But the discussion does give a sense for what some of the possibilities are – of the rough shape of the territory.
One key question seems to be whether the assembly is willing to take up the issue again of whether candidates for ordination should be allowed to declare a “scruple” – a conscientious objection – to the requirement in the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single.
To review the dance steps:
In 2006, the General Assembly approved the report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the PC(USA). That included the controversial Recommendation 5 – which allowed for scrupling, if the presbytery or session involved concluded that the departure would not involve an essential of Reformed faith or practice.
Skip up to February 2008. The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission– known as the GAPJC, the denomination’s highest court – issued a ruling in a case from Pittsburgh presbytery (known as the Bush case – named for one of the complainants, Randall Bush) in which it decided that scrupling would not be permitted to the “fidelity and chastity” standard.
It described “fidelity and chastity” as “a mandatory standard that cannot be waived.” And it upheld language from a prior ruling from a lower church court which made a distinction between allowing departures from the church’s standards related to belief, but not departures related to behavior.
Now – the music keeps playing – the 218th General Assembly is meeting in California. One of the items on the dance card is whether the assembly should pass a new authoritative interpretation basically negating the impact of the Bush ruling – in other words, once again potentially allowing scruples to the “fidelity and chastity” clause.
That’s one of many questions before the assembly’s Church Orders and Ministry committee – which as of June 23 had deferred all voting on particular items.
John Wilkinson, a pastor from Rochester, N.Y. and a member of the theological task force, told the committee the scrupling provision can be seen as part of “a larger theological vision” of how the PC(USA) can give witness to Jesus Christ “at times of deep, deep division.”
That reflects an understanding that Jesus is head of the church – Jesus, not the General Assembly or a church court – and that “Christ is present in the church through his word and spirit,” said Mark Achtemeier, a theology professor and another member of the task force.
So if a candidate says of a constitutional requirement that she has prayed about it and she has consulted Scripture and she disagrees in conscience with what the standard requires, “the last thing we want to say to that person is, `Stop listening to the Bible and get with the program,’ ” Achtemeier said. “We are a church of the Word, and we remember how many times God has spoken his word . . . through the lone voice of prophets and reformers.”
The Bible also calls on Christians to treat dissenters graciously – and “not as a matter of good manners,” Achtemeier said. “Forbearance is a matter of imitating God’s generosity to us in Christ. We do it not because we think truth is unimportant” but as a way to enter common fellowship, “seeking God together.”
But Donald Baird, an overture advocate from Sacramento presbytery, described the task force’s recommendation on scrupling as casting a vision “which has turned into a nightmare.”
In 2006, “we predicted there would be a terrible loss of membership” from congregations leaving in protest, and “I have never seen such an exodus,” of conservative congregations leaving the PC(USA) for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
Some evangelicals want this assembly to revoke Recommendation 5. Other commissioners say that’s not necessary, because the Bush decision means candidates can’t scruple on “fidelity and chastity” anyway.
“I believe that with the Bush decision, we are in a good place,” said Sylvia Dooling, an elder from Plains and Peaks presbytery.
But an overture from John Knox presbytery asks this assembly to issue a new authoritative interpretation which would supercede the Bush decision and once again allow scrupling on “fidelity and chastity.”
And another set of overtures would ask the stated clerk to provide examples to the PC(USA) of best practices that presbyteries and congregations are using to talk about difficult issues and to examine candidates.
One of those overtures also would remind sessions and presbyteries that, in examining candidates, ”personal questions on all topics should be posed with discretion, respect, and sensitivity, and that specific inquiry cannot be made into the sexual orientation or practice of persons being examined if the persons have not, on their own initiative, made a declarative statement. If such inquiries are not made into the sexual orientation or practice of all persons being examined, then such inquiries may not be made into only select persons’ orientation or practice.”
Some committee members bristled at that – saying they were uncomfortable with expressing that “in quite so candid tones,” as one man put it.
But others pointed out that that language is already the church’s rule – upheld in rulings of the church courts and going back to standards set in the 1970s. In other words, it’s what sessions and presbyteries are already required to do.
And some say a divided PC(USA) needs to work hard at finding ways of reconciliation – of learning to trust those of differing views.
Susan Fisher, a minister from Pacific presbytery, said she got an e-mail not long ago from an elder at another local church – a man with whom she disagrees on many issues, but who asked if they could talk. They met for two hours, she said; prayed for each other and shared their stories of faith.
“I had a little taste of that,” she said, “and it was filled with grace and filled with promise and hope.”
The committee also is considering proposals to eliminate the “fidelity and chastity” requirement from the PC(USA)’s constitution altogether – and commissioners had plenty of thoughts about that.
“By removing this, we’re saying that sexual immorality is OK,” said David Reimer, an elder from Newark presbytery.
But what does the church find so offensive about two people of the same sex living together in a committed, monogamous, loving relationship, asked William Samford, a minister from Lackawanna presbytery. “What is so scary about it?” Samford asked – adding that, sometimes, it’s worth the possibility of losing members to do what people think is right.
The Church Orders and Ministry meets again the morning of June 24. Today, they’ll vote on it all.