PC(USA) GAPJC Decisions -- Larson and others v. Presbytery of Los Ranchos

The most recent meeting of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). was a busy and significant one. A couple of weeks ago they heard three important cases and issued their decisions. I am taking these individually because of the importance of each one and taking them in order of their case number. I have already posted 221-02 Newark v. McNeill and  221-03 Tom and others v. San Francisco. Today I will finish this up with 221-04 Larson v. Los Ranchos.

So here we go...

Remedial Case 221-04: Gerald J. Larson, Gary L Collins, Rebecca B. Prichard, R. Winston Presnall, Margery McIntosh, Michal Vaughn, Lucy StaffordLewis, Julie 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, Susan Currie, Complainants/Appellants, v. Presbytery of Los Ranchos, Respondent/Appellee

This remedial case, which was decided in the Appellants' favor with no concurring or dissenting opinions, results from a resolution passed by the Presbytery in September 2011:
Moved: That the Presbytery of Los Ranchos adopt the following statement interpreting this presbytery’s understanding of certain behavioral expectations of members.

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 complaint was filed and the Synod PJC decided in favor of the Presbytery with a dissenting opinion written by two commissioners. The Complainants asked for review by the GAPJC.

Let me hold up here for the moment and mention two things about my analysis of the SJC decision - one that I got right and one that I missed.

The former is my looking ahead at the prospects for the case. I wrote:
[T]he 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.
The second point is a nuance that I missed in the SPJC trail but was alerted to it after the fact and is important to the Los Ranchos brief to the GAPJC. This nuance is the intent that these standards are not requirements for membership or ordination but what the Presbytery expects of a member of the Presbytery after being admitted. The brief puts it this way:
By its plain language, the Resolution is an aspirational statement, entitled "Resolution of Expectations," and contains no language that requires the Presbytery to take any particular action or reach any pre-ordained conclusion about any candidate for membership or ordained service.

The appeal to the GAPJC had ten specifications of error, some of which had sub-points, which were consolidated down to six specifications. Of these all but one were sustained.

The first specification was the error that the SPJC failed to address the allegations stated in the complaint. While this specification was sustained the GAPJC went on to say that there could still be full consideration of the complaint and ultimately the error was harmless.

The last specification was that "the SPJC failed to correct Appellee's defiance of an established position of the church." This was not sustained and the decision said "While there was overreaching, there was not deliberate defiance by the Presbytery."

The middle four specifications deal with the nuts and bolts of the polity issues. Specification 2 was that "The SPJC failed to acknowledge the plain meaning and inherent practical effect of the Resolution." Number 3 dealt with the improper restatement of the Constitution. The fourth was the interpretation and application of G-3.0102 and F-3.0209 and the fifth was that "The SPJC erred by disregarding the constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience and concomitant duty to show one another mutual forbearance."

All of these are addressed in the Decision Section which states:
The issue before this Commission is whether the resolution adopted by Presbytery is an appropriate use of a presbytery’s authority in issuing statements that “bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience and decide issues properly brought before them under the provisions of the Book of Order." (G-3.0102)
In both of the briefs and in the GAPJC decision reference is made to Decision 205-15 Presbytery of West Jersey v. Synod of the Northeast. In that remedial case the Presbytery objected to the Synod passing a resolution that declared itself a More Light Synod and the question was "In adopting these resolutions, did the Synod of the Northeast, in effect, adopt a policy which is contrary to the current constitutional position of the denomination?" In that case the GAPJC decided it had not saying:
The evidence presented at trial reflected that the resolutions constituted an expression of opinion.  Expression of an opinion by a synod or other governing body, without action, does not constitute the adoption of a policy contrary to an established and controlling constitutional policy of the denomination.
In this decision the GAPJC wrote about it saying:
The present case is distinguishable from West Jersey, in that in West Jersey the resolutions were addressed, or understood to be addressed to the church as a whole, whereas the resolution in the present case is addressed, to "candidates for ordination/installation and/or membership in the presbytery." Herein lies the difference.
They continue
This Commission determines, therefore, that by directing the notification specifically to those who would potentially seek admission into Presbytery, the Resolution would have the practical effect of discouraging those seeking ordination or membership prior to the required case by case evaluation or examination. In so doing, Presbytery exceeded its authority and duty to “bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience…” (G-3.0102) and its right and obligation to “nurture the covenant community of disciples of Christ … includ[ing] ordaining, receiving, dismissing, installing, removing, and disciplining its members who are teaching elders…” (G-3.0301c). 
So, while intended to be aspirational and argued that the language showed that intent, because it made specific reference to "those that seek admission into Presbytery" the Resolution strays from being simple opinion.

