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They then quoted the proposed change in ordination standards, as well as the new Authoritative Interpretation that repealed previous AIs that prohibited the ordination of sexually active gays.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.