June 2008


The PCUSA’s Big Three–new elected Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, General Assembly Council Executive Director Linda Valentine, and Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow–want to do what they can to get out in front of the news cycle, so they’ve written to the denomination’s congregations about the Recent Unpleasantness in San Jose. The focus, of course, is on ordination standards:

Perhaps the subject that will make the most headlines has to do with the ordination standards of our church. It is a subject with which Presbyterians are familiar and one that tends to evoke great debates and deep emotions. With that in mind, we want you to know what the assembly did — in the actual wording — in regard to ordination standards, and what will happen next.

They then quoted the proposed change in ordination standards, as well as the new Authoritative Interpretation that repealed previous AIs that prohibited the ordination of sexually active gays. They then say this about the third major action regarding gay ordination:

By a 54 percent to 46 percent vote, the assembly adopted a new AI on G-6.0108 which restores the intent of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church report (2006) to allow someone who is being considered for ordination or installation as a deacon, elder or minister to register a conscientious objection to the standards or beliefs of the church and ask the ordaining body to enter into a conversation with them to determine the seriousness of the departure.

For the last two years, Presbyterians have been told that the PUP report didn’t change anything. Here, from the head honchos, we get confirmation of what conservatives have said all along, which is that the PUP report opened the way to presbyterial option regarding the standards of behavior on the part of clergy (“restores the intent” is the key). Finally, they mention the reaffirmation of marriage, a meaningless action that was openly flouted by the gay caucuses with two different “weddings” taking place within sight of the GA. At this point, things start getting thick:

By its actions, the assembly has initiated a new opportunity to focus ordination on primary allegiance and obedience to Jesus Christ, as well as to Scripture and the church’s confessions. The assembly places the responsibility onto sessions and presbyteries for discerning a candidate’s fitness for ordination.

In all of this, it is important to note that the assembly has not removed the church’s standard of “fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness.” For the proposed change — making obedience to Christ the ordination standard — to become part of the Book of Order, a majority of presbyteries will need to ratify it over the next year.

Sorry, that doesn’t wash. Presbyteries and sessions are now free to ignore those standards, regardless of whether they are ultimately removed from the Book of Order. Of course, presbyteries such as Twin Cities, Hudson River, and San Francisco had already indicated that they were going to do so anyway, and dare the church to stop them (which the synod that includes Twin Cities has refused to do). It was always possible to challenge such actions, however, and hope that the GA Permanent Judicial Commission would enforce the standards. Now, there is no possibility of that, so for the Big Three to imply that All Is Well because the BOO hasn’t changed yet is simply dishonest.

Oh, and to say that the proposed change is to make “obedience to Christ the ordination standard” is likewise fatuous. Neither so-called “red-letter Christianity” (making the words of Christ more important than the rest of Scripture) nor fidelity to the whole of Scripture (the Reformed standard) permit an approach that allows for homosexual activity. Christ affirms the original design for marriage, which is between a man and a woman for life, and Paul is explicit that homosexual behavior is forbidden to Christians and an expression of humanity’s sinfulness. The proposed change, however, is simply a linguistic sleight-of-hand meant to replace the authority of Christ and Scripture with that of the will of the presbytery, which in turn is in many instances founded more in secular culture and ideology than anything resembling Christian theology.

The letter then concludes with some typical “we’re all in this together” language:

We know the assembly actions may do little to ease the anxiety that seems to permeate our life together as a denomination. The debate isn’t new and the future holds difficult challenges. As the Rev. Dan Holloway, moderator of the committee that took up the items on ordination standards, said, “As we move forward, it is essential that we have conversations that are gracious and loving and welcoming, since we are not all of one mind.” Our hope is that none of us will act or react immediately to the decisions, choosing instead to pray and talk with one another about these issues.

How many times have we heard this line? And how many times will it be uttered by those oblivious to the impossibility of what they say? This is not just a matter of an intellectual disagreement. This is about an action that will either be done or not. There’s no middle way–either sexually active gays will be ordained, or they won’t be. Either the denomination will be faithful to biblical standards of sexual morality, or it won’t. If Presbyterians want to see where the constant invocation of “conversation” and “dialogue” will wind up, they can look at the Episcopal Church, where dissent from the recently ascendant orthodoxy is in the process of being crushed.

