practice.  It is highly unlikely that this candidate will be asked about prior or current sexual practice, unless someone has first-hand or hearsay knowledge.  It is also highly unlikely that the candidate will self-acknowledge this sin, or even consider it a sin.  If the issue does come up, the person is not ordainable.  Other bodies/people could challenge this decision by a disciplinary case alleging conduct, or via a remedial case alleging insufficient examination.  As a practical matter, the remedial case could only be filed by a church member or other session against a session, or a member of presbytery or other presbytery against a presbytery.  The immediately higher governing body could also investigate and take administrative action.

Case 3 – a homosexual person who is celibate.  It doesn’t matter how it comes up, only that the celibacy is on the record of an examination.  This person is ordainable.  Other bodies/people could only challenge this decision by a disciplinary case alleging that the candidate lied about celibacy – if that were to happen it might be beyond the pale of what Presbyterians would accept from an investigation given that it would require proof of sex (people would be mad that privacy was invaded to the degree necessary to allege this).

Case 4 – a homosexual person who is not celibate, but who is not questioned about the issue during examination.  This person is ordainable, though there will be a disconnect between his/her personal beliefs or practices and the Book of Order.  Other bodies/people could challenge this decision by a disciplinary case alleging conduct (also very ugly), or via a remedial case alleging insufficient examination.  See above for who could file a remedial case.

Case 5 – a homosexual person who is not celibate, and who is questioned during examination and makes a statement as such.  This also fits the case where a homosexual candidate is self-affirming of practice.  This person is not ordainable.  Other bodies/people could challenge this decision by a disciplinary case (based on self-acknowledged conduct) or a remedial case alleging violation of G-6.0106b.  This is the biggie – and the likely test case.  I believe that no matter what the presbytery or synod do, the GA PJC will rule that the person is not ordainable – based on their early warning in a prior case.

Case 6 – a person who states that they refuse to abide by G-6.0106b when making ordination decisions for other people.  This person is ordainable or not, depending on the ordaining body’s decision.  Other bodies/people could challenge this decision by a remedial case alleging violation of G-6.0106b.  I believe that such a case would ultimately fail at the General Assembly level.

Case 7 – a person who states that they refuse to ordain others who are elected who would violate G-6.0106b.  This person is NOT ordainable normally as a solo pastor, based on the new Authoritative Interpretation, because the person is unable to perform the constitutional function of ordaining a local officer.  I believe that special arrangements could be made with a temporary leave from their position and a Stated Supply in the extremely unlikely case that a solo pastor with such convictions would be leading a congregation that chooses to elect such an officer.  However, it would show a serious problem between the church and pastor and should come to the Committee on Ministry’s attention.  There are many other roles that this person could perform in an ordained role (pastor or associate pastor on a multi-clergy staff, teaching, mission, etc) that would not cause this problem.  If this ever happens, it’s gonna be a mess.

It should be noted that nothing above REQUIRES that a governing body find that a person is ordainable.  I believe that case 3 would be an interesting case if an elder-elect were refused ordination solely on G-6.0106b grounds – I don’t know which way the GA PJC would rule but I believe it would rule that the person should be ordained.  In all of the other cases where the person is ordainable the ordaining body has sufficient latitude in their decision to decide to ordain or not without challenge.

I know of at least one very chilling case where a person was not voted ready for ordination by his Committee on  Ministry based solely on the fact that he wanted a gay preacher of another denomination to give the charge at his ordination.  This action, and others like it nationwide, make me very concerned for the ability of the church to remain together.