Charge to the Candidate

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, I was moved from Inquirer to Candidate in the ordination process.  This moves me closer to ordination, sometime starting a year from now.  I am also pleased to announce that I will be serving as a Resident Chaplain at Capital Health System hospitals in Hopewell and Trenton, NJ from September 2014 to September 2015.

My Session Liaison, Gooitzen van der Wal (pronounced HOYT-zen), delivered the Charge to me.  It was lovely, and therefore I post it here:

I am Gooitzen van der Wal, Mark’s session liaison for the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville.

Mark, I have witnessed your growing sense of call to ministry starting from the time you joined our church in 2006. You quickly became active in our church, including work with our “Green Team,” with hospitality ministry, and youth ministry. When you came back from Montreat serving as a youth advisor you were so excited! You wanted to switch from your IT job to ministry in the church. Shortly after that you were laid off. You then became even more involved and served as president of the Board of Deacons, were our communion coordinator and our webmaster. But the biggest transformation we have seen in you is during your CPE Chaplaincy at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJH), bringing Gods love in serving the sick and terminally ill, and their families, and your ministry of almost two years at the Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church (WAPC), where you further developed your skills in serving God by serving people in that congregation. You built strong connections in pastoral care and helping others in that church develop the skills in pastoral care in that community.

I charge you, Mark Smith, to continue your personal sense of God’s call to the ministry of His people. This coming year you will bring your ministry in Chaplaincy at Capital Health. Bringing the Love of Christ through the pastoral care of the sick, terminally ill, and their families is where you feel your call the strongest.

I charge you to continue your pastoral care in small group settings as you demonstrated in our church, and at Watchung Avenue PC, ministering to people of all ages. I highly commend your open understanding and compassion for people with different ethnic and personal backgrounds.
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I charge you to seek opportunities to preach, translating your faith in Christ and your understanding of the Word of God, to real world settings, as you have done so well at Watchung Avenue Pres Church.

I trust that you will continue to be involved in the Presbyterian Church as an organization. Your great respect and detailed knowledge of the Presbyterian polity is recognized and much appreciated.

We at PCOL are eager to support you in your growth path as a servant of Christ. We will prayerfully and faithfully continue our covenant relationship with your on your path to ordination.

Lastly, I want to commend your relationship with your wife Carolyn, the faith you share, and her dedication to support you in Gods ministry to His people.


10A – Relief, Joy and Fear

May 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion 

Last summer, the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed a change to the Book of Order, section G-6.0106b (or G-2.0104 in the New Form of Government).  It was sent to the presbyteries for their concurrence, requiring 87 presbyteries to approve before it would take effect.  That was labeled amendment “10A”.  This amendment changes the standards for ordination, reversing the addition in 1996 of a specific “sin” (I reject that definition) that became an absolute bar to ordination.  This change returns the Book of Order to the historic standard that ordaining bodies (Session for [Ruling] Elders and Deacons, Presbytery for Ministers [Teaching Elders]) would look at the whole character of the ordinand, judging whether or not their individual nature (which we believe to be unavoidably sinful in some manner) was good enough to lead the church.

In 1996, the Book of Order was amended to prevent ordination of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people.  That version reads:

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.

The new version that will take effect on July 10, 2011 reads:

b. Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

This returns the church to its traditional polity – having local ordaining bodies make individual decisions on individual candidates.  It should also be noted that a recent GA Permanent Judicial Commission case established a bar on the creation of lists of ordination standards to be applied to all candidates – each candidate must be considered individually.

I applaud this change.  I have felt for years and years that the discrimination and injustice and outright hostility shown by the denomination towards LGBT people has done serious harm, both to those LGBT people AND to the rest of us in the denomination.  While it wasn’t the primary trigger, this discrimination (in other forms prior to 1996) was a reason for my departure from the church in 1987.  I worked for PLGC (Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns – now knows as More Light Presbyterians) for 6 years after that as their volunteer coordinator for Presbynet, a church computer network.  The continued discrimination against LGBT people delayed my return to the church until 2006 – for a number of years I considered a return occasionally, found the discrimination still present, and set aside the impulse.  Ultimately I decided that returning was the right thing to do and that I should work as best I can to rectify the situation.  I hope that I had at least an itty-bitty tiny part in making this happen.