During the question-and-answer time for the Stated Clerk election on Friday morning, now Stated Clerk-elect Gradye Parsons spoke of the story of Jesus being in the boat with his disciples in the middle of the lake when a storm arose (Luke 8). If fear could have capsized their boat, the disciples would have found themselves working hard to tread water in the midst of the wind and waves. Yet, Jesus calmed the storm and proceeded to question them about their faith.

Like the disciples, we, the PC(USA), are in the boat together, sometimes not altogether sure where we are headed. We see the storm approaching and our fears rise with the waves. Yet, as he was with the disciples, so, too, is Christ in our midst — calming the wind, settling the waves — being present and guiding us as we proceed ahead.

Gradye offered the following mantra as a summary of the Luke story: Get into the boat. Go across the lake. There will be a storm. You will not die.

The PCUSA, on the other hand, may well be a different story.

The leaders of the New Wineskins Association have responded to the events of the 218th PCUSA General Assembly, and needless to say they aren’t impressed. Their statement deserves to be quoted in full:

 

Theologically unhinged – The 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has become theologically unhinged from our Biblical and Reformation foundation. The actions of this assembly are schismatic. They foster division within our denomination and threaten the sundering of the denomination from the world Church of Jesus Christ.

Specifically,

· The assembly recommends re-writing the historic Heidelberg Catechism by truncating a quotation from Scripture (1 Cor. 6:9) in order to remove reference to homosexual behavior as sinful.

· The assembly has asked the church once again to overturn historic, Biblical standards of sexual holiness for those being ordained. Previous authoritative interpretations about sexuality and ordination standards have been rendered void. Presbyteries will be asked to delete the “fidelity in marriage, chastity in singleness” clause of G-6.0106b.

· The assembly has misunderstood and disrespected all three religions in its resolutions about Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The assembly calls upon these religions to celebrate religious holidays together: as if a good Muslim could celebrate the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ at Christmas, as if a good Jew could look to the crucifixion on Good Friday for atonement, as if a good Christian could consecrate himself or herself during Ramadan to a Unitarian God who is not the gracious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the Triune God.

· The assembly declined asking the church to redefine marriage as between one man and one woman (Mt. 19: 4-5). Nevertheless, a civil marriage between 2 men was performed by a PC(USA) minister at the More Light General Assembly gathering. Those charged with defending our constitution have remained silent on this breach of ordination vows.

We find these actions repugnant and call upon the denomination to reject them heartily.

Meanwhile, the New Wineskins Association of Churches continues to hold to a vision of a church grounded in:

· shared, clear essential theological tenets based on historic Biblical faith
· shared ethical imperatives derived from Scripture
· relationships of mutual accountability and support
· a polity designed for missional service.

Seeing this reminded me that I missed the Heidelberg Catechism story amid everything else going on this week. For a good wrap-up on that one, see Classical Presbyterian and the official news story. The NWA summary is a good one, though it could be a lot longer (calling for “investigation” of the EPC, endorsing the Amman Call, brushing aside calls for balance on abortion, etc.). But I think they hit the nail on the head in a most succinct way in summing up this GA: “theologically unhinged.”

(Hat tip: Steve Bryant.)

Even before the votes were all in this week at the PCUSA General Assembly, there were those who had every intention of sticking their fingers in the eyes of those defending biblical morality. More Light Presbyterians tells the story:

More Light Presbyterians join in celebrating the marriage of the Rev. Susan Craig and the Rev. Bear Ride – possibly the first same-gender Presbyterian clergy to marry since the state of California weighed in on marriage equality.  Bear and Susan were married on June 19 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, in the presence of family and friends, with the Revs Ed Bacon and George Regas and Rabbi Steven Jacobs officiating.  Craig and Ride’s four adult children served as “Best People,” with Ride’s mother beaming in the front pew.  Elder Michael Adee, Executive Director of More Light Presbyterians, and Martha Juillerat, founder of the Shower of Stoles Project, participated in the joyous celebration, with a number of Presbyterian clergy and friends praying, singing and cheering on.

Meg Endy – Craig’s daughter – was the first to call the couple after the CA Supreme Court decision was announced, to say, “Now you can get married!“ And Cait Scott – Ride’s daughter – reflected at the service “Its about time! We are so proud of Mom and Susan.  My brother and new step-brother and sister celebrate marriage equality as our own happy family expands.”

