What General Assembly Called Us To Be and To Do
A Plenary Dialogue Between
Cynthia M. Campbell,
President, McCormick Theological Seminary,
and Douglas A. Nave, Esq.,
Member of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York
Covenant Network Annual Conference – 2006
Broad Street Presbyterian Church
November 10, 2006
We are very grateful to be here today and to talk with you about living, in these new days, into what we are called to be and to do as church.
Our Moderator has just spoken with great eloquence about who we are called to be: to be the church of Jesus Christ, the community of Christ’s body in the world, witnessing to the reconciliation that God gives the world in Jesus Christ, and demonstrating – by our lives, as individuals and corporately – the gospel of God’s love for the whole of creation.
It is our conviction that one of the ways we demonstrate the gospel is by our commitment to unity and community and fellowship, out of season as well as in season. Many in this world contend that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, are forces for division, destruction and even evil. We are committed to the opposite, that God has called us to be forces for life and hope. Our vision of church is a place that welcomes all in the name of the One who welcomed all. That’s what we think it means to be this church.
One of the great privileges of being a lawyer is being able to listen to wonderful speakers like Cynthia and our Moderator and then bring everything down to a dry, technical level that sucks all the life out of it.
We all know that one of the major subjects of discussion in the church these days is what was known at General Assembly as “Recommendation Five” – the fifth recommendation of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity. That’s the one that clarifies how we conduct our ordination examinations, and the one that has been the focus of our conversations in the months following G.A.
I would like to start this presentation by calling us back to the first four recommendations that came before Recommendation Five. In fact, The Outlook has set up a table out in the narthex, and they’ve got a new issue that talks about these very points. I’d encourage you to pick up this issue of The Outlook and read it. One of the articles in it was written by Blair Monie and Kate Kotfila, who chaired the Ecclesiology Committee, and they call these first four recommendations “the forgotten four.” The forgotten four.
It’s important not to forget those four, because as we move to Recommendation Five, “we can’t get there from here” unless we go through Recommendations One, Two, Three and Four. So just briefly to remind you what those are:
- Recommendation 1: We need to stay together. We need to witness to the reconciling power of Jesus Christ in our lives as the church.
- Recommendation 2: We need to build community together. We need to worship together. We need to study together. We need to undertake projects and collaborative work together.
By the way, I’m calling these “recommendations,” but they were adopted overwhelmingly by General Assembly, with 91% voting for them as “strong urgings” to the church. So again: Stay together, build community.
- Recommendation 3: Find our common ground. Find our common ground. You know the story: What the members of the Theological Task Force realized as they worked together over five years – people from the far left, people from the far right, and every place in between – was that they had these profound points of agreement about the nature of their faith and the role of Jesus Christ in their lives. Find our common ground.
- And finally, Recommendation 4: Pursue dialogue in joint discernment. We’ve been debating for a long, long time. These days, we get into rooms and we just holler at each other. We’re like a dysfunctional radar. You know how a radar works: It sends out a signal, the signal bounces back, the radar receives that signal and interprets it. We’re all real good at transmitting, but not very many of our radars are receiving. We need to figure out how to be working radars – to work together, to listen to each other, to discern and dialogue together.
Those are “the forgotten four.” I can’t think of anything more important.
Those “forgotten four” highlight the second half of the theme of this presentation: What we’re called to be and then what we’re called to do. Those four recommendations are four of the things we are called to do together. We’re called to live together and to make a life together in the midst of difference and similarity.
We think one of the places where this comes together is around decisions about candidacy, ordination, and installation. These critical moments are the intersection, where our values, who we say we are called to be by God, intersect with how we will actually live together in community.
I want to back up for a minute and suggest that this whole process of discerning who has the gifts for ministry, examining candidates – that is, talking with them about their understanding of the Christian faith and of leadership and service, making a judgment about their fitness and readiness – is not a twenty-first century problem. It’s not even a twentieth-century problem. It’s not a sixteenth-century problem. It is an issue that began with the very life of the church itself. Discerning who would lead and serve is as old as this form of religious faith and faith community. Examination for ordination is a process that the community goes through under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to discern who God would have lead and serve within the life of the community. It is the responsibility of the community – the sacred, precious and very difficult responsibility – to make those decisions year in and year out.
In the Presbyterian Church, we talk about examination as having essentially three parts.
First of all, the larger church, whether it is through the voice of a session or of a presbytery, is to discern the character of the individual. Is this person a person of character, whose life itself gives witness to the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ?
Second, we are to examine. We are to discuss, with persons presenting themselves with a sense of God’s call, their Christian faith and their views. This is particularly clear with respect to the ordination of Ministers of Word and Sacrament. Presbyteries are to discuss someone’s views with respect to theology, Bible, sacrament and governance.
And finally, the governing body is to discern fit. Is this individual rightly called to this particular place? Not all of us are called to every place in ministry, and it is the job of presbyteries and sessions to discern the fit between this particular call and the individual.
Now, our constitution sets standards by which these examinations, these moments of conversation and discernment, will be conducted. And it is our commitment as a denomination that those standards are set by us as a whole, by the General Assembly and the presbyteries, through writing and amendment of the Book of Order. It is important to remember that it is not up to local governing bodies to set standards, or to impose their own unique standards in their region. It is rather to our collective life as a whole that we look for these standards that will shape and form our life together.
Okay, down another level of legal technicality. I’m reminded of the story of the visitor to the parochial school who was going through the lunch line, taking things off the buffet, and got to the dessert section. There was a nice bowl of apples and a sign that said, “Please take only one. God is watching!” This person went a little bit further down the dessert line, and there was a nice plate of cookies. And somebody had put up a sign that said, “Take all you want – God is watching the apples.” We can get so wrapped up in technicalities and rules that we miss the big picture, can’t we? But it is important to think carefully about what makes up the picture.
