LOUISVILLE — A church court has concluded that Pittsburgh Presbytery cannot “elevate” language from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Constitution to make compliance with ordination standards “essential” and that it must apply the guidelines to ministerial candidates on an individual basis.
The May 16 ruling by the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of the Synod of the Trinity followed a two-day hearing in Camp Hill, Pa., regarding a resolution that Pittsburgh Presbytery adopted on Oct. 12, 2006.
The presbytery’s resolution called compliance with the PC(USA)’s ordination standards from the Book of Order, which require chastity in singleness or fidelity in heterosexual marriage, an “essential of Reformed polity.” It stated that no exceptions would be permitted within the jurisdiction of Pittsburgh Presbytery.
This ruling runs contrary to one handed down March 20 by the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of Alaska-Northwest.
In that case, Olympia Presbytery (in southwestern Washington state) had adopted on Sept. 21, 2006, a resolution declaring that “every mandate of the Book of Order (2005-2007) is an essential of reformed polity.” It added, “Therefore, any violation of a mandate of the Book of Order (2005-2007) constitutes a failure to adhere to the essentials of reformed polity and thus presents a bar to ordination and installation.”
Complainants alleged that that resolution runs contrary to the Authoritative Interpretation adopted by the 2006 General Assembly and that it violates several constitutional policies.
However, the synod PJC rejected the complaint, stating that the policy “… does not preclude Olympia Presbytery from conducting a meaningful examination to assess the fitness of individual candidates on a case by case basis, and the PJC reminds the presbytery that they are obligated to conduct such examinations in a thorough and fair manner.”
The Pittsurgh Presbytery resolution also said that clergy are prohibited from conducting same-sex marriages within the presbytery.
That resolution became the focus of a synod court case after three Presbyterian ministers in Pittsburgh, along with two of their church sessions, complained that the middle governing body exceeded its authority to interpret the church’s constitution by approving a “super standard” that “supplants” the PC(USA)’s ordination standards.
The synod PJC ruled 8-3 that the presbytery could not call the ordination standards “an essential” of Reformed polity.
“The presbytery has the authority and duty to examine all candidates individually but does not have the authority to create a ‘super standard’ in so doing,” the ruling said.
Making the Book of Order standards essential would “wrongfully” set aside the recently approved “authoritative interpretation” to the PC(USA)’s Constitution, the ruling said.
The authoritative interpretation, ratified by the PC(USA)’s 217th General Assembly last summer, maintains existing ordination standards for church officers but gives ordaining bodies greater leeway in applying those standards to individual candidates for ordination.
The assembly’s action, which originated with its Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (TTFPUP), also declared that all ordinations must be in compliance with the PC(USA) Constitution.
By adopting the ordination standards as essential, the ruling said, Pittsburgh Presbytery “expressly prohibits any exception from the requirements,” despite the authoritative interpretation and “the historic principle giving presbyteries the responsibility to determine individually, as to each candidate coming before it, whether the candidate has departed from scriptural and constitutional standards of fitness for office and whether any departure constitutes a failure to adhere to essentials of Reformed faith and polity.”
In language affirming the national church’s stance, the Synod of the Trinity PJC said candidates could disagree with ordination standards, but that obedience was mandatory.
“The freedom of conscience … allows candidates to express disagreement with the wording or meaning of provisions of the constitution, but does not permit disobedience to those behavioral standards,” the ruling said.
The standard of faithful marriage or chaste singleness “is a behaviorally measured standard which applies to all ordained officers of the church. It is clear. It is mandatory,” the ruling said.
The synod PJC voted 11-0 that Pittsburgh Presbytery had the right to prevent clergy from conducting same-sex marriages, but could not prohibit ministers from performing services to bless same-sex unions, a practice that the PC(USA)’s highest court, the General Assembly PJC, has upheld.
“The Book of Order (G-9.0103) states that when the Constitution is silent ‘powers not mentioned (are) reserved to the presbyteries,'” the ruling said. “Therefore, the Presbytery of Pittsburgh has the authority to establish policy disallowing Ministers of Word and Sacrament to conduct same-sex marriages.”
James Mead, pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery, said he believes the ruling does not change much.
“I don’t think that it will have too much impact on the presbytery’s actual behavior,” Mead told the Presbyterian News Service on May 25. “We’re pretty careful and responsible about how we deal with … candidates as potential pastors and, as a matter of fact, we’re a pretty inclusive presbytery.”
He said it was never the presbytery’s intention to establish a super standard in which to review candidates for ordination.
“The majority of Pittsburgh Presbytery simply wanted to say … here’s how we understand the national standards as a pastoral matter,” Mead said. “And frankly as a matter of reassuring itself that what the stated clerk and others on the PUP task force said was in fact the case in Pittsburgh. And that is that our ordination standards have not changed.”
An appeal has been filed with the GA-PJC on the Alaska-Northwest ruling, but none has been filed as of press time on the Trinity PJC case.