PC(USA) GAPJC Decision -- Parnell v. Presbytery of San Francisco
The Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has heard the final installment in a series of cases concerning San Francisco Presbytery's decision to ordain Lisa Larges as a teaching elder. This has been a long journey which has finally reached its conclusion — this decision lifts the stay of enforcement and clears the way for the Presbytery's decision to ordain Lisa to be carried out. In the larger context with the passage of Amendment 10-A we have probably seen the last of this type of cases.
I am not going to go through the full, complicated history of this case and the other remedial cases revolving around this ordination process - you can read about it in the GAPJC decision and my previous summaries. Briefly, where we stand with this case is that in the previous hearing before the GAPJC the Commission agreed with the Synod PJC that for the most part the procedure followed by the Presbytery was correct but that in their decision the Synod PJC had not properly dealt with the issue of doctrine. It was remanded back to the Synod for further consideration and now following that consideration, and an SPJC decision that there was no problem, it was appealed back to the GAPJC.
Now, in the case of Eric Parnell, Bruce McIntosh, Cordelia Shieh, Margaret Gelini, Greg Roth, Marsha Roth, Randy Young, and the Session of Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church, Appellants (Complainants), v. Presbytery of San Francisco, Appellee (Respondent): Remedial Case 220-10 the GAPJC in a unanimous decision did not sustain any of the eight specifications of error. As I indicated above every one dealt with doctrine and all begin "The SPJC committed an error of constitutional interpretation when it..." These specifications of error are:
- "...when it failed to act according to its constitutional responsibility to warn and bear witness against error in doctrine within its bounds."
- "...when it presumed that it was the presbytery's prerogative to determine the essentials of Reformed faith and polity, when they are expressed in the Constitution."
- "...when it failed to properly reconcile the Historic Principles of Church Order by giving effect only to F-3.0101 (Freedom of Conscience) at the expense of all the others."
- "...when it applied the concept of mutual forbearance (F-3.0105) to permit the candidate's conscientious objection to a scriptural and confessional standard to infringe upon the rights and views of others (G-2.0105)."
- "...when it failed to apply and enforce the interpretation of Scripture found in the Confessions (G-2.0105) with regard to sexual conduct."
- "...when it failed to discipline and rebuke the Presbytery for its failure to admonish and instruct the candidate in correct doctrine (G-3.0301c)."
- "...when it permitted the Presbytery to accept a candidate for ordination who could not, by her rejection of sound doctrine, provide an affirmative answer to each of the constitutional questions for ordination (W-4.4003, 4005b, 4006b)."
- "...when it permitted mere authoritative interpretations - in this case, the PUP and Knox AI - to override constitutional provisions, including those found in the Book of Confessions."
In the opening paragraph of the decision section the GAPJC writes:
[The] alleged errors can be subsumed under two categories: (1) doctrinal error by errant interpretation of Scripture and Confessions, and (2) the authority of the Presbytery in the examination of the Candidate for ordination. The Commission agrees with the SPJC Decision that the Presbytery properly exercised its prerogative in determining that the Candidate did not depart from the essentials of Reformed faith and polity.They note the "diversity of opinions" in the PC(USA) and that historically "presbyteries have had full authority to determine whether a candidate for ordination adheres to the necessary and essential tenets of the Reformed faith." The decision section concludes by talking about the Book of Confessions:
The Book of Confessions reflects that the Church listens to a multitude of voices in shaping its beliefs. The Book of Confessions is hardly univocal, containing as it does eleven different creeds, catechisms, and confessions of faith written over millennia of Christian witness. ... Therefore, the confessional tradition is, itself, an instrument of reform. The Book of Confessions, much like Scripture itself, requires discernment and interpretation when its standards are to be applied in the life and mission of the church.The decision of the SPJC is therefore affirmed and the stay of enforcement vacated.
This decision comes with two concurring opinions from two different viewpoints. The first, signed by four commissioners, is an interesting historical commentary. It begins by noting that the original examination of the candidate involved declaring a scruple which they "believe to have then been unconstitutional." With the change in the constitutional language this is no longer relevant.
