Living with the AI
Cases and actions working through the 2006 GA action
allowing respect for conscience
polity struggles continue
Is some resolution emerging?
By Witherspoon Issues Analyst Gene TeSelle
In our last issue of Network News and on this website, I
looked at the various ways presbyteries have begun to defy the
Authoritative Interpretation adopted by the 217th General
Assembly last summer in Birmingham ("Learning
to live with G-6.0108 and the Authoritative Interpretation,"
Network News, Spring 2007, pp. 22-23).
They have declared in advance what the
"essentials" of Reformed faith, practice, and polity are, and
they have made sweeping judgments in spite of the fact that the
AI, and G-6.0108 on which it is based, say that judgments about
essentials are to be made on a case-by-case basis.
It appeared that the various parties in the
church were preparing the way for judicial cases that would test
these presbytery actions. And I predicted that the various
Permanent Judicial Commissions would not look favorably on these
attempts by presbyteries to create their own creeds, or make
selective interpretations of the Constitution, or prejudge
matters that call for subtle discernment in particular cases.
That prediction has been borne out in at least
two decisions by synod PJCs.
On May 16 the PJC of the Synod of the Trinity
ruled that Pittsburgh Presbytery was out of line when it called
the ordination standard (G-6.0106b) an "essential" of Reformed
polity. The presbytery had prohibited any exception from this
requirement, when the AI and longstanding practice give
presbyteries the responsibility of determining individually
whether a candidate has "departed" from the standards and
whether this affects the "essentials." (See
the report by Evan Silverstein,
Presbyterian News Service, May 29, 2007.)
Then on June 16 the
PJC of the Synod of the
Pacific made a broader ruling against four sweeping measures
taken by Sacramento Presbytery.
1. In saying that all candidates shall comply
with all standards for ordination, the presbytery had defied the
AI, denied the freedom of conscience that is afforded to all
officers and candidates, abdicated its responsibility to assess
any "principled objections" that a candidate might have to the
church's standards, and violated the obligation of all governing
bodies not to exclude anyone categorically from ordained office.
2. In declaring that it would not recognize
anyone who had been ordained or installed under a scruple, it
had acted contrary to the longstanding Presbyterian practice of
recognizing individual conscience and collective discernment.
3. In stating that it would "honor the protest
of every congregation" that wants to withhold per capita
payments, the presbytery displayed "obstructive behavior" and
violated the spirit of the Constitution and its obligation under
G-11.0103g to "provide pastoral care" to congregations that
4. In saying that it would never enforce the
trust provisions of Chapter VIII of the Book of Order, the
presbytery abdicated its responsibility to provide pastoral care
and administrative oversight of congregations within its bounds.
The presbytery's actions were set aside and
the presbytery was "encouraged" to develop a plan of
reconciliation to overcome the discord in its midst and further
the witness and mission to which it is called.
The complete decision can be found
on the Synod website >>
A reader suggests
added perspectives on recent PJC decisions
We received this note from the Rev.
pastor of Tully Memorial Presbyterian Church in
PA. Commenting on Gene
TeSelle’s recent article on recent PJC decisions in the
Synod of the Pacific and the Synod of the Trinity, he draws
attention to the complexity of the issues as they have been
adjudicated in various Synods. He notes rightly that the
disagreements will finally reach the General Assembly PJC,
which must take fully into account the Authoritative
Interpretation of the recent General Assembly.
article on Synod PJC decisions is interesting. However there are
a few things he should have said.
Synod of Alaska and the Northwest PJC ruled that the policy
approved by one of its presbyteries, somewhat similar to that of
Pittsburgh Presbytery, was not irregular.
decision by the Synod of the Trinity PJC, while it did say that
out of line when it called the ordination standard (G-6.0106b)
an 'essential' of Reformed polity,"
as Gene said, the Synod PJC also
declared that there are mandatory church wide behavioral
standards. The relevant section of the Synod PJC’s
We understand that no presbytery may grant an exception to
any mandatory church wide behavioral ordination standard. Under
our polity, violations of behavioral standards are to be
addressed through repentance and reconciliation, not by
exception or exemption. The freedom of conscience granted in
G-6.0108 allows candidates to express disagreement with the
wording or meaning of provisions of the constitution, but does
not permit disobedience to those behavioral standards.
G-6.0106b provides in part "among
these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity
within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman
(W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness."
This is a behaviorally
measured standard which applies to all ordained officers of the
church. It is clear. It is mandatory.
