By Leslie Scanlon and John Sniffen
A California elder’s call for a special session of the 214th General Assembly reportedly has almost enough numerical support, but other voices in the church say it’s either not necessary or the wrong time.
Alex Metherell, a commissioner from Los Ranchos Presbytery, started his appeal last month in an “urgent and confidential” e-mail to a select group of commissioners, saying that the PC(USA) “faces a full-blown constitutional crisis.”
“Storm clouds that were developing in the months before we gathered in Columbus have now developed to such a degree that the constitutional integrity of our denomination is being threatened,” he wrote. “If the defiance that we are witnessing continues to go unchecked, we will no longer be a constitutional church.
“At our meeting in Columbus in June, we chose to remain silent in dealing with the early stages of this crisis. At the urging of the stated clerk and his advisory committees, we adopted ‘a pastoral approach’ to defiance. We decided to remind defiant ministers and sessions of the Permanent Judicial Commission ruling (Londonderry vs. Presbytery of Northern New England) that defiance is not an appropriate expression of dissent from the Constitution,” wrote Metherell.
“We hoped and prayed that those who are defying the Constitution would heed our counsel. They have not, and as their defiance has become louder and more specific, without any meaningful response from higher governing bodies to discipline such behavior, others have joined their cause. What once was limited to a handful of offenses is quickly reaching epidemic proportions,” wrote Metherell.
According to the Book of Order, the moderator shall call a special meeting at the request of or with the concurrence of 25 elder and 25 minister commissioners, representing at least 15 presbyteries, under the jurisdiction of at least five synods, all of whom must have been commissioners to the last preceding stated meeting of the General Assembly. Metherell reportedly has signed statements from nearly the number of commissioners needed.
The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) and Presbyterians for Renewal (PFR) have replied to Metherell’s appeal with letters of their own opposing a special session.
And Paul Rolf Jensen, a lawyer from Reston, Va. — who has independently filed complaints against individuals and sessions who do not support the denomination’s position that only gays and lesbians who are celibate should be ordained — has sent a letter to the commissioners to the 214th Assembly, criticizing the COGA letter. Jensen says COGA does not know the facts behind his allegations and the presbyteries’ handling of his complaints, so COGA cannot judge whether there is a constitutional crisis.
COGA said there is no constitutional crisis, and thus no need to recall the Assembly. PFR, while agreeing with some of Metherell’s concerns about defiance of the Constitution, said the time is not yet right for a special session.
The COGA letter, written during the committee’s regular meeting in Louisville in early October, stated that “the constitutional process is working. Our church has a network of competent stated clerks and judicial commissions at all governing body levels and a vast array of Presbyterians who uphold the Constitution. We are confident that as judicial cases move through these governing body levels, the Constitution will be upheld in content and process. When processes do not move as some would prefer, or decisions are made that do not match particular expectations, it does not mean that the system is faulty or broken.”
COGA also cited Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick’s Aug. 21 letter to the church that says the PC(USA) Constitution protects the right of dissent, but provides no right of defiance.
Specific cases concerning persons and sessions who have made these declarations “are at various stages of the judicial process within their appropriate governing bodies of jurisdiction as set forth in our Constitution,” and ” it would be unconstitutional and beyond the authority of any regular or special meeting of a General Assembly to intervene in any ongoing judicial case,” said the COGA letter.
The COGA letter also noted several technical concerns. First, “the Book of Order requires that a request for a special meeting of the General Assembly must specify exactly the items of business to be considered, and all proposals for changes to, or interpretations of, the Book of Order would still require a 120-day deadline before the session of the General Assembly could begin.” It also estimates that it would cost more than $400,000 to hold such a session, requiring “a special per capita assessment to the presbyteries or other extraordinary means.”
COGA added a historical note: “It is worth reminding the church that, despite often difficult and trying times in our denominational life, there has never been a special meeting of the General Assembly.”