Michael Adee remarked “I kept wiping tears from my eyes during the wedding. It’s historic and momentous for Bear and Susan as they make their covenant of love ‘legal’ in the eyes of the state, and historic for the Church as it witnesses the blessing and grace of love expressed and shared in community.”

Traditional vows and rings were exchanged, scripture shared and reflected on, hymns sung and communion celebrated as Susan and Bear promised themselves to each other as spouses in the sight of God, their community, and the state.

Ride and Craig both have adult children, suggesting that they are ex-straights who presumably went through the destraightification machine before deciding they were lesbians. “Marrying” on the eve of the beginning of the GA was their way of saying, “ex-straights can get married, too, and there’s nothing you can do about it! Nana nana boo boo!”

(Hat tip: Steve Bryant.)

What would a large mainline gathering be without a left-wing ideological foray into public policy? The PCUSA General Assembly couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do so, of course, and one that was passed last night is entitled “On Supporting Single Payer Universal Healthcare Reform.” It says:

1. Endorse in principle the provision of single-payer universal health care reform in which health care services are privately provided and publicly financed.

2. Direct the General Assembly Council, through appropriate offices including the National Health Ministries, the Washington Office, and the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association (PHEWA),advocate for, educate about, and otherwise pursue the goal of obtaining legislation that enacts single-payer, universal national health insurance as the program that best responds to the moral imperative of the gospel; monitoring progress toward this goal and reporting back to the next two General Assemblies (2010 and 2012)

3. Direct the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly to send a copy of this resolution to the appropriate committee chairs of the U.S. Congress and to the Washington and United Nations offices of the PC(USA).

4. Direct that $25,000 from the Mission budget of the PC(USA) be sent to the PACT Network of PHEWA for the purpose of holding ten regional, one-day seminars supporting single payer universal healthcare reform, moneys to be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.

Single payer universal health coverage (not “care,” which is what you get from a doctor, but “coverage,” which is how you pay for it) may be a good idea, though the track record for it in the developed world is spotty at best. But a case can be made for it, I’m sure. That case isn’t found in the half-page of rationale offered on behalf of this overture. Instead, we get a smattering of random facts meant to indict the current system, an assertion that the American College of Physicians (not the AMA) is for it, a reference to Jesus as a healer and the Great Physician, and this mathematical gem:

And single-payer universal healthcare reform would increase coverage from the 60 percent of Americans already covered by Medicare (over 65) or Medicaid (severely limited wealth) to 100 percent of Americans, a net increase of only 40 percent.

Even assuming the 60% figure is accurate (I highly doubt it, and there’s no source cited), the “40% increase” is a howler. An increase from 60% to 100% is actually a 66% increase. Whatever.

Here’s the point: as a matter of prudential judgment, universal single payer health coverage may be good or bad. Lots of people, some expert on the matter, most not, have opinions. Lots of Presbyterians have opinions, and I’ve got no problem with them writing their congresscritters or whatever else they want to do to push those opinions. But the PCUSA, as a Christian denomination, has no expertise in this whatsoever. All it has is left-wing ideology, poorly expressed, and the willingness to shovel $25,000 down a rathole to propagandize some small number of individuals on the subject. Congress rightly pays no attention to pronouncements like these, because they know that the denomination can deliver nothing, neither knowledge nor votes, to back them up, and so basically you’ve got $25,000 being wasted that could have been used elsewhere (how about a downpayment on dealing with clergy abuse?), and an extraordinarily simplistic statement on an extraordinarily complex public policy issue that will only cause knowledgable people to snicker at the PCUSA’s hubris.

On the other hand, in the face of the torrent of bad legislation passed by this GA, who will notice?

“I have a plan for gracious separation. Leave the keys for the people who want to stay in the PCUSA.”

–Rev. Matthew Schramm of the PCUSA’s Newton Presbytery, opposing a resolution urging a pastoral approach to those congregations desiring to depart the denomination

The PCUSA General Assembly took yet another left-wing approach to an issue last night, voting to go along with the evisceration of an overture calling for balance in the denomination’s treatment of abortion. Pittsburgh Presbytery had sought GA approval for this:

The Presbytery of Pittsburgh overtures the 218th General Assembly (2008) to direct all PC(USA) entities in both funding and in publications to reflect balance and equality in advocating both sides of the abortion issue so that any advocacy is in full compliance with our 1992 Abortion Policy. Therefore, we direct our national offices to uphold this policy in any and all of their communications with both church and society.

