Florida elder never wanted to start ‘the last great battle’ in the PC(USA)

When Norman Blessing retired and moved to Florida about four years ago, he joined First church in Sebastian because it was the closest Presbyterian church around. He had no intention of launching what one observer has characterized, in a letter posted on the Internet, as "the last great battle" of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

But the Sebastian case, as it’s being called, has quickly turned into a firestorm — inciting passion and rhetoric, causing people to read all kinds of implications into what’s happened there.

Some in the Confessing Church Movement are appalled, saying that congregations should have the right to insist that the people they ordain will affirm bedrock statements of faith lifted from the Book of Confessions. But others contend that the Sebastian case raises questions of freedom of conscience and of whether some Confessing Churches may have gone too far, imposing standards for ordination or even for membership that go beyond what the PC(USA) Constitution requires.

The short version of what happened in Florida is this: in February, the Permanent Judicial Commission of Central Florida Presbytery ordered the Sebastian session to rescind a resolution that the session of the 240-member church passed on May 22, 2001. That resolution — like most of those issued by the 1,200 congregations linked to the Confessing Church Movement — lifts up three points of belief many evangelicals consider central to the Christian faith.

The Sebastian resolution declares “Jesus Christ alone is Lord of the Church and the way to salvation for all who will receive him; Holy Scripture is the revealed Word of the triune God, and the Church’s only infallible rule of faith and life; and God’s people are called to holiness in all areas of life. This includes honoring the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, the only relationship within which sexual activity is appropriate.”

The resolution also implores all Presbyterians to “urge their sessions and presbyteries to affirm these confessions and to declare that they will not ordain, install or employ in any ministry position any person who will not affirm them.”

Blessing, who’s been an elder on the Sebastian session since January 2001, objected, saying he didn’t think the session had the authority to pick and choose just certain items from the Book of Confessions as being most important or to paraphrase the confessions rather than quoting them directly. When he couldn’t convince the Sebastian session to rescind its resolution, Blessing filed a complaint with the Central Florida Permanent Judicial Commission.

In an interview, Blessing, who’s retired from a career in sales and marketing, said he’s acting totally on his own, out of principle, not allegiance to any Presbyterian interest group. Before moving to Florida, Blessing said, he served three terms as an elder and one as a deacon as a Presbyterian in New Jersey. “My concern was that we don’t have the authority or power to do this as a session,” he said. “Sessions do not create or approve confessions,” or require people to subscribe to those “confessions” as a prerequisite for being ordained or hired.

In making its decision, the PJC did not issue a ruling laying out its reasoning in detail. Instead, it wrote a letter to the Sebastian session, ordering it to rescind the confession it approved last May and stating that, with one exception, it unanimously sustained Blessing’s complaints as laid out in a response that Blessing’s lawyers filed with the PJC. (The exception: that Blessing should not have been excluded from a session meeting. The PJC’s moderator, Dale Heaton, told the Presbyterian News Service that no ruling was necessary on that point because it’s “taken for granted” that a session may not exclude one of its members from one of its meetings.)

Among the arguments Blessing did raise in his response — and which the PJC unanimously sustained — were that:

• The Sebastian session can’t create a new “confession” without going through the process established in the Book of Order for creating a confession, a process that, in the PC(USA), requires approval by a General Assembly, by two-thirds of the presbyteries and by a subsequent General Assembly.

• The Sebastian session is improperly trying to use its statements of belief to exclude people who refuse to affirm those statements from even being considered for the positions of elder or deacon, a requirement that goes beyond the nine ordination vows that deacons and elders are required take in the Book of Order. “The Sebastian session, in seeking to require elders to affirm a confession far more restrictive than that set forth in the ordination vows, infringes on the freedom of conscience our Constitution is designed to protect,” Blessings’ lawyers argued.

• The Sebastian session seems to be making acceptance of its confessional statement a requirement even for church membership, again going beyond what is required in the Book of Order. “Members of the Sebastian session seek to apply their confession as a means of exclusion, to eliminate from participation as deacons, elders and ministers of the Word and the Sacrament, as well as members who seek to commune with them — those with whom they disagree,” the document states. David C. Smith, one of Blessing’s lawyers, said in an interview that Blessing was told that if he didn’t agree with the Sebastian statement “he had to peaceably withdraw” from the congregation altogether.

• The language of the Sebastian resolution is not consistent with the ordination vows. Specifically, it contradicts the ordination vows by speaking of Scripture as “the Church’s only infallible rule of faith and life.”