General Assembly reminded us that the whole church establishes our standards for ordained service, and then sessions and presbyteries apply them. Applying our standards is a two-part process. The first part is deciding what the standard means – we’re going to talk about that a lot this afternoon. The second part is deciding how that standard applies to the individual being examined for office. Interpretation and application. Now, there is some conversation between General Assembly and the presbyteries and sessions when they interpret our standards, because ultimately if there’s an interpretive issue – “What does this standard mean?” – General Assembly can issue an authoritative interpretation that binds the church. But as a general rule, every time a candidate comes up to be examined, the ordaining body itself must consider a question: If this standard is being applied, what does it mean? What does it mean in the context of this ministry, and what does it mean given the manner of life and the statement of faith of this individual?
Standards are important. The church sets them, presbyteries and sessions apply them . . . and candidates sometimes depart from them. Candidates depart from them for two reasons. One, they fail them because we’re all fallible human beings. Our standards come from scripture, so we have very high standards as a church. We take them very seriously; but we also recognize, given the depravity of human nature, that none of us meets our standards perfectly. General Assembly focused on a second way candidates depart from our standards, which is through the assertion of principled objections – that is, scruples. What happens when we’ve agreed on what a standard means and the candidate says, “I can’t comply with that”? We’ll be talking about that a bit later.
So there are two parts to the examination process. Part one is standards – what are they, what do we need to consider, and what do they mean? And part two, where the interpreted standard is being applied, may involve scruples. Standards and scruples. It’s very important to remember both of those words, because right now many in the church are talking only about “scruples” and they don’t really understand what that means, but they know it sounds bad. It’s not even really an English word, when you talk about somebody “scrupling” – scruples aren’t supposed to be a verb. Nobody knows what this means. But let’s start back and recognize that we have two things, standards and scruples.
This leads us to a question, more specifically, what are the standards? I must say, since General Assembly I’ve been working my way through this question, and coming back to it again and again. I’m curious as I read overtures or actions by presbyteries that say, “All of the standards in the Book of Order will be mandatory, and there will never be exceptions.” That leads back to the question, exactly what are the standards?
Some of the standards I think are spelled out in G-6.0106a, which says, “In addition to possessing the necessary gifts and abilities, natural and acquired, those who undertake particular ministries” – now parenthetically, we are talking about all three ordained offices – “should be persons of strong faith, dedicated discipleship and love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world.” That’s essentially the core of the standards, the definition of what is required, the overarching standard for ordination. G-6.0106b, which we’ll talk about in a minute, goes on to further define that; but it is within the context, I would argue, of G-6.0106a.
There are other requirements for ordination that have to do with education, with passing certain examinations, and the like. They’re all found in Chapter 14. Those I take to be somewhat different than standards.
The other standards for ordination, I think, are the ordination vows themselves. That’s the other critical place where we ask people in good faith and conscience to answer in the affirmative. Four of them have to do with theological affirmations. We ask, do you trust in Jesus Christ as Savior, do you accept the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ and God’s word, and then: “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church, as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?” [G-14.0207c, G-14.0405b(3)]
Now, the verbs that seem especially important, as I think about these standards, are “receive,” “adopt,” “instructed” and “led.” It’s important to notice what they do not say – they do not say “affirm,” “believe,” or “hold without exception.” They say, “receive” and “adopt” (that is, take into one’s understanding and one’s life), and then be “instructed” and “led” by them. They become guides. That is what one is to affirm: that you understand yourself to be “instructed” and “led” by this large constitutional and confessional history as you lead the people of God.
The question that is coming up in the life of the church relates to the “essential tenets” to which our ordination vows refer. It’s worth pausing and noticing that for some time now, the church has resisted an attempt to spell out a specific list, to say, “Okay, here authoritatively are the ten essential tenets.” There’s perhaps a guide to that, early on in the Book of Order [G-2.0500], but it is a suggested way of expressing the Reformed faith.
The Adopting Act of 1729, when this language actually came into our life, said that those things are “essential” which, when violated, would mark a disagreement so fundamental that we would not be able to share Communion with each other. To say something is “essential” means that disagreement about it would make it impossible for us to share the Lord’s Supper, to be in communion with one another.
In my own theological judgment, the “essentials” of the Reformed tradition that are most important are those that are the “essentials” of the Christian tradition. We are Reformed Christians, a form of Christianity, not a religion unto ourselves. That is why the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are the fundamental foundation upon which all the rest of the Book of Confessions rests. The standards really begin with these very big-picture statements. Given those, we live within a community of discourse and interpretation and faith that is the Book of Confessions.
We’re going to talk about what happens when one has a disagreement with those texts.
While Cynthia was reading the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order, I was reading lesser things. One of them actually was a very interesting sociological study by Michelle Wolkomir – I’d recommend it to you. It’s called Be Not Deceived. It came out earlier this year from Rutgers University Press. Michelle Wolkomir is a sociologist. She’s not a Christian, she’s Jewish. She’s not gay or lesbian. But she is really intrigued by the existence of the Metropolitan Community Church, which is a predominately gay and lesbian church, and Exodus, which is a program to try to “bring people out of” homosexuality.
What intrigued Michelle Wolkomir are the commonalities between these two groups. She noted that they both come from conservative evangelical roots. They both address themselves to the same problem, which is the meaning of homosexuality in Christianity. They both address themselves to the same people, gay and lesbian people and their families. They both use the same kinds of methodologies to address this question – they have small group meetings, they share their faith experiences, and they study scripture together. And interestingly enough, both of them tend to locate their problems in a church that is unjustly hostile: the MCC says that scripture has been interpreted in unrealistic and hostile ways, while Exodus tends to say that the church imports a unique gravity of sin against homosexuality which is not warranted.
