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Living with the AI
Cases and actions working through the 2006 GA action
allowing respect for conscience

The 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 withhold payments.

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. Robert Campbell, pastor of Tully Memorial Presbyterian Church in Sharon Hill, 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.


Gene TeSelles article on Synod PJC decisions is interesting. However there are a few things he should have said.

1. The 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.

2. The decision by the Synod of the Trinity PJC, while it did say that Pittsburgh Presbyterys policy "was 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 PJCs decision says:

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 Clerk.

If the Synod of the Trinitys 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 trial.

Finally, please remember that all of this cuts both ways. If the Synod of the Trinity PJCs 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.

In Christ,

Robert Campbell, Pastor
Tully Memorial Presbyterian Church
100 Sharon Avenue
Sharon Hill, PA 19079
(610) 583-7333

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 TeSelles 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 that doesnt 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 wasnt there when he wrote about it in the Witherspoon Society Network News last spring, and it still doesnt 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 "have made 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" [emphasis added].

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.

Look at 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 sweepingand incorrectevaluation. The log in his own eye makes it extremely difficult for him to specify any alleged specks in the presbyterieseyes.

Jim Berkley
Director of Presbyterian Action
Institute on Religion and Democracy
304 128th Avenue NE

Bellevue, WA 98005
(425) 637-7742

Synod overturns Sacramento Presbytery effort to reverse GA’s Authoritative Interpretation   [6-22-07]

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 free.

The full decision is posted on the Synod website >>

Synod PJC: presbytery can’t make ordination standards essential

Establishing ‘super standard’ skirts authoritative interpretation

by Evan Silverstein -- Presbyterian News Service

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 Interpretation

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 candidates.

He says:

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.

The full article >>

LOUISVILLE — 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 presbytery.

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 Reformed polity.

"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 said.

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 upheld.

"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 marriages."

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 ruling’s outcome.

"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 presbytery."

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 ordination.

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 opinion.

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 candidate.

"Rather, we perceive the resolution ensures that the conscience of a candidate remains within the confines of The Book of Order standards," the three wrote.

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 Interpretation

by Gene TeSelle, Witherspoon Society Issues Analyst
[5-30-07 -- and published in Spring 2007 issue of Network News]

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 past);

● 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 constitutional language.

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 ordination.


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 individual candidates.

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 interpretations.

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.


GA actions 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 of Order.

We're providing resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest are:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which would remove the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.

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Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

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 thoughtful community.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

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 lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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