Threading The Needle -- SPJC Approves Standards Statement
No sooner do I get done reflecting on the tension between a presbytery having full authority to determine if candidates hold the necessary and essential tenets of the Reformed faith and the requirement that presbyteries don't actually try to enumerate them in advance then we have a Synod Permanent Judicial Commission (SPJC) decision that confirms that a presbytery has appropriately threaded this needle.
This case goes back to last September when the Presbytery of Los Ranchos adopted a statement on "behavioral expectations" of officers. This statement reads
Affirming that 'The gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons.' (G-1.0302) The Presbytery of Los Ranchos, meeting on September 15, 2011, affirms that the Bible, The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order (including G-2.0104b and G- 2.0105.1 & 2) set forth the scriptural and constitutional standards for ordination and installation. Los Ranchos Presbytery believes the manner of life of ordained Ministers should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world, including living either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness and will so notify candidates for ordination/installation and/or membership in the presbytery. In obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture and guided by our confessions, this presbytery will prayerfully and pastorally examine each candidate's calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office, including a commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions of ordination and installation.A remedial complaint was filed with the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii PJC - Gerald J . Larson, Gary L. Collins, Rebecca B. Prichard , R. Winston Presnall, Margery Mcintosh, Michal Vaughn, Lucy Stafford-Lewis, July Richwine, Jerry Elliott, Sara McCurdy, Gregory Vacca, Gail Stearns, Steve Wirth, Suzanne Darweesh, Jane Parker , Darlene Elliott, Frances Bucklin, Deborah Mayhew, James McCurdy, Judith Anderson, and Susan Currie, Complainants, vs . Presbytery of Los Ranchos, Respondent (with thanks to the Layman for making the decision available on-line). The complainants had three Specifications of Error which the SPJC wrote "can be disposed of by the following specification: Whether a presbytery has the right to pass a resolution concerning the manner of life for its teaching elders as part of the proper exercise of the presbytery's authority within the powers reserved to presbyteries . (F-3.0209)" And the decision says - "This specification is answered in the affirmative."
In stating that the resolution is proper the key line in the decision section says
It does not restate the Constitution in that it explicitly affirms the various documents without offering an interpretation of those documents.They go on to first note that prior GAPJC decisions are based upon a prior Book of Order, although it is worth mentioning that the Report of the Special Committee on Existing Authoritative Interpretations of the Book of Order is recommending that all the cited Interpretations be retained. The decision then discusses these standards in light of the Bush and Buescher GAPJC decisions. Relative to Bush v Pittsburgh (218-10) they note that the Los Ranchos statement is in compliance with that decision as the "Resolution does not seek to offer an interpretation, paraphrase or restatement of any constitutional provisions." Regarding the Buescher v Olympia decision (218-09) the Los Ranchos resolution specifically says that each candidate will be individually examined and so it does not have essentials that are mandated in advance.
Then, in what strikes me as an interesting use of this section of the Book of Order, the decision cites F-3.0102 where it says "[E]very Christian church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members..." I have usually read this in the context of affirming denominational differences not standards for individual presbyteries or particular churches so its use here struck me as out of place. Just my reading of it and I've grasped at thinner straws myself.
The decision section concludes with this:
The Resolution does not obstruct any on-going interpretation or implementation of the constitution. It does not alter or interpret the standards for ordination and installation. The Resolution does not seek to define any tenet as an 'essential' doctrine of the P.C. (U.S.A.).But the SPJC has more to say in the order, and while lifting the Stay of Enforcement the Presbytery was also, under order, admonished for the language that they chose:
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Presbytery of Los Ranchos be admonished that while this PJC considers the resolution constitutional, the use of specific language known to be divisive and inflammatory flies in the face of the responsibility to seek the peace, unity, and purity of the church.Now, the polity wonks probably picked up two items in the decision that seem a bit of an issue, one being the use of F-3.0102 that I just mentioned. Two commissioners dissented from the decision and highlighted these two items in their opinion. Their first point is this:
1. In using the statement, "living either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or in singleness" the Presbytery is using a direct restating of the previous Book of Order requirement which was replaced by the General Assembly action and the presbyteries' vote. Therefore, it has no constitutional standing and cannot be used to determine a candidate's ordination eligibility. Such a policy preempts the vote of presbyters meeting in the future for the examination of candidates who have met the current constitutional requirements.They later write:
This language is purposefully taken out of the standards for ordained service (G-2.0l04b) by the action of the General Assembly and vote of the presbyteries. This renders the statement of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos unconstitutional in form and intent.Their second point is what they consider the misapplication of F-3.0102 by the majority. Expressing the same understanding of the section I mention above they write, in part:
In F-3.0102 the Book of Order continues to speak of the Christian church [in all its denominations] by saying, "Every Christian Church or union or association of particular churches"[referring to denominations, not presbyteries] is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members. [Again, referring Reformed Tradition churches, not presbyteries.]Let me make two brief points in conclusion:
In fact, the Presbyterian Church (USA) specifically stresses in diversity as it states in the Book of Order: (F-1.0403)The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church's membership...
First, the Presbytery of Los Ranchos is trying to walk a very fine polity line here and in the opinion of the majority of the SPJC they have successfully done so. However, the decision I expected from this case was much, much closer to the dissenting opinion. I have to think that the verbatim inclusion of now-removed language from the Book of Order is a problem in light of the Bush decision. If appealed to the GAPJC I would think this decision has a high likelihood of being overturned. However...
Before the GAPJC will be able to hear this case, if appealed, the 220th General Assembly will be meeting and who knows what polity landscape will come out of that. One possibility is that an Overture from South Alabama Presbytery (Item 07-08) will be sent to the presbyteries for concurrence providing for presbytery-specific behavioral expectations to be included in the presbytery's operational manuals. Or maybe officers-elect who are being examined will be explicitly prohibited from being asked to commit on how they would view the fitness of future officers-elect they might be examining. This request for an AI comes from similar overtures from Genesee Valley and Albany.
Finally, just a reminder and in full disclosure that I am, and have been, active in the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii and know a good number of the people on both sides of this issue. The opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect any sort of official disagreement or agreement with the faithful members of the SPJC. These are purely personal conclusions and remarks.
So, like much in the PC(USA) at the moment the future developments in this case will be interesting to see and heavily influenced by the moving target that is PC(USA) polity at the moment. Stay tuned and we will see what happens.