The 217th General Assembly was a “down the middle” Assembly. It elected a moderator who seemed moderate and open-minded. It approved the report of the Theological Task Force (TTF) on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (for short, “PUP Report”), which most regard as offering more leeway for the ordination of gay and lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) church members. But it resolutely refused to consider amending the Book of Order to delete the prohibition in G-6.01206b; it refused even to keep these overtures alive by referring them to the next General Assembly.
The key recommendation of the PUP Report was Number 5, in which the Task Force called on the 2006 General Assembly to adopt an authoritative interpretation (“AI” for short) of G-6.0108b. This AI acknowledges formally that 8b has already established the legitimacy of “departures” (“scruples” in the language of the Adopting Act) from adherence to the letter of the Constitution, as long as they are not violations of the “essential and necessary” features of Reformed faith, practice, and polity.
American Presbyterianism has a heritage of flexibility. There have even been a number of splits, followed by agreements of reunion. These could not have happened without the continuing spirit of the Adopting Act.
Following the vote, a group of “renewal” leaders issued a statement calling the Assembly’s action “a profound deviation from biblical requirements” that they could not “accept, support, or tolerate” (The Layman Online, June 21, 2006). Michael Walker, executive director of Presbyterians For Renewal, said that his organization had been exploring legal issues concerning church property. Not only that. He added, “This Assembly action will not shield individuals from the judicial process.”
There were conservative leaders, however, who stayed away from the press conference, perhaps out of a deeper loyalty to the church, perhaps out of a desire to reflect on their course of action in a more deliberative way. It has been evident for many months that there are both “inclusive” and “exclusive” conservatives, just as there are analogous differences among progressives.
The differentiation is not always a clear one. We know that there will be conflicting emotions in the many congregations that are affected by the GA vote, and in the hearts of individual members, whose sense of betrayal is balanced by their loyalty to the church and the many people they have met through it. Those who remain committed to the PC(USA) will need, and hopefully will want, to exercise patience, in the spirit of the TTF report as a whole.
Even before the Assembly there was open talk about leaving the PC(USA) if Recommendation 5 should be adopted. An overture from Stockton Presbytery tried to make this easier with an amendment to the constitution, but this was disapproved by an overwhelming 76 percent.
One idea was to get congregations–1500 of them, according to one statement–to sign a formal threat to withdraw from the church, then drive a hard bargain with the General Assembly to let them leave with their property and pensions.
There were some who said that the report posed a “constitutional crisis.” If the report were adopted, San Diego Presbytery said, it would consider whether the GA is in a state of “biblical and confessional defection,” perhaps eliminating the presbytery’s responsibilities to the GA, perhaps even justifying a unilateral withdrawal.
Such a course of action would not be totally new. This Assembly, held jointly with two Cumberland Presbyterian churches, was an ironic reminder that the Cumberland Presbytery seceded in 1810 because of disagreements about faith (“fatality” or predestination) and practice (educational requirements for ministers). And the Cumberlands who dissented from the reunion with the PC(USA) (1903-6) won some state court decisions concerning their constitutional standards and their property. It could happen again.
There is also the possibility of financial boycott, withholding per capita assessments and contributions to the mission program of the church. The Assembly discovered on its last morning that the financial consequences of its actions involved a significant increase in per capita assessments, although it must be added that the major cause of this increase is the larger number of commissioners coming to the 2008 Assembly, the result of a change in the Book of Order approved by the presbyteries.
Some conservatives, however, knew in advance that, if Recommendation 5 were to be approved, it might not be grounds for leaving the church, for it also offered a new opportunity. The Beaver-Butler Presbytery sent an overture to allow congregations, by a two-thirds vote, to change their presbytery and synod affiliations. The effect would be to create non-geographical presbyteries–something that is at present an exception to the rule, permitted only for ethnic reasons in the Dakota Presbytery and three Korean presbyteries. The overture was referred for further study.
Whatever happens with this proposal, we know that one of the most difficult questions ahead of us is how we can manifest the unity of the church in an increasingly diverse society–“red and blue, black and white and brown,” as one speaker put it.
Those who favored the PUP report, and especially its Recommendation 5, must regard the Assembly’s action as a “soft” victory at best. It is not a time for gloating, especially in light of the Assembly’s vote against the 22 overtures to remove the prohibition on GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) ordination, its refusal even to keep them alive by referring them.
The AI does enable the procedures of the church to become more open-textured. But we are yet to explore what the action means and how we can “live into” a new epoch in the life of our church. Both advocates and opponents of GLBT ordination are intensely aware that the 217th General Assembly did not send any new legislation to the presbyteries. It did give an authoritative interpretation of the existing law of the church, not adding something new but reaffirming something that has been there for almost three centuries. And it may help to change the ethos of the church, if we are willing to follow its guidance in the activities of the governing bodies where the interpretation will be applied–and in the litigation that is sure to arise as these bodies do their work in a new situation.
We will certainly need all the gifts of the Spirit (Isa.11:2-3)–wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, knowledge and respect for God, in whom alone, the passage concludes, we can find our delight.
Eugene Teselle is professor emeritus of church history and theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, Tenn. He does issues analysis for the Witherspoon Society. He is an Augustinian scholar, author of books including Living in Two Cities: Augustinian Trajectories in Political Thought (University of Scranton Press).