This is, I understand, also the position of the GA Stated
If the Synod of the Trinity’s
ruling is not overturned by the GA PJC this would have the
effect of continuing past rulings by the GA PJC that statements
in the Book of Order concerning behavior mandated or proscribed
may not be declared non-essential by a presbytery either in a
statement by the presbytery or in an ordination or installation
Finally, please remember that all of this cuts both ways. If
the Synod of the Trinity PJC’s
ruling is upheld, this would mean that the decision by the
Presbytery of the Redwoods that the section in the Directory for
Worship that says that marriage is between a man and a woman is
non-essential is also irregular.
The decision by the Synod of the Pacific PJC is, of course,
another matter entirely. It makes no mention of behavior.
Robert Campbell, Pastor
Tully Memorial Presbyterian Church
100 Sharon Avenue
Sharon Hill, PA 19079
James Berkley tells us
we're wrong [6-26-07]
From your WebWeaver:
We appreciate Mr. Berkley's pointing out the
numerical error. On his other points, we may simply
have to disagree.
In regard to Gene TeSelle’s
article about PJC decisions,
one loses a lot of confidence in his authority to write about
the Form of Government when he repeatedly refers to a section
even exist. Confidence is even further eroded when TeSelle makes
a sweeping, dogmatic statement that is demonstrably false.
First off, TeSelle talks of learning to live with G-6.0608.
There was no such section in the Book of Order. It wasn’t
there when he wrote about it in the Witherspoon Society
last spring, and it still doesn’t
exist now as he writes about it again on the Web. One wonders
when the last time was that TeSelle took a peek into the actual
Book of Order. He obviously is referring to G-6.0108. He might
want to correct his error.
Second, he complains that some presbyteries
sweeping judgments in spite of the fact that the AI, and
G-6.0608 [oops!] on which it is based, say that judgments about
essentials are to be made on a case-by-case basis"
Really? Case-by-case? Look at G-6.0108. There is nothing
there about requiring a case-by-case basis. You will find no
such requirement, no such wording.
the AI approved a
year ago. You will
find no wording about a case-by-case basis there either. Such a
requirement is never brought up.
It would probably be wise for Mr. TeSelle to actually examine
the documents before making such a sweeping—and
The log in his own eye makes it extremely difficult for him to
specify any alleged specks in the presbyteries’
Director of Presbyterian Action
Institute on Religion and Democracy
304 128th Avenue NE
Bellevue, WA 98005
Sacramento Presbytery effort to reverse GA’s Authoritative
Presbyterian Outlook reports that efforts
by the Presbytery of Sacramento to nullify the action of the
2006 General Assembly, which affirmed the right of conscience
for candidates for ordination. The Permanent Judicial Commission
of the Synod of the Pacific ruled that all four policies adopted
by the presbytery either violated the spirit of the
Authoritative Interpretation adopted by the Assembly, or
violated basic principles of Presbyterian Church such as
connectionalism, respect for individual conscience and for the
discernment exercised by individual congregations.
See the report on the Outlook website >>
Registration is required to see the complete story – but it’s
The full decision is posted on the Synod website >>
Synod PJC: presbytery can’t make
ordination standards essential
Establishing ‘super standard’
We welcome your
comments about this decision!
Just send a note, to be posted here.
Learning to live with G-6.0108 and the Authoritative
Before this decision was issued,
Witherspoon Society Issues Analyst Gene TeSelle
prepared an analysis of different strategies being
used by those who are opposing the 2006 GA action
issuing a new "Authoritative Interpretation" that
would allow candidates for ordination -- and the
sessions or presbyteries that make the decisions to
ordain them -- to respect the consciences of the
Even before the Assembly took
this action, and certainly since this action,
opponents have attacked it with various actions.
All of these measures are versions of the
movement for "strict subscription" that divided
the Church of Scotland in the early 18th century
and was rejected by Presbyterians in the
American colonies from 1729 on. And all of them
try, in various ways, to offer interpretations
of the Constitution that would have the same
authority as the Constitution itself — a move
that was rejected by the General Assembly of
1927 in approving the report of the Swearingen
The full article
May 29, 2007 – A church court has concluded that Pittsburgh
Presbytery cannot "elevate" language from the Presbyterian
Church (U.S.A.) constitution to make compliance with ordination
standards "essential" and that it must apply the guidelines to
ministerial candidates on an individual basis.
