GA NEWS: Committee recommending a new AI; cautioned not to “cherrypick the constitution”

SAN JOSE – A committee meeting Tuesday afternoon (June 24) is recommending that the 218th General Assembly issue a new authoritative interpretation that – if the assembly approves it -- would have the effect of continuing to allow candidates for ordination to declare conscientious objections to language in the ordination standards of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) requiring candidates to practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if the are single.

            The committee also seems prepared to recommend that the assembly strike the “fidelity and chastity” language from the PC(USA)’s constitution entirely – a constitutional amendment that would need to be submitted to the denomination’s 173 presbyteries for approval. A vote on that has not yet happened – but in the late afternoon of June 24, the committee seemed to be debating which of several overtures seeking to delete that language would be best to approve.

            Also the Polity Committee voted 38-20 on June 24 not to approve an overture from Baltimore Presbytery that would change the definition of marriage in the church’s constitution, to say that marriage is between “two people” rather than a between a man and a woman.

            Because all this still needs to go the full assembly later in the week – and anything can happen there – it’s unclear yet how the 218th General Assembly will speak about gay marriage and the ordination of gays and lesbians.

            But the Church Orders and Ministry Committee, at least, is pushing for some change.

            In February 2008, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission– which is often called the GAPJC and is the denomination’s highest court – ruled in a case from Pittsburgh Presbytery (known as the Bush case – named for one of the complainants, Randall Bush) that objections or “scruples” would not be permitted to the “fidelity and chastity” standard.

            The GAPJC described “fidelity and chastity” as “a mandatory standard that cannot be waived.” And it upheld language from a prior ruling from a lower church court that made a distinction between allowing departures from the church’s standards related to belief, but not departures related to behavior.

            But this new authoritative interpretation, if the assembly approves it – in response to an overture from John Knox Presbytery – would set aside the impact of the Bush decision. The assembly’s Church Orders and Ministry Committee voted 43-15 to approve the overture.

            It affirms the authoritative interpretation that the 2006 General Assembly adopted in approving the recommendations of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the PC(USA) – including Recommendation 5, which allows candidates for ordination to present scruples. The presbytery or session involved can still allow that candidate to be ordained, if it determines that the scruple does not involve an essential of Reformed faith or practice.

            The new authoritative interpretation would state that the scrupling process would “apply equally to all ordination standards” of the denomination – including the “fidelity and chastity” language.

            Some commissioners want the whole matter sent to the presbyteries for a vote – they argued for a constitutional amendment, which requires approval from a majority of the 173 presbyteries, rather than an authoritative interpretation from the assembly.

            “This in effect would give us local option,” said Sylvia Dooling, an elder from Plains and Peaks Presbytery.  “It hurts our connectionalism. … If we’re going to do it, let’s have integrity,” and allow the presbyteries to vote.

            Members of the theological task force, however, argued strenuously in 2006 that they were not recommending local option – but instead, relied on historic Presbyterian principles.

            Mark Achtemeier, a theology professor and a member of the theological task force, served as advocate for the overture from John Knox Presbytery – and argued that the Bush decision unfairly elevated the “fidelity and chastity” standard above any others.

            Achtemeier cautioned the committee about “cherry-picking the constitution,” or holding that certain standards, such as “fidelity and chastity,” should be elevated over others.

            And he said the John Knox overture is “the only viable alternative to perpetual church warfare. John Knox invites us to discuss our differences. No presbytery or session has to approve any departure thinks it’s a bad idea.”

            The committee considered more than a dozen overtures regarding gay ordination – and their conversation made it clear that Presbyterians continue to disagree over that and to long for the denomination to find some peace.

            “We can’t just continue to do things the way they’ve been done,” said Harlan Gilliland, a minister from Olympia Presbytery.

            Mary Ellen Summerlin, an elder from Mission Presbytery, said Presbyterians may not agree any time soon on the central issue of whether homosexuality is sinful. “Surely the thing for us to do is sweep all this legal-ese stuff off the table and sit down face-to-face” and talk honestly about the complicated matter of human sexuality.

            Dean Strong, a minister from North Puget Sound Presbytery, said he initially thought the theological task force report was confusing, “and I was really angry about it . … But so far it seems to be the only thing that is actually working.”