In 2001, the 213th General Assembly directed its Moderator and his two most recent predecessors to appoint the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. Diverse in every way, including theological outlook and viewpoints on controversial issues, the Task Force submitted a unanimous report to the 217th GA (2006), which adopted it substantially unchanged.
The most controversial recommendation of the Task Force was an authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 in the Book of Order, which held in part:
c. Ordaining and installing bodies, acting as corporate expressions of the church, have the responsibility to determine their membership by applying these standards to those elected to office. These determinations include:
(1) Whether a candidate being examined for ordination and/or installation as elder, deacon, or minister of Word and Sacrament has departed from scriptural and constitutional standards for fitness for office,
(2) Whether any departure constitutes a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity under G-6.0108 of the Book of Order, thus barring the candidate from ordination and/or installation.
The Task Force’s rationale for its recommendation, which was approved by the 2006 GA and is now an authoritative interpretation of the Constitution, includes this explanation:
The authoritative interpretation also lifts up a feature of G-6.0108 that is grounded in history but has fallen out of current practice. Section G-6.0108 puts “faith and polity”—belief and behavior—on an equal footing, as they were in 1729, when scruples were permitted in matters of “doctrine, discipline and government.” Over time, an imbalance has developed, with flexibility afforded in matters of doctrine and strict compliance required on all points of conduct and polity. By implication, this confers greater authority on the Form of Government than on the confessions and the Scripture they interpret. The proposed authoritative interpretation restores the balance, grounded firmly in the Reformed theological insight that faith and action are inextricably related. Faith is not only mental assent but also a pattern of life lived in the presence of God. The test and fruit of faith are change of heart and amendment of life. Therefore, officers-elect must comply with essentials of polity and practice as well as faith. Ordaining and installing bodies may exercise judgment in the application of standards of both belief and practice that are deemed by those bodies to be nonessential…The proposed interpretation requires ordaining and installing bodies to examine carefully both the doctrinal views and the manner of life of those elected to office. If an ordaining or installing body determines that an officer-elect has departed from G-6.0106b, a manner-of-life standard, the ordaining/installing body must then determine whether this departure violates essentials of faith or polity. If so, the candidate may not be ordained. If the departure is judged not to violate the essentials of Reformed faith and polity, after the ordaining/installing body has weighed the departure in the full context of a candidate’s statement of faith and manner of life, then there is no barrier to ordination (though there also is no requirement that the person be ordained). As at present, the ordaining/installing body would make the decision, with the help of the Spirit, about whether to ordain and/or install and based on all the evidence before it.
The 218th General Assembly (2008) reaffirmed the 217th GA’s action and added an authoritative interpretation of its own to clarify confusion that emerged through subsequent presbytery actions and resulting Permanent Judicial Commission decisions, particularly on the topic of whether there is a difference between belief and practice when it comes to accepting a candidate’s departure:
The 218th General Assembly (2008) affirms the authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 approved by the 217th General Assembly (2006). Further, the 218th General Assembly (2008), pursuant to G-13.0112, interprets the requirements of G-6.0108 to apply equally to all ordination standards of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Section G-6.0108 requires examining bodies to give prayerful and careful consideration, on an individual, case-by-case basis, to any departure from an ordination standard in matters of belief or practice that a candidate may declare during examination. However, the examining body is not required to accept a departure from standards, and cannot excuse a candidate’s inability to perform the constitutional functions unique to his or her office (such as administration of the sacraments).
Since the adoption of the recommendations of the Theological Task Force in 2006, a number of presbyteries and sessions have sought to apply these principles in careful and prayerful ordination and installation processes, some of which have involved individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The most high-profile of these candidates for ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament have been Lisa Larges, who serves as Minister Coordinator of That All May Freely Serve, and Scott Anderson, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches.
Ms. Larges, who has been in the PCUSA ordination process for over two decades, was approved for ordination by the Presbytery of San Francisco in November of 2009. Opponents of that decision have filed a complaint, the latest in a long series of delaying tactics; there is a website dedicated to the details of that effort.
John Knox Presbytery approved Mr. Anderson’s ordination in February, and is also facing a renewed complaint that will postpone his ordination until Permanent Judicial Commissions hear the case.
The Presbytery of Central Washington has submitted to the 219th GA (2010) an overture, currently numbered 093, that is aimed at reversing the authoritative interpretation from 2008. Two other overtures, 001 from the Presbytery of San Diego and 090 from the Presbytery of Shenandoah (not yet posted on PC-biz), seek to overturn the action of the 218th GA that declared the 1978-79 statements on homosexuality to have “no further force or effect.”