The May 16 ruling by the Permanent Judicial
Commission (PJC) of the Synod of the Trinity followed a two-day
hearing in Camp Hill, PA, regarding a resolution that Pittsburgh
Presbytery adopted on Oct. 12, 2006.
The presbytery’s resolution called compliance
with the PC(USA)’s ordination standards from The Book of
Order, which require chastity in singleness or fidelity in
heterosexual marriage, an "essential of Reformed polity." It
stated that no exceptions would be permitted within the
jurisdiction of Pittsburgh Presbytery.
The resolution also said that clergy are
prohibited from conducting same-sex marriages within the
The resolution became the focus of a synod
court case after three Presbyterian ministers in Pittsburgh,
along with two of their church sessions, complained that the
middle governing body exceeded its authority to interpret the
church’s constitution by approving a "super standard" that
"supplants" the PC(USA)’s ordination standards.
The synod PJC ruled 8-3 that the presbytery
could not call the ordination standards "an essential" of
"The presbytery has the authority and duty to
examine all candidates individually but does not have the
authority to create a ‘super standard’ in so doing," the ruling
Making The Book of Order standards
essential would "wrongfully" set aside the recently approved
"authoritative interpretation" to the PC(USA)’s constitution,
the ruling said.
The authoritative interpretation, ratified by
the PC(USA)’s 217th General Assembly last summer, maintains
existing ordination standards for church officers but gives
ordaining bodies greater leeway in applying those standards to
individual candidates for ordination.
The assembly’s action, which originated with
its Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the
Church (PUP), also declared that all ordinations must be in
compliance with the PC(USA) constitution.
By adopting the ordination standards as
essential, the ruling said, Pittsburgh Presbytery "expressly
prohibits any exception from the requirements," despite the
authoritative interpretation and "the historic principle giving
presbyteries the responsibility to determine individually, as to
each candidate coming before it, whether the candidate has
departed from scriptural and constitutional standards of fitness
for office and whether any departure constitutes a failure to
adhere to essentials of Reformed faith and polity."
In language affirming the national church’s
stance, the synod PJC said candidates could disagree with
ordination standards, but that obedience was mandatory.
"The freedom of conscience ... allows
candidates to express disagreement with the wording or meaning
of provisions of the constitution, but does not permit
disobedience to those behavioral standards," the ruling said.
The standard of faithful marriage or chaste
singleness "is a behaviorally measured standard which applies to
all ordained officers of the church. It is clear. It is
mandatory," the ruling said.
The synod PCJ voted 11-0 that Pittsburgh
Presbytery had the right to prevent clergy from conducting
same-sex marriages, but could not prohibit ministers from
performing services to bless same-sex unions, a practice that
the PC(USA)’s highest court, the General Assembly PJC, has
"The Book of Order (G-9.0103) states
that when the Constitution is silent ‘powers not mentioned (are)
reserved to the presbyteries,’" the ruling said. "Therefore, the
Presbytery of Pittsburgh has the authority to establish policy
disallowing Ministers of Word and Sacrament to conduct same-sex
The Pittsburgh ministers who filed the
complaint last year challenging the presbytery’s resolution were
the Rev. Randall Bush, pastor of East Liberty Presbyterian
Church, and the Rev. Mary Louise McCullough, pastor of Sixth
Presbyterian Church, along with their church sessions, and the
Rev. Wayne Peck, pastor of Community House Presbyterian Church.
"We were very pleased with the ruling,"
McCullough told the Presbyterian News Service on May 24. "We
feel that the (synod) PJC really heard the arguments that we
were making about why this was something that just was
completely out of the realm of what a presbytery is really
supposed to be about in passing this overture."
Peck told the Presbyterian News Service that
he was pleased with the ruling "and thought it was a fair
hearing and one that was very candid in discerning between two
points of view."
Bush said he was also pleased with the
"I’m pleased with the ruling’s recognition that
presbyteries can’t establish essentials that automatically
preclude entire groups of people from being considered for
ordination," he said. "And that all of our work should be done
with an openness and discerning spirit considering the
candidates for ordination on a case-by-case basis. I believe the
synod ruling affirmed that and was please with its outcome."
The Rev. James Mead, pastor to Pittsburgh
Presbytery, said he believes the ruling does not change much.
