The overture is the latest effort to nullify the requirement by interpreting, rather than amending, the Book of Order. Below are some points that are worthy of the commissioners’ consideration as they decide the action they will take on the overture.
1. The overture incorrectly interprets the constitution.
The overture’s primary thrust is in the first sentence of the proposed AI, which asserts that the requirements of G-6.0108 apply equally to all ordination standards. This would be a departure from historic practice and an incorrect interpretation of the constitution. For centuries, the church’s application of freedom of conscience to standards of belief has differed from its application of that principle to standards of personal conduct. Arguments include:
The confessional source for “Freedom of Conscience”: The Westminster Confession affirms the principle of freedom of conscience in “matters of faith and worship,” and adds that the purpose of the principle is destroyed by those who use it to justify continuing in sin (The Book of Confessions, 6.109-110).
Historical practice: In 1983, the GA received an in-depth report of “The Special Committee on Historical Principles, Conscience, and Church Government” that explained how the church historically had applied freedom of conscience. It gave numerous examples of how officers and ministers were not required to subscribe to every confessional statement but were required to comply with mandates of polity. Summarizing, it stated:
“From the time of the Adopting Act of 1729 the confessional documents have not been interpreted as binding in all their details upon the theological views of all church officers.
…The situation regarding the requirements and prohibitions of the ‘Form of Government’ is different; because polity often requires compliance in behavior, whereas the confessional standards may not” (Minutes, 1983, Part 1, p. 155).
“The fact that the church permits diversity of theological beliefs but in many areas requires uniformity of practice does not exalt polity over theology” (Ibid., p.156, Conclusion 4).
Based on the report, the GA adopted a resolution that concluded: “Therefore freedom of conscience is not abridged by the requirements of our Constitution” (Ibid., p. 158). Since reunion in 1983, the GA and the PJC have rendered several AIs, the Bush decision being the most recent, that make clear the difference between the church’s application of freedom of conscience to standards of belief and standards of personal conduct.
Ordination Vows: The ordination vows, made constitutional in 1983, illustrate the difference in the application of freedom of conscience. Ordinands must say they adopt “the essential tenets” of the Reformed faith, but they must promise to be governed by church polity without any qualification such as “the essentials of church polity” or “those provisions of church polity with which you agree.”
PJC precedent: In its 2001 Londonderry decision, the PJC ruled, in effect, that the freedom of conscience provisions of G-6.0108 do not apply to G-6.0106b (Minutes, 2001, Part I, p. 578). In Bush, the PJC unanimously confirmed the Londonderry ruling with respect to the “fidelity and chastity” requirement in the first two sentences of G-6.0106b. It pointed out the contrast between that specific requirement and the more general provisions found in G-6.0106a and in the third sentence of G-6.0106b (Specification of Error #1). Thus, the Bush ruling that the overture attempts to overturn is simply a reaffirmation, made after the 2006 AI, of a clearly stated constitutional requirement.
2. The overture ignores infringement and obstruction.
The secondary thrust of the overture is in the third sentence of the proposed AI, which indirectly attempts to minimize the effect of the PJC’s ruling as to the requirements in G-6.0108a:
“Even then, freedom of conscience is permitted only to the extent that it (a) is not a serious departure from the essential standards of Reformed faith and polity, (b) does not infringe on the rights and views of others, and (c) does not obstruct the constitutional governance of the church” (Specification of Error #2).
This ruling highlights the 2006 AI’s failure to require governing bodies to determine whether the ordination would infringe on the rights and views of others and whether it would obstruct church governance. Arguments include:
Infringement: The overture completely ignores the infringement requirement. But it is obvious that the ordination or installation of a person who refuses to comply with G-6.0106b would infringe on the rights and views of the many commissioners to General Assembly and presbytery meetings who voted for establishing, and against efforts to eliminate, the “fidelity and chastity” requirement.
Obstruction: The overture attempts to marginalize the obstruction requirement by implying that obstruction of church governance is nothing more than an individual officer’s inability to perform the constitutional functions unique to his or her office. But the PJC showed that such a definition is far too narrow in its Bush ruling:
“It would be an obstruction of constitutional governance to permit examining bodies to ignore or waive a specific standard that has been adopted by the whole church, such as the ‘fidelity and chastity’ portion of G-6.0106b, or any other similarly specific provision.” (Specification of Error #2)
Governance includes compliance with the mandates of the Book of Order by those who govern — officers and governing bodies. Those who have vowed to be governed by the church’s polity have a duty to do so.
3. The overture’s rationale contains errors.
Singling Out: Paragraph 6 incorrectly states that the PJC held that the “fidelity and chastity” requirement should be elevated above all other standards. In fact, the PJC held:
“The church has decided to single out this particular manner of life standard and require churchwide conformity to it for all ordained church officers.” [Emphasis added]
The church’s action did not mean that sexual misconduct is to be considered greater than other sins. It was taken because this issue had been the subject of controversy for decades before the church made the standard constitutional. This was consistent with long-established church practice. As the 1983 report cited above states:
“There are some issues which are so clearly understood to be essential that the church does not vote on them until a challenge is made” (Minutes, 1983, Part I, p. 151).
Adding G-6.0106b was consistent with the long-established practice of amending the constitution to give needed clarity and guidance on particular issues. An example of this practice was the adoption of The Confession of 1967, which is not a “system of doctrine” and does not “include all the traditional topics of theology.” But it established the church’s position on controversial issues related to reconciliation in Christ, of which the Preface states: “Our generation stands in peculiar need.” (The Book of Confessions, p. 253, ¶ 9.05, 9.06)
Changing a Standard: Paragraph 7 asserts incorrectly that the overture would not repeal the “fidelity and chastity” standard. While “standard” can have many meanings, the one relevant to G-6.0106b is “a rule that establishes a criterion as a requirement.” The overture would not change the criterion (“fidelity and chastity”), but would change the standard by making the criterion no longer a requirement. In Bush, the PJC reiterated that an AI constitutionally cannot change any ordination standard. Thus, the proposed AI is unconstitutional.
Warren Herron is a long-time elder at First Church in Marietta, Ga., who coordinated the drafting of the overture from Cherokee Presbytery, Item 05-05.