The members of COGA who signed the letter are Sandra L. Peirce, Moderator; James M. Collie; Allie B. Latimer; John Bartholomew; Katherine Cunningham; Lena P. Prewitt; Vernon Carroll; William R. Forbes; Catherine Ulrich; Brian Child; Kyung-Il Ghymn; Kathleen Walker; Helen Baily Cochrane; Stephen S. Grace; and Steven T. Yamaguchi.
PFR: ‘Inopportune and perhaps misunderstood’
In a news release the PFR board said they had “carefully analyzed the commissioners’ rationale and the possible outcomes of such a meeting, and we believe a called Assembly at this time would be inopportune and perhaps misunderstood.”
The release continued, “We share the exasperation of those who wish our denomination could put matters of sexual morality and ordination behind us through faithfully maintaining our historic standards. Nevertheless, we believe that renewal and reform are ongoing processes, the ultimate accomplishment of which depends more upon our faithfulness, perseverance, and patient waiting on God accomplishing through his timing what we cannot do as well, rather than upon our perhaps untimely actions that could become counterproductive.”
The PFR statement added that “. . . calling a special Assembly is largely out of proportion to the problem. Yes, a few churches and individuals are publicly defying the Constitution and inviting confrontation. But out of roughly 2 million members and 11,000 sessions, only a tiny number are posturing in defiance. Talk of pervasive, mushrooming, unchecked defiance indicating a constitutional crisis seems to us to be exaggerated — at this point.”
The PFR statement said the call for a special session was “premature” in that the judicial cases are still underway. “Yes, some governing bodies have seemingly bungled or distorted various proceedings. But that does not a constitutional crisis make! Despite our dismay over such apparent miscarriages of justice, we need patience. We have yet to see if the system will work as intended. Not only might a called Assembly find it problematic, if not improper, to address these cases while they remain in process, the very call of an Assembly could actually jeopardize their satisfactory disposition.”
Also, the PFR board questioned the wisdom of reconvening commissioners who had already voted by a 70 percent margin to let the judicial process run its course. “Would reconvening them at a time they did not choose and at a huge expense prepare them to make a different decision?” The possibility exists of an even larger vote against those wanting the session. The “. . . effect of such a drastic and unprecedented action could well serve to erode further our denomination’s resolve to carry out its disciplinary processes in proper fashion.”
Unlike the COGA letter, however, the PFR board agreed that “The perversion or failure of church discipline at any level is definitely a critical concern. However, we first want to see if the ordinary procedures prescribed by the Constitution for the resolution of such defiance will succeed.”
“If the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission . . . should ultimately vacate the effect of G-6.0106b through its rulings in these cases, then we would indeed find ourselves in a true constitutional crisis, one that could well warrant the reconvening of an Assembly. Such a crisis might necessitate the Assembly taking even such drastic actions as voting to dismiss that GAPJC, vacating the constitutional implications of their earlier rulings on these cases, and electing a new GAPJC that will rightly defend the Constitution. But unless a Constitution-breaking decision is handed down by the GAPJC, we do not believe such extraordinary measures to be necessary,” said the PFR statement.
Jensen wrote that he was contacting the commissioners “with a heavy heart” regarding what he described as “the complete breakdown of due process in the disciplinary system and repeated refusal by one presbytery after another to employ the procedures mandated in the Book of Order for disciplinary cases.”
He wrote that the COGA members “would have utterly no way of knowing any of the facts concerning these matters. It is lamentable that they chose to write you with erroneous assumptions.” Jensen wrote that COGA’s confidence that the system is working is “misplaced” and that “the opposite conclusion is equally valid in the abstract: when reasonable expectations are not met, then the system may be faulty or broken.”
So far, he wrote, no investigating committee in a presbytery has brought charges in any of the 21 cases he has filed. And Jensen listed what he believes to be failures in the process in some of those individual cases, ending by stating that now that commissioners have that information, “you can judge for yourself if the system has broken down.”
