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This Vote – A More Difficult Way

In his report to commissioners given at the beginning of the 213th General Assembly, outgoing Moderator Syngman Rhee fervently called for "a more excellent way," a way based on love and mutual forbearance as set forth by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians.

In a similar vein a few days later, he rose to urge commissioners to approve the substance of both the majority and minority reports of a committee that was responding to three overtures concerning the Lordship of Christ. While the Assembly did not adopt his specific proposal, it did agree with him in spirit by approving a statement on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior that seemed to combine the concerns of both sides to the debate without compromising the substance of either.

Painfully aware of the issues dividing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Rhee, along with Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick and General Assembly Council Executive Director John Detterick, had actively supported the idea of creating a theological commission to provide a way to help move the denomination forward on these issues. The Assembly responded by authorizing a task force to work over several years toward this end by developing a churchwide process of discernment.

The logic of evenhandedness (without compromising substance), as called for and demonstrated by Rhee and as so clearly demonstrated throughout the week by the Assembly itself, would have dictated that this process of churchwide discernment be allowed to proceed. Such a logic of substantive evenhandedness would have dictated that matters relating to G-6.0106b (the provision of the Book of Order containing the “fidelity-chastity” requirement for church officers) be made a central part of the task force’s work. After all, controversy over G-6.0106b was what led to calls for a commission or task force in the first place.

It is difficult to understand, then, what logic led to the sweeping action of this Assembly in sending an overture to the presbyteries for a vote that would eliminate fidelity-chastity outright. In one fell swoop on a rain-drenched Friday afternoon, the purposes and goals of the task force quickly faded into the background.

Many of us who have set it as our goal to keep the church together and to work as faithfully as possible with all Presbyterians, had hoped for an extended and fruitful discussion of the ordination issue and all other issues that divide us, a discussion that would be grounded in Scripture and the confessions and in which all sides could be heard and could hear one another.

It now seems that the way forward will be much more difficult. Instead of working toward unity, all energy will instead be focused on winning or losing this vote. This vote. Even after the wider church has said in so many ways, through so many different voices that it wants an end to the voting, this Assembly has seen fit to make “this vote” the center of our attention.

And if prior history is any indicator, “this vote” will consume a tremendous amount of our energy, and do so even though no new arguments or new rationale on the issue were put forward at this Assembly and even though there is little evidence of any dramatic change in either the sentiments or voting patterns in the presbyteries. Most likely we will spend our efforts merely confirming what has been confirmed in votes in 1996-97 and 1997-98. Meanwhile, a fragile and fleeting opportunity to pursue “a more excellent way,” a way based on mutual restraint and forbearance will have been lost.

May God’s blessing be on the PC(USA) in the coming year of discussion and decision. May the debates in the presbyteries be civil and temperate — as they were at this Assembly. May the votes be taken — the third round now in five years — and may the decision be accepted and respected.

The best result would be a decisive vote, followed by the cooperation by all parties in the work of the task force.

Though not everything is clear at this point, one thing is very clear indeed. Beginning this year — right now — the church should resolve that no matter what the outcome of “this vote,” it will commit and recommit itself heart and soul to the most excellent way of all: the mission of Jesus Christ, its only reason for existence.


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