Category Archives: stated clerk

A Presbytery PJC Ruling On A Same-Sex Marriage Policy In The PC(USA)

I typically do not chase presbytery PJC rulings but rather wait until there has been a review by either a Synod PJC or the GA PJC so that they have had a chance to be digested a bit by another commission. However, a recent case is, as the decision notes, “…a question of first impression in this Presbytery and to the knowledge of this Commission in the PC(USA).” So here we go.

The case heard by the Permanent Judicial Commission of Salem Presbytery is Thomas E. Morgan – Complainant v. Session, First Presbyterian Church, Asheboro (North Carolina) – Respondent. My thanks to the Layman Online for making the full text available.

The circumstances of the case are rather straight-forward — A remedial complaint was filed against FPC Asheboro regarding a policy their session put in place that says, in part:

The Session will exercise due discretion in affirming marriage service requests, but affirms that all marriage services conducted at First Presbyterian Church shall reflect the understanding that Christian marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman.

The complaint alleges that this conflicts with the Book of Order section F-1.0403 which says, in part:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in
its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership.
No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than
those stated in this Constitution.

With that in mind, the case boils down to the new language regarding marriage, W-4.9, and the placement of the final section (W-4.9006) that says:

Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.

The question before the Commission was whether this language would permit a session to take a categorical stand in a church policy. The PJC said it does not and that section W-4.9 represents a process that must be followed and requests for marriage services must be handled on a case-by-case basis. More specifically, the decision says that the earlier sections of W-4.9, those involving meeting with the teaching elder and counseling, must happen first before a decision is made about the appropriateness of the marriage. They point out that this is a “shall” phrase in the Constitution where it says that following their request the couple “shall receive instruction from the teaching elder.”

The decision’s decisive paragraph says:

A categorical decision by the session not to permit any marriage by a couple of the same sex on church property without consideration of their commitment to each other, their understanding of the nature of the marriage covenant and their commitment to living their lives together according to its values is inconsistent with the process required by W-4.9001-9006. There is absolutely no question that W-4.9006 authorizes a session to prohibit any marriage on church property contrary to its discernment of the Holy Spirit and understanding of the Word of God. However, that authority is granted in the context of a process that requires the teaching elder to counsel with every couple seeking Christian marriage whether they are of the same sex or not. With regard to each such couple, the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session and the session is authorized to determine whether that couple may be married on church property. By adopting and publishing a policy that categorically excludes any same sex couple from being married on church property, the session has contradicted the policy requiring inquiry and counselling [sic] for any couple seeking a Christian marriage, including same sex couples. The logical effect of this policy will be to discourage any same sex couple desiring Christian marriage to seek counsel from the teaching elder called by the congregation or to seek permission to be married on church property regardless of any other circumstances. A categorical prohibition of same sex marriage on the property constitutes a categorical discrimination against same sex couples who present themselves for consideration for marriage in the congregation.

In one of the more interesting parts of the commission’s discussion they let the session off the hook a bit by pointing out guidance, but not authoritative language, in two document ( here is one of them)  from the Office of the General Assembly does specifically say that sessions can make a categorical prohibition. The commission goes on to say that the statement is not a General Assembly decision and is not pertinent to the decision they rendered.

It is worth reiterating at this point that this decision is from a presbytery PJC and has limited application. If appealed and upheld it would gain authoritative status.

There are no concurring or dissenting opinions filed with the decision.

This decision is reminiscent of the remedial cases regarding ordination standards and the various GAPJC rulings that there could be no categorical standards or explicit lists of essential tenants but each candidate must be considered on an individual basis. From a polity point of view this decision falls right in line with that.

What the session’s policy has fallen into is a typical polity trap of the apparent intent of the new language, as evidenced by the FAQ of the General Assembly Stated Clerk, versus how the actual authoritative language has been read by the commission. It is easy to see how they saw this as a process and, based on the precedent of the ordination standards decisions, decided that this too must be a case-by-case process.

A number of possibilities come to mind to clarify or reverse this thinking and return to what seems to be acknowledged as the intent of the 221st General Assembly. One is of course to have it reversed on appeal to the GAPJC but there is no assurance they would read intent into it either. Another would be to have the 222nd General Assembly issue an Authoritative Interpretation, possibly using business item 14-01 that asks for changes in W-4.9 as a vehicle for this while not necessarily granting the direct request of that overture. But judicial commissions might not agree and are under no obligation to uphold a GA AI, as we have seen in previous cases of “polity ping-pong.” Or, maybe we will see this in an overture to the 223rd General Assembly that asks for W-4.9006 to become W-4.9003 and current sections W-4.9003-5 be renumbered. Or maybe the GAPJC will agree with the presbytery PJC and the implications of that are left as an exercise for the reader.

