Thursday, January 17, 2008

Now What Will We Hear?

After the fuzzy new Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108b of the constitution stumbled out of General Assembly in 2006, many voices—some of whom are supposed to know such things—have rushed to proclaim with full assurance: “The Authoritative Interpretation has changed nothing!”

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.


Blogger ClarkCowden said...


Yesterday I received a phone call from another executive presbyter/stated clerk asking me about the Presbytery of San Francisco decision in the Lisa Larges case. After hearing of it, he said he went back and re-read the amended PUP report approved by the last General Assembly. He said that it seems obvious to him that while a person can declare a scruple stating they object to a mandatory provision, the governing body still does not have the authority to allow them to disobey a mandatory requirement.

I said yes. That is exactly correct. A scruple is a voiced disagreement with the policy. The governing body can even go so far as to say they don't think the scruple is voiced against an essential of the faith. But they cannot allow or give permission for a person to disobey the mandatory requirements of the constitution like G-6.0106b.

This means that the Presbytery of San Francisco acted incorrectly. An appeal needs to be filed with the synod PJC, and upon review, the only logical constitutional conclusion is to reverse the decision of the presbytery. This is how our system of accountability works.

So, why is this happening? I believe it is happening because people are acting on what they want the PUP report to say, rather than on what the PUP report actually does say. Our confessions tell us that church councils do err. This is one such case. Upon review, the synod PJC should correct their decision.

Clark Cowden
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of San Diego

9:32 AM, January 18, 2008  
Blogger Rev. Mary Holder Naegeli said...

Hi Jim,

When PUP was being argued in its original form at the 2006 G.A., there was a tiny bit of wiggle room to allow "flexibility" in evaluating candidates. But during the G.A. floor debate, a commissioner successfully amended recommendation #5 to refine the review process for ordination decisions. Not only could the process be reviewed by a higher governing body, but the constitutionality of the outcome itself was under scrutiny.

This is an important provision, and the one upon which dissenters in SFPresbytery are standing. If the Synod of the Pacific PJC rules that our presbytery has done something unconstitutional (we allege allowing an individual to defy a requirement therein), the advance of Lisa Larges as a candidate "ready in all respects' can and must be soundly turned back. This is our hope.

Rev. Mary Holder Naegeli
Minister Member, San Francisco Presbytery
Presenter of the Minority Report at the 1/15/08 meeting of SFPresbytery

11:45 AM, January 18, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...

From Clark: "the Presbytery of San Francisco acted incorrectly" and "the synod PJC should correct their decision."

From Mary: "Not only could the process be reviewed by a higher governing body, but the constitutionality of the outcome itself was under scrutiny" and "the synod PJC should correct their decision."

Amen and amen.

Thank you to both of my friends for supplying their wise and insightful comments.

Now we will see if the PJC has the backbone to rightly tell Lisa Larges no and San Francisco Presbytery to reverse its decision.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

12:22 PM, January 18, 2008  
Blogger will said...

Jim -

I wholeheartedly agree with the interpretations of the actual text of the approved PUP report offered by Clark Cowden. Having said that, I have far less optimism that it will be interpreted in that manner by the relevant PJC's (as this, and the Capetz case will, no doubt, make their slow way to the GAPJC).

More significantly, I am disinclined to believe that this will end with a decision by a PJC any more than it has ended with GA's and amendments to the Book of Order.

It continues - and will continue because the two positions are utterly irreconcilable. Either what those who argue for it call 'full inclusion' is a justice issue - and therefore, cannot be stopped until finally attained, or what the opposition calls biblical fidelity is essential to the Christian faith - and cannot be compromised.

Either way this is yes / no, binary option - not something that lends itself to any sort of both / and compromise - no matter how well crafted or intended.

Will Spotts
North East, MD

12:24 PM, January 18, 2008  
Blogger Dave Moody said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and human response to the SF decision. Clark and Mary too. I don't see how a PJC can see it other than an incorrect decision on SF's part. We shall see...

As a pastor though, in a congregation of folks who have lost patience, this is a body blow. For those of us 'in the club' we know how things work. Joe & Sally Christian though are just embarrassed by the LA Times story, and MLP's celebrating a victory, continue to tell their pastor 'actions speak louder than words as far as what the PCUSA stands for, and we're tired of this.'

Its a gut reaction, guilt by association thing. Counseling patience comes off sounding rather lame, as they say- 'we've been doing this for 35 yrs!' Not saying the reaction is right-- it just is. And in the big scheme of things, standing before Jesus- who's to say it isn't the beginning of wisdom.

Dave Moody
Pastor, Trinity Pres.

1:05 PM, January 18, 2008  
Blogger Larry said...

Jim, though I hope for a 'reversal', let's not collectively hold our breaths. Be there, done that. Courage, faithfulness, integrity is in short supply these days in the PCUSA.

1:45 PM, January 18, 2008  
Blogger Presbyman said...

I've already gotten a phone call about this from another evangelical minister in my Presbytery, and some congregational comment as well. It will certainly come up in our Session meeting on Monday.

