General Assembly PJC rules in Capetz and Larges cases, avoids addressing “central questions”

The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission — the highest court in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — has declined in two new rulings involving controversial cases to take on some of the central questions involving departures of conscience from the denomination’s ordination standards.

The new rulings, both issued Nov. 2, come in cases involving Lisa Larges, a lesbian candidate for ministry from California, and Paul Capetz, a gay theology professor from Minnesota who set aside his ordination in 2000 because he objects to the denomination’s requirement that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single. Capetz has since asked that his ordination be reinstated.

Ever since the General Assembly in 2006 adopted an authoritative interpretation – following the recommendations of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the PC(USA)   — that allows candidates to declare conscientious objections to the “fidelity and chastity” standard — some in the church have been waiting for definitive word from the GAPJC over whether that authoritative interpretation is proper.

Under the current rules, when a candidate declares a scruple, the governing body then must determine whether or not that objection involves an “essential” of Reformed faith and practice. If the governing body determines it does not, the exception to the standard can be granted.

The GAPJC’s most recent rulings did not address the central architecture of that authoritative interpretation, in other words, whether such scruples involving “fidelity and chastity” should be permitted. In both cases, the court ruled on procedural issues involving timing and process, not on more key issues on which some advocates would like to hear a definitive word soon.

Here are some details from the court’s new rulings.

Lisa Larges. This decision results from an appeal filed by three ministers, all members of San Francisco Presbytery, to a ruling that the Synod of the Pacific Permanent Judicial Commission issued in March 2009.

The synod court’s ruling involved Lisa Larges, a lesbian who has tried for years to be ordained by the PC(USA) and who has declared an objection of conscience to the “fidelity and chastity” standard. In a statement she presented to the presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry, Larges declared that requirement to be “a mar upon the church and a stumbling block to its mission.”

And in January 2008, after discussing the matter in closed session, San Francisco Presbytery voted 167-151 to declare Larges to be “ready for examination … with a departure” — an indication that the presbytery could later examine her as a candidate, asking questions about theology and faith, while accepting that she had already declared a scruple on the “fidelity and chastity” standard.

The synod court ruled, however, that San Francisco Presbytery had made a mistake in its handling of Larges’ case, saying she should not have been allowed to declare a conscientious objection before she was examined by the presbytery. So the synod court sent the matter back to the presbytery and nullified the January 2008 vote.

The case before the GAPJC stems from an appeal of that decision. The ministers filing the appeal stated in a brief filed in that appeal that the “burning question to which the church needs a clear answer” is whether a presbytery is prohibited from waiving mandatory church-wide ordination requirements, and specifically the “fidelity and chastity” language.

The GAPJC ruled instead that the synod court was correct in determining that the presbytery examination was the correct time for San Francisco Presbytery to consider the objection that Larges wants to declare. And it determined that the presbytery did not err in declining to remove Larges from its roll of candidates.

The court ruled that the presbytery must follow the required process “to determine whether the Candidate has expressed an interpretation of Scripture that represents a serious departure from essentials of Reformed faith and polity, and if it determines that she has, it must then decide whether the departure infringes on the rights and views of others or obstructs the constitutional governance of the church.”

And it stated that “all examinations of candidates for ordained office must be conducted on an individual basis,” turning down many of the objections those appealing the case had raised and allowing that process to move forward.

Paul Capetz. This is the second time the GAPJC has considered an aspect of the Capetz situation.

In March 2009, the court ruled that the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area did not err when it voted in January 2008 to restore Capetz’ ordination.

Before that vote, Capetz told the presbytery that he would refuse to take a vow of celibacy for theological reasons, even though he was not involved in a sexual relationship.

Capetz has said that the PC(USA)’s stance is morally flawed because it treats all sexual behavior by gays and lesbians the same — refusing to accept same-sex marriages as valid and drawing no distinctions, for example, between prostitution or promiscuity and life-long, monogamous partnerships.

And Capetz told the presbytery that he supports the view of Reformers such as Martin Luther that celibacy contradicts the theological concept of “justification by faith alone.”

In its March 2009 ruling, the GAPJC said the presbytery did not make a mistake in restoring Capetz’ ordination. But it said the Synod of Lakes and Prairies Permanent Judicial Commission needed to hold a trial to determine whether the presbytery waived one of the requirements of the ordination standards in reinstating Capetz’ ordination, and whether the presbytery acted properly in doing so.

The GAPJC ruled that the synod Permanent Judicial Commission needed to determine whether Capetz properly stated an objection to the ordination standards based on conscience when he refused to take a vow of celibacy, and whether the presbytery properly considered that objection and found that it could be permitted.

In May 2009, the synod judicial commission did hold that trial — in a session closed to the public. On May 12, 2009, the synod court issued a ruling stating that Capetz had declared an objection to the “fidelity and chastity” standard; and that the departure did not infringe on the rights or views of others and did not obstruct the constitutional governance of the church. In other words, Capetz’ ordination could be restored.

In this new ruling, the GAPJC ruled that the synod court should not have closed that trial to the public. It cites the General Assembly Opening Meetings policy, which states that “the work of the church is strengthened when it is done in a spirit of openness and trust.”

But the GAPJC in its ruling affirms the decision the synod court reached in that closed hearing.

The GAPJC also ruled that “the presbytery took extraordinary care to make it clear that the presbytery’s decision applied only to Capetz’ expression of departure and was not making policy or setting precedent.”

The GAPJC’s ruling states that it agrees with the presbytery’s determination that Capetz’ refusal to take a vow of celibacy did not involve an essential of Reformed faith and polity.

The ruling points out that the case record does not indicate that Capetz has taken any action that violates the “fidelity and chastity” standard — he is just refusing to take a vow of celibacy.

And it reiterated what it ruled in the first Capetz case that “if there is any question about Capetz’ conduct, including whether he has led a life in obedience to Scripture and in compliance with the historic confessional standards of the church, he, like any other officer of the church, may be held accountable for his conduct under the Rules of Discipline.”