Heads, They Win; Tails, We Lose
That's the way I'm beginning to feel about the system of Presbyterian Permanent Judicial Commissions: When those of us who are conservative or evangelical enter in, it seems that most often we're going to lose. But worse, it seems that when just plain common sense and obvious intent enter in, they come out losers, too.
Take two cases that hit Presbyweb Saturday.
Case #1: Sacramento Presbytery. In this case, the presbytery charitably voted not to appeal a secular court case that had allowed a congregation to retain its property while transferring into a sister denomination. In other words, the presbytery altruistically chose the welfare of the worshipping congregation over pure possessiveness on its part.
However, such good motives cannot go unpunished in an aggressively litigious atmosphere encouraged by our Stated Clerk's office. Three disgruntled pastors from a church on the losing side of the vote filed a "stay of enforcement" with the synod Permanent Judicial Commission. A stay of enforcement usually keeps something from happening--an ordination, a rebuke, a rule change, etc.--until after some dispute has been settled in the church courts.
Not this time.
This time, the "stay" is causing the tiny minority's desires to be carried out, against the will of the large majority. This "stay" plays out in an amazingly convoluted and unusual way in this case, actually causing an action rather than suspending action.
Since the "stay" is actually going to cause the exact action to occur that a strong majority of the presbytery voted not to do, there seems to be a need for the majority now to stay the "stay"!
Quite simply, the presbytery voted not to go to court to appeal, but yet the stay of enforcement forces the presbytery to appeal. In other words, according to the members of the synod PJC, to hold off on not appealing means that the presbytery must appeal. Thus, the presbytery officers were summarily ordered to file the appeal, and they did.
So much for the fundamental of Presbyterian polity that "a majority shall govern" (G-1.0400). Three people in Sacramento made the presbytery do the mean-spirited action it had voted not to do--and this is supposedly through a "stay" of action, which, during a time of legally sorting things out, ought to restrain action rather than force it!
Case #2: Twin Cities Presbytery. Here, a former pastor had surrendered his ordination because he would not support chastity as an unmarried gay man. He has now decided that the time is ripe still to refuse to abide by "chastity in singleness" but take his ordination back after all. His presbytery concurred, and some presbyters filed a remedial complaint.
The complaint seems justified. Our underlying policy on homosexual practice specifically names it as sin. It says that "all homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith and life" and that "God's will precludes the ordination of persons who do not repent of homosexual practice." And yet the presbytery has just handed back to this scofflaw his ordination.
Permanent Judicial Commission decisions have set the precedent about "fidelity and chastity" that "the church has decided to single out this particular manner of life standard and require churchwide conformity to it for all ordained church officers" (Bush, 218-10). The General Assembly PJC has decreed that "violations of behavioral standards are to be addressed through repentance and reconciliation, not by exception or exemption." And yet, the presbytery made an exception, because the guy had formerly been ordained and just wanted his papers back.
So, what does the synod PJC rule about the remedial case? It refuses to sustain the complaint. Why? Because, strictly speaking, previous precedential decisions were about getting ordained, not about restoring ordination, so apparently they don't apply. Also, the guy is not ministering within the PCUSA, but at an independent seminary, in a validated ministry.
Thus, in classic casuistic reasoning that can ignore the meat of the matter and forget its original purposes in order to concentrate on extraneous circumstances until a way is found around an obvious restraint, the synod PJC ignored Presbyterian convictions and policy and let the fellow go his merry way with his ordination restored.
Never mind that we officially call homosexual practice sin, that we forbid ordination of those not willing to practice fidelity or chastity, that sinful behavior is not to be winked at but repented of. Never mind that we would not ordain new folks with this guy's attitude and practice, and don't really need any more renegades running around who will not abide by our polity. No, never mind. A way was found to ignore the obvious and to approve the unapprovable.
Jesus said to people like this: "You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel" (Matt. 23:24).
The camel in this case is that homosexual practice is sin. Everything we do about the subject as a church, therefore, ought to flow from that starting point. And the flow ought not take us to the place of giving back an ordination rightfully renounced at an earlier point by a person who will not practice what our standards say he must.
We have a judicial system stuck in gnats and missing obvious camels. And for those of us who just want to uphold biblical morality or further congregational ministry apart from vindictiveness--well, it seems to end up heads, they win; tails, we lose.