The Swearingen Compromise has collapsed, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is struggling because of it.
When the General Assembly appointed the Swearingen Commission in 1925, it had been struggling with the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy for decades. After Harry Emerson Fosdick preached his “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” sermon from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church in New York City in 1922, the controversy came before the General Assembly in 1923 and 1924 in the form of a proposal that the General Assembly direct the Presbytery of New York City to require Fosdick to conform to the theological standards of the Presbyterian Church. Fosdick resigned from the church in 1925, but the same issue returned to the 1925 Assembly because New York Presbytery had licensed two candidates who did not believe in the Virgin Birth. The appointment of the Swearingen Commission helped that Assembly avoid a significant rift.
The report of the Swearingen Commission declared that since the presbyteries formed the General Assembly, and since the presbyteries never gave the General Assembly the power to determine the membership of a presbytery, the General Assembly did not and never had the authority to tell a presbytery what beliefs are essential when they consider someone for ordination. The final Commission report adopted in 1927 basically said that our historic polity gave that authority to presbyteries, and that the General Assembly must honor it, except in extraordinary circumstances: Trust the Constitution, trust the polity, trust the process. Its resolution is incorporated in G-6.0108b, where it says, “The decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity is made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves.” The Authoritative Interpretation proposed by the PUP Task force and approved by the 217th General Assembly is predicated on this exclusive authority.
The Compromise was incorporated into our creedal structure in 1967. With the approval of the Confession of 1967 and the Book of Confessions, the Presbyterian Church gave up the notion that a particular theological understanding of Scripture was something to be subscribed to (albeit with “scruples”), and substituted a complex array of historic confessions: Elders, deacons and ministers are now to be guided by the Confessions. The Presbyterian Church now looks at confessions as particular expressions of Christianity that emerged under specific historic circumstances. Unfortunately, however, we do not distinguish the ecumenical creeds that established Christian orthodoxy (the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds) from the Reformed creeds that define our particular flavor of Christianity. This has made it very difficult to define our theological center.
That 1927 decision that gave near complete authority over ordination to presbyteries and sessions was seriously stressed by the early 1980s. The 1927 General Assembly allowed the higher criticism of Modernism, but it probably never expected that the Compromise would allow a Presbytery to grant membership to a person who refused to declare one of the fundamental core beliefs of the Christian Church. But this is exactly what happened in 1981, when in the case Rankin v. National Capital Union Presbytery the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission cited the report of the Swearingen Commission to say that a higher governing body did not have the power to direct a presbytery whom it could or could not accept into membership, except in extraordinary circumstances. In this case, the National Capital Union Presbytery voted to install Mansfield Kaseman, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, as the pastor of a union UCC/PC(USA) church. When examined by the Presbytery, he refused to affirm a series of statements, including a refusal to state he believed in the divinity of Christ. The Permanent Judicial Commission declared that this refusal was not sufficiently extraordinary to override the decision of the Presbytery.
Not long before the decision on Mr. Kaseman, the General Assembly had declared that a governing body did not have the authority to ordain a person who declared his intent to refuse to carry out an act authorized by the Book of Order. In this 1975 case, Maxwell v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh, Walter Kenyon told the Presbytery of Pittsburgh that he would not oppose the ordination of a woman, would work with an ordained woman, and would even permit another to come to his church for the ordination of a woman elder, but he himself would not participate in such an act. He defended himself by citing Scripture. Pittsburgh Presbytery was prohibited from ordaining Mr. Kenyon on the grounds that a presbytery cannot ordain a person who declared he would not comply with the Constitution.
What happened in these two cases spelled doom for the Swearingen Compromise. The Rankin GAPJC said the General Assembly could not dictate what a Presbytery must consider essential to ordination, even if there be what many consider heresy; in Maxwell the GAPJC declared a presbytery must require a pledge to comply with a provision of the Book of Order. The combined effect of the two cases appeared to lift polity over Scripture and the Confessions.
The final fracture of the Swearingen Compromise began in the 1990’s when first some individuals and then some governing bodies began intentionally to disobey the Book of Order. First by Authoritative Interpretation (originally “definitive guidance” in 1978) and then by amendment to the Form of Government in 1996, the Church prohibited ordination of candidates unless they be celibate if single or faithful to their spouse if married, effectively prohibiting the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. While individuals and governing bodies had been defying the Form of Government on the sly for years, it became a major battle over the intentional and public disobedience to the prohibition of the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. Since then the pattern has extended to same-sex marriage ceremonies, violations of the trust clause, unilateral actions to leave the denomination, and violations of the ordination pledge to follow the polity and governance of the church. The specific instances of disobedience have been relatively rare, but they have been highly publicized. And they have become emblematic of the general disaffection felt by some, and have been used by others to aggravate an already stressed situation.
As of this moment, the Swearingen Compromise is in a shambles. The General Assembly through its PJC has declined to prevent a presbytery from admitting a person whose theological beliefs went beyond the pale of tolerance for many, and has imposed a standard for ordination never foreseen by the Swearingen Commission–that a minister must be willing to ordain women. And in the church there are some elders, ministers, and governing bodies who are intentionally flouting the Book of Order, claiming their interpretation of the received faith justifies their disobedience. Though the specific instances of disobedience are limited, there is a rising level of defiance and an increasing instability that threatens to tear the fabric of the church. The effect is debilitating: Where the Swearingen Compromise called us to trust the Constitution, trust the polity, trust the process, trust is breaking down because we are lacking assurance that everyone will honor the covenant that has held us together for the last eighty years.
Where to go? I am thinking that we can come back together if we are willing to do three things:
- The first is to embrace the notionthat the church exists primarily to declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those not in the church. We have this treasure that has touched our souls and hearts: We must share it or become as one who buries treasure in his own back yard.
- The second is to set a firm set of standards for theological adherence, and begin to discuss and debate them–I personally favor the ecumenical creeds. Each of us is called to the church because we believe something, something that has opened our minds and spirits to understanding. Any church, any group that comes together for joint endeavor must share a common belief, or it will fragment. So-called scruples relate not to the core articles of orthodoxy, but to “essentials of Reformed faith and polity.” With these we can be more flexible.
- And, finally, we must decide that the covenant we have to govern ourselves is good and something worth reserving. The report of the Synod of Living Waters in response to actions by the Presbytery of Mississippi says it very succinctly: ‘Either we have a Constitution we will all live by, or agree to change where and when necessary, or we will have no Constitution and thereby no connectional polity and thereby no PCUSA.’
The Reformed Tradition is nothing more than a variation of Christianity grounded on historic orthodoxy, but it is one of the great expressions of the Christian faith. I believe we can and must hold it up to the world, proclaiming that here is a powerful, viable, and useful exemplar, a great witness to the Kingdom of God. It is a message that the world needs and that we can give.
This great faith tradition has led us to covenant with each other on how we will govern ourselves. The way that we do it as Presbyterians is something extraordinary and very special indeed. If we can show the rest of the world the effectiveness of this polity in times of stress like these, then we will be offering a gift of great value.
And if we can do this, if we will do it, we will be able to hand down to our children and to their children a church joined and knit together in trust and faith. And which will allow us to move forward unhindered to doing the greater mission of the church–the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the front stoops of our churches to the ends of the earth. It is possible for us to be the church we really want to be: A church of Reformed Presbyterian Christians doing mission.
Rev Koster is an attorney with a practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Detroit.