So they’re very similar programs. Yet with all of these commonalities, they come out in diametrically opposed places. The MCC says, “God made you gay or lesbian, and that’s good – celebrate, worship and live as faithful GLBT Christians.” And Exodus says, “Faithfulness as a Christian means leaving the gay part behind.” Now how do they do that? That was Michelle Wolkomir’s question. She doesn’t come out with quite so interesting a solution or analysis as she has in pointing out the basic, interesting contradiction here.
What I took away, of most interest to me, was realizing how much similarity there is in the faith experiences of these two groups, faithful Christians all, and how differently they land on this one issue that can split the church if we’re not careful. When we start thinking about our standards for GLBT people, it may be helpful to think about the MCC and Exodus, and remember that faithful Christians can come out in very different places on this one issue.
Now why is that important? Well, that’s important for several reasons.
One is because we’re trying to decide whether our disagreements about sexuality are “essential”. That’s what Cynthia was talking about. Are they so important that they render us incapable of Communion with each other?
A second reason is because part of the debate we’re having in the church today is misplaced. I hope you all know – if you don’t, please, please, please focus – the church has always, as long as we’ve been talking about this, has always welcomed GLBT people into ministry. Always welcomed. Our debates are about sexual practice, not orientation. And the question is: Do GLBT people need to be celibate?
If you ever feel like the church is too hostile, that it rejects persons, it’s important to go back to the 1978 statement that started all this. The 1978 General Assembly said that GLBT people can bring special gifts of ministry because of their life experiences. We welcome GLBT people in the ministry. But we do have this hang-up about practice.
One of the big questions that you’re going to see debated for the next couple of years in this church is: Assuming our standards prohibit same-sex practice – it’s a big assumption, we’ll talk about that, but let’s assume that for the moment – and somebody says, “I’m a gay Christian, I believe that my sexuality is a gift of God. I live responsibly in a life-long partnership and I will not comply with that standard, I don’t believe it’s right” – can the governing body nevertheless ordain that person? The question, if you want to put it in its starkest terms, is: While we all agree that we can disagree on matters of belief, can we disagree on matters of practice? Or do the people being ordained have to agree to comply with our rules of behavior?
Now, there are differing views in the church on that. It’s a very important question. But I would like to hold up three things as you think about that question.
The first is from our Historic Principles of Church Order, grounded in the Westminster Confession. Section G-1.0304 of the Book of Order – please write it down – says, “There is an inseparable connection between faith and practice.” If you believe something, you practice it. If you’re not practicing something, you don’t really believe it. John Calvin said the same thing. He said, “We have a doctrine not of the tongue, but of life.” We live what we believe. And Jesus Christ said the same thing: “By their fruits you will know them.” It is theologically bankrupt, in my view, to say that you can separate belief from practice. If we respect freedom of conscience in matters of belief, we must respect freedom of conscience in matters of practice.
Now, there are limits. You will hear about a case relating to women’s ordination called the Kenyon case. Walter Kenyon presented himself for ordination as a minister to the Pittsburgh presbytery in the 1970s. He told the presbytery, “I will not participate in the ordination of women. I won’t do it.” And the presbytery said, “Okay, welcome into the fellowship.” Some pastors of churches sued, and the matter went up to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission. The GAPJC ruled that Mr. Kenyon could not be a minister in the Presbyterian Church. And that happened again in another case several years later, in the southern stream of Presbyterianism, known as the Hambrick case.
(By the way, while I’m talking about cases, let me do a quick pitch. There’s a CD out in the lobby – you notice I’m holding up things for you to look at, because we need resources, we need informed people; there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Please pick up a copy of these legal resources. They have all the cases people keep talking about, and if you read the cases, you’ll learn a lot.)
You have these two cases where the GAPJC said, “If you’re not going to ordain women, you can’t be a minister.” Well, there were two other cases that people forget to cite, the Huie case and the Simmons case. The last one is the Simmons case, from ’85. In those two cases, the pastor said, “I don’t think women should be ministers, and I intend to continue teaching that women shouldn’t be ministers, but if my presbytery instructs me to ordain a woman, I will participate in that service.” The presbytery said, “Welcome aboard,” and people sued. But the GAPJC said that this person – the same minister in both cases, Rev. Ellis – could be a minister.
What was the difference? The difference, as the GAPJC said, was that it is a function of the ministerial office to participate in services of ordination. It is a function of the office. If you want to have the office, you must be ready to perform the function. It’s not a matter of personal practice; in all four of these cases, the individuals were going to teach that women should not be ordained. They were acting on their beliefs. However, in two cases, the individual said that he would do what the ministerial office required in its functions, while the other two individuals said no. And that’s the distinction that we draw. You can declare a scruple, in our view, as to matters of both belief and practice. But if you’re standing for office, you must be prepared to perform the functions of the office.
In thinking about this matter of declaring a scruple, it’s helpful to reflect on the way this has been practiced in other parts of the life our church. I first met this concept when I was doing my intern year in Little Rock, Arkansas in the early 1970s. I went to a congregation and the pastor of that congregation, a man by the name of Donald Campbell (no relation) told me this story of his examination for ordination before the Presbytery of Arkansas.