Before 1969, elders in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America were required to affirm that the Scriptures were the “only infallible rule of faith and practice,” the brief from Blessings’ lawyers states. But the General Assembly of that church in 1969 recommended changing that language to what’s now in the ordination vows. The question now asks, “Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s word to you?”

That change, according to the brief, was “overwhelmingly ratified” by the UPCUSA presbyteries in 1970, and the revised language was included in the ordination vows adopted when the so-called Northern and Southern branches of the Presbyterian church reunited in 1983 as the PC(USA).

That’s significant, Blessings’ lawyers argue, because the Book of Order “does not ascribe ‘infallibility’ to the Scriptures themselves, and a church officer is not required to profess this belief. Rather that term is reserved for our Lord. Under G-14.0207b (of the Book of Order), we accept the Scriptures ‘by the Holy Spirit,’ a term that guarantees our freedom of conscience in that each person may hear the Spirit differently. Moreover, the witness of Scripture is always to ‘Jesus Christ’ who is the ‘living word.’ “

Reactions to the PJC ruling have been fierce and heated. Some in the Confessing Church Movement have seen it as an attack on the movement itself, and on the right of sessions to identify what they consider to be essential Christian tenets, something the General Assembly has declined to do.

J. Christy Wilson III, a lawyer and an elder from First church, Orlando, who is representing the Sebastian session, has disagreed with the arguments Blessings’ lawyers make. First, Wilson contends, elders and deacons already can be asked questions that go beyond the nine ordination questions. They can be asked, for example, if they intend to comply with the standard, provided elsewhere in the PC(USA) Constitution, that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single.

And some contend that the resolutions passed by the sessions of Confessing Churches don’t actually constitute new or formally amended “confessions.” Instead, they lift up especially significant sections of what’s already in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions.

“If the PJC can’t affirm these basic elements of Christian faith, the problem is much worse than I ever imagined,” said Howard Edington Jr., pastor of 5,400-member First church, Orlando, a congregation that is supporting the Sebastian session. “It’s clearly a political decision, regarding the Confessing Church Movement as a threat, which it is not . . . . My church stands in the same place (as the Sebastian session) and will never deny its beliefs.”

For others, though, the case raises the issue of how much room there is in the PC(USA) and within the Reformed tradition for more than one view of theology.

Blessing’s lawyers say that when he challenged the Sebastian session’s resolution, his position was characterized as an effort to renounce the authority or the command of Scripture. “It sounds like Mom, the American flag and apple pie, but it doesn’t feel that way,” Blessing said. Now “I’m a pariah — the evil elder.

“When the Sebastian session passed its resolution, “I was very upset,” said Mary Anne Blessing, Norman’s wife. “I cannot affirm this in good conscience. I’ve been a Presbyterian since 1978, this is my church, this is the town I live in . . . . I felt that I can live with people of differing opinions. To me, that has always been the way Presbyterians work, that we can honor each other’s consciences and allow each other to have room. But they were not going to allow me to have my conscience. There’s no forbearance for me.”

Whatever happens with this case — and it is likely to be appealed — people watching it say it raises a host of complicated and interesting questions.

First, some who attended the recent Confessing Church Movement celebration in Atlanta acknowledge that many congregations used what they called “cookie-cutter” language in their confessional statements — some of it taken straight from a Presbyterian Lay Committee Web site. But others wrote their own statements — and the insistence that the Confessing Church Movement be considered “grassroots” makes those involved reluctant to say there are things that individual congregations should not do, even if the language they chose might open those churches up to legal challenge.

Second, one of the points of contention in the Sebastian case is whether that session used a “subscription” approach, i.e., requiring people to subscribe to particular beliefs before they’d even be considered for elder or deacon. But nothing prohibits a session from asking about someone’s theological beliefs in the examination of candidates for ordination. “There is no question that a session, in examining members, could absolutely ask as a practice every candidate for elder or deacon that came before them, about their Christology, about their view of Scripture, about their manner of life,” said Mark Tammen, a lawyer with the PC(USA)’s Office of Constitutional Services. “Sessions have enormous discretion” in what they can ask during examinations.

And third, the case raises again for the PC(USA) the question of essential tenets. The General Assembly has declined to adopt a list of essential tenets for the denomination as a whole. Some see the Confessing Church Movement as encouraging congregations to do just that, while others question to what extent, in a connectional and confessional church, an officer’s theology ought to be a matter of “local option.”

“When we become elders, we become elders of the denomination, not the local church,” Blessing argues. “One of the things that really offended me is I take seriously to this day my ordination vows” — the promises he made there, and the faith he expressed. “I think the session did not, nor did the pastor,” said the 66-year-old Presbyterian. “And I was offended by that — really offended.”