Some say it couldn’t be clearer that the church has spoken, and knows its mind on this issue — and what it’s said repeatedly is that it will not ordain sexually active gays and lesbians. Others, however, still contend that change is coming. If the time isn’t right now, they believe, someday it will be.
• No one is predicting that a flood of new requests to change the ordination standards will be presented to this year’s General Assembly. The ordination question was the hot topic for the Assembly last year. This year — for the first time in a while — the denomination may actually turn its attention from issues of sexuality to other problems confronting the church.
• If the legislative season is ending — meaning that the presbyteries will not be asked to vote again this year on a proposed constitutional amendment involving ordination standards — the judicial season may just be heating up. Evangelicals within the denomination are adamant that the church’s Constitution should be followed, and that something should be done about congregations and presbyteries that insist they cannot in good conscience follow the current ordination standards.
• Another key question still to be resolved is what will happen with the Confessing Churches Movement? Some contend that Amendment A, by threatening the current ordination standards, gave added momentum to the movement to have the sessions of individual congregations issue confessional statements about the authority of Scripture, salvation through Jesus Christ and the sanctity of marriage. More than 1,200 congregations have signed such statements (more than 1 in 10 of Presbyterian churches) and the Confessing Churches Movement will hold a national celebration in Atlanta at the end of February. But what’s not been determined is what those involved in the movement want to achieve, and where they will go from here.
As of last weekend, the vote on Amendment A was 39 for, 86 against — only one short of defeat. Why have so many presbyteries voted against Amendment A?
Some say it’s because the majority of Presbyterians believe this: that the PC(USA) should not ordain people who are sexually active outside of marriage.
“The reason for the high number of ‘No’ votes is the church has wanted to speak clearly to uphold its historic ordination standards,” said Doug Pratt, who is pastor of Memorial Park church in suburban Pittsburgh and who (along with lawyer Peggy Hedden of Ohio) is one of two new co-moderators of the Presbyterian Coalition, an evangelical group.
“I hope it means the church knows its mind and is being increasingly comfortable with it,” said Jerry Andrews of suburban Chicago, who just finished a two-year term as the Coalition’s co-moderator.
But some see the issue of ordination standards being intertwined with other theological debates within the church. Over the past year, many conservatives have been outraged that the PC(USA) hasn’t spoken more strongly to say that salvation can only come through Jesus Christ — and some have begun to speak openly about the possibility of leaving the denomination if things don’t change.
“The fear of schism played an important role” in the vote on Amendment A, “the threat that if it passed, churches were going to seek to leave the denomination,” said Gene Bay, who is pastor of Bryn Mawr church in Pennsylvania and one of two co-moderators of the Covenant Network, which wants to open ordination to non-celibate gays and lesbians. “And the fact that there’s a theological task force (due to make a report in 2005) gave people some reason to say, ‘Let’s throw it to them, let’s let them deal with it.’ ”
What undoubtedly won’t happen, if Amendment A is defeated, is that the controversy will cease. Instead, the confrontation is likely to shift in the near future to challenges involving the ordination of specific people in congregations or presbyteries that disagree with the current ordination standards.
If Amendment A fails, “the legislative front will be quiet, and the judicial and enforcement fronts of the Constitution will be much more central,” Pratt said. “That will be where the conflict in the next year will be most experienced.”
Already, some are pushing Clifton Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, to be more aggressive in challenging congregations that say they won’t comply with the constitutional standards. And a new wave of judicial cases likely would bring new tensions and disagreements.
People who disagree with the ordination standards must decide “whether they can comply and work for change,” or whether they intend to defy the Constitution — as some congregations have publicly declared they intend to do, Hedden said. “I don’t know of anybody who has gone around looking for violations,” she said, but “these people have made public declarations” of their intent not to comply with the ordination standards. “They are challenging the system. We need to hold each other accountable — that’s why we are not congregational” in the PC(USA).
Out in the church, in actual practice, both sides acknowledge that enforcement of the ordination standards is anything but clean-cut. Sessions and presbyteries struggle with what to ask and how to ask it, and there is not consistency about how that’s handled. How intensively should people be questioned? If candidates don’t volunteer information about their personal lives, should others raise the questions? Should the answers be taken at face value? Are the same standards being applied to gays and lesbians as with unmarried heterosexuals? Should we just assume that married people are faithful to their spouses?
