The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission has ruled that the Presbytery of San Francisco can ordain Lisa Larges – which would mean that Larges, a lesbian who declared a conscientious objection to the denomination’s ordination standards, could finally succeed in her decades-long quest to become a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Larges, however, has decided not to go ahead with the ordination. After working for years as minister coordinator for the advocacy group That All May Freely Serve, Larges has determined that her call with that group “is coming to a natural end.” Larges wrote in a May 1 blog post that she moved in the fall of 2011 from California to Minnesota, to be near her aging parents and her sister.
Larges’ case has been churning its way through the Presbyterian courts for more than two years. In the meantime, her life has gone on.
“Even as the PJC has now ruled to let stand the presbytery’s vote to approve my ordination, being ordained to this call now would require meeting with the COM (Committee on Ministry) of the San Francisco Presbytery, approval at a stated meeting of the presbytery of a commission and date, and planning a service back in the Bay Area – adding at least several more months on to the process,” Larges wrote. “This additional time, my recent move, and my sense of God’s call away from TAMFS has led me not to go forward for ordination at this time but to seek a new call.”
The commission, which is the highest court in the PC(USA) system, ruled unanimously April 29 to uphold a decision of the judicial commission of the Synod of the Pacific, which had ruled in September 2011 that Larges’ ordination could proceed. San Francisco Presbytery voted 156-138 in November 2009 to permit Larges’ ordination, but a challenge was quickly filed in the church courts and an order issued putting the ordination on hold until the case was resolved.
In its ruling, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission accepted the argument of the synod court that the Reformed tradition does accommodate some level of diversity in interpreting Scripture. The synod court had ruled that Presbyterian members and congregations have often interpreted Scripture differently regarding the ordination of gays and lesbians. “Such thoughtful disagreement among reasonable and faithful Presbyterians is itself an important and faithful part of the Reformed tradition,” the lower court stated.
The GAPJC also ruled that it was appropriate for the presbytery to make a determination whether Larges had violated an essential of Reformed faith and polity when she voiced a conscientious objection to the requirement then in the PC(USA)’s constitution that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are single or chastity if they are married. Last year, a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries voted to remove that language from the constitution, effectively permitting the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians when the responsible governing body determines they meet the standards.
The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission ruled that San Francisco Presbytery did not commit “doctrinal error or abuse of discretion” and that it acted within its constitutional authority in deciding to ordain Larges.
Historically, and as affirmed by the Swearingen Commission in the 1920s, “presbyteries have had full authority to determine whether a candidate for ordination adheres to the necessary and essential tenets of the Reformed faith,” the court ruled.
It also stated that “the Book of Confessions reflects that the Church listens to a multitude of voices in shaping its beliefs. The Book of Confessions is hardly univocal, containing as it does eleven different creeds, catechisms, and confessions of faith written over millennia of Christian witness . . . Therefore, the confessional tradition is, itself, an instrument of reform. The Book of Confessions, much like Scripture itself, requires discernment and interpretation when its standards are to be applied in the life and mission of the church.”
Commissioners serving on the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission also wrote two concurring opinions in the case.
In one, four commissioners – Gregory A. Goodwiller, William E. Scheu, Tony M. Cook and Yun Jin Kim – lamented that the PC(USA) is in a place “where differences over matters of human sexuality have become so diverse and divisive, where slim majority votes create huge shifts in the communal life of the denomination, and where every decision the church makes in this area is a sweet victory for one side, and a bitter defeat for the other, ultimately causing entire congregations to determine that they can no longer remain in fellowship with the denomination.”
Two other commissioners, Michael Lukens and A. Bates Butler III – wrote a separate concurrence, in which they noted that the parties in this case acknowledged the “necessity of continuing interpretation in understanding the meaning of Scripture and Confession through the application of modern textual analysis,” and that such methods have been applied to theological discussions such as the role of women in the church, and divorce and remarriage.
But those who pursued the legal challenge to Larges’ ordination argue that “homosexuality is an exception” to such interpretive analysis, Lukens and Bates wrote, although “they do not offer a convincing rationale in support of this exception.”
Mary Holder Naegeli, a minister from California who is executive director of the Presbyterian Coalition and was one of those who argued before the commission in opposition to Larges’ ordination, wrote in her blog on May 1 that “in the eyes of our PC(USA) judicial system, we have been defeated. In the eyes of God, we have stood faithfully for what is true and covenant-keeping. We conducted ourselves well through the process, and gave the GAPJC lots to think about. We believe they have erred in their conclusion, and it will be the undoing of our denomination. We can only commend the PC(USA) to God’s mercy at this point.”
Larges also wrote about the difficulty the legal challenge has caused her.
“All of the ups-and-downs and ins-and-outs of this long judicial process have been part of what it means to be curriculum for the church,” she wrote, citing a phrase used by her “friend and mentor” Janie Spahr, a minister who herself has been brought up on legal charges for performing same-gender weddings.
“We have to learn together, and we don’t seem to learn well in the abstract,” Larges wrote. “And I can’t say that it’s been anything but a privilege to do this work. At the same time, even as I understand in a deep way that the whole of this journey, and the good work of being ‘curriculum’ has been a part of my sense of calling, this judicial process has also been personally painful. The many delays, and the waiting, have exacted a cost. There’s a kind of spiritual pain here that I’m still figuring out. Suffice it to say that our judicial process, as necessary as it may be, is hard on everyone, from the commissioners to the legal counsels on both sides, to the individuals whose lives are directly affected.”