Amendment B fails – Where Do We Go From Here?

April 28, 2009 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

This article tries to answer the question “Amendment B failed, but it got closer than ever to passing.  What do we do now?”  This entire article is my personal opinion and not the opinion of any organization or group that I belong to.  This is also likely to upset folks – particularly those at the more extreme ends of the political/theological spectrum.

Let me also lay out my personal beliefs on the issue.  I believe that gay ordination should be allowed, and that gay marriage should be allowed both by civil authorities and by the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I do not believe that any congregation should be forced to meet some quota of gay officers, and I would like to see people work out a way to ordain called officers who happen to be homosexual without violating the conscience of those doing the ordination.  I believe that the biblical standard for a homosexual relationship is similar to that for heterosexual relationships – two people in a long-term committed relationship, with some outward sign to God and the community of their commitment (ie. a marriage).

The short version:  We need a pause.  Take the next General Assembly off from this issue.

I’ll address my remarks to three groups:  progressives, conservatives, and moderates.  My writing is a combination of what I believe to be the right thing to do, and what I believe is practical.


While what I write here may upset you, I consider myself one of you on this issue.  My statement on the issue is posted above.

I believe that it’s time to pause on this issue.

We’ve changed lots of hearts and minds.  Some of those who were against us have retired, died, or left the denomination.  The combination of those two produced the “flips” in many presbyteries.  I also believe that there is a generational shift going on regarding this issue.  I work with a youth group.  On the rare occasions that homosexuality comes up, the youth mostly are confused about why we see a problem – homosexuality is for them something that is a trait and acceptable.  Admittedly I live on the East Coast in the NYC/Philadelphia corridor, and it might be different elsewhere.  But if we wait long enough, the tide will turn on its own.

A study of the votes on this issue in the presbyteries from 96/97, 97/98 and 01/02 show an increasing number of votes against our position.  I believe that this was due to issue-weariness – to the “do we have to vote on this again?” factor.  People got tired of talking about and voting about this issue that never seems to go away.  And they took out their anger and frustration on the people pushing for the change.

While all of this is going on in the church, it’s going on in society.  States are now voting to allow gay marriage (as opposed to judicial rulings).  There have been many times in the church where society was ahead of the church in getting to the scripturally correct place on an issue.  Slavery and women’s rights are just two of those.  Our polity is designed so that the ship turns very slowly intentionally – to prevent the “fad of the season” from taking over our theology.  Normally that’s a good thing.  Sometimes, particularly for justice, that’s a bad thing.

I believe that if we push this issue at the next General Assembly, it stands a fair chance of being sent to the presbyteries again.  I believe that if this were the case, it would fail again at the presbyteries and some of the flipped presbyteries would flip back.  The next General Assembly will be considering the Form of Government again, and that is going to create its own backlash (just look at how the conservatives are already arguing about single words).  I suspect that there will be a wholesale backlash against ANY Book of Order amendment then.

So here’s what I’d do.  Take the GA off.  Re-group.  Work on education.  Hold listening sessions in presbyteries again, but without any particular reason (like an upcoming vote).  Don’t push overtures now or any time before the next GA.  Let the waters get still, and let the clarity shine through.

Some of you will tell me that I do not feel your pain, and that you cannot stay silent against this injustice.  You’re right – I will never be able to feel this specific pain.  But I’m writing this out of practical concerns.  Pushing too hard now isn’t gonna work and will hurt the cause.  If you must, then you must, but realize that you will provoke a response and may end up delaying your goal.

A word on how we progressives deal with conservatives.  Conservatives are people.  Just like us.  For the most part, they have come to their understand of Scripture and God in the same way that we have – through prayer, study, personal experience, and other people.  They have come up with a different result than we have.  They are not evil.  They are not (mostly) living their lives to hurt us.  They are trying to speak the truth in love just like us.  Their definitions are different, but their goal is still the same – to bring people to God.  Please try to remember that.  I am amazed at how we can treat people of other denominations and religions with respect but we tear into those closer to us.
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A word on how to deal with straight people.  I’m a very strong supporter of this cause.  In the past year I’ve been called a homophobe twice – once by someone from the GLBT community and once by a straight supporter.  I’ve been told that I have internalized homophobia no matter what I think.  The facts are this:  I find male-t0-male sexual activity icky.  That has never stopped me from supporting people’s rights.  I am VERY outspoken.  It seems, however, that if I don’t follow the “company line” on strategy or each iota of belief, I’m against you.  You may feel that way.  But here’s the thing I want to tell you – nothing turns supporters against you faster than telling them that they are against you already.  After each of those events I mentioned I took a lot of time off from supporting this cause.  I saw opportunities to correct inaccuracies and to state my opinion when presented with the opposite, and I remained silent.  The danger for you is not turning friends into enemies – it’s turning friends into bystanders.  Be careful – if you’re going to label someone be prepared for the result.