Back in those days, the southern Presbyterian Church (like the northern church, actually, at that time) was governed by the Westminster Standards. The ordination vows were really quite specific: Do you affirm that the Westminster Standards “contain the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture?” It was customary to ask candidates to express their faith and then to ask them, “Are there any places where you feel you depart from the Westminster Standards?” And Don said, “Yes, there is a place where I depart, and I declare a scruple. The Westminster Standards forbid praying for the dead, and I believe that they’re wrong. I have always prayed for my grandmother, and I will continue to do so. I declare this as a scruple.” Now, he acknowledged that when the Westminster Standards were written, that article had to do with the then-prominent idea within Catholic Christianity of prayer being a vehicle of moving the souls of the deceased from purgatory into the blessed state. But nonetheless, the prohibition remained, and he declared a scruple about something we now would not have a particular debate about, I think, in the life of the church. It’s an interesting example for me as to what exactly that has meant in our tradition.
Another example, frankly, if we had been using this as a way of understanding how to live with our confessional tradition, is that we would have required most of us, a large majority of us, women especially, to express scruples with the entirety of the Book of Confessions before the Brief Statement of Faith was written. Why is that? Well, that’s because both the Scots Confession and Second Helvetic Confession make it clear that women are not to function in the ordained offices. It is only with the Brief Statement of Faith, which clearly says that women and men are called to all ordained offices of ministry, that the need for the expression of a scruple was removed.
So departures from parts of the confessions should not be seen, I think, as a particularly unusual thing. The process of scrupling, in fact, may demonstrate the movement of the church with respect to our understanding of the status of different doctrines.
Okay, getting down to brass tacks, let’s look at G-6.0106b, “Amendment B.”
The GAPJC reminded us in a case several years ago that every single person in the Presbyterian Church is in violation of G-6.0106b. That’s the provision of the Book of Order that requires everyone to live in obedience to scripture and conformity with the confessions, or to repent. And none of us lives perfectly in accordance with scripture and the confessions.
G-6.0106b is commonly thought of as the “anti-gay” provision in the Book of Order; the only place G-6.0106b has ever been applied, in any of the PJCs, is in cases relating to gay and lesbian persons. But let’s think for a minute about how it might apply. Here again, just to point out some resources – I hope you’ll read them on the flight home, or when you get home – we’ve made available Guidelines for Examination of Church Officers. We’ve included (in Chapter 6, I think) some cases as to how people might be out of compliance with our standards.
We start with the woman who drives the SUV because she thinks it’s stylish. The question is, is that a faithful reflection of our standard that we’re to protect the environment and act in a manner that doesn’t reflect greed or self-interest?
She unrepentantly drives the SUV.
She unrepentantly – she bought it! And we have other examples. And in raising up examples, we don’t mean to suggest the answers; we mean to suggest how many questions there are.
You know, you can leave from Ohio or Kansas, fly a bomber over to Serbia, deliver a bomb load over a city, and come home for dinner. So there may be Presbyterian churches here that have bombers on their sessions – that is, people who have chosen to exercise this practice in their jobs. Well, does that comply with our Confessions or not? I can’t tell you the answer, and none of us can tell anyone else what the answer is. We have to search our consciences.
What about people who believe that the war on terror validates torture? What about people who believe that bank officers serving on our sessions should adopt certain lending rules, rules on interest? What about those of us who are divorced and remarried? What about of those of us who enjoy playing the lottery, or going to the casino on occasion? We don’t mean any harm by it; it’s like going to the movies or having a sport or hobby. We spend money entertaining ourselves; why can’t we go to the casino and play a little poker? What about those of us who golf on Sunday morning? “Mental Health Awareness Day,” Sunday morning golf. Is it essential for church officers to be in church every Sunday morning? Is there a difference if the officer is working at his job on Sunday morning to support his family, as opposed to golfing? What do our standards require? Are those standards “essential”?
If we put this kind of thought into what G-6.0106b really means, we see that the gay and lesbian “issue” is in one tiny corner of the many, many things that we should be concerned about as Christians today.
But it is an issue, it’s the one people are focused on, and it’s an interesting issue. You know, there are presbyteries out there who are saying – I love this – “If you’ve got any scruples, you’ve got to declare them.” I can just envision the first examination. The candidate gets up and says, “How many do you want?” Somebody was talking about the person who took the Book of Confessions on their vacation. This is going to be one long presbytery meeting, and they’ve only gotten through Candidate #1!
That’s not really how our process works very often. What happens is, our examiners come with certain concerns and ask about those. But it is helpful and important to remember that what might be of concern to me is not necessarily what’s of most concern to God, or should be of most concern to the church.
How do we approach G-6.0106b? I gave you two words; do people remember them? Standards and scruples, and they come in that order. Our standards say that our officers are required to live either in a faithful heterosexual marriage or in chastity in singleness, and any person refusing to repent of any practice the Confessions call sin shall not be ordained to the office of elder, minister, or deacon. There’s a lot of stuff to unpack there if we’re going to take it at all seriously. (Another thing I love is these proposals that “everything in the Book of Order shall be required,” as if it’s all black and white.)
For example, what’s “chastity”? Is it celibacy, or is it monogamy? What is it? If you read these Guidelines, you’ll see we’ve got several pages on chastity. The answer is not clear, as a matter of history or of polity in the Presbyterian Church.
Or what do the Confessions call sin? You know, there are only two passages in all of the Confessions that potentially talk about homosexuality. One of them condemns “homosexual perversion”. Well, I assume we condemn “heterosexual perversion” as well, but that doesn’t mean we condemn all heterosexual relations. The other passage condemns “sodomy”. But if you go back and read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where that word comes from, you realize we’re talking about rape, or inhospitality, or injustice, or oppression. The scriptures never say that the sin of Sodom was same-sex relations in a loving consensual relationship. So what practices do the Confessions really call sin?
