BIRMINGHAM — Although the committee still needs to take a few parliamentary twirls, the General Assembly’s Ecclesiology Committee seems on the cusp of recommending that the General Assembly approve the report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The committee ran out of time June 17 — the assembly’s shuttle buses taking commissioners back to their hotels were about to stop running.
But earlier, the task force’s controversial Recommendation 5 survived an attempt to delete it from the report — by a vote of 40-22. A series of other proposed amendments to the report failed by similar margins.
It also appears there will be a minority report from the committee — shortly before adjournment, Dick Randall, a minister from Nevada, thanked the committee for its good spirit during the long discussions, and invited anyone who wanted to join with him in creating a minority report to contact him.
Claire Harris, a youth advisory delegate from East Tennessee presbytery, asked that three of the most contested recommendations from the report be considered as “an indivisible package” — all together.
In taking that approach, the committee was responding to the task force’s plea that its report should be approved as a whole — not broken into pieces that could be voted up-or-down — and seemed to agree that the report offers a hurting denomination at least a chance of healing and reconciliation.
“Let’s trust one another,” said George Rolling, a minister from Holston presbytery. “Let’s trust the Lord. Let’s go ahead with mission and ministry. Let’s come together. Let’s stop fighting and forebear one another in love and put it in God’s hands.”
Of course, that’s just one view — and a fierce skirmish over the task force report is still expected when the full assembly takes it up, most likely on June 20.
The turning point in the Ecclesiology Committee’s discussion came when, after several hours of discussion, the committee voted down a proposal to delete the controversial Recommendation 5 altogether.
Under that recommendation, a candidate who disagreed with some of the church’s ordination standards could declare an objection or a “scruple” — and the local governing body would decide whether that particular departure “constitutes a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity.”
Randall proposed ditching Recommendation 5, saying he was worried about “what will happen in the presbyteries and in the pews” if it were to take effect. He and others complained that the proposal is confusing — task force members have called it “an experiment,” and some Presbyterians aren’t quite sure what that means.
Kathy Sizer, a minister from Los Ranchos presbytery, said a theologically mixed group from her presbytery studied the task force recommendations and “we thought all hell would break loose in the church” if the presbyteries weren’t allowed to vote “on that radical a change.”
Some commissioners said they were confused about exactly what will happen in the presbyteries if the assembly approves the task force report.
Howard Soehl, a minister from Detroit presbytery, said he’s been told that Recommendation 5 doesn’t change the PC(USA) constitution — the current ordination standards would remain in effect. But he also heard task force member John Wilkinson tell the committee that “the balance of the report crumbles” if Recommendation 5 is removed.
So Recommendation 5 doesn’t change anything, “but if it doesn’t get passed the whole thing unravels,” Soehl said — wondering how both of those things could be true at the same time.
But others pleaded with the PC(USA) to give the task force proposals a chance — and to give the denomination some space and time for the rancor to die down.
“We have no purity or unity or peace,” said Michael Magee, an elder from Tennessee. “We have none. We haven’t had any in 30 years.” Many commissioners spoke of trust — of the need for the denomination they love so much to somehow find a way to stop fighting and turn to the world.
Barbara Muntzel, from Lackawanna presbytery, said she came to the United States as an immigrant, “a stranger in a strange land,” and the Presbyterian church welcomed her. She came as a woman, and the Presbyterian church ordained her. “I praise God for the Christ I’ve experienced in this country,” Muntzel said. “I want that same Christ extended to others who come from foreign shores, and I’m not talking geographically now. I see the report as a wonderful way of looking at things in new and different and more gracious ways.”
Phillip Blackburn, a 30-year-old pastor from Great Rivers presbytery, said he has decades left to serve in ministry — and he likes the idea of the task force calling Presbyterians back to a focus on theology, rather than being “simply people who worship our polity.” At presbytery meetings, people talk about the Book of Order, about rules and regulations, not the Bible or theology, Blackburn said.
But if with Recommendation 5, if a candidate declares a scruple, “we can have a theological conversation,” he said, about what beliefs really matter in the PC(USA).
The committee also debated whether the presbyteries should be asked to vote on the task force report. Jim Wilson, representing the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, said that idea has problems — what’s sent to presbyteries for approval are amendments to the Book of Order, he said, and what the task force is proposing isn’t an amendment.
If the assembly passed the task force report and the presbyteries voted it down, “we’d be in constitutional limbo-land,” Wilson said. The General Assembly would still have adopted an authoritative interpretation that would be binding on the church — the presbyteries’ actions wouldn’t undo that.
But some commissioners said they think it’s only fair that presbyteries should get to vote on something so important.
“What are we afraid of?” Sizer asked. “I think we’re just creating more opposition if we’re coming top-down. If you’re really after peace, the way to do it is not to tell the children what to do, or else. You involve them in the process.”
In the beginning of its discussions, the committee floundered a bit — trying to find a balance between following parliamentary procedure and more free-flowing conversation.
Meg Scott-Johnson, an elder with experience as a spiritual director, led the committee in an exercise of spiritual discernment — trying to teach them ways to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. She asked the committee members to move into “holy indifference,” which Scott-Johnson described as “going into neutral,” letting go of any agenda or concern about the outcome.
The word “discernment” comes from the Latin word meaning “to separate,” Scott-Johnson said, meaning to separate out the many noises “and listen to the voice of God.”
In the Reformed tradition, Christians also look for the affirmation of the community for what’s being considered, and to consider “is it in accordance with Scripture,” she said.
Scott-Johnson asked the committee members to breathe slowly, to be silent before God, to think about ways they were feeling anxious or stressed “and give those to the living God.”
She told them: “Feel your breath, form a prayer.”
Pray for “Thy will be done.”