I don't know the other people well that you mentioned, but I think Ed Koster spoke in good faith (although even though I wasn't sure he was right), and I would hope he will speak out in good faith now.

1:54 PM, January 18, 2008  
Blogger Presbyman said...

Oops ... sorry, I forgot to add:

John Erthein
Erie, PA

1:54 PM, January 18, 2008  
Blogger Chris said...

Who's up for a test case with a candidate scrupling G-8.0201 or G-6.0105? Oh...wait. Even when they promise to obey, they can't get through on that scruple.

Chris Larimer
Louisville, KY

1:21 AM, January 19, 2008  
Blogger Viola said...

Thank you for this. You have so clearly laid down the challenges that needed to be made. And I think it is great that Clark Cowden as well as Rev. Naegeli have responded. Also I want to thank you for the kind and Christian way you have spoken of Lisa Larges while upholding biblical teaching. The fact is we do damage to persons like Larges when we don't uphold the biblical standards.

Viola Larson
Elder, Fremont Presbyterian Church
Sacramento, California

10:34 AM, January 19, 2008  
Blogger PJ said...

Clark Cowden wrote, "An appeal needs to be filed with the synod PJC, and upon review, the only logical constitutional conclusion is to reverse the decision of the presbytery. This is how our system of accountability works."

And it's a great system, if you think the major purpose of the church is to be spending time and money on disciplinary cases and appeals and such. The ecclesiastical machinery works, but where is its soul?

Where is the person in leadership who can be a cheerleader for the actual standards of the church? Where is the person who can say "these are our standards, and provoking disciplinary cases to test our willingness to live by them is just disturbing the peace and unity of the church"?

Bill Thompson was such an advocate for women's ordination. I remember under his leadership, the national church was quite clear: this is what we believe, and we expect compliance; if you can't comply you should find another church in which to serve. And the Presbyterian Church did not spend many years and thoudands of dollars in court cases testing the limits of that standard.

Cliff Kirkpatrick's office has found this voice regarding standards like Per Capita payments and dismissing congregations with their property. But will they find this voice around these standards?

"Now what will we hear?" you ask. I think every member of the Presbyterian Church USA should expect no less than a ringing affirmation of the church's standards and a call for people to actively comply, passively submit, or quietly withdraw. And if it doesn't come officially from church offices, then it needs to come passionately from the renewal groups.

That's what we should hear. But "what will we hear"?

8:43 AM, January 23, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


Thank you for such solid thinking. I heartily agree.

However, I need your name and the city in which you live in order to retain your comment. I need to be consistent with my no-anonymous-comments requireent.


Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

8:59 AM, January 23, 2008  
Blogger Pastor Bob said...


You were a lot nicer than I was. See my letter to the Layman on this issue.

Bob Campbell

2:05 PM, January 23, 2008  
Blogger Timothy said...

Dear Jim:

Having been a commissioner to the 2006 GA, having read the various opinions circulated about what the AI does or does not allow, I can not believe the AI does not permit the ordination and installation of persons scupling mandatory requirements.

When it was adopted the AI seemed to me to be the perfect post-modern document: it said everything, and it also said nothing. It allows for scrupling of mandatory requirements, and it does not allow scrupling of mandatory requirements. It can be interpreted anyway you want. so those who are opposed to scrupling interpret it one way, and those in favor another way,and both are right.

It was a very dark day in the history of the Presbyterian Church when the AI was approved. Since then we have been wanting to believe the propaganda Kirkpatrick and well meaning others have foisted upon us, that nothing has changed.

I frequenrtly wonder whether those who have claimed that nothing changed at the 2006 GA believe that a bitter pill is much easier to swallow when broken into smaller pieces. And if the GAPJC allows the ordinations to go forward, I suspect most of us will line up for the next dose.

Timothy Smith
Las Cruces, New Mexico

10:42 PM, January 24, 2008  
Blogger 2lindahl said...

Thank you for your clarity. I was at the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area meeting last Saturday and watched in astonishment as we voted to reinstate Paul Capetz to ministry. He declared proudly before the vote that he would not take a vow of celibacy. The official statement by the Presbytery didn't include those of us who signed our protest against such action. It is a sad day for our denomination and a direct result of PUP. I found it very difficult to go back to my church on Sunday.
Rev. Dr. Andrew LIndahl
Austin, Minnesota

9:50 AM, January 28, 2008  
Blogger Red_Cleric said...

The answer to your question is not "42". It's found in the video spinning our current situation.
in which Joe Small and Charles Wiley attempt to wiggle around issues and ignore the elephant sitting on their laps.

It is slick, it's quick and offers pablum for the masses.


4:20 PM, January 29, 2008  
Blogger George said...

I echo what has been said thus far:kudos to you, Clark, and Mary for your clear interpretation, remembering compassion as well. Just for the record, the party line comment that a scruple is just an expression of dissent which carries no weight is exactly what was told me by a Presbytery exec as well. The silence now that the SF decision has been made as well as the accompanying decisions is deafening.

George Dakin
FPC Ouray, Colorado

1:59 PM, January 30, 2008  

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