If you, the candidate, or the examining body (session or presbytery) decide that these provisions really do outlaw all conjugal relationships in a same-sex couple – let’s assume that – and somebody comes in and says, “I’ve been in a 20-year relationship, it’s monogamous, and I believe that I cannot live in compliance with this standard because I believe the standard is wrong” – is that person “refusing to repent”? What is repentance? Is it just saying, “I don’t agree with the majority”? Well, the Confessions don’t say that. The Confessions say that repentance is a God-given sense of inward conviction about the wrongfulness of our acts. You can look it up, it’s in there. If this person is not convicted of the wrongfulness of his or her acts, is she really “refusing to repent”?
There are lots of questions, and those are just some of them, in G-6.0106b. It’s important to think through all of those issues and decide what the standard means, to decide if you have a disagreement with the standard. You don’t know if you disagree with the standard until you know what the standard means. It’s only if you’ve determined that the standard creates a problem that you might declare a scruple.
It’s interesting to me that the definition in the 1700s of “matters that can’t be scrupled” is “matters on which disagreement makes us ‘incapable of communion.’” You know, 45% of the Presbyterian Church, or more, believe that G-6.0106b is wrong. Are we saying that 45% of our members really aren’t Christians, that this is so “essential” we can’t possibly be in communion with each other? I don’t think so. In fact, I know that’s not right, because we’ve had this disagreement for a long time, and we haven’t excommunicated that 45%. Many of them are still serving as officers and ministers in the church. So we need to understand what the standard says, and then we need consider scruples, and what’s really “essential” in our life of faith.
I had an interesting conversation before the conference with somebody who said, “Isn’t what we’re really talking about here fidelity to our covenant together to live by the rules?” And I said, “Absolutely.” But the question is, “Which rules?” We can talk about a sexual ethic as a rule, but we can also talk about our historic, fundamental, defining belief that God speaks to the conscience of each of us, and that we owe each other mutual forbearance in matters of conscience. If we try to cram down one understanding of a sexual ethic, we’re being unfaithful to much larger values in Reformed Christianity.
I’ll wrap up with this: I was listening to Jon Walton comment a little bit before this session started about the fear in the denomination today, the fear. You see it in presbyteries and sessions: What is going to happen? Do we have to adopt resolutions to make sure that what GA did doesn’t create anything bad? It’s fear. Jesus told us the answer to that. Jesus said, “Perfect love casts out fear.” And that’s what we’re called to do.
I get a lot of grief from friends of mine because I was known in the church I served for always beginning a discussion, “On the one hand . . . but on the other hand. . . .” I actually deeply believe that’s the right approach, as a principle of theological engagement. That is the heart of what it means to be Presbyterian, but is also a part of the reality of Christian tradition. Another way to put it is resisting the temptation to say there’s only one answer. Or resisting the temptation to see one value and not affirm others.
There are those in the life of our church who feel very deeply about personal holiness and the lifestyle of a leader in the life of church – elder, deacon, or Minister of Word and Sacrament – that our lives should be different, that we are called to a form of life, to disciplines relating to all kinds of choices, in economic, political and religious terms as well as in terms of our relationships. This concern about personal holiness is deeply embedded in the biblical tradition, as well as in our Reformed tradition.
There’s another side of that, and that is that holiness is always something that is conferred; it is not earned. I was doing some research on something else and was reminded that the first time the word “holiness,” or “to make holy,” ever appears in scripture is on the seventh day. When God rested, God made the seventh day holy. It’s the first time anything was made holy. The day wasn’t holy in and of itself until God made it that way. What was holy was not a person or a place, but time. Holiness is something we receive from God as a gift, as a grace that we are then enabled to live into. Yes, holiness matters, and yes, so does understanding that it is a gift of God to live into as imperfect people.
What we’re talking about here is in the best of the Reformed tradition: having standards, rules and policies – principles, if you will – that shape our life as perhaps a boundary, a large boundary, but also being clear about what is our core, which is our common faith and trust in Jesus Christ. It is about applying those standards but looking precisely to the individuals and the situations in which we are called to discern the meaning and applicability of those standards.
In order to do this, we have three places where trust comes in: trusting one another and freedom of conscience, understanding all of us to be enlightened by God’s Spirit; trusting in the sovereignty of God, who reveals truth in its season and walks with us through our journey as community; and trusting in the grace of God, that even if we’re wrong about this, God will not let us go, from God or from each other.
Thank you very much. We’re ready now to take questions, and David will manage those questions.
Our assumption is that all seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Why is it that the Holy Spirit opens some Christian minds to new understandings of the faith and not others?
That’s a terrific question. Who would like to answer it?
One of the things I find helpful in thinking about this – there’s so many ways to answer it, the great theologians have written books and spent careers on it. One of the things I think most interesting is when we look at the four gospels, we see that they were written to different audiences with different focuses. Sometimes they seem to be inconsistent with each other. And you wonder why that is. I think that reflects an acknowledgement and a witness in scripture that God speaks to different people in different ways. We see that also in our Book of Confessions. We recognize that the church hears the Holy Spirit in different ways in different times. God is so big and our understanding is so small that often we need to hear the message in many different ways in order to even begin to grasp an essential truth. That’s one answer.
Another answer to that is in an analogy I sometimes use when I’m teaching theology. It’s related to the example of the four gospels. One can think about the work of doing theological reflection – that is to say, trying to love God with one’s mind, to let our faith seek understanding and expression – as much like a group of people around a piece of sculpture or, for example, that baptismal font. My vantage point on that baptismal font is one thing, and it’s another thing for those of you who are sitting in different locations. You see different things. Some of you can see that there’s a bowl inside of that, and some of you cannot. I can see that from here, so I would describe it with that recessed bowl inside of it, but back in the back row, I’ll bet you can’t see that. You don’t know it’s there. You perceive it from a different vantage point. That is part of what accounts, I think, for real theological difference: our place within the tradition, and our own experience, that we bring when we stand before the mystery of God, which none of us will ever comprehend. So we live under the guidance of God’s Spirit, trying to move around and expand our angles of vision.