Beaver-Butler Presbytery had asked for something even stronger:

1.Direct all PC(USA) entities, in both funding and in publications, to reflect balance and equality in advocating both sides of the abortion issue so that any advocacy is in full compliance with our 1992 abortion policy.

2. Direct the PC(USA) national offices to uphold the 1992 abortion policy in any and all funding allocations, and in all of their communications with both church and society; or to immediately cease funding in support of any one side of this critical issue. (Either of these actions would be in compliance with the 1992 Abortion Policy and would affirm the policy’s statement that the church provide for freedom and exercise of conscience on this matter which so clearly divides us.)

What they got was this:

The 218th General Assembly (2008) directs the appropriate PC(USA) entities to redevelop congregational resource materials, on the subject of reproductive options, to more adequately reflect the full spectrum of biblical, theological, and pastoral counsel, while remaining consistent with the policy of the 1992 report of the Special Committee on Problem Pregnancies and Abortion and the 2006  policy on Late-Term Pregnancies and Abortion. The General Assembly Council will report back to the 219th General Assembly (2010).

Translation: We’ll put in a few more quotes from anti-woman Neanderthals pro-lifers in our resource stuff. The Washington Office, on the other hand, will continue to argue against pretty much any restriction on the destruction of fetal life, as will the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), Women’s Ministries, and Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options. If you don’t like it, you can pound salt.

In one of those actions that either suggests widespread anti-Semitism in the PCUSA or widespread ignorance on the part of commissioners, the General Assembly this evening passed overture 11-01, “On Peace and Justice in Palestine and Israel.”

Why do I suggest that particular either/or? Because of the following connected items. First, the overture states:

2. Endorses the “Amman Call” regarding Arab-Israeli peace, issued by the World Council of Churches’ conference, “Churches Together for Peace and Justice in the Middle East,” at Amman, Jordan, June 18-20, 2007, including its affirmation of the UN resolutions that are the basis of a projected “two-state” solution, a shared Jerusalem, and the human rights of refugees and occupied peoples, its call to resist extremism and push for reconciliation, and its commitment to imperatives of ecumenical solidarity in action for Just Peace, directing that the Amman Call be printed in the Minutes of the General Assembly and considered in any study processes of the church.

What is the “Amman Call”? It’s a statement from participants at a 2007 World Council of Churches International Peace Conference entitled “Church together for Peace and Justice in the Middle East.” It takes the usual position on issues in the Holy Land: two-state solution, condemnation of Israeli settlements, condemnation of Israel’s security fence, even-handed condemnation of violence (because there’s no moral difference between suicide bombings of civilian restaurants and the targeted killing of terrorists), refusal to so much as name the terror gangs that dominate Palestinian life, virulent anti-Semitic propaganda in Palestinian schools and media never mentioned. It demands that the result of negotiations over Jerusalem be pre-determined by giving the Palestinians exactly what they ask for. Finally, and most tellingly, we have this:

9. We have heard the voices of the Christian churches of Palestine and Israel challenging and saying to us:

9.7. Insist with us that all dispossessed peoples, all refugees, have the right to return.

This is, as I’ve said many time before, a call for the destruction by demography of the Jewish state. At the same time that they call for two states, they demand that Palestinians be allowed to become a majority in Israel (which, being a democracy, would soon be a Palestinian-ruled state, at which point dhimmitude would be the fate of Jewish Israelis, if civil war didn’t result).

Here’s why I pose the either/or at the top of the post: either the commissioners hostility to Jews is so great that they believe that Jews, alone among the world’s people, have no right to self-determination or to a homeland of their own; or they have no idea what the Amman Call says and implies, and passed an overture that gave their backing to a statement they don’t understand. Take your pick–I don’t think either one covers the PCUSA with glory.

UPDATE: According to the GA Junkie, the commissioners even had an opportunity to rectify this by voting for an amendment that would have deleted paragraph 2. They refused by 61-39%. The final vote was 74-26%. Incredible.

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