Editor’s Note: While serving as a member of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church (TTFPUP), I avoided commenting on it in the pages of The Outlook. Now that its report has been adopted by the 217th General Assembly and now that the Task Force has been dismissed from its work, I weigh in.
Three votes. Three stunning votes. A fourth stunning vote, too.
After months of relentlessly intensifying drumbeats pounding the threat of an impending split about to befall the PC(USA), 91% of this GA’s commissioners voted to stay together.
After two years of pitched conflict over the Presbyterian Church’s relationship with and advocacy toward Israel and Palestine, this GA proposed a new approach, and 94% of the commissioners voted their support.
After 30 years of wresting over ordination standards, after vote upon vote being adopted by narrow, sometimes paper-thin margins, the 217th General Assembly rejected an attempt to eliminate the fidelity-chastity ordination requirement with 81% support.
Those nearly unanimous vote counts were stunning.
One other vote, the most anticipated vote of the Assembly, stunned the Assembly by its close margin.
The lopsided votes held one thing in common. The fidelity-chastity vote and the divestment vote were directly related to the vote to stay together. The vote to stay together was the first of four bundled recommendations of the Theological Task Force. The other three recommendations called for the church to “do church in a new way,” a way that seeks to discern God’s will by clearly affirming a robust set of core theological convictions, by earnestly listening to one another, by reconsidering our own prejudices, and whenever possible to seek consensus prior to taking winner-take-all votes.
The Peacemaking and International Issues Committee followed “the new way.” They took the Task Force’s lead by using discernment and consensus-seeking methods to formulate their response to the divestment crisis. They listened intently to the diverse voices speaking to and among them. The document they produced was approved by a vote of 53 to 6. What’s more, virtually every present interest organization pressing one conclusion or another rallied to its support.
The lopsided fidelity-chastity vote also followed the new way. Many commissioners who disagree with the present restrictions against ordaining gays and lesbians (in recent GA’s that percentage has run in the range of 40 to 55%) nevertheless voted against trying to change that policy as the Task Force had urged.
That fourth, narrowly-approved vote, also responded to the Theological Task Force report, specifically the recommendation to adopt an authoritative interpretation of the constitution. Its purpose is to remind us that the national church sets our ordination standards and that the local ordaining bodies are required to apply them to particular candidates. These recommendations also call upon the church to refrain both from adopting new legislation and resisting judicial action until all other more informal means of discipline are exhausted. It was approved by a vote of 298 to 221, a ratio of 57% to 43%. In presidential elections that’s called a landslide, but in comparison to the other three stunning GA votes, this came pretty close.
Why the collective ambivalence?
Opponents urged their fellow commissioners to resist empowering presbyteries and sessions to take liberties in applying the national standards loosely. They worried that the Authoritative Interpretation (AI) would unleash a season of reckless disregard for biblical ethics and constitutional requirements. Some warned that the courts of the church would be clogged with appeals arising from a flood of unconstitutional ordinations. Still others grieved that such an AI provides scant hope for ordaining gays and lesbians.
Supporters tried to assure their fellow commissioners that the AI and the call for restraint would help the church do church in a new way, a better way than before. In fact, concerns about libertinism were addressed when the assembly approved an amendment that strengthens the opportunity for appeal, so that it now says, “Whether the examination and ordination and installation decision comply with the constitution of the PCUSA, and whether the ordaining/installing body has conducted its examination reasonably, responsibly, prayerfully, and deliberately in deciding to ordain a candidate for church office is subject to review by higher governing bodies” (italics highlight the amendments made by the Assembly).
Nevertheless, it was a close vote.
How shall we interpret it? Louise Johnson, Christian educator from Princeton, summed it up well: “Nobody gets to dance in the streets.” Gays and lesbians don’t get to dance. Traditionalists don’t get to dance. Task Force members–having reached unanimity in their own deliberations–don’t get to dance. This action leaves many Presbyterians sad. But it also leaves them a church to call home. And it gives them a church in which they need to exercise the very restraint, self-discipline, forbearance, and grace that stands as the centerpiece in the report of the Task Force.