Parties in Stamford case had tried to expedite process in order to get a ruling on the merits of the case

The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission -- in sidestepping the question of exactly how deeply a session should be required to probe into the private life of a gay elder who has acknowledged being in a committed, life-long relationship but has declined to say whether he is sexually active -- has put the question off but has not put it to rest.

The commission ruled Dec. 4 that the matter was moot, because the session of First Presbyterian Church of Stamford, Connecticut — which was attempting to install a gay elder, Wayne Osborne — had already seated a new class of elders while the challenge to Osborne was pending in the church courts. Osborne was elected to a three-year term on the session but never installed because of the legal challenges; the term for which he had been chosen expired last summer.

The decision, for the present, leaves unresolved by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s highest judicial body the issue of what candidates for church office should be asked about their sexual activities — and leaves disappointed those on both sides who were hoping for a more definitive decision.

Walter Baker, a lawyer for the Presbyterians who brought the challenge, said it appeared the commission took “the path of least resistance,” although “the church seems to be looking for some guidance” on exactly these points. Already, there has been disagreement about what the language in the PC(USA)’s constitution means when it limits ordination to those who practice “fidelity” if they are married or “chastity” when they are single, and how deeply governing bodies should inquire into matters that candidates for ordination or installation don’t voluntarily divulge.

Blair Moffett, co-pastor of the Stamford church, said he was surprised and disappointed in the commission’s ruling, in part because the parties from both sides worked hard to avoid exactly such a result. Starting in January 2001, Moffett said, lawyers for both sides tried to speed up the process and to communicate through proper channels that “we will rush this, we will both mutually do whatever we can to get this case ready to hear,” but the GAPJC still wasn’t ready to hear the case until after Osborne’s term had expired.

“Both parties were strenuously opposed to this,” and wanted a ruling on the merits of the arguments, Moffett said. “We have thousands of dollars and thousands of hours invested in a case which has been carefully researched. Neither side wanted to see it go down the tubes.”

Having a clear decision in the case was important for his congregation and for the denomination, Moffett said, adding that “it is entirely clear to everybody else in the church that this issue is not moot,” and likely will surface through other judicial proceedings in other cases.

“The PJC has exercised an option, has made a choice, that was not available to the session of First Presbyterian Church,” Moffett said. “It ducked.”

It’s likely the question of exactly what candidates should be asked will emerge now through a future legal case, Baker said — perhaps that of Katie Morrison, a lesbian who was ordained by Redwoods Presbytery in October; who is living in a committed relationship with her partner and is planning a holy union ceremony for that relationship in February; and whose ordination already has prompted judicial challenges in the Synod of the Pacific.

Those who had wanted Osborne installed on the Stamford session say they’re frustrated in part because they feel the church lost an opportunity to have a gifted elder serve in ministry.

“We are all disappointed,” said Stephen Hart, an elder at the 700-member Stamford church. “The whole process took three years and there was a great deal of emotional energy spent . . . For the highest-level judicial body of the church to rule it’s moot — I personally think it’s a cop-out.”And after three years of “spinning the wheels,” Hart said, “we’ve got a qualified, truly gifted person who didn’t get to serve on session.”

In its decision, the commission cited a 1996 GAPJC decision in which the “installation of a full complement of new officers effectively dissolves the former positions and renders claims to those positions moot.”

“We find this controlling in the instant case,” continued the decision. “Upon the election and installation of a full complement of elders, the elder ceased to be eligible for installation, and questions pertaining to the process of the elder’s examination for service are moot. Since the elder is no longer a candidate for active service on the Session, the specifications of error are no longer relevant to the disposition of this case.”

Osborne’s nomination for another term of active service was challenged in 1998 by two church members, Mairi Hair and James McCallum. Southern New England Presbytery upheld his election but the Northeast Synod PJC sent the case back, instructing the session to re-examine Osborne and ask more questions.

After the session completed its re-examination of Osborne, the presbytery PJC, on appeal, upheld the session’s decision to install Osborne as an elder, finding the session’s examination of him to be “sufficient, procedurally and substantively.” And the synod PJC upheld the presbytery and the session, citing church case law which states that a presbytery’s responsibility for determining the qualifications of ministers should be reviewed by a higher judicial body “only for the most extraordinary of reasons.” It was the appeal of the synod decision that was before the GAPJC.

Moffett pointed out that, because the GAPJC did not overturn the synod’s ruling, “the decision of record on this is that the session was not in violation of the constitution.” The case was considered by both the presbytery and the synod and “no lower adjudicatory (body) has found the session to be in violation of the constitution.”

Hart, the elder from Stamford, said perhaps the message the PJC’s ruling sends is that the denomination remains divided and undecided — “we waffle as a church” — about whether gays and lesbians should be limited in how they can serve in ministry. But both he and Moffett stressed that the Stamford church didn’t choose Osborne as an elder for political reasons.

“We’re not being a militant bunch here and charging the light brigade,” Hart said. “We just wanted Wayne as an elder in our church — it was nothing more than that. We felt he was called to that position — I know that with every fiber of my soul . . . We were just doing what we thought was right.”

And both Moffett and Baker said it’s likely there will be further challenges in the church courts to the “fidelity and chastity” language. “One of the things I regret was the PJC had the opportunity here to say what that meant for the guidance of the church, and they chose not to,” Moffett said. “And they have left the church with as much confusion as there was to begin with.”