It concerned the ordination of a Presbyterian seminary graduate who followed ordination procedures correctly, but during his assessment shared that because of his interpretation of Scripture, he did not believe women should be ordained to the ministry. He said he would be willing to work with women elders, but could not participate in their ordination. He claimed a scruple on what he viewed as a non-essential tenet of the constitution.
While his Candidate’s Committee believed such a position barred him from ordination, his presbytery voted to proceed with his ordination. One of the commissioners at the presbytery meeting disagreed with the presbytery decision and appealed the case to their synod’s permanent judicial commission. Eventually, it went to the General Assembly PJC, which ruled that the candidate could not be ordained. The General Assembly PJC had overturned the action of a presbytery that had permitted a candidate to follow time honored Presbyterian polity.
A few years later, two presbyteries, having before them candidates who were self-acknowledged gay persons, knowing that the tradition of scrupling had been set aside in the previously mentioned decision, asked the General Assembly for a ruling on what they called “the ordination of avowed, practicing homosexuals.” The commissioners voted, 97% to 3%, to not permit the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian people. This became the Definitive Guidance on this issue for many years.
During the next decade, the issue of the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian people became a central debate in the denomination. In the mid 1990s, conservatives, fearing that the Definitive Guidance of the 1979 GA would be countermanded by the vote of another GA, recommended that this ruling be put in the form of a constitutional amendment to the Book of Order. The “Fidelity and Chastity Amendment,” G.6-0106b, was indeed approved by the 1996 General Assembly and the majority of the presbyteries. However, it was challenged at GA the following year, then again in 2001 and 2008. In each of these instances, while the General Assembly commissioners voted to remove the amendment, a majority of the presbyteries voted to retain it.
Now, it is being challenged for a fourth time. This debate over the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian people during the past thirty years has at times been hostile and bitter. Many believe it has drained energy from mission and outreach, and shifted the Church from being outwardly focused to being inwardly focused, fighting battles of polity and theology and alienating people from one another.
In light of such divisions in the Church, the 2001 General Assembly created a special task force of 20 people to “lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century.” In part, it was given the task of trying to help the PC(USA) move beyond the ordination debate, the constant infighting and the demonizing of one another. I was privileged to serve on that task force, which became known to many as PUP. We were officially called The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church.
The individuals on the PUP Task Force represented the broad diversity of the PC(USA). We met together regularly for five years, during which time we came to love and respect one another. We studied, prayed, read the Bible, worshiped, and socialized together. We paid special attention to process, using tools for discernment. We attempted to model a new and different way forward for the Church.
We brought seven recommendations to the 217th General Assembly, which met in 2006. The fifth recommendation was the most controversial. It called for an authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 of the Book of Order and stated: A – The Book of Confessions and the Form of Government of the Book of Order set forth the scriptural and constitutional standards for ordination and installation; B – These standards are determined by the whole church, after the careful study of Scripture and theology, solely by the constitutional process of approval by the General Assembly with the approval of the presbyteries. These standards may be interpreted by the General Assembly and its Permanent Judicial Commission … .
The PUP Task Force sought a different way forward. We attempted to move the Church away from constant battles over ordination standards, by recommending not changing the existing standards, including G-6.0106b (fidelity and chastity), and at the same time honoring the principle that primary decision making on ordination is to be made by churches and presbyteries. Decisions concerning ordination had been made at the local church and presbytery level prior to the Kenyon decision of 1974 and individuals were allowed to exercise their freedom of conscience by scrupling on what they viewed as non-essential tenets in the constitution. Each dissenting candidate’s ordination was considered on a case-by-case basis. The PUP Task Force proposed moving back to that system, which had worked well for us for two hundred years.
The majority of the 2006 General Assembly agreed and our recommendations were approved as an Authoritative Interpretation.
Removing fidelity, chastity
That background brings me to the issue before the presbyteries now, which is the recommended removal of the fidelity and chastity amendment by the 219th General Assembly. The motion before the presbyteries is to once again draw swords and engage in battle on the ordination standard known as G-6.0106b. What is troubling to me about this latest attempt to remove the fidelity and chastity amendment from the Book of Order is that it is being led by many of the same progressives who just four years ago hailed the PUP Report as a wonderful way to move forward in Christ’s Church together.
It seems unfair to me to welcome a different way forward, but a few years later turn your back on it. The argument given may be that no non-celibate gay or lesbian person has yet been ordained under the PUP authoritative interpretation. That is true, but we are all aware that our Presbyterian system of checks and balances works slowly and carefully. Such ordinations may occur in the near future. I see this as the only way to resolve our present crisis of drawing up battle lines over the fidelity and chastity amendment every two years and deepening the divide between us. Leave the present standard in place and permit scrupling on a case-by-case basis.
I have no argument with what the new overture says. It’s well thought out. My progressive friends did their homework well. It is the best attempt yet to overturn the fidelity and chastity amendment.
The problem is what it does not say. It does not say, “Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and woman, or chastity in singleness.” Therein lies the rub. Evangelicals believe that the new amendment removes an important constitutional standard on sexual purity and morality, and such an action is unacceptable. If that standard is removed, many evangelicals may come to the conclusion that the denomination has crossed an important boundary and abandoned moral truth and Biblical principles. Some may depart the PC(USA) and others will gear up for the next General Assembly battle, which will be to fight for a separate synod within the Presbyterian Church where fidelity and chastity is still a standard. In either case, PUP will have been abandoned, and I fear that all hope for unity in the PC(USA) will be lost.
I ask the presbytery commissioners to reject the new overture from GA, retain the present standards, permit scrupling on non-essential tenets, and continue the PUP framework. Let’s honestly see if there is some way our diverse denomination can move forward together and model a new way of being the people of God to a polarized nation and world.
John “Mike” Loudon is pastor of First Church, Lakeland, Fla.