You’ve all read what I wrote above.  And you and I disagree on this issue.  I do have some thoughts and suggestions for you.

First, I believe that the Presbyterian system only works if there is mutual respect.  Too often we (both sides) use differences on specific issues to define the other person out.  It makes us feel better – we are IN, and they are OUT.  But I do not believe that God has called us to act like that.  God wants everybody IN.  There are limits to what beliefs we can tolerate and what behaviors we can tolerate in our worship places.  But I do not feel that this issue is enough to tear apart the community.  Why can we speak so respectfully to rabbis, Baptist preachers, Catholic priests, Methodist ministers, but we cannot speak respectfully with our own people?  What I said above about people coming to their beliefs honestly through the same methods applies here – progressives may be wrong in your eyes, but they are honestly wrong rather than wrong with an ulterior motive.

Second, do what you gotta do.  Stay, fight or not, leave – whichever God calls you to.  If you want to fight then please take the high road and fight fair even if your opponents do not.  If you want to leave, then outdo others in grace and openness and let God take care of the other side.  But PLEASE let each person make up their own mind.  It’s not your job to lead congregations out of the denomination.  If they want to go on their own, then please remind them that it’s also not their job to lead their fellows out.  We are an educated denomination.  We pride ourselves on individual study with collected discussion.  Let each member make their own decision.  And let the majority rule.  You are not personally responsible for the spiritual health of each member.  You ARE responsible for guiding them, but you are not expected to coerce them.  Let them be adults and make their own decisions.

Third, you’ve won this round.  As I said to progressives after the General Assembly meeting last June, please be a good winner.  There is no need to do a victory lap.  Doing that only causes the division to widen.  Let progressives lick their wounds.


You are by far the most important group at this time in history.  You are the largest group, holding the center and the vast majority of the membership.  On some issues, I am one of you, but on this issue I’m not.

I have a few things that I’d like to ask you to do.

First – Take a stand.  Stand up and state your opinion.  Let others know where you are on this issue.  This issue is not going to go away all that soon.  If you feel that we need to leave it alone, then say so.  If you feel that one side or the other is right, say so (this is not the same as joining that side).  Most importantly – any compromise is going to have to come from the center.  If you have an idea, let us know, and don’t stop talking about it until it becomes reality.

Second, please help to heal those at the extremes.  There are people who are wounded out there.  Go to them, help them, make them realize that the church isn’t just them and their opponents.  Remind them that church is about much more than this issue.  Be honest about your beliefs, but respect theirs.  Show the people from each side that you want them to be with you.

Third, please be a conduit for reconciliation.  Sometimes it takes a neutral party to get two opposing parties to talk to each other and resolve things.  Be that enabler. We are called to work for reconciliation in the church – be the face of Christ to your more politically involved brethren.  “I don’t care what you think about X – I want you to be here” is a very powerful thing to say.

Fourth, be the voice of reason.  Curb the excesses of thought and speech from both extremes.  Name the truth as you see it.  Be a devil’s advocate (in a very Godly way).  The truth is somewhere between the extremes.  You live in most of that territory.  Help us find the truth.

In summary – I believe that we need to take 2 years off from this battle.  There are many other problems in the world today that need us more than this – the economy, war, health, etc.  Let’s concentrate on some of those and stop our internal bickering.

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.

Lisa Larges Decision – Synod PJC half right

March 25, 2009 by · 14 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

Yesterday, the Synod of the Pacific PJC released it’s decision in Remedial Case 08-01, Naegeli vs. Presbytery of San Francisco.

Here’s a quick summary for those not in the know on this case.  Lisa Larges is a lesbian.  She was ordained as a Presbyterian deacon some time ago.  She has also attended seminary, and for many years has been fighting to remove prohibitions against gay ordination in the PC(USA) – in part (though probably not the greatest part) so that she can fulfill her call to ministry.  At the time of the relevant events, she was enrolled as a Candidate with the Presbytery of San Francisco.