But they go on to note, using language from the SPJC decision, the "vast diversity of interpretation of scripture and the confessions regarding human sexuality" across members of the denomination. They then write:
While we concur with this assessment of where the PC(USA) is as a denomination, we lament that it is in this place – where differences over matters of human sexuality have become so diverse and divisive, where slim majority votes create huge shifts in the communal life of the denomination, and where every decision the church makes in this area is a sweet victory for one side, and a bitter defeat for the other, ultimately causing entire congregations to determine that they can no longer remain in fellowship with the denomination. As Joe Small described in a recent article in First Things, our denomination has relied on polity instead of scriptural and theological discernment to decide particular manifestations of the dilemma in which we find ourselves.
In many respects the denomination has been transformed by a culture of sexual fixation rather than being transformative of that culture. What difference does it make to be “Christian” when it comes to our lifestyles? Have we spoken truth to power on issues such as promiscuity, premarital, extramarital and postmarital sex and the “soft” pornography that is rampant in our television shows and advertisements? Have we been willing to teach our children and each other on these matters? Or have we succumbed to the tyranny of cultural peer pressure? How can we discipline officers for sexual misconduct when we are unwilling to discipline ourselves generally? Have we been blinded by the “trees” of the homosexual issue, while overlooking the “forest” of the larger issues of sexual gluttony generally?They continue with an interesting comparison of the situation today with the circumstances in the 1920's that gave rise to the Swearingen Commission. They quote from the Commission's first report that discussed the lack of interest in changing the Constitution but rather that "They are agreed that the remedies for our troubles are within the Constitution itself." The opinion then goes on to say:
The same assessment could not be given today, and it is precisely our arguments over the constitution – including acts of outright defiance of constitutional provisions by those on both “sides” in our various debates – that we believe threaten our continued existence and future vitality as a faith tradition. There was a time when our covenantal commitment to each other was strong, and when “mutual forbearance” meant a willingness to abide by our constitution even as we worked to change it. Because of our increasing differences regarding what the constitution ought to say, those days are gone – and we are therefore in the position described by the Swearingen Commission in which our difficulties are “multiplied greatly.”There is a second concurring opinion by two commissioners that makes an argument about the place of interpretation. They begin by noting that "the matter of interpretation is central because in large part it is inevitable within scriptural and confessional authority." They go on to write:
The necessary act of interpretation has been at the heart of the Reformed tradition from its inception. One may, in fact, claim that the Reformation in itself was an event of radical reinterpretation, i.e., a corrected interpretation of the Bible in a recovery of the priority of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the means of grace.They continue:
In this case, the parties agree on the necessity of continuing interpretation in understanding the meaning of Scripture and Confession through the application of modern textual analysis. The record exhibits testimony and general agreement in a number of interpretive conflicts in the church’s more recent history dealing with issues such as the role of women in the church, or in the matter of divorce and remarriage. The use of textual-critical methods, especially in the last century, has altered the range of interpretation to such an extent that scriptural and confessional texts in the arena of social and sexual relations areas have become open to alternate understandings.
Only in the matter of homosexuality do the Appellants claim an exception, i.e., pressing a univocal meaning and interpretation across vastly different historical periods and socio-cultural contexts. Although in other areas of contention there is an acceptance of the conditioning nature of radically altered historical-cultural situations, including differing social and scientific assessments, that may lead to the legitimacy of variant interpretation, in the argument of this Appeal homosexuality is an exception. It alone is held to be exempt from such interpretive analysis. The Appellants do not offer a convincing rationale in support of this exception. There is extended reference to a simple preponderance of pre-modern and early modern testimonies, but the argument remains rooted in an assumption of univocal constancy, with little reference to contemporary critical analysis or contextual differentiation. Absent such substantiation, the Appellants present no basis for rejecting the truth claim in variant interpretations.The opinion concludes with how the Swearingen Commission described an essential tenet in their second report:
That which is “essential and necessary” is that which must be present in the doctrinal system of the church in order to uphold its central witness and maintain its distinctive character. Absent such doctrine, the system collapses. The test then becomes whether a particular doctrine or practice is necessary for the integrity of the system of doctrine as a whole.They conclude that the doctrinal issue in this matter does not rise to the level of "essential and necessary."