I have also seen the pain and anguish that the injustice has caused in the hearts of friends who turned away from their call from God, or pushed through with their call while having to hide an important part of themselves.  It’s my earnest hope that they will experience some healing.  I also hope that those who turned away from the church will come back now.

Those of us who have worked to some degree for this change experienced a number of emotions last night.  One friend tweeted that she was weeping in a room full of strangers.  Others yelled and screamed their joy.  Some were able to gather to celebrate in community.  I experienced this joy too, though I was unable to express it openly as I was in another presbytery meeting and we were considering the sad need to dissolve a dying congregation.  I am glad to hear of the joy, and I applaud the joy.  I’m glad to see it expressed – particularly by those who are most directly affected by the change.  Emotions are an important part of healing.  And I believe that this is truly a wonderful working of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.
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Those who fought this change – who fought for the 1996 change – are understandably upset.  Some are talking about the increased departure of members from our churches.  That’s a complex issue – some have certainly departed because they felt that the church was too progressive, but I believe that the majority of those who have left did so through apathy, disinterest, or death.  Our church is aging through the failure to retain our youngest members, and I believe that the discrimination against LGBT folks has caused our young adults to turn elsewhere.  Some of these upset folks are threatening to leave, or to carve out a corner in the denomination friendly to their beliefs alone.  Folks who are opposed to gay ordination are upset, angry and hurting.  They are children of God as much as the LGBT community that was hurt by past actions.  I believe that it’s important to remember that.  Our polity is based on communal discernment with the aid of the Spirit, and as a result will almost always have people on the “losing” side who felt quite correctly that their words and acts are guided by the Spirit.  I believe that there is power in the process of discernment itself, though it is messy and painful at times.  I am praying for those who can now be ordained as they should have been in the past, AND for those who felt that they should not be ordained.  This anger should also be expressed, but I hope that it is done in a manner that does not harm others and remembers that our “enemies” are children of God.

There is also a lot of fear.  I had a conversation with a fellow church member yesterday who calls himself “conservative”.  He expressed not a desire to leave, but the fear that others would act on their desire to leave as a result of this change.  I countered (in my reflexive style on these issues) that others had already left because of the discrimination, and others had failed to join us for that reason.  (I’m a bit sorry about that now.)  This is a very real fear.  Some will do so in a knee-jerk reaction – in many cases inflamed by those who have already said that the church has turned away from biblical standards (posted online minutes after the vote last night).

Others will leave because they believe that their presence with others who hold a different belief constitutes endorsement of that belief.  I find this to be generally true of conservatives, and generally not true for progressives.  As a friend tweeted yesterday (on a related issue):  “I think it points to the idea that conservatives see inclusion as acceptance and affirmation. libs can separate inclusion from acceptance.”  I reject the notion that inclusion implies acceptance, but then I am progressive.  Additionally, I feel very strongly called to stand between the opposing sides and communicate with both – and hopefully get them to communicate with each other.  Part of that comes from my project management training and experience (the IT vs. line-of-business divide is every bit as severe as the conservative/liberal split).  But part of that comes from a very real call that I feel to help others reconcile.  (Getting myself to reconcile with others …. let’s just say that I’m working on that.)

In the youth ministry world we are talking about a change in how people become engaged in Christian community.  The old model was “Believe -> Behave -> Belong” – that we first had to have the right beliefs, then act appropriately, and then were acceptable for full membership.  The new model is “Belong -> Behave -> Believe”.  We learn and change and grow by the process of being in community first, followed by adopting the behaviors of the community, which helps cause our belief.  It’s this process of communal shaping by rubbing against each other (stop snickering!) that is at the heart of our polity of communal, in-person discernment of God’s will for the Church.  We only see God’s will fully in community with each other.  I have said that I see God in others more often than I see God in other ways.