In December of 2007, the Committee on the Preparation for Ministry (CPM) of the presbytery voted to certify her as “ready for examination with a departure”.  The departure was her unwillingness to agree to abide by the G-6.0106b requirement for chastity or fidelity in a marriage between a man and a woman.  Others call this a “scruple”.  This process was apparently made possible by the Peace, Unity and Purity report received by the 2006 General Assembly.  A CPM minority report was made recommending that she be stripped of her Candidate status.  The presbytery voted in a close vote to choose the majority report, which was passed.  After that a large number of people requested a stay of enforcement and this remedial trial against the presbytery ensued.

The Synod PJC ruled the following (to the best of my ability to understand – it’s a bit confusing):

  1. The vote to certify Lisa as “ready for examination, with a departure” was out of order, because departures are considered at the time of examination.
  2. The Synod PJC denied a number of specifications related to the actions of the CPM, on the basis that it had no jurisdiction over a committee of a presbytery.  Most of those involved forcing the CPM to “uphold church-wide standards”.
  3. The Synod PJC admonished the presbytery to “faithfully execute its constitutional obligations to the entire church to enforce mandatory churchwide ordination standards”.  It also admonished the CPM (through the presbytery) to meet it convenantal obligations to candidates who insist on departing from mandatory standards.
  4. The Synod PJC did not remove Lisa from the roll of Candidates because it cannot do so – only the presbytery may.

I believe that the Synod PJC got it half-right and half-wrong.

First, they were half-right in that the action taken by the presbytery was out of order.  It is not correct to rule that a Candidate is acceptable with a departure (or scruple) when declaring the candidate ready for examination.  That is putting the cart before the horse.  The decision on a departure is properly part of the examination itself.  The PJC pointed out that the elements of an examination were not present – Lisa’s Statement of Faith was not presented, she was not questioned.
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Second, they were half-wrong in their admonishment of the presbytery on mandatory standards.  The General Assembly PJC has recently ruled that examinations are made on an individual basis by the ordaining body.  The GA PJC hinted that G-6.0106b as it stands today (and likely will stand – I believe that Amendment B will fail, unfortunately) is a mandatory standard and not allowed for a departure.  However, there has yet to be a test case under the PUP rules and recent GA PJC ruling.  I don’t know what the PJC will rule when a real examination with a real departure from G-6.0106b comes before it.  But I don’t believe that the Synod PJC is right in issuing this warning as a blanket statement.  The General Assembly PJC was VERY clear that each examination is an individual case.

If I were the Presbytery of San Francisco, this is what I would do:

  1. I would again hold a vote, but this time certify Lisa as “ready for examination” without mentioning the departure.  This action should be unchallengable under this ruling, as no examination takes place.  I don’t believe further CPM action is required as their recommendation would be properly before the body as a result of the vote being rescinded.
  2. I would expect that the action described in #1 would again be the subject of a remedial case, and prepare to defend it.
  3. I would expect that the General Assembly PJC would support the step of approving for examination.
  4. When it comes time for an actual call and examination, that’s when the real fur will fly.  I suspect that the presbytery would approve the examination, and then be the subject of a remedial case.  I expect that the General Assembly PJC would rule that Lisa is not eligible for ordination, based on their previous rulings and comments regarding the mandatory nature of G-6.0106b.

Let me be clear – I am fully in support of ordination of gay or lesbian (or any of the other categories that they tack on to the list) people being ordained provided that they are in an equivalent relationship to an acceptable heterosexual person.  I just don’t think that the rules that we have today support it, and I don’t believe that Amendment B will pass this time (though it’s gonna be close).  I also believe that this issue will continue to harm the church until it is ultimately resolved in favor of gay ordination OR it causes a split.

A side issue – the PJC chose to “exclude all media from the trial, including all electronic devices, cameras, and recording devices.”  This caused more than a little consternation from the users of the Internet service Twitter, including our own GA Moderator.  I believe that the Synod PJC overstepped its bounds in taking this action, as it is not supported in the Book of Order’s Rules of Discipline (though it would have been for a Disciplinary Case).  I have seem a growing problem in the church surrounding the issues of authenticity and transparency, including all levels of the church from the congregation to GA committees.  This is another issue that has the potential to divide the church, as young people who demand authenticity and openness see the backroom, Old Boys’ (and Girls’) Club atmosphere that is so prevalent in our congregations, presbyteries and higher bodies.  There is a clear desire on the part of some to avoid “airing our dirty laundry”, but that actually has the potential to hurt the church.  I believe that Generation Y, the Millenials, and even parts of Generation X demand openness.  These younger folks would much rather see a dispute handled well than a dispute covered up.

We’ll see what the next steps are in this case.  I believe that the presbytery will again move forward with Lisa’s quest for ordination to her calling, but that the road will continue to be bumpy.  I respect her for choosing to be a test case.