Can I add one other thought that occurred to me? I’d have to go back and look at the story to think if I’m using it correctly, but there is the story in the gospels about Jesus being tempted to throw himself down from a high point, to demonstrate his sovereignty and power. And that just isn’t the way God has worked in the biblical accounts. If we believe in free will, then we believe that God, for some reason, has felt it is important that we have choice and faith; and perfect revelation almost makes choice and faith impossible. Perhaps there’s something in the created human nature that makes it important not to have complete and true and absolute revelation, because then we wouldn’t have the free will and choice to worship God, we would simply be automatons and serfs.
How does a governing body work with the “shall” language? Can something mandatory be deemed non-essential?
Yes. What’s the next question?
The “shall” language – there are lots of ways to address that. I think the short answer is that we have lots of different rules and hierarchies and levels of rules, and it depends on what level you’re looking at.
We have a rule that says people “shall not be ordained” – that’s where this comes from, let’s get to the agenda around those claims that, under G-6.0106b, people “refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained.” That’s the “shall” word. If you believe all of that – “people refusing to repent of any self-acknowledge practice which the confessions call sin” – if you believe all of that means “persons engaged in unrepentant, same-sex conjugal relations,” then the “shall” might have some bite. But when we [the Church] wrote G-6.0106b, we wrote into it the need to interpret and grapple with our confessional heritage. What do our Confessions call sin? What is “refusing to repent”? What is “chastity”, which is in the sentence before? That “shall” word doesn’t have one meaning. You have to understand the whole sentence, take it apart and understand what it means.
Some have said, “Oh, that’s all legalisms; everybody knows what General Assembly meant to do when it adopted G-6.0106b.” Well, if that’s what they meant to do, the question is, why didn’t they do it that way? We had language we’d been working with since 1978: “self-affirming, practicing homosexuals” cannot serve. Real clear. Why didn’t its supporters try to put that into the Book of Order? Because they didn’t believe it would command a majority in the presbyteries to pass. We had to have language that provided flexibility and that was truer to our confessional and biblical understanding of human agency. When you hear that “shall” question, it’s important to note that it’s coming from a lot of assumptions about G-6.0106b that simply aren’t true.
The other point I would make is that you have the hierarchies of rules. You have sexual ethics at one level. You have other rules that say freedom of conscience “shall” be respected. We have a “duty” to show mutual forbearance to each other. We have those requirements too. I find it hard to believe that a sexual ethic that is so contentious today can be deemed as important as the guiding principles of our Reformed heritage for 400 years.
Some sessions have brought motions that presbyteries should not allow any scruples concerning G-6.0106b for candidates for ordination. What suggestion do you have for opposing this motion?
I’m going to toss that back over to Doug, because I must say, I find this immensely perplexing. I frankly don’t understand how it could be legal for a presbytery to say in advance that no one may disagree or have a principled objection to something. Now maybe there’s something about the polity, which is essentially what’s being said by an action like that.
The ones I’ve seen are even stronger; there are a couple of presbyteries that have affirmed statements saying they will not allow anyone to state any scruples about anything. I find this frankly incredible, a misunderstanding of what it means to be Presbyterian, which is to respect, in a give-and-take, the way in which we understand ourselves to fit within a Book of Confessions. That’s why we have a Book of Confessions and not just the Westminster Standards. In fact, we draw a wide circle, or an arc of a tradition, not a laundry list of specifics. That places the judgment, in the discussion between a governing body and an individual, on how that person’s views fit within that arc, or that trajectory, of the interpretation of the Christian faith. To say up front that no one may have any disagreements seems to me to be somehow out of sorts with the whole nature of our tradition.
Then again, I could be wrong about that. There are probably better polity people here than I, so let’s let you answer that.
I think it’s a perfect answer, I really do. I think what General Assembly did is remind us what it is to be Presbyterians. It wasn’t about gays, it was about Presbyterians. We’ve got to go back to the “forgotten four” – recommendations 1, 2, 3, 4, now “strong urgings” from GA 1, 2, 3, 4 – about how we live together as Presbyterians.
You know, there are lots of Christian communions in the world, and not all of them have our system of collective discernment with respect for conscience. If you want to have very, very clear rules, there are Christian fellowships that offer those. We don’t. What we offer is the ability of faithful Presbyterians to come together and to grapple seriously with their consciences and with collective discernment to try to find the way forward as the Holy Spirit leads us into a continuing understanding of what we’re supposed to be and to do.
One of the things that GA did, that didn’t get much press, but really was wonderful – you know, we talk about ourselves as “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” which is Latin, and it’s translated in our Book of Order as “The church reformed, always reforming.” It’s our tradition, or we’d all be Roman Catholics. The church reformed, always reforming. General Assembly this year said that’s not the right translation. In the next edition of the Book of Order you’ll see a footnote that says what those words really mean is that the church is always “being” reformed. We don’t reform because we choose to; we reform because the Holy Spirit reforms us. It’s these processes where we come together and act like true Presbyterians, grappling with questions of what scripture really means, what our confessional heritage really means, what we’re learning from our lives as faithful Presbyterians together, that allow us to be “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.”
This is along those lines. How can we dialogue with people who don’t even agree with the process of the first four parts of the Task Force report on the basis of the Task Force not using Robert’s Rules of Order for decision-making?
