But hearings in the two high-profile cases, held July 29 in Louisville, give glimpses into some of the issues the commissioners are being asked to think about as they deliberate.
One of the key questions: Should these cases be declared moot because the denomination recently approved Amendment 10-A and changed its constitution? That constitutional change means the language to which Larges and Anderson had both declared conscientious objections in order to be granted ordination as ministers is no longer in the PC(USA) Book of Order.
First, some context. These cases are being heard by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the highest court in the PC(USA) system. They have been rising through the church appellate courts and involve decisions to approve Larges and Anderson for ordination: in November 2009 by the Presbytery of San Francisco for Larges; and by John Knox Presbytery in February 2010 for Anderson.
Both candidates declared a scruple, or conscientious objection, to the denomination’s requirement – still in force when their presbyteries approved their ordinations – that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single. The presbyteries’ decisions were contested in both cases, and both Larges’ and Anderson’s ordinations were stayed while appeals of those decisions were pending.
Larges has been seeking ordination in the PC(USA) for more than 20 years. Anderson, who has lived in a committed relationship with a partner for nearly as long, formerly served as a PC(USA) pastor in California, but set aside his ordination in 1990 after members of the congregation he then served publicly revealed his sexual orientation.
With the passage of Amendment 10-A, which took effect July 10, the “fidelity and chastity” language is gone from the PC(USA) constitution – so representatives for Larges and Anderson are asking the judicial commission to dismiss the cases.
“The argument now is irrelevant,” said Doug Nave, a lawyer for both Larges and Anderson. “The standard is gone.”
But lawyers for those contesting the ordinations of Larges and Anderson argued during the July 29 hearing that the judicial commission still has important questions to consider, because the prohibition on ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians rests in the authority of biblical prohibitions against homosexuality, not on the specific “fidelity and chastity” language.
In other words, as lawyer Whitman Briskey explained it, even though the “fidelity and chastity” language has been taken out of the PC(USA) constitution – after four hard-fought attempts to do that over 14 years – “the standard has not changed,” because the Bible still speaks against homosexual practice.
“This case is about whether the Scriptures carry sufficient authority, clarity and relevance” to bind the PC(USA) now, even though the “fidelity and chastity” standard is no longer explicitly part of the denomination’s constitution, said Mary Holder Naegeli, a minister from California who helped present the arguments of those appealing Larges’ case. “The question is whether any governing body can second-guess God’s word.”
The vote on 10-A “didn’t take a standard away from the church,” Naegeli said. “It took some language out of the Book of Order.”
Naegeli urged the commission “to call out the presbytery’s error in doctrine,” saying that all passages in the Bible dealing with homosexuality condemn homosexual practice. “There is no compromise position,” she said, and for the commission to do anything but uphold the biblical and historical church teachings regarding homosexual behavior “will be interpreted by the church as backing off” from those traditional church teachings.
With the passage of 10-A, the church “has laid very squarely on your plate a determination of what Scripture provides for sexual ethics,” said Bruce McIntosh, also representing the challengers to Larges’ ordination.
“It’s either sola scriptura or nolo scriptura,” McIntosh said – roughly translating the Latin terms for “by Scripture alone” or “no Scripture.”
Nave, however, argued that by passing 10-A, the PC(USA) returned to four historic Presbyterian principles: that God alone is Lord of the conscience; that freedom of conscience in interpreting Scripture is to be maintained; that at times of disagreement, mutual forbearance should be shown in non-essential matters; and that the consciences of individual candidates for ordination are captive to the will of God as interpreted by the standards of the church.
With the passage of 10-A, Nave said, “we have returned to those principles that made us Presbyterian all along,” and rejected the idea that only one interpretation of Scripture can be accepted. As the presbyteries’ votes on ordination standards have shown, he said, at least half the PC(USA) disagrees with the view that there is only one way to interpret biblical passages regarding homosexuality.
“Scripture doesn’t change,” Nave said. “But our understanding of Scripture changes,” as evidenced by changing church positions on slavery, divorce and the ordination of women. “We see new truths. That’s what makes us Reformed.”
If the judicial commission were to issue a new authoritative interpretation in these cases, holding that the “fidelity and chastity” standard essentially still applies, “you would be acting directly contrary to a General Assembly” and to the presbyteries’ recent vote, Nave said. The challengers to Larges’ and Anderson’s ordinations “want you to act like a college of bishops.”
Lawyers for both sides urged the judicial commission to resolve the central question of whether Larges and Anderson can be ordained, rather than send the matter back to the two presbyteries to re-examine the candidates. The cases have already been expensive in both time and money, Nave said.
The standards of 10-A are more permissive, he said, allowing councils to ordain or install gay and lesbian candidates who are sexually active if the councils determine they meet the qualifications of faithfulness. There is no reason to suspect, Nave said, that if the presbyteries conducted a new examination of Larges or Anderson their vote on whether to ordain them would change.
The judicial commission’s rulings in these cases are expected to be made public by Aug. 2.