Now What Will We Hear?
Some of the rest of us were not so sure, having read and vigorously opposed the troublesome language of the stealth constitutional amendment put across as an Authoritative Interpretation (AI). We knew how the AI read. We had read and heard what the Peace, Unity, and Purity (PUP) Task Force intended and had written in the rationale section of the report.
It wasn’t lost on us that those seeking gay ordination favored the PUP report, and those opposed to ordaining the serially unrepentant opposed the report. There was obviously a reason for such stands. We noticed which side broke out the champagne the night of the PUP approval at General Assembly, and which camp was in tears or outraged.
Even the idea that a task force would labor for years and produce a grand plan to be celebrated for accomplishing precisely nothing seemed rather unbelievable to many of us. I, for one, would have been delighted to have been retained to produce absolutely nothing that changes precisely nothing--and then to have been paid what the task force cost. But I don’t think what the task force did was without major negative change.
Obviously many, many people felt that something had changed with the approval of the PUP Authoritative Interpretation. And since that time, Scott Anderson has decided that the way is now clear for him—a partnered gay man—to be ordained again. He was on the PUP Task Force, and this is his conclusion.
Paul Capetz of Twin Cities Presbytery, who prior to the PUP AI had surrendered his ordination out of honesty about his refusal to abide by “fidelity and chastity,” now wants his ordination back, because he thinks the PUP AI definitely changed things.
But the biggest indicator and the first case to definitely challenge and possibly clarify the ordination situation following the 2006 General Assembly is the recent decision of San Francisco Presbytery to approve Lisa Larges for ordination, after over twenty years of not allowing her to proceed because of her lesbian sexual practice. Obviously San Francisco Presbytery thinks something drastically changed with the approval of the PUP AI.
So, voices of “No change,” speak again!
Okay, it seems time for all those who so confidently assured us that nothing has changed to speak up again, telling Lisa Larges and San Francisco Presbytery to cut it out! The time is now. Talk was easy in 2006, because the subject was hypothetical; now it is actual.
Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick wrote in an Advisory Opinion that it is clear that “that there are national standards for ordination, which are binding upon all ordaining bodies.” He also made it clear that “an individual may declare a scruple concerning the appropriateness of a mandatory provision. But a governing body cannot excuse a mandatory provision, for it lacks the power to set aside a provision of the Constitution. However, a candidate may still be ordained or installed so long as she/he is still willing to comply with the mandatory provisions” (emphasis added).
Okay, San Francisco Presbytery has flat out discarded as inessential a binding standard (a term that ought to be considered redundant in its clarity). Lisa Larges declared a scruple and is entirely unwilling to comply with the mandatory provision. Such unwillingness was excused. Yes, a mandatory, binding, required standard was set aside by the presbytery. Will our Stated Clerk now contest this anarchic state of affairs?
Ed Koster, Stated Clerk of Detroit Presbytery and a frequent polity pundit, wrote about the 2006 General Assembly that “some of the press have been reporting that it has approved the ordination of non-celibate homosexual persons at the discretion of local ordaining bodies. The press have it wrong, and in fact the Authoritative Interpretation approved by the General Assembly has probably made it less likely that such ordinations will be allowed” (emphasis added). Okay, given the fact that San Francisco held off for twenty-some years and just now feels entitled to ordain Larges on the basis of the AI, what will Koster say now?
The PCUSA Director of Constitutional Services, Mark Tammen, got snippy with me a while back because I persisted in saying that the AI could pave the way for ordinations such as the one being contemplated for Larges. As I remember the conversation, this chief lawyer on Kirkpatrick’s staff made it clear that those like me plying such allegations ought to cease such careless speculation that was so patently wrong and inflammatory. “Nothing has changed!” he snorted, as if it were completely self-evident. Well, I wonder what counsel Tammen will offer at this juncture. Will he labor relentlessly to counter San Francisco’s impermissible errors that make his overconfident pronouncement untrue?
Clark Cowden is a highly respected presbytery executive and expert on the Presbyterian Church. He also has a deeply evangelical faith. Following General Assembly in 2006, he argued that both the meaning and the intent of G-6.0106b (“fidelity and chastity”) stand, as does the Authoritative Interpretation of 1996 that carries forward the guidance of the landmark 1978 statement on homosexuality: “… these continue to be mandatory requirements that all elders, deacons, and pastors must agree to live by. The approval of the amended PUP report does not change any of this, and does not give governing bodies ‘wiggle room’ to allow disobedience of the requirements” (emphasis added). The time is ripe for Cowden to reiterate his arguments, as it appears that San Francisco Presbytery hasn’t bought any of them.
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over
This San Francisco case with Lisa Larges is bound to go into an extended appeal process. Here is an open-and-shut case. Larges openly and squarely fails to meet the standard of G-6.0106b. San Francisco has said that that doesn’t matter; she ought to be ordained anyway. Nobody is disputing those facts.
The question now for the Permanent Judicial Commission is if San Francisco Presbytery is right that it can ordain Larges anyway because of the 2006 Authoritative Interpretation. Or does our Constitution and especially the new Authoritative Interpretation give the presbytery no such right to “excuse a mandatory provision,” as Kirkpatrick put it?
As we observe the legal wrangling and wait for a ruling that sets a needed precedent, may we not forget that our larger theological and polity questions are being determined in the midst of a human drama being worked out in the life of Lisa Larges. As much as I believe that what she is attempting is not of God, as much as I oppose the wider relentless pressure to distort and discard Christian sexual morality, as much as I lament the costs in relationships and crippled church witness that such disputes incur, I need to remember that Lisa is beloved by God. I need to keep her temporal and eternal welfare deeply in mind. It is so sad when wounded individuals end up being tossed around the vortex of a theological cyclone.
But remembering Lisa’s deepest needs, I know all the more that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) must do what is right, rather than what is either popular or expedient. All the more, we must uphold the only standards worth valuing—those given to us in Scripture by God, those well represented in our constitutional ordination standards. Everyone ultimately benefits when that happens.