"I don’t think that it will have too much
impact on the presbytery’s actual behavior," Mead told the
Presbyterian News Service on May 25. "We’re pretty careful and
responsible about how we deal with both candidates as potential
pastors and as a matter of fact we’re a pretty inclusive
He said it was never the presbytery’s
intention to establish a super standard in which to review
candidates for ordination.
"The majority of Pittsburgh Presbytery simply
wanted to say … here’s how we understand the national standards
as a pastoral matter," Mead said. "And frankly as a matter of
reassuring itself that what the stated clerk and others on the
PUP task force said was in fact the case in Pittsburgh. And that
is that our ordination standards have not changed."
Three synod PJC commissioners filed a
dissenting opinion saying they objected to the characterization
that the presbytery created a super standard for determining
The Rev. H.C. Ted Kelley, Gwilym A. Price III,
and Jestyn G. Payne wrote in their dissent that "we submit the
intent of the Presbytery of Pittsburgh was not to create a
‘super’ layer of ecclesiastical law but rather to reaffirm what
already had been clearly stated in The Book of Order,
so as to preclude continued confusion in the standards."
The three commissioners also said they
believed the presbytery’s resolution was not "erroneous in
eclipsing the conscience" of any candidate for ordination or
installation by making essential constitutional standards of
The Book of Order.
"We feel that while there may be a perception
of subscription, the intent of the resolution is to clarify
candidating requirements so that the ordaining/installing
process is not compromised," the three wrote in their dissent
The three also said they perceived no intent
in the presbytery’s resolution to "threaten the balance between
faith and order" or to negate a case-by-case examination of a
"Rather, we perceive the resolution ensures
that the conscience of a candidate remains within the confines
of The Book of Order standards," the three
The Rev. Mark Tammen, director of the
Department of Constitutional Services with the PC(USA)’s Office
of the General Assembly, could not be reached for comment.
Both sides have 45 days to appeal the decision
to the General Assembly PJC.
Learning to live with G-6.0108 and the Authoritative
by Gene TeSelle,
Witherspoon Society Issues Analyst
[5-30-07 -- and published in Spring 2007 issue of Network
Ever since the 2006 General Assembly adopted the recommendations of
the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force, including its proposed
Authoritative Interpretation (AI for short), there has been much
posturing and maneuvering on the part of those who opposed the AI.
The AI adopted by the 217th General Assembly declares
● that the Book of
Confessions and the Form of Government set forth the standards for
ordination and installation;
● that these standards
may be interpreted by the General Assembly and the Permanent
Judicial Commission (as they have often been interpreted in the
● that ordaining and
installing bodies have the responsibility to apply those standards
when examining persons elected to office, and this includes asking
(a) whether the person has "departed" from scriptural and
confessional standards and (b) whether such departure concerns the
"essentials" of Reformed faith, practice, and polity.
This is language drawn straight out of the Constitution of the
church (G-6.0108). The AI simply restates and reinforces this
Even before the
Assembly took this action, and certainly since this action,
opponents have attacked it with various actions. All of these
measures are versions of the movement for "strict subscription" that
divided the Church of Scotland in the early 18th century and was
rejected by Presbyterians in the American colonies from 1729 on. And
all of them try, in various ways, to offer interpretations of the
Constitution that would have the same authority as the Constitution
itself — a move that was rejected by the General Assembly of 1927 in
approving the report of the Swearingen Commission.
1. Some presbyteries —
first San Diego, then Santa Barbara — have drawn up their own lists
of "essential tenets" and "Reformed distinctives." They claim that
these statements do not constitute a new creed, do not supplement or
alter the Book of Confessions or the Form of Government, but only
offer a helpful list of issues that should be touched on during the
examination process. But when you look at the lists you see that
they come from a selective reading of the confessions, to the
extent that some stances permitted by the confessions are
declared suspect or heretical.
2. Some presbyteries
have declared that all statements in the Book of Confessions and the
Form of Government that say "shall" are to be regarded as essentials
of Reformed faith and practice. At first they tried to get this
adopted by the General Assembly as an Authoritative Interpretation.
When that failed, they adopted it on their own. This means that an
AI is being issued by presbyteries, not the General Assembly
— a move that has dubious, and certainly not final, authority. And
it clearly contravenes G-6.0608, which assumes that some statements
in the Constitution are not essentials and does not say how
they are to be identified.
