The 213th General Assembly: An Analysis

When it came, he quietly told of a recent trip with his mother to a church outside Atlanta where his father had once been minister. Affected by age, however, she didn’t remember it.

“It’s where Dad used to preach,” he reminded.

“Let’s keep it for him so that we can show it to him when he comes back,” she said.

A moving story, but what did it have to do with changing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s ordination standards?

“The church into which I was baptized taught me to believe in a big God, taught me his surprising ways,” said Wardlaw, pastor at Central church in Atlanta.

“Officially speaking, that church doesn’t exist at this moment,” he went on, speaking against leaving intact current language in the Book of Order, banning ordination of homosexuals and other sexually active singles.

Wardlaw brought the message home — even with only two minutes to make his point.

Turning his mother’s comment about his father into a statement about Christ’s church, Wardlaw concluded: “Let’s keep it for him.”

That Wardlaw saw in his mother’s comment an allusion to the church’s stand on ordination is prime evidence that most things in Louisville were viewed through the prism of G-6.0106b, which says in part: “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 the standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

When Jack Rogers was elected moderator on an unexpected first ballot Saturday night, the question came immediately: What did that foretell about commissioners’ leanings on the big question they’d face later, whether to recommend striking G-6.0106b?

When the Health and Social Issues Committee effectively turned aside all attempts to even study anti-abortion overtures, did it mean that it was a liberal Assembly, ready to toss out “B”?

When commissioners insisted on a more pointed statement that salvation is available only through Christ, did it mean they were more interested in reaffirming long-held positions than taking new ones?

When they moved rapidly through their agenda, even getting ahead of schedule and giving themselves an unheard-of night off, did it mean commissioners were saving energy and effort for a big battle over “B”?

And when about 250 people packed a hotel meeting room on their own time to view an anti-B presentation given earlier to the Assembly Committee on Ordination Standards, did it mean the Assembly was willing to suggest changing the rules?

Apparently yes, to the surprise of many.

Even after the committee, on a 31-25 vote, recommended striking “B” and overturning past policies banning homosexual ordination, denominational leaders almost to a person predicted rejection on the floor.

After all, that’s what had happened two years ago in Fort Worth when a committee had made a similar recommendation. Instead, a sabbatical was affirmed.

But not in Louisville.

As the days after the committee decision went by, an atmosphere developed suggesting those opposing “B” might prevail.

For example, during the “speakouts” preceding every business session — where commissioners may talk about anything they choose, as long as it’s not Assembly business — several made reference to their homosexuality.

To be sure, there were other speakers, and many clearly — if obliquely — took the other viewpoint on ordination, but an air of possibility seemed to cling to those favoring dumping “B.”

Maybe it was as Douglas Nave suggested.

Nave is an attorney from New York who authored the overture at the heart of the Assembly’s recommendation to remove “B.” He was one of those who made the polished presentation to the Ordination Standards committee.

After the committee vote, Janie Spahr, a lesbian minister who has been on the forefront of efforts to ordain homosexuals, gave Nave a congratulatory hug. “It wouldn’t be possible,” he told her, “without 20 years of witness.”

Or, maybe it was as one conservative insider suggested.

Conservatives, he said, were “preoccupied” by the struggles within their own ranks this year. And, he suggested, much of the brainpower behind conservative successes of the past is no longer involved, for one reason or another.

So, the Assembly voted 317-208 to recommend removing B, and — if that passes — to overturn past interpretations and guidelines banning ordination.

Few are willing to predict how it will turn out; 87 presbyteries have to approve and can make no changes in the language. There were predictions of schism from some, and some were already revving up their sermons even before the Assembly vote.

Jim Logan, pastor at Charlotte’s Bread of Life Ministries church (formerly South Tryon Street church), likened the PC(USA) to the Philistines in 1 Samuel who captured the Ark of the Covenant.

“What is it that has happened to us?” he asked at the Presbyterian Coalition’s breakfast. “I believe we have slipped into rebellion, and are being led by many who claim to have the ear of God into apostasy.”

“Good filters from the top down and so does filth filter from the top down,” he said.

But others talked of being able to breathe again, and of the potential for leadership in the denomination just waiting for the green light to come, as many described it, “back home” to a church they love.

“We have consistently claimed that the word of God is a living, moving thing in our lives,” said Don Stroud, a minister commissioner from Baltimore Presbytery, who is gay. “We’ve tried to put God in a box, and now leave God free to work God’s will in our lives, which I think is to create a fully inclusive community which breaks down all the barriers.”

Moderator Rogers, who has run afoul of some of his evangelical friends for his pro-ordination stance, said commissioners, whom he described as “just regular folks, garden-variety Presbyterians,” reflected the “very different perceptions of reality” within the church.

One group perceives a libertine culture taking over the church; the other sees the church driving out society’s homophobic tendencies.

One view says the church would be less Presbyterian by having anything resembling “local option” on ordination. The other view is that it’s more Presbyterian because it puts authority closer to responsibility.

Both camps are utterly sincere.

But, he said, “there’s evidence that the Holy Spirit has been at work in our midst.”

One evangelical leader said, though, that while Presbyterians believe the Holy Spirit is present when people are prayerfully working together, the work isn’t finished until the presbyteries have spoken.

Previous votes have been decidedly against ordination: 97-74 in favor of putting G.6.0106b into the Book of Order and 114-57 against softening it a year later.

But it’s a different year, and supporters believe life under “B” hasn’t been satisfactory for anyone. That, and changing understandings of homosexuality, gives them hope of victory.

As Wardlaw noted, only three presbyteries raised the question of salvation, while 29 wanted something done about “B.”

At the end of the closing worship service, an obviously emotional Rogers praised the commissioners.

“It’s been a long week. It’s been a difficult week. It’s been a good week,” he said.

While many within the denomination will challenge the third claim, there are also many who will affirm it.

And that was really the point those opposed to “B” hit hardest and, perhaps, most effectively: With so much division on the issue, is it appropriate for there to be a rule?

They quoted liberally from “Historic Principles, Conscience and Church Government,” a document from the 1983 General Assembly.

For example: “Controversy and the tension inevitably produced by diversity, may be the area where — in the struggling and grappling with ideas — the Spirit is most likely to speak to the church.”

And: “The church protects its own minority point of view as if it were protecting its future, recognizing that the dissenter may well represent the will of God.”

Rogers put it another way in his closing prayer:

“We are the body of Christ together,” he said. “Without any of us, we are not as rich.

“Do not let us tear away from one another,” he prayed.

The answer to that prayer will play out over the next year as presbyteries complete the work of the 213th General Assembly with their actions on G-6.0106.b.


John A. Bolt is a Presbyterian elder and wire service bureau chief from Charleston, W.Va.

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