We will only grope our way to the Truth by staying together and working together and praying together.  And so it is my hope that we will do just that – remain together.  If it turns out that this change is wrong, God will make a correction happen.  If it turns out to be right (as I believe), then we will all see it as life unfolds.  Those who are hurting so much that they cannot remain should be allowed to depart with dignity and love.  But I truly hope that we will all stay.  It’s time for the end result of a fight during a hockey game – sharing a beer together after the game and laughing about it.

To conclude, I believe that this new day is a good day.   And I pray for all whose lives have changed in this process, for perceived good and perceived bad.  We are all part of the Church.

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.

Fun with Presby language

September 2, 2008 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Religion 

I’m sure that I’ve written before about how my wife is Catholic, and I am Presbyterian.

I’m sure that I’ve written one or two things about how Carolyn sometimes get words wrong.  For example – there’s a British Comedy about people in a nursing home called “Waiting for God”.  She has been known to accidentally call it “Waiting for Death”.

Today we see what happens when she intersects with particularly Presbyterian language.

A week from Sunday I’m being Installed as a Deacon at my church.  You might be wondering why I’m not being Ordained – the reason is simple.  I was already ordained as a deacon 23 years ago in another church.  You only get ordained once to each office.

Carolyn has never seen a Presbyterian ordination or installation.  Wait – I take that back.  She might have seen our Associate Pastor installed, but that’s an entirely different ceremony than the ordination/installation of deacons and elders.  Somehow she hasn’t been at church with me at one of the 4 or 5 times we’ve installed or ordained deacons and elders since I re-joined.

For the past couple of weeks we’ve been careful not to plan anything on that Sunday so that I can be there and she can be there.  Personally I think she’ll be underwhelmed; she comes from a background where First Communion is a special service.

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I think she has it straight now.

She’s also been helpful with keeping track of events.  We have New Officer Training this Saturday morning (as long as Hurricane Hanna doesn’t interfere).  We also have the Deacon meeting regularly the 2nd Monday of each month.

The other day I looked at the calendar.  On Saturday was written “New Decon Training” and on Monday “Decon Meeting”.  I asked if this was her event – after all she’s an engineer in the petroleum industry.  But no, and I explained that we didn’t expect to have any issue with contamination.

I wrote in the A’s.

I’m glad that she is so supportive of my church work.  I just hope she isn’t too disappointed when the ceremony is only 5 minutes long with only a little pomp and circumstance.  As it should be – this is not about us, it’s about service.

Can we agree to disagree about homosexuality?

May 2, 2008 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

One of our moderator candidates, Bruce Reyes-Chow, confronts the elephant in the room in his blog post.

He asks the question of whether or not we can “be engaged in a community where the position is held in the contrary?”  If you feel that homosexuality is not a sin, can you stay in a denomination that declares it to be a sin?  If you feel that homosexuality is a sin, can you stay in a denomination that sometimes allows people to hold responsible positions who are homosexual?

Some people have voted with their feet.  (And that’s just a few)

I’ll start with me.

I am a strong supporter of gay marriage and gay ordination.  I do not feel that homosexuality is a sin, provided that it is exercised (“practiced”) within a two-person long-term committed relationship.  I would define marriage as between two people of legal age who truly intend to love each other and share each other’s lives forever.  If that happens to include God as part of the relationship, good, but I’m not going to say that non-church marriages aren’t valid.

I grew up with my parents telling me all sorts of things about gay people.  How they were all dirty, how they all had sex with multiple partners in bathrooms, that they did illegal drugs, and how most were diseased.  I remember one particular conversation with them so vividly that I can tell you that we were riding in the 1974 Ford Gran Torino station wagon southbound on Tenafly Road between Oak Ave. and Ivy Lane in Tenafly, NJ in approximately the year 1980.