Let me end with this thought — Part of section F-3.03 reads:

Provisions of any part of this Constitution are to be interpreted in light of the whole Constitution. No provision of the Book of Order can of itself invalidate any other. Where there are tensions and ambiguities between provisions, it is the task of councils and judicial commissions to resolve them in such a way as to give effect to all provisions.

By interpreting the W-4.9 as a process for which W-4.9006 is the culmination of the process, is this using one provision in the Book of Order to invalidate another rather than taking the last section as a conscience clause that stands alone? But it can also be viewed that taken as a whole W-4.9006 stands in tension with F-1.0403 and it should be subject to the protection of the equality clause.

Finally, I do have to acknowledge that it is disconcerting that the PJC decision is contrary to clear guidance given by the Stated Clerk’s office following passage of the new language. Furthermore, the clerk’s guidance reflects the intent of the Assembly regarding conscience as section W-4.9006 was not in the original overture or process language of the section but was added by the committee and the Assembly. (Hence its position at the end of the section.) Furthermore, the statement by the committee seeks a proactive process of reconciliation on this matter.

And for one added complexity, there is another tie-in to the 222nd General Assembly here — One of the Co-Moderator Candidates, Ruling Elder David Parker, is from Salem Presbytery. Not a sure thing we will see this come into play at the Assembly, but something to watch for.

These are a lot of words for a topic that has a long way to run. No word on an appeal yet and uncertain if, or how, it will arise at the upcoming General Assembly. All I can say is… Stay Tuned!

Top Ten Presbyterian News Topics Of 2015

Once again, as I think back on the year and review what has happened I decided to make a list of the different themes that stood out to me from different Presbyterian branches. Here, in no particular order, is my list. Your list may vary.

Racial Reconciliation

One of the more dramatic moments in a Presbyterian General Assembly this year occurred at the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. A good narration of the action comes from Travis Hutchinson’s blog. He begins his post with this description of the personal resolution offered from the floor of the Assembly:

Mississippi Teaching Elders, Drs Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan entered a personal resolution at the beginning of the Assembly which acknowledged the involvement of our denomination (and our predecessor denomination) in promoting racism and failing to act to support the goals of the Civil Rights movement. It encouraged us to seek repentance and carry this message to our local churches. The resolution was referred to our Overtures Committee for a recommendation.

The Overtures Committee recommended referring it to the next GA to allow for it to be perfected but when it returned to the floor it was clear that many commissioners felt making the statement at the current Assembly was a more important action than waiting for refinement. But in that parallel universe that is Standing Rules and Parliamentary Procedure the choice before the Assembly was not to adopt the original motion but to refer it back to the Overtures Committee or refer it to the next GA. After much debate, a couple of votes and not a small amount of prayer the Assembly voted to send it to the next Assembly. Then a protest was filed “expressing [personal] confession of sin and hope for repentance.” Over 200 of the commissioners signed onto the protest according to the official news item. Another detailed description of the Assembly action on this item can be found on TE Timothy R. LeCroy’s blog.

Other news in this topic includes the continued work of the Reformed African American Network, the formation of the African American Presbyterian Fellowship within the PCA’s Mission to North America ministries, and the PC(USA) has launched an anti-racism campaign.

In the PC(USA) the presbyteries approved the addition of the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions leaving only the final approval of the 222nd General Assembly in 2016.

Finally, in Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been working with the indigenous peoples and at the release of their final report the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada made a statement that acknowledged the pain of the past while expressing hope for the future.

 

Mass Shootings and Gun Violence

With several high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. this year it may be impossible to chronicle every Presbyterian connection. But two in particular caught my attention. The first was the shootings at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church in June. Among many connections, the church has had a long and close connection to Second Presbyterian next door. I chronicled some of the many connections in a headlines piece at the time. The other tragedy was the recent San Bernardino shootings close to where I live and several friends were mentioned in local news stories about responses and pastoral care. The PC(USA) issued both a pastoral letter as well as an initial and then a follow-up news article.

In addition, the Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly, Larissa Kwong Abazia, issued her own personal statement about the situation and asking the denomination to seek ways to respond to gun violence in general. In addition, in light of all the shootings it was a year in which the PC(USA) film about gun violence, “Trigger“, was highlighted.

As I said above, there were multiple incidents world-wide and that same June Headlines piece also contained links to several stories about a terrorist attack in Tunisia that killed adherents from the Church of Scotland.

 

Presbyterian denominations and same-gender relationships

This was an issue across many Presbyterian branches this year with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada beginning a study process to consider making their standards more inclusive and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland debating and sending to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act the proposed changes to their governing documents. For the Canadian church the study documents have been released. In the case of the Kirk the indication is the changes to the Acts and Proceedings have been approved by a majority of the presbyteries but the results will not be certified until next year.