Now, while each of these is an interesting commentary and provides insights into the historical context, they are only concurring opinions and are not authoritative. In addition, they are essentially comments on the larger situation in the PC(USA) and how they see that it got into the current circumstances. It is left as an exercise for the reader as to the strengths of each of their arguments.
So, in that vain here are a couple of observations from me that I hope address the implications of this decision...
One of the things that I am on the lookout for when reading PJC or SJC decisions is to what extent they may be setting precedent. Because Amendment 10-A has gone into effect Specification of Error 8 is moot and was not individually addressed so this decision does not help enlighten us on the extent to which a General Assembly may use an Authoritative Interpretation to, shall we say, smooth constitutional language. The first concurring opinion gave us their belief on the matter. I am concerned that the 220th General Assembly could issue AI's that will be bouncing back and forth between the GA and the GAPJC much as the PUP and Knox AI did.
One thing this opinion does reinforce is that "presbyteries have had full authority to determine whether a candidate for ordination adheres to the necessary and essential tenets of the Reformed faith." In doing so the GAPJC again declines to give specific guidance on what those are and leaves it up to the presbyteries. Is the logical extension of this that presbyteries, in discerning the necessary and essential tenets, are empowered to formally establish what necessary and essential tenets are? (exempli gratia) We know from the 2008 Buescher v. Olympia decision:
Attempts by governing bodies that ordain and install officers to adopt resolutions, statements or policies that paraphrase or restate provisions of the Book of Order and/or declare them as “essentials of Reformed faith and polity” are confusing and unnecessary, and are themselves an obstruction to constitutional governance in violation of G-6.0108a.Candidates must be evaluated individually but if the presbytery has "full authority," to what extent can the necessary and essential tenets be determined as a matter of presbytery policy?
But while this decision speaks of the full authority of a presbytery and listening to a "multitude of voices," the polity wonks are well aware of the tension and limits expressed in the Maxwell v. Pittsburgh decision where the GAPJC said that "presbytery's power is not absolute. It must be exercised in conformity with the Constitution." They went on to say
It is evident from our Church's confessional standards that the Church believes the Spirit of God has led us into new understandings of this equality before God, Thus the Confession of 1967 proclaims, "Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess." (9.44.)So a tension is present and over time the confessions may be understood to be more univocal on particular points.
And just a note about how these decisions focus on the church Constitution in general and the confessions in particular. Yes, it is the charge of the GAPJC to interpret the Constitution, but while the specifications of error made reference to scripture, only passing reference to this is made in this decision to the authority of scripture. The focus instead is on how it is filtered and viewed through the confessions. Compare this to the charges against Charles A. Briggs in 1893, admittedly a bit apples and oranges since this is remedial and that was disciplinary, which are very specific in regards to scripture references and doctrinal errors. As the Maxwell decision says, the authority of a presbytery is judged in relation to the Constitution, not in direct relation to scripture.
Another point that jumped out at me was the decision's discussion of the nature of The Book of Confessions. I don't think it surprised anyone who has looked at the history of American Presbyterianism to read the line in the decision that says "The Book of Confessions reflects that the Church listens to a multitude of voices in shaping its beliefs. The Book of Confessions is hardly univocal, containing as it does eleven different creeds, catechisms, and confessions of faith written over millennia of Christian witness." Even with only the Westminster Standards American Presbyterians have had trouble agreeing on what they mean — how much more when you have eight other documents thrown in? In light of the fact that ECO has expressed their desire to be specific about necessary and essential tenets I, and I suspect a number of others, were surprised to see that they propose adopting all eleven of the documents as their subsidiary standards, at least as an opening position. Recognizing that this variety of statements is not univocal on many doctrinal issues, at the West Coast Fellowship of Presbyterians gathering in March it was interesting to hear TE Jim Singleton, in response to a question about this, commented that there will probably be doctrinal issues to be worked out "once we are all in the boat together" as the new ECO body.
OK, I have rambled on enough here so let me get to the bottom line. As I read this decision I don't see that it breaks any new ground but is a confirmation of the current status in the PC(USA). It is significant in two respects: 1) From my tracking all pre-10-A judicial cases have now been concluded. 2) The reinforcing of the status quo comes at a pivotal time with the establishment of ECO and a number of contentious issues coming to the General Assembly in two months. Another milepost on the journey — let us see what happens next. Stay tuned...