Then I got involved in church beyond the local congregation.  I was a YAD to Synod in 1985, and subsequently the youth member of Synod Mission Council for 2 more years.  I went to the Youth Triennium in 1986.  At all of the big events, PLGC had a presence.  I bought the “Presbyterians Do It Decently and In Order” T-shirt mainly because it was a cool saying (and I bought it in lavender because pink was too girly), but while I was doing so I met the folks who staffed the booth at Synod.  I found some of them and some others at Triennium.  I discovered that the stereotype of gay people that my parents professed was not true.

Later, I left the church because of some negative experiences with judgmental people.  After that I started working with PLGC as their Presbynet coordinator.  About 5-6 years later I left PLGC because I was called homophobic when I dared to disagree with a particular strategy.  I’ve seen the ugly from both sides of this particular issue.

I have to note that my personal beliefs on this issue have remained the same for about 20 years.  I have read the interpretations of Scripture on the issue from both sides and I find the pro-gay interpretation more compelling and more in line with Jesus’ message of love.

Now the church.

This question really comes down to one big question – can we stay together and hold different beliefs?  This is nothing new – if it wasn’t homosexuality it would be something else.  In the early 20th century it was all about the virgin birth and other essentials.  Before that it was subscriptionism vs. experiential religion.  The history of the Presbyterian church in the USA (that’s not a denomination name, it’s a description) is littered with schism and reunions.  The schisms come from differences of opinion on what we today see as either no-brainer decisions (like women’s ordination) or nit-picky issues.  A review of history shows that the one lasting question is this:  Do Presbyterians need to universally subscribe to a well-defined list of doctrine elements, or is there room for variation in belief and practice?

Today the pro-homosexual folks are on the variation side.  Conservatives point out that if they are successful that we could someday reach a point where ministers are required to participate in ordinations of gay people just as they are required to participate in ordination of women.  That would put the pro-homosexual folks on the subscriptionist side.

Today the anti-gay folks are on the subscriptionist side.  That makes sense – the subscriptionist side is usually populated by people who feel most strongly about inerrancy of Scripture (as opposed to new interpretations of Scripture, as we had with slavery and women’s ordination) and more conservative beliefs.  However there are still bits of variation desired – witness those who are still complaining about women’s ordination years after it was settled.

I believe that our denomination is divided into 3 groups:

  • The right – folks who are traditional and want belief and practice to stay the way that they are today (or earlier).
  • The left – folks who believe that we are not seeing the new truths that God is revealing in our day and who feel that we are too strict in our interpretations of Scripture.
  • The middle – folks who just want to keep doing the work of the church and who want gradual change.

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The middle is much larger than the other groups – probably bigger than the left and right combined.  They are also largely quiet – they are focused on doing the work of God.  They see the left and right as distractions who get all the attention and spend all of the energy of the higher-level governing bodies while causing people to turn away from the PC(USA) and church as a whole, and who spend all of the money fighting each other.

One of the things that was talked about a lot at the Moderator Meet and Greet last week in Lawrenceville, NJ was the loss of our young.  We lose our youth from the church when they graduate from high school (one person said “immediately after confirmation”) and the conventional wisdom has always been that they’d return when they had kids.  That’s not happening.  Our denominational average age is about 58 and climbing.

What isn’t being talked about is the effect that our infighting is having on potential members.  I know that I took a LONG HARD look at the church when I considered returning about 2 years ago (after almost 20 years outside).  I remembered church to be all about control of belief and action by a small group.  That’s really what the current fight is about – the control by those who believe in a well-defined set of essential beliefs AND practices of the membership at large (and the expulsion of those who fail to meet the standard – from leadership at a minimum).  I’m still wrestling with issues of control and “in-groups” within my congregation.  What I do know from talking to friends and co-workers is that Christianity as a whole has a bad reputation – it is increasingly seen as hypocritical and judgmental.