3. Perhaps the most
subtle approach comes from the Presbytery of Plains and Peaks in
northeastern Colorado. Its examination policy, proposed in February
of 2007, includes the statement that "Governing bodies do not
possess a 'right of conscience' that would permit them to violate
mandatory provisions of the Constitution." Reading this, you might
think they are making the obvious point that, while individuals
have the right under G-6.0108 to state "exceptions" or "scruples,"
governing bodies do not have that same right. But they head
off in a different direction, declaring that presbyteries are
"bound" by the third sentence of G-6.0106b, which states that
"Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which
the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed."
The meaning of this sentence is assumed to be self-evident, needing
no interpretation, no application in light of the entire
Constitution of the church. Any governing body that takes this to be
an unalterable "essential" will find few candidates worthy of
In at least these three
ways, presbyteries have defied the 2006 AI — and have defied
G-6.0108, which lies behind it. They have arrogated to themselves an
authority that the Constitution has not given them. To be sure,
presbyteries are given the responsibility of discerning whether a
candidate has "departed" from the "essentials" of Reformed faith and
practice. But these presbyteries have taken two additional steps:
● They have declared
in advance what the essentials are, by preparing their own list
of essentials, or declaring all statements containing a "shall"
to be essentials, or focusing on G-6.0106b, which concerns
the real center of controversy and was recognized to be such even
before it was added in 1996-97.
● They have made
sweeping decisions, in advance and in the abstract, when
G-6.0108 and the AI clearly state that judgments about essentials
are to be made in considering the statements of faith made by
What will happen? The 2006 AI includes the statement
that the procedures and decisions of governing bodies as they
conduct examinations are "subject to review" by higher
governing bodies. We may be sure that all parties to the dispute
over the ordination of GLBT members of our church are preparing the
way for judicial cases and scrutinizing them for their
suitability as vehicles for gaining approval of their own
perspectives. We may also be sure that the various Permanent
Judicial Commissions will not look favorably upon the tendency of
governing bodies to create their own creeds, or give selective
interpretations of the Constitution, or prejudge matters that
require subtle discernment in the prism of particular cases. It is
likely to be a long process.
We have begun to see
the judicial process at work. When the Presbytery of Olympia
declared that the shalls are essentials, a number of persons filed a
complaint. The PJC of the Synod of Alaska Northwest went down the
middle. It did not "sustain" the objections. But it reminded the
presbytery to heed the call of the 217th General Assembly and noted
that the presbytery's resolution does not preclude the presbytery
from conducting its exams on a case-by-case basis and "in a thorough
and fair manner." The Synod PJC's decision can be found at
along with a list of presbyteries that have adopted similar
Many presbyteries are
currently trying to develop policies with, and for, their Committees
on Preparation for Ministry and their Committees on Ministry. They
recognized that, if they take the AI and G-6.0108 seriously, they
will have to go beyond simplistic judgments. But it can be done. In
my own Presbytery of Middle Tennessee a special task force with
representation from the whole theological spectrum developed a
statement that has received general assent. The Presbytery of San
Francisco has had a "Discernment Team" at work since last fall, and
it will be voted on next month.
In the end we will
learn, once again, to respect the richness and mystery of the whole
counsel of God and to live with each other with forbearance, even
with mutual respect and mutual dependence.
ratified (or not) by the presbyteries
A number of the most important actions of the 219th
General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their
action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book
We're providing resources to help inform the
reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.
Our three areas of primary interest are:
which would remove the current ban on
lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as
possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.|
which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of
10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government
that was approved by the Assembly. |
If you like what
you find here,
we hope you'll help us keep Voices for Justice going ... and
Please consider making a special
contribution -- large or small -- to help us continue and improve
Click here to send a
gift online, using your credit card, through PayPal.
Or send your check, made
out to "Presbyterian Voices for Justice" and marked "web site," to
our PVJ Treasurer:
4007 Gibsonia Road
Gibsonia, PA 15044-8312
Some blogs worth visiting
Mitch Trigger, PVJ's
Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where
Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and
views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both
personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!
You can post your own news and views,
or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.
Voices of Sophia blog
Heather Reichgott, who has created
this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:
After fifteen years of scholarship
and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the
voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy,
students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers
and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God
in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God
through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through
articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and
John Harris’ Summit to
Theological and philosophical
reflections on everything between summit to shore, including
kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology,
politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New
York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive
New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the
Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian
Church in Flushing, NY.
John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive
A Presbyterian minister, currently
serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton,
Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized
and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and
Got more blogs to recommend?
send a note, and we'll see what we can do!