There also is some concern about whether the ongoing debate over Christology in the denomination will lead to a new zeal for challenges within presbyteries on the grounds of theological integrity. Stories already circulate about candidates who don’t “fit in” to a particular presbytery being given especially rigorous questioning — or candidates whose theology seems unorthodox not being asked much at all. Some worry about how much room there is in the PC(USA) for a range of theological views — how big a tent the Presbyterian church will be — and what standards will be used to determine what’s acceptable and what is not?
Hedden said “I wouldn’t be surprised at all” to see more questioning about theology of new candidates for ordination and of pastors considering new calls. It’s already happened sometimes to evangelicals, she said. She knows of instances where, if someone was a graduate of Fuller seminary, people on a Committee on Ministry “would raise red flags all around the table.”
In the months to come, “I expect that there will be continued, careful observance of what the theology of candidates will be,” she said. “I think it would be wonderful if people could agree on what questions are asked and they are asked of everybody, both in terms of their faith and their life.”
To some in the church, though, that raises real questions about what is considered acceptable theology in the PC(USA) — and whether there’s room in the denomination for differing, faithful interpretations of the Bible and for the idea that Presbyterians are always being reformed.
Bay, of the Covenant Network, said he believes in “a progressive theology,” and “I personally hope that the church we know and love will be a church that will be able to be tolerant of different theologies . . . It’s going to be absolutely disastrous if the tone of the church is going to be that you can’t discuss things” — and that judicial action or challenges to new calls could be taken against those with whom someone disagrees theologically.
“We shouldn’t forget our own heritage,” Bay said, “that Martin Luther and John Calvin were troublemakers” on matters of theology.
Mitzi Henderson of California — who is co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians, a group that’s trying to convince the church to open ordination to non-celibate gays and lesbians — said she senses a desire by some in the denomination for “kind of an orthodoxy on all aspects of church faith and practice,” not just on ordination standards. “How far it will go, I don’t know,” Henderson said, but she hopes it won’t be “to the extent that no one can share their faith” on issues such as how they interpret the Bible or how they relate to people of other religions.
“How we treat one another is going to become almost as important” as whether people agree on ordination standards or matters of theology, she said. “We are going to continue to do our thing” in More Light Presbyterians. “If people are intent on forcing us out of the denomination, I believe they will find large numbers of people who are disaffected by that.”
On both sides of the ordination debate, there are differing views on matters of strategy. How far should they go in pursuing judicial cases and what’s proper action for churches that disagree with the ordination standards and consider them to be blocking God’s call to ministry.
Andrews said there is some debate among evangelicals about how aggressively to pursue judicial cases — but there also is a difference between honest disagreement with the current ordination standards and the intent to defy them. It is likely, he said, that some of the congregations which have stated publicly that they cannot and will not follow the “fidelity and chastity” standards will be targeted for judicial scrutiny. “I know a way to end the judicial season right now,” Andrews said. “Don’t defy the Constitution . . . I believe it’s up to the Covenant Network to say to their people, ‘Don’t defy it.’ “
If the defiance continues, Andrews said, there may be discussion of the idea of administrative commissions taking original jurisdiction and replacing the sessions of defiant congregations, with synods taking action against presbyteries that won’t enforce the Constitution and the General Assembly taking action against defiant synods. “We’re connected, for better or worse” in the Presbyterian church, Andrews said. “We have (evangelical) churches in the Northeast,” where some of the dissent has taken place. “We will not abandon them.”
Others, despite the strong vote against Amendment A, still believe that change in time will come.
“I don’t think the church is quite ready yet” to change the ordination standards, Henderson said. But “I don’t think the future of the church is determined by what it says in the Constitution. It’s determined by God’s will, and how we respond to that.” As Bay put it: “I’m not going to go away, this issue is not going to go away. I’m absolutely convinced that in time this church will change its mind.”
In the meantime, the evangelicals are pleased with the strength of the vote against Amendment A. Those who want to change the ordination standards say their work will continue. Kirkpatrick, the stated clerk, is organizing a meeting in Atlanta on April 26 to talk about the role of the Constitution in the life of the church.