Additionally, there are signs that this question of homosexuality and subscriptionism are just the last gasps of the Modern world.  I work with youth, and have written previously about how I see homosexuality being perceived by those youth.  I believe that the church of the future will be somewhat different from the church of the present in ways that we’re just starting to understand, and that in that church homosexuality will be a non-issue – accepted by all.  It’s just a matter of time, and a matter of the Modernist leaders of today to retire and/or die off.  The acceptance of ambiguity and disagreement on little things is coming.

I am increasingly convinced that the fighting must stop.  But how?

Two options

We can stop the fighting in two ways.

One option is to agree to disagree.  That would require both the left and right to call a truce, and to wait for the Spirit to build a consensus on homosexuality.  There’s only one problem – this option would require that there be pockets of inconsistent practice for some time – some churches and presbyteries would ordain gays and other would refuse to.  The left is somewhat OK with this (they’ll rail about legalized discrimination in the “anti-gay” presbyteries) but this solution is anathema to the right which requires universal subscription to a set of rules.  Again, it really doesn’t matter that the current division is about homosexuality – even if we agreed today that all gays are to be excluded from the church (unlikely) we’d start fighting over something else – maybe the use of collection plates vs. baskets.

The other option is to separate.  To a certain degree this is in progress – The Layman maintains a scorecard of congregations leaving.  It’s important to note that there are only 55 congregations listed out of something like 10,000 – a rate of less than 1%.  The only question is how do you separate?  Normally (not that any separation is normal but this is the usual way) we separate by one faction breaking away.  We haven’t really tried a graceful separation yet.  The middle generally ends up remaining with the “non-leaving” side through inertia.  With a non-graceful separation each congregation has to decide whether or not they are upset enough to leave based on the issue of the day.  This process gives a lot of power to pastors – they have a ton of influence on their congregations and are often the only source of “what’s going on nationally” for their local membership.

A graceful separation would be harder.  That would require the national church (the General Assembly) to determine that there is an issue that we just can’t agree about.  Then each congregation would have to vote to decide which side of the issue they fall on.  This will in turn cause schisms in some congregations.  After the local votes the national makeup of the denomination would have to be rebuilt – some presbyteries would be absorbed into others and some would split down the middle.  We’d end up with two denominations.  Even so, some congregations and perhaps whole presbyteries would prefer to be union churches – being members of both sides.  If we’re going to separate, I think this is the more honest and faithful way.

Either way – separation is painful and debilitating to the denomination and it’s work.

So answer the question, Mark

OK, I will.

I don’t think we can agree to disagree about homosexuality.  I believe that the church will continue to decline for another 15-20 years, until Modernism mostly dies out with the baby boomers.  I also think that the world is headed for some huge upheavals in the way that we provide energy and food and how we feel about population growth, and that in a world where feeding yourself and others is in question the issue of homosexuality will be seen as an unimportant distraction.

Our religion has evolved over the last 2000 years.  We have moved from consensus (what really happened with Jesus?  Were you there?) to Authority (the iron will of the Catholic Church) to Intellectual Faith (from the Reformation) to Modernism.  We moved from “What is the faith?” to “We’ll tell you what the faith is” to “Let’s figure out what the faith is really about, in minute detail” to “You have to decide what the faith is yourself, but if you want to be part of us you have to match us on X and Y and Z”.  The next step is Individual Faith, where each person builds their own faith and the church is a resource for doing the work of faith (including bringing others to it) rather than the owner of faith.  That’s scary to Modernists, because it implies a loss of control over others’ faith.  That’s brilliant to Postmodernists, because it implies a gain of control over one’s own faith.

But we aren’t there yet.  We’re gonna continue to fight until we make ourselves irrelevant.  The only question in my mind is whether or not there will be a PC(USA) denomination in 20 years or whether it will have collapsed through an inability to accept each other’s uniqueness.  If there isn’t a PC(USA), there will be something else – God always provides.

So if you were going to the General Assembly, what would you do?

