That’s what the General Assembly recommended in June and now the PC(USA)’s 173 presbyteries are preparing to vote that change up or down; to decide, in effect, the denomination’s position on ordaining gays and lesbians who don’t promise to be chaste.
To some extent, that’s familiar territory: since the assembly added the fidelity-and-chastity requirement to the PC(USA)’s constitution in 1997, the presbyteries have twice been asked to take it out (in 1997 and 2000), and twice have said no, by margins of at least 2-to-1.
But veterans of the gay-ordination battles in the denomination see both similarities and differences in this campaign. In part, the territory – and many of the arguments – are familiar. But some things have changed too – in the way that every presidential race, with the Republicans and Democrats slugging it out, seems both familiar and yet every time, something distinct.
Slow start. At the close of the 2006 General Assembly, which approved the report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the PC(USA), no one had to wait long to figure out what people thought. Presbyterians made their feelings known, vociferously and quickly.
After this year’s assembly, however, things have stayed relatively quiet – which folks aren’t exactly sure how to read.
“The overall sense I’m getting is weariness,” said Michael Walker, former executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal and now theologian-in-residence at Highland Park Church in Dallas. People ask, “‘Do we really need to do this again?’ … I’m not sensing a whole lot of energy on the left or the right.”
Terry Schlossberg is organizing the campaign against the proposed amendment for the Presbyterian Coalition, and will work with other evangelicals to try to keep “fidelity and chastity” on the books. She has contacted presbyteries to find out when they plan to vote – they have a year from the end of the assembly. Many have not yet set dates, perhaps waiting for the official wording of amendments being proposed to come out from the Office of the General Assembly, a document that’s just been released.
So far, “I’ve been very pleased that the presbyteries have not panicked, things have been relatively quiet,” said Jill Hudson, coordinator of middle governing body relations for the PC(USA).
“Most presbyteries are proceeding in an orderly fashion to determine how and when they’ll be voting on the amendments. Most of them will do that after the first of the year. Right now there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of stress in our system beyond what was there prior to the assembly. Obviously there are individual congregations and groups in the denomination that are very upset … but I think presbyteries are handling those concerns in very sensitive and responsible ways.”
Broader context. One early indication is that some Presbyterians want to talk not only about whether “fidelity and chastity” should be kept on the books or not, but about a broader context. This includes some evangelical congregations that already have left the PC(USA) for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church; a series of church court rulings and authoritative interpretations from the General Assembly have muddied the waters; and Presbyterians are struggling with how to be more “missional” and faithful in a big-tent denomination with enduring differences over gay ordination.
San Diego presbytery, in a meeting Aug. 12, took an early step — approving a resolution to be submitted to the General Assembly in 2010, calling on that assembly to reconsider what the 2008 assembly did regarding ordination standards and asking it to reinstate interpretative statements regarding the ordained service of homosexuals that date from the 1970s. In an authoritative interpretation the 2008 assembly declared those statements no longer to be in effect.
In approving the overture —which was submitted jointly by two pastors, Bob Davis and Steve Locke, who disagree with each other on gay ordination and who both served as commissioners at the 2008 assembly — the presbytery declared that the PC(USA) “is in a state of constitutional and confessional confusion and crisis.”
But, in a 64-17 vote, the presbytery eliminated language that would have encouraged congregations to eliminate unrestricted giving and kept the presbytery from sending any unrestricted funds to the PC(USA).
Davis, an evangelical and veteran of many political debates in the PC(USA), said in an interview that the situation is clouded because the 2008 assembly not only voted out a proposed amendment to change the constitution, but issued authoritative interpretations that take effect immediately, without giving the presbyteries a chance to vote on those.
In the past, when proposals to amend the constitution regarding gay ordination were pending, “everybody was gearing up over the summer with arguments and developments,” Davis said. “I just haven’t heard any of it” this time. “The silence is pretty telling. I do not expect the amendment to pass. And I get the impression a lot of people on the progressive side don’t expect it to pass, either. The real question is what the authoritative interpretations are going to end up doing.”
One of those authoritative interpretations basically put back into place a provision suggested by the Theological Task Force that allows a candidate for ordination to declare a “scruple,” or objection to the rules based on conscience. The local governing body then can determine whether that departure violates an “essential of Reformed faith and practice” — and if it does not, can still ordain the person.
That authoritative interpretation essentially undercuts a ruling issued in February 2008 by the PC(USA)’s highest court, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission. That court ruled in a case from Pittsburgh Presbytery that candidates could not declare scruples based on “fidelity and chastity,” describing that provision as “a mandatory standard that cannot be waived.”
And it upheld language from a lower court ruling that made a distinction between allowing departures from the church’s standards related to belief, but not departures related to behavior.
Because of all those developments, some are questioning how much weight any single action involving gay ordination might have. Even if the presbyteries vote not to remove the “fidelity and chastity” provision, for example, gay and lesbian candidates still could potentially declare scruples and, if those scruples were accepted, could still be ordained.
Michael Adee, executive director of More Light Presbyterians, called the assembly’s vote “an amazing moment in history,” pledging during the campaign in the presbyteries to have “every hand on deck” to work for deleting the fidelity-and-chastity language.
The board of directors of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which supports opening ordination to gays and lesbians, said in a statement issued in August that the assembly’s actions “have made it clear that qualified members in committed same-gender relationships may respond to the call to serve as officers and ministers in the church where sessions and presbyteries deem their declared departures not to be essential to the faith or polity of the church.”
The board also looked ahead to the voting by the presbyteries, and said that “the nature and manner of the debate that lies before the church is even more important than is the outcome of the vote.”
Other options. This round of voting also will come at a time when some Presbyterians, seeing what’s happened to an Episcopal Church frustrated by decades of discord, are considering whether other approaches should also be considered.
Davis, for example, wants to do some study about the theology of ordination, to explore the question of whether ordination really is, necessarily, ordination by and for the whole church. For him, understanding that issue better will help him determine how to proceed faithfully in a denomination in which he feels called by God to serve, but which also may begin to ordain sexually-active gays and lesbians.
And Walker, at the Presbyterian Global Fellowship conference in California in August, led a seminar considering possibilities for realignment within the PC(USA), such as the idea of creating non-geographic presbyteries or synods.
“I personally think that the PC(USA) has a unique opportunity in the wake of the 218th General Assembly,” Walker said in an interview. “Because I think folks across the theological spectrum have a somewhat clearer picture of where we are as a denomination, of just how significant the differences are within the denomination. And if we are to move forward together as a whole, then some significantly different approaches are necessary in order to do that, beyond the options that have been previously given much weight.”
So he’s interested in exploring some sort of realignment, “to create a new context for ministry in the PC(USA) that does not require us to be constantly debating this particular issue at this superficial level.”
Walker is outlining his views on the Presbyterians For Renewal Web site in a series he’s calling “What Way Ahead?”