Elsewhere around the PC(USA), evangelicals have differing ideas about the best approach to take. Many are deeply and seriously concerned about defiance of the Constitution. Jerry Andrews, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Coalition, said at the Coalition’s recent gathering that if the Constitution does not hold, “we will not hold” as a denomination. But there is disagreement about whether calling the General Assembly back into session is the right way to go, or if this is the right time at which to do it.
For some, the judicial case they are watching most closely is that of Don Stroud in Baltimore, a gay minister who works for the advocacy group That All May Freely Serve, which wants the PC(USA) to ordain gays and lesbians even if they are not celibate. Stroud has publicly said that he cannot in conscience comply with the part of the PC(USA)’s Constitution limiting ordination to those who practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single.
Jensen last year formally accused Stroud of “willfully and deliberately” violating his ordination vows and the fidelity and chastity clause, and of heresy. An investigating committee in Baltimore Presbytery, where Stroud is a member, decided not to bring charges against Stroud, a decision that Jensen appealed to the Baltimore Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission. What the evangelicals are watching closely is what the result of that appeal will be.
Some contend that the General Assembly should not be called back now, that the “precipitating event” necessary to do so (for example, a decision by the Baltimore Permanent Judicial Commission not to take action against Stroud) has not yet happened. If that indeed happened, some who are not now in favor of calling the General Assembly back might switch sides.
While Metherell’s call for a special session reportedly has enough commissioners to meet the Book of Order requirements, it remains to be seen what specific task they will ask of the Assembly. And, will that reason be suitable to bring Moderator Fahed Abu-Akel to call for the session? And if he gets advice from Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, will that be fodder for more dissatisfaction by the conservative wing of the church?
And, as the PFR board said in its response, who’s to say how the Assembly would vote — if those who called it back would get the kind of vote they wanted?
At the Coalition meeting, there was quiet conversation around the idea that, in some minds, either outcome could have benefits. The Assembly might reconvene and take a strong stand against constitutional defiance. Or, if that didn’t happen, some would consider the idea of using that vote as the basis of a civil lawsuit — arguing, perhaps in federal court, that if one part of the PC(USA) Constitution doesn’t apply, and the General Assembly has in effect sanctioned that, then none of it applies, and conservative churches therefore should be free to take their property and their assets invested with the Presbyterian Foundation and go wherever they choose. There also is continuing pressure on Stated Clerk Kirkpatrick to do more.
Five pastors — Howard Edington of Orlando, L. Rus Howard and James Yearsley, both of Pittsburgh, Robert Kopp of Rockford, Ill., and Paul Roberts of Butler, Pa. — recently issued a “call to repentance and confession” (see below) for the church. It calls for, among other things, “the immediate removal of any unrepentant stated clerk who fails to apply the Constitution with consistency and without prejudice and who fails to honor the responsibilities of the office.” And it specifically calls on Kirkpatrick to take a number of steps — among them “to make certain that all clergy, elders, deacons, and governing bodies who defy our Constitution are immediately removed from office.”
Bob Davis, a California minister who runs the Presbyterian Forum, an evangelical organization, recently wrote to an e-mail network that Kirkpatrick, who has said that defiance is not appropriate, needs to educate the church better about what it can do to get the Constitution enforced. Davis wrote that “there is a strong impression that polity is being used to thwart the defense of the Constitution rather than uphold it. It seems as if we are still playing the game of ‘guess the process’; followed by, ‘Nope, nice try, guess again.’”
Given that frustration with the process, people will be watching closely to see what happens in Baltimore Presbytery.
A call to confession and repentance
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ…But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions. It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life (Jude 3-4, 17-21).
In the name of Jesus Christ, we call the Presbyterian Church (USA) to confession and repentance.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is decaying and dying in the belly of the beast (Revelation 13:1-8) and is irretrievably apostate under current management. Because we have abandoned our first love, our lampstand is flickering, fading, and failing (Revelation 2:5). Talk of renewal is ludicrous because our denomination is desperate for rebirth through confession and repentance.