I’d do what everybody is going to do anyway – vote their conscience.  Look at the trends and listen to the younger folks there who can tell you what the church of the future needs to look like as they understand it today.  Fight if you must, compromise if you can, and try to reconcile with your brother (sister) when you grow apart.  Have faith that God is still in charge and that these things are happening for a reason, and that He’ll sort it all out at some point out of our control.

PUP 3 – Naysayers 0 – Overoptimistic 0

February 13, 2008 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

The PCUSA General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission issued three rulings today that have to do with the Peace, Unity and Purity report, essential tenets, ordination, and indirectly homosexuality.

(For those who don’t know what I’m talking about – the General Assembly PJC is like the Supreme Court for the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination.)

In the first case involving the Presbytery of Olympia, the PJC ruled that the PUP report’s Authoritative Interpretation did not change ordination standards (including the “Fidelity and Chastity” standard).  It further ruled (referencing the next case) that an ordaining body may not establish a list of essentials or standards to which each candidate must conform in all respects.  In other words, no checklist where if you fail any item you may not be ordained.

The second case involving the Presbytery of Pittsburgh contains most of the meat of these decisions.  The GA PJC ruled that the Fidelity and Chastity standard remains in effect until amended or removed from the Book of Order.  It ruled that you may not scruple a behavior – only a belief.  It also ruled as above that an ordaining body may not establish a list of essentials – that they are redundant and unnecessary and therefore “an obstruction to constitutional governance”.  (Side note – expect the conservative Naysayers to make a statement about “Scriptural governance”.)  The PJC also ruled that each examination for ordination or installation must be done individually.  “The examining body is best suited to make decisions about the candidate’s fitness for office, and factual determinations by examining bodies are entitled to deference by higher governing
bodies in any review process.”  An important note is that the GA PJC decided that they had not been asked to rule on the presbytery’s prohibition of ministers performing “same-sex marriages” within the jurisdiction of the presbytery because that clause had not been argued.

The third case involved the Presbytery of Washington [state].  In this case, the GA PJC ruled:

  • that the Resolution A passed by the presbytery is void.  This resolution required adherence to all statements in the Book of Order that contained the words “shall”, “is/are to be”, “requierment” or equivalent expression for anyone being ordained.
  • That the presbytery may not require adherence to a list of essentials, including the document “Biblical Standards for Christian Leaders”,  by ordained or installed ministers.
  • That the presbytery may not require any standards for elders or deacons.  The presbytery had in both documents (Resolution A and the BSCL) intended that they apply to elders and deacons within the presbytery and there was a threat to take action against any ordained officer who refused to sign and “subscribe” to the BSCL document.
  • In a Concurring opinion, the presbytery was reprimanded for their processes in handling the presbytery minutes and the confusion as to the state of these resolutions that was caused.

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Here’s my analysis.

This is a victory for those who crafted the Peace, Unity and Purity report.  It is also a victory for those who said “Nothing has changed” in response to the complaints after the General Assembly adopted the report.  Some conservatives (though he took some of the invective back here) have railed that the recent presbytery decisions ordain or re-install gay ministers meant that those who said “Nothing has changed” were lying.   It’s just not true.  Our Presbyterian system takes TIME to work through new ideas and new rules.

So this is a loss for the Naysayers who complained about the PUP Report.  Truly, these decisions reassert traditional Presbyterian doctrine – that each ordinand/transferee is examined on their own merits.  None of us are perfect – the ordaining body (presbytery, session) must make a decision in each case on the merits of that person alone.  And the “fidelity and chastity” clause is still in force – in my opinion to the detriment of the church.

