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.

GA PJC tries to please everybody but pleases nobody

May 1, 2008 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission issued a ruling in the case Jane Adams Spahr vs. Presbytery of Redwoods (218-12) this week.  I have an IQ well north of 100 and have read the entire Book of Order (and the annotated version), and I find the ruling confusing.

In 2004, the Rev. Jane Spahr conducted two “weddings” between two pairs of women.   All parties in the case admit that she called these ceremonies “marriages”.  She was charged with a violation of W-4.9001, which states:

Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship. In a service of Christian marriage a lifelong commitment is made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.

The Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission dismissed the case, stating that there was nothing in the Book of Order or Authoritative Interpretations of it that prohibited a marriage between two people of the same gender.  This was appealed to the Synod Permanent Judicial Commission, which ruled that she had violated the Book of Order and a 1991 Authoritative Interpretation that stated that sessions should not allow same-sex unions to be held in their church if the ceremony is not clearly stated that it is NOT the same as a marriage.  She was given censure, the lowest possible punishment and what amounts to a slap on the wrist.

The General Assembly PJC used a curious bit of logic in reversing the Synod decision:

In summary, Specification of Error No. 1 is not sustained because by definition, “marriage is . . . between a man and a woman.” (W-4.9001) Specification of Error No. 1 and Specification of Error No. 2 are sustained because W-4.9001 does not state a mandatory prohibition on performing a same sex ceremony. The charge was for performing a marriage ceremony, which by definition cannot be performed.

Now, understand that I am an unabashed supporter of gay marriage and gay ordination.  I find this ruling to be curious.  This seems to me to be a bit of double-speak.  “X happened, but since the rules say that X can’t happen then X didn’t happen.”  This ruling completely ignores the fact that our rules are stated in the affirmative “X is Y” in order to draw boundaries around allowed behavior.  My conservative fellow bloggers are right in that this ruling calls into question the Book of Order’s ability to mandate any specifications of practice or definition for our worship.  One conservative blogger asks “What if I baptized my dog?”  Would the dog be listed on the rolls?  The Book of Order states that baptism is for “children of believers” or “adults” – it never states human.

I would personally prefer that the rules be changed in this case explicitly.  Let’s broaden the rules for marriage, or narrow them, but let’s not say “anything not ruled out by the Book of Order is acceptable”.  That’s simply not true.  Shoot – we don’t even define sin (except for sex outside of marriage, of course) but we have Rules of Discipline that assume we’ll know it when we see it.

I like our polity’s requirements for consensus and for making decisions face to face.  This is important – it’s really easy to throw stones at someone from afar (particularly over the Internet) but it’s another thing entirely to do it in someone’s presence.  Something happens when we are together than can change the equation.

I also like our polity’s flexibility.  I don’t want to see a day when the Book of Order is published in volumes like law books – covering an entire bookcase.  However, the role of the GA PJC (actually, the Presbytery PJC or Session, with backup from the GA PJC) is precisely to make decisions on where the boundaries are.  The General Assembly and presbyteries can’t do that in every circumstance without reducing our faith to a list of rules and regulations.  This ruling ducks the decision on semantic grounds.
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I’m also particularly concerned with a new rule made here.  The new rule is:

We further hold that officers of the PCUSA authorized to perform marriages shall not state, imply, or represent that a same sex ceremony is a marriage. Under W-4.9001, a same sex ceremony is not and cannot be a marriage.

This is the PJC legislating from the bench.  It gets worse in the first concurring opinion:

We join in the foregoing Decision and Order (Decision). We understand the Decision to be an authoritative interpretation of W-4.9001, to mean that officers of the PCUSA who are authorized to perform marriages shall not hereafter perform a same sex union ceremony in which or with respect to which such officer states, implies or represents to be a marriage or the equivalent thereof. While the Commission did not find Spahr guilty as charged herein, in part because her conduct occurred under prior authoritative interpretations, we understand that future noncompliance with the authoritative interpretation of the Decision will be considered to be a disciplinable offense.

This is an example of a decision made by a rule-bound vice-principal in a cartoon that I remember watching once.  Kids were out skateboarding on school property, and when the vice-principal tried to give them a detention they pulled out the rules and showed him that there was no rule against it.  The rule was changed immediately.  Then the kids were playing roller hockey, the vice-principal got mad, the kids pulled out the book … and it continued for the rest of the episode until the rule book looked like a phone book.  This is a few PJC members saying, “You got away with it this time, but I’ll get you next time.”  Can they do it?  Yes.  Is it good for the church?  No.  If the church wants to prohibit ministers from performing same-sex marriages, it should do so with an amendment.  After all, this ruling already states that a same-sex marriage isn’t a marriage under the Book of Order!

Is this good for the church?

This ruling is clearly an attempt by the GA PJC to make an issue go away before a General Assembly meeting that will clearly be contentious.  This year we have the complete Form of Government rewrite to consider (a change that if anything makes the rules even blurrier), the fallout of the PUP report, and lots of difficult overtures.  We have the election of a new Stated Clerk which could substantially change the way the national office operates.  Also, the PJC in their G-6.0108 rulings in February and in this ruling are clearly showing a frustration with segments of the church using the judicial process to force consensus or at least obedience within the denomination.

Unfortunately, this ruling is really a lose-lose ruling.  The conservative side loses because one of of their primary targets “gets off on a technicality”, and because the practice of same-sex civil unions is not banned outright.  The progressive side loses because the practice of same-sex marriages is banned outright.  The center loses because this ruling is confusing and only serves to anger the folks at the extremes.  This ruling solves nothing.

I’m not sure that the GA PJC could solve the root cause.  The root cause here is a very deep split over theology.  It’s not about homosexuality.  It’s not about marriage.  It’s really about the split between legalistic Christianity and wide-open fully-accepting Christianity.  The two sides aren’t pro-gay and anti-gay – they’re pro-big-tent and pro-rules.  The PJC can’t fix that problem.  The General Assembly has only a tiny chance of fixing that problem.  It’ll take a decision by everybody to either learn to live with each other and support each other’s strengths, OR to split.

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.