We are appalled at our denomination’s failure to proclaim without equivocation and enthusiasm:
• Jesus Christ is Lord, God’s only Son and our only Savior;
• The Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God;
• We are called to holiness as exemplified in Jesus and explained in the Bible.
We are appalled at the deliberate and partisan defiance of our constitution in recent judicial decisions and bureaucratic infidelities. This is an affront to the holiness of God Almighty and an insult to those of us who honor our confessional, constitutional, and connectional relationship as Presbyterians.
We believe the current management of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is responsible for this decay, death, and apostasy. Therefore, we:
• Call for the immediate removal of any unrepentant Stated Clerk who fails to apply the constitution with consistency and without prejudice and who fails to honor the responsibilities of the office.
• Call for our Stated Clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick, to make certain that all clergy, elders, deacons, and governing bodies who defy our constitution are immediately removed from office.
• Call for our Stated Clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick, to direct Central Florida Presbytery to receive The Rev. Carmen Fowler as a member of Central Florida Presbytery, to serve as Executive Director of the Presbyterian Coalition and Parish Associate at First Presbyterian Church, Orlando.
• Call for our Stated Clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick, to press charges against Hudson River Presbytery for the purpose of forcing them to repay the $110,000 extorted from the Circleville Presbyterian Church, which they were required to pay in order to leave our denomination with property.
• Call for our Stated Clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick, to begin disciplinary proceedings against the pastor and session of First Presbyterian Church, Yorktown Heights, NY, for hosting and conducting poly-theistic worship services in the sanctuary.
• Call for our Stated Clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick, to press charges against any officer or governing body which defies our constitution.
• Call for our Stated Clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick, to direct the General Assembly Council and employees of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to adhere to all mandates directed to them by any General Assembly.
• Call for our Stated Clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick, to direct the Curriculum Publishing Unit to revise, immediately, the Human Sexuality curriculum as mandated by the Fort Worth meeting of the General Assembly.
• Call for the next General Assembly to condemn partial birth abortions.
We believe our denominational leadership will respond to apostasy only when there is a financial crisis. We no longer support feeding the beast. Therefore, we call all churches that wish to be part of the faithful remnant of the Presbyterian Church, USA, to:
• Refrain from giving un-designated mission money to any governing body of the denomination;
• Redirect voluntary Per Capita gifts from any governing body which tolerates defiance of our constitution and to direct these funds to ministries faithfully engaged in God’s ministry of compassion;
• Use their financial resources to support worship, evangelism, and mission which is in accordance with the will of God as exemplified in Jesus, explained in the Bible, and upheld by our constitution, and;
• Remain within the denomination while refusing to fund any work of the denomination, which is antithetical to the will of God.
Since we are languishing in decay, death, and apostasy because of our ever-growing and deepening spiritual malaise, we call the faithful:
To engage in a season of prayer, confession, and repentance commencing with World Communion Sunday, October 6, 2002 and concluding on Easter Day, April 20, 2003, and;
• To remain with the denomination as the salt that stings to heal, exposing apostasy while praying and laboring for rebirth through confession and repentance.
Finally, grievously aware of our own sins, we confess our collaborations in activities, which have contributed to this spiritual, confessional, and constitutional crisis of the denomination. We ask our Lord’s forgiveness for our past silence and for too many years of denying Him.
We commit ourselves to praying for and witnessing to the rebirth of our denomination “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
Our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies are captive to the Word of God as enfleshed in Jesus, recorded in the Bible, and upheld by our constitution.
We cannot recant what we have spoken.
May God help us!
This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a reputation that you are alive, but in reality you are dead. Wake up then, and strengthen what remains that was about to die, because I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Therefore, remember what you received and heard, and obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come against you. (Revelation 3:1-3)
The Rev Dr. Howard Edington, Orlando, FL
The Rev L Rus Howard, Pittsburgh, PA
The Rev Dr. Robert Kopp, Rockford, IL
The Rev Paul Roberts, Butler, PA
The Rev James C Yearsley, Pittsburgh, PA