This is also a loss for the folks in the lesbian and gay (and liberal in general) community who saw the PUP report as a backdoor to ordination of homosexuals.  This is particularly true in the case of Scott Anderson, who was on the PUP task force.  The PUP report as amended and passed by the General Assembly truly changed nothing.  Lisa Larges (who was approved to seek a call) and Paul Capetz (who was reinstated to the office of Minister of the Word and Sacrament) will probably face remedial cases related to their status.  I believe that this GA PJC would overturn their presbyteries’ votes to accept their ordination while they assert a lifestyle in contradiction to G-6.0106b.  I’m sad to say this because I feel for them and believe that G-6.0106b should be removed from the Book of Order.  My commitment to the PCUSA is shaken every day by discrimination against homosexuals.  But these are the rules today.  We have to change them or accept them, or leave.  We can’t just ignore them; when we do the whole connectional/convenantal structure is brought into doubt.

It is important to note that even the GA PJC sees a need for alternative resolution of conflict.  In the 3rd case listed above the PJC quoted its report to the upcoming General Assembly:

There is little guidance in Rules of Discipline about how the conciliation and mediation should take place… . The experience of this Commission leads us to urge the General Assembly to consider adopting revisions to the Rules of Discipline that would promote alternative forms of dispute resolution and consensus building in lieu of adversarial judicial process. The Church should strive to resolve disputes in a manner that minimizes divisiveness and expense and promotes consensus, leaving this Commission to resolve disputes by judicial process as a last resort.

Let’s hope that the General Assembly listens to them.  The best part of the PUP Report is the part most often ignored – the need to TALK and LISTEN to each other when resolving disputes.  Too often today we are talking past each other and appealing to higher authority to solve our disputes.  That just leaves us angry and frustrated.

Youth and Homosexuality and the church – jodie’s questions

January 19, 2008 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Religion, Youth 

jodie in the comments on yesterday’s update has posted a lot of questions.  They deserve their own post, so I’ll answer them here.

How do the youth in your church view the Evangelical hostility to gay ordination? Is there a generational gap there too, besides the theological one? In my church the youth are flabbergasted that anybody should care. It seems that among college kids and younger, homosexuality just is. There is no scandal in it at all. There is huge support for kids that are gay but don’t get parental support, and if the Church has a problem with gays then it’s because the Church has forgotten what Christ was all about. Not only that, but if someone says that Homosexuality is a sin because the bible says so, then for them that is just proof that the bible is wrong. In other words, the Evangelical war is actually undermining the authority of the Scriptures. Are you guys seeing the same thing?

The answer requires a little background.

First, my church is tending toward the liberal end of the denomination.  The town surrounding the church tends to be a bit more liberal as well.

Second, the youth group hasn’t talked about sexuality per se since I started working with them.  It was the subject of a retreat last year before I joined them.  So I’m working from conjecture.

Third, our youth are not homogenous in their views on sexuality.  I know that we have some outspoken proponents of gay rights.  I also know that we have some youth that I suspect hold more conservative views on the subject.

We’ll take the questions in the order that my brain spews text.  Hopefully I’ll answer all of the questions.

We have one or two youth who participated on their own initiative in the National Day of Silence last year (and will participate this year).  I’ll put them at the pro-gay end of the spectrum.  We have had a youth who is the daughter of a pair of gay men (who were one of the first civil union couples in the state) – she has graduated now.  Several members of the rest of the group talk about generally liberal causes (poverty, environment, the distrubution of wealth throughout the world).

We don’t talk about evangelicals using that name.  We do talk about judgmental Christians (the implication being Too judgmental).  Our youth group has as part of our covenant that the group is a safe space to talk about things that are important to you without ridicule from other group members.  We don’t expect everybody to agree, and we do debate issues sometimes, but in the end we respect and love the person and at worst listen to the idea.  The group does speak negatively about those Christians who are unable to love each person – who condemn them and use loaded names and terms for people.  Please be clear – when I use the term “we” I mean the youth, the adult advisors, and the paid staff.  As a group we only talk about judgmental Christians (we don’t even use a term for them) in passing.  It’s not like we spend a night talking about them.