Well, let’s remember that all the Task Force did was to suggest was that maybe, occasionally, a governing body might want to consider having a conversation about something in a way other than the American version of Robert’s Rules of Order.
Now, I’m the moderator of a faculty. I thought sessions were interesting. There’s no rotation in faculties, we’re just there forever. We don’t ever move to a formal voting session unless I sense that we’ve gotten to a place where we really need to slow down and make sure we can hear a variety of sides before we make a decision. Most of the time what we do is work through something until it’s clear that we’re satisfied with it. Now, this sometimes takes awhile. But it’s perfectly effective, and it’s not illegal as long as eventually we note that these actions have been taken. That’s essentially what the Task Force recommended might be considered sometimes. I think it’s important to just go back and say what this means, as we engage in that conversation.
One of the great things you might like to read, I strongly recommend you read it, is a paper that was prepared for the Task Force by Stacy Johnson, a professor at Princeton Seminary; it’s on the Task Force website. It’s about the different views people in the church have adopted over time about homosexuality, and there were seven. Interesting: this is not a black-and-white question. Seven different views that faithful Presbyterians and Christians hold about same-sex relationships – from the strict “prohibitionist” to the “celebrationist,” or something, I forget the precise words he used – faithful Presbyterians all.
What the Task Force members learned in their life together, from the far right to the far left, was that they had the important things in common. They believed in Jesus Christ. They issued a theological reflection that they urged people to study; that’s forgotten Recommendation Two. If we come together and we start talking about the important things we have in common, that can provide groundwork for discussion of the things we don’t necessarily agree about, but that we can help each other understand.
It seems to me that the biggest impediment here is the fear, it’s “We have to do something, let’s pass a statement outlawing scruples or something.” And by the way, folks, we’ve done it too. Remember those “statements of dissent”? When G-6.0106b was passed, we had a lot of congregations, even a few presbyteries, who felt they had to say something, and they adopted statements of dissent. Some of them were legal, some of them were found to be illegal, but they had to give witness to what they believed. And we’re seeing that now on the other side. We believe it’s problematic. But perhaps some of this is venting, and people just need time to cool down. We need to give people time to cool down, and then remind each other why we’ve chosen to be Presbyterians in the first place.
If I could follow on to that for a second. I think one of the things that’s going to need to happen, presbytery by presbytery, is for people to sit down with each other, whether it’s the Committee on Ministry or a separate examinations committee, and begin to think through how we will conduct this part of our life together. A lot of you here that I’ve run into have said, “I’m on a COM in my presbytery.” My strong recommendation, what I would urge you to do – rather than take the San Diego Presbytery approach, which is to write a manual of do’s and don’ts, and adopt a set of questions that shall be asked – is rather to take the first four parts of the report, these recommendations that the church has been commended to receive, and to use those within the COM to talk about, “What is it that we share in common, what do we understand together to be the core of our faith? On the basis of that, then, we’re going to go into these conversations with individuals.”
Does this make the work harder? Yes, it does. But I don’t think it is wrong for us to assume that this is an important practice of discernment that we should engage in together, and then be ready to question ourselves: “So where is the mutual forbearance of someone who maybe doesn’t express the faith in all of the ways that I would, but is enough within the family that I can recognize the Reformed faith in that person?”
Well that sounds good. But someone wants to know, since the PUP Report called for us to move away from battling toward discernment, after all of the discernment aren’t we going to have to re-engage in the battle and then vote?
We don’t know that yet. It depends on what “the battle” means. Will we continue to make decisions? Yes. Can we imagine another way towards the decision rather than battling? That’s what I think the PUP Report asks us to imagine.
If we do the “forgotten four,” five is irrelevant. If we do the “forgotten four,” five is irrelevant and we don’t have to have the fight, because we’ve learned how to live with each other and we’ve grown in a new appreciation of all the commonalities we share, and we respect and trust each other enough to respect and trust each other’s ordination decisions.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. That’s not to say that we don’t at some point want to change our standards. We do. I think that a big part of the church thinks our standard is wrong. But we’ve been fighting legislatively for thirty years, playing Capture the Flag, and so far there’s just a lot of blood on the floor. This is an invitation to say, maybe if we do the “forgotten four,” next time we’ll have a parade instead of a fight, and we will see a common truth about what our standards should be.
Since the Book of Order states that church members and officers differ only in function, does prohibition of GLBT persons for ordination imply prohibition of GLBT persons as members?
No, no –
– and no! First of all, GLBT people are not prohibited from serving in ministry. That’s what we keep asking people to remember, and it’s so hard for folks to really let that sink in. We do not prohibit people from serving in any office of the church on the basis of orientation. Our rules relate only to practice. And when it comes to membership, our Book of Order says that everyone can be a member on the basis of their statement of faith alone. Now give something better, but that’s the legal answer.
Section G-4.0403 of the Book of Order says that: “The Presbyterian Church shall give full expression to the rich diversity within its membership” – and we wish it was greater – “and shall provide means which will assure a greater inclusiveness leading to wholeness in its emerging life. Persons of all racial ethnic groups, different ages, both sexes, various disabilities, diverse geographical areas, different theological positions consistent with the Reformed tradition, as well as different marital conditions (married, single, widowed, or divorced) shall be guaranteed full participation and access to representation in the decision making of the church.”
Now that’s one of those interesting points of tension – how does that piece of the constitution shape and inform our practices of ordination? That is the tension within which we live as a church.
Some people contend that being a practicing gay or lesbian person is in opposition to “a demonstration of a Christian lifestyle,” and they don’t even use G-6.0106b to come up with their condemnation. How does one respond to the question of what a demonstration of a Christian lifestyle looks like?