There are the two important precedents which are dealt with in the second to last paragraph. The decision notes Bush v. Pittsburgh (Decision 218-10) and Buescher v. Olympia (Decision 218-09) and says:
[W]hen Presbytery combined current Book of Order language from G–2.0104a with former Book of Order language G-6.0106b, it created at least a perception of an improper restatement of the Constitution.  As this Commission stated in both Bush and Buescher, “[r]estatements of the Book of Order, in whatever form they are adopted, are themselves an obstruction to the same standard of constitutional governance no less than attempts to depart from mandatory provisions.” 
And so, the GAPJC wraps it all up with this final line:
This Commission declares that the Resolution as written is unconstitutional and,
therefore, void.
As I said, no additional opinions. The SPJC decison is reversed and the Presbytery resolution is voided.

The first comment I have is to raise the question, based upon this and the referenced decisions, could an acceptable statement be constructed?  From West Jersey, we know that it must state opinion and not "compel or direct any action." Further, that decision suggests that it should be addressed to the church as a whole. From Bush and Buescher we know that it must not be a restatement of the Book of Order and from this decision "a perception of an improper restatement of the Constitution." And again, this decision guides us that it can not be directed "specifically to those who would potentially seek admission into Presbytery."

The final statement of the decision, in identifying the "Resolution as written," suggests that such a statement that complies with these criteria could be produced. The exercise is left to the reader but a reasonable presbyter could be forgiven for thinking the task too difficult or for considering the final product so limited as to be without merit or the worth the necessary time to construct it.

It is along these lines that the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, Dr. W. Keith Geckeler, has counseled the Presbytery. In a letter posted on the Presbytery web site he writes:
This Decision does not prohibit the presbytery from doing anything it was not already prohibited from doing nor does it permit it to do anything it was not already permitted to do.  And it does not prohibit the presbytery from doing what it has always been permitted to do. 
However, because nothing is changed by the Decision—and nothing would be changed by adopting a new Resolution—the presbytery would do well to consider whether energy would be better spent crafting a new statement—or directed toward creating healthy congregations within this presbytery. 

Let me finish up by taking this in another direction... What if a church or presbytery did not want to restate the Constitution using their own words but wanted to ground their statement by using an historic confession. Maybe they find something new like the French Confession that the Fellowship of Presbyterians is going to focus on this year or the Creed of Chalcedon that is received in the Second Helvetic Confession. What if they wanted to affirm a different version of a confessional document, like affirming the current version of the Heidelberg Catechism rather than the revised version if it is adopted. Or for that matter, what if a governing body felt that an earlier version of the Westminster Confession was their statement of faith? Or what if they wanted to not affirm a particular confessional document like the Confession of 1967 or Belhar if adopted?

A governing body can do this speaking to the whole church and not stating it as a requirement for ordination or membership. And if they adopt an historical document are they really restating Constitutional standards?  That argument could be made — While a particular constitutional document is being affirmed it could be argued that by not taking all of them, or the official ones, as a package then it is a restatement of the whole. On the other hand, we tend to do that when using the Book of Confessions in worship or devotions — When was the last time your church affirmed its faith using a piece of the Second Helvetic Confession?

Let me ask one additional "what if?" What if a group within the Presbytery were to adopt a resolution similar to the Los Ranchos statement? The presbytery has not adopted it yet if the group constitutes a majority of commissioners and members would the standards become a de facto membership criteria for the whole presbytery? Not being a governing body this would have to be dealt with as a disciplinary case unless it were a remedial case against the presbytery for not bringing the disciplinary case.

OK, enough idol idle speculation on this. As I argue above this decision seems to place a significant fence around the possibility of a presbytery affirming particular standards for members. But as the Los Ranchos letter also says, the landscape has not really changed — standards for ordination and membership decisions can still be handled on a case-by-case basis.

So where now? All this discussion of Creeds and Confessions got me going in that direction and I am looking at some reflection regarding those as a prologue to revisiting some of last Summer's PC(USA) 220th GA. However, the Synod PJC decision yesterday has raised some significant polity questions for me and so I am setting the former thoughts aside for a few days to deal with that new decision. Stay tuned...
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