I think you’re right.  Gay people are just a fact of life for these youth.  They have grown up in an era where prejudice against identifiable groups (even groups attacking our country) is not tolerated.  This attitude naturally carries over to homosexuality.  These youth recognize that anti-gay speech (up to and often including “homosexuality is against God’s will”) is just not expected.  If anybody harbors anti-gay feelings I haven’t seen it openly.  Now, this is New Jersey where civil unions are the law of the land and are practically the same legally as marriages.  I can see how it would be different in other parts of the country.

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Another problem that we are fighting in our youth group is pressure from church members (most often parents of youth who do NOT participate) not to make the church youth group too “churchy”.  Our youth director reports that he’s actually had parents tell him that mentioning the Bible too often will drive the youth away from the group.  I think that this is true for some youth, but hey!  This is church.  That’s what we do.  We’ve made a conscious decision to up the theological and scriptural content of the youth program one notch and see how it goes.  The youth know right from wrong and have a vague sense that it’s the Christian thing to do, but I believe they’d be hard-pressed to link their right actions to our beliefs.  We aim to fix that.

Not only that, but if someone says that Homosexuality is a sin because the bible says so, then for them that is just proof that the bible is wrong. In other words, the Evangelical war is actually undermining the authority of the Scriptures.

I repeat that quote because it’s huge.  I can’t say if this war is turning youth away from the church or the Bible, but I can speak for myself.  It DOES turn me away from the church sometimes.  It doesn’t turn me away from God, Christ or the Bible because I understand the concept of interpretation and “Reformed, Always Reforming”.  Of course, I have experience with the church above and beyond what our youth have plus a religion minor in college including 50% Christian courses backing my thoughts.  They don’t.

Speaking purely of my unchurched and formerly churched friends in their 20’s to 40’s, this legalistic attitude in the church does turn them away.  Many of them were previously heavily involved in church but aren’t now – and the judgmental nature of the media image of Christianity (and their own experience with it) keeps them away.  They speak of themselves as “still a Christian, but I don’t want to be part of a church”.

It’s also important to realize that Generation X and to a lesser extent Generation Y have an attitude of “waiting for the world to change”.  They know that someday the leaders (corporate, church, governmental) will retire and die off and at that point the Gen X and Y folks will be able to make the changes that they see need to be made.  There’s a feeling that gay marriage will inevitably be accepted by society and subsequently the church so why worry about it.  It’s just a matter of time.  In the mean time they go on about their lives without regard to the “outdated” rules.

And the Millenials? They aren’t waiting.  They’re just forging ahead with their own rules and their own structure and succeeding.  They aren’t waiting for the rules to change – they are going around the obstacles in their path.  These are the folks who need to understand why a work assignment needs to be done and how it fits into the larger picture before they’ll lift a finger.  The Gen X and Y folks are going to find that they waited too long for control and the Millenials already grabbed it from the Baby Boomers.

And the Millenials don’t understand what the fighting is about.  Gay people are gay people – what’s the big deal?

One last note – the youth at my church barely understand what ordination is.  We’re working on that – in part by adding a seat to Session intended for one year terms for a youth in high school.  But the gay ordination fight isn’t on their radar.  It’s not an issue in our church (yes, we’ve ordained openly gay people) and they just aren’t plugged into the news or greater church enough to understand the gay ordination debate.  They just see it as more discrimination against a minority group.

Church: Getting your money’s worth

September 24, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion 

This Sunday the congregants at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville experienced a trifecta of worship events.

It started with a 5 minute plus speech by a member of the Stewardship committee.

Later we followed that up with a baptism.

After the sermon, we had ordination and installations.  One elder was recently elected to fill the term of a brand new elder who had to move for his job.  Two deacons had been unable to attend the ordination and installation the week after the election back in June – one had to be ordained.

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The staff managed to keep the total time to 1 hour 15 minutes through the creative use of short hymns and short prayers.

After the service a number of us were joking about how we should have added Communion and a Wedding to the service.

In other news:  tonight is the first meeting of the Welcome and Outreach Task Force that I’m co-chairing.  I have all handouts copied, and I’m just about to send a reminder e-mail.  Wish me luck!