I think one looks among other things to some of the definitions that Paul uses of the fruits of the Spirit: patience, self-control, kindness. One looks to the model of Christ’s life of welcome and of service. One looks to words such as the exhortation to do justice and to love kindness or mercy, and to walk humbly with God. One looks to Paul’s statement that love does no wrong to the neighbor, and therefore it’s love that is the fulfillment of the law. And then one asks, how does my life interact with those kinds of fruits? How does my life give witness, give evidence of that? The answer for all of us to that is, by the grace of God, better some days than others, and for all of us, never completely, because that’s the nature of our human life. Christian discipleship, if it’s anything, is the prayer that our lives continue to be conformed to those values, rather than an assumption that the only time you can be an ordained officer is once you’ve achieved all of them, or some level of perfection.
A colleague of mine, a gay pastor, took his life last week after a TV reporter planned to expose him. I’ve wondered awhile now about coming out on the floor of presbytery to be honest about who I am and what and whose I am. Is now the time to stand up and call light to the dark and poisonous atmosphere that continues to devastate even the gifted faithful?
Well. That will be a question that has to be answered by every person in their conscience, given their context and what they want to accomplish.
You see this when you counsel people about their upcoming examinations for office. Sometimes they say, “I simply want to serve the church. Why are they talking about sex? I don’t want to have that conversation, I don’t want to talk about my relationship with my partner, I want to talk about my relationship with Jesus Christ.” Our rules allow people to decide not to self-acknowledge practice, and some decide to do that. There are others who say, “It is important to change this injustice and error” – and you can add twenty words, it’s a horrible, horrible misunderstanding in the church – “and the way you change that is to witness, so I’m going to go to the presbytery with this.” And we had a case of a gentleman who did that, who said, “I’m not in a relationship today, but I intend to participate in a fully human, sexual relationship in my ministry.” Or there are people who go and say, “Yes, I’m in that kind of a relationship today.” Their call is to witness in that way. And there are lots of things in between.
One of the things that we progressive groups consistently try to live out in our lives together – More Light, TAMFS, Covenant Network, Witherspoon, all of the groups that are working to make the church more inclusive – is to respect the many different choices that different people make within their own contexts and with their own calls. That kind of respect is very important. Sometimes you see some tensions between the groups about whether all strategies work at General Assembly. That’s a legitimate question to ask. But I don’t think there can be any question, when you’re talking about individuals’ witness, that there is no one answer, there’s no one straitjacket. There are many, many ways to be a faithful witness to your life and experience and call.
I was on the ordination track in the Presbyterian Church. While I was in seminary, I began my coming-out process while discerning my call. I grew tired of leading a double life, so I’ve recently left the denomination and am now under care in the United Church of Christ for ordination as a minister. When I speak with GLBT people who are considering entering seminary, they ask me if they should do this under care of the PC(USA). I tell them that is up to them, but that the PC(USA) is not a denomination that is open to GLBT people serving in leadership. Why would a GLBT person want to go through the burden of ordination in the PC(USA)?
I think the short answer is because the Presbyterian Church desperately needs faithful witnesses. We call ourselves Christians because Jesus Christ took the hard way, not the easy way. He wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms in his own religious establishment; he was considered a heretic and he was killed for it. We Christians today believe that ministers are often called to follow the way of the cross. The question again comes back to how you think you can best minister to a hurting church and a hurting world. Some will believe that they can best witness by righting this wrong, by witnessing on this issue, even if it means that they will not be ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). There are others who believe that they can best minister to a hurting church and a hurting world by using the process to become ministers and then witnessing from the inside, to help grow a loving, better, more just understanding of grace and the gospel, which is frankly what this whole misunderstanding is about.
Philip Yancey wrote a great book – he’s more conservative than I am, but he wrote a book whose title I love: it was What’s So Amazing About Grace? Wonderful title. Ultimately, I think we can address the gay/lesbian issues in this church by addressing the gospel, because if the church really understands grace and the gospel, we won’t be able to exclude gay and lesbian people the way we do today.
There are a lot of different choices as to how you can minister. Some will feel compelled or called to follow the way of the cross, knowing they make a witness and probably won’t be ministers in the PC(USA) but then may move to the UCC or to other life calls. Every person has to figure out how they’re called and how they can best serve the gospel.
I want just to add on a word to that, to take it another step. We’ve spent a number of years worried about a lack of, especially, younger people feeling a call to ordained service in the life of mainline churches in general, the Presbyterian Church in particular. A lot of us have spent a lot of time and enlisted a lot of help from people like you, identifying young adults with the gifts and graces for ministry and getting them into seminary and supporting them. I spend a lot of time with these people. I am frankly amazed at the talent and energy that is coming into the life of the Presbyterian Church from young adults who have been lured by God and the voice of the church and people like you into considering ministry. They are terrified, as we speak – straight, gay, whatever – they’re terrified of what they’re going to face in presbyteries.
One of the things we need to go home and think about is whether or not we want the beginning of ministry for some of our brightest and best to be a terrorizing experience, or whether we want it to be part of their discernment along with us and their growth in faith. I think most of us here would like to say that in fact our faith and our theological judgment have grown over the life of our ministry from when we were ordained. It’s the sign that there is a God. I’m not where I was theologically thirty years ago, and I’ll bet a lot of the rest of you aren’t either. It’s part of our job to discern and to deal gently with those in whom we have invested a lot of time and energy. That doesn’t mean that we don’t hold people to high and important standards. But it does mean that we want to recognize that we have people of very, very good will who are offering themselves to us, for our future, and to walk with them through this incredibly important time in their leadership.