In the American Presbyterian church, the PC(USA) presbyteries approved a change in the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship in the Book of Order. That change went into effect at the end of June and in early September the chapel at the PC(USA) national offices hosted its first same-gender wedding ceremony.

 

Reaction within the Presbyterian family to same-sex marriage decisions

The reaction to these decisions is worthy of its own item in the list with the reaction to the PC(USA) decision being swift and wide-spread. Within two weeks of the vote total being reached the National Black Church Initiative cut ties with the PC(USA) over the vote. A couple of months later the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) and the Evangelical Presbyterian and Reformed Church of Peru (IEPRP) ended mission partnerships on the national level. The PC(USA) has issued a news article acknowledging these breaks but also saying that other mission partners have decided to continue the partnerships.

Elsewhere, the decision by the Church of Scotland was a concern in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland which initially expressed “deep sorrow” at the decision and during their General Assembly decided that they would not send a representative to the Kirk’s 2016 General Assembly. Outside the Presbyterian family the Russian Orthodox Church has broken off ecumenical discussions with the Church of Scotland over this.

 

Shifting between Reformed branches

The movement of churches between different Presbyterian and Reformed branches continues unabated. ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians announced that their membership had grown to over 240 churches, most are congregations that have departed the PC(USA). In Scotland the Free Church continues to see a few congregations and ministers wishing to move from the Church of Scotland. In addition, a few churches completed the process of transferring from the Reformed Church in America to the PCA.

 

Property

With shifts in Reformed branches comes the question of taking or leaving property. Those moving from the Church of Scotland to the Free Church typically do not get to take it. University Reformed Church was assessed about $300,000 to take their campus to the PCA.

But bigger and more plentiful property disputes came from churches departing the PC(USA) including congregations that walked away, were graciously dismissed with a payment, kept their property in civil suits, lost their property in civil suits, and one of the more unusual cases where the court awarded the property to the PC(USA) faction of the congregation but not on behalf of the presbytery.

Other interesting property cases include a very convoluted property case in California with the KAPC and a case in Malawi where the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) “sued itself” over property.

 

Presbyterian branches working together

Particularly in light of very recent developments this might qualify as the most interesting topic of the year.

Let me begin with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America whose Unification Task Force is on track to bring a proposed set of bylaws to the 2016 General Assembly. This would put the two denominations on track to make final approvals in 2017 and unite in a single general assembly in 2018.

While not a move with unification in sight, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church held their General Synods jointly in a move to strengthen the ties between these two streams of American Presbyterianism. For those not aware, each of these branches traces their heritage back to Scotland separately and apart from the mainstream branch of American Presbyterianism.

Finally, in a move that is not between two Presbyterian branches but between two national churches, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England just formally announced their intent to be more intentional in their joint work in what they are calling the Columba Declaration. This was followed by the Church of England’s Anglican partner in Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church, issuing something of a “what about us” statement.

 

Refugees

In putting this list together it seemed at times that I could have filled it with humanitarian crises. But if there is one that that Presbyterians world-wide seemed not just outspoken about but responsive to it would be the Middle East refugee crisis.

Regarding statements, these came from all quarters including the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Free Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, and the PC(USA), and many others.

In terms of action, there are accounts of relief and resettlement efforts all over the news. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is partnering with the Hungarian Reformed Church. Presbyterian churches are among those across Canada ready to help resettle refugees. Similar things can be said for the U.S. where, among many towns and churches, Trinity Presbyterian in Atlanta is ready to sponsor two families. And in Princeton, NJ, Nassau Presbyterian Church and the Seminary are working together to help resettle a family.

And we also have the account of a PC(USA) group traveling to Turkey and seeing relief efforts first hand as they worked in a local soup kitchen and food pantry to help feed Syrian refugees.

In another refugee story, the final Central American individual who found sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson was able to go home after 15 months under a confidential agreement. However, with an announced round of deportations coming up the church, with others, has responded that they are ready to offer sanctuary to more refugees who fear for their lives if they are deported.

 

Membership trends continue

Not much new to say here. As with all the mainstream churches in the U.S., the PC(USA) membership decline continues with a loss of 2.1% in the number of congregations and a 5.3% decline in the total membership. What is interesting, at least to me, is that when normalized and compared the membership decline in the PC(USA) over the last decade is very similar to the decline in the Church of Scotland.

 

Publications and Media

Not sure what it was this year but publications and media, particularly those recognized with awards and honors, seemed to catch my attention more than most years.

Let me begin with the Learn resources from the Church of Scotland, particularly the Learn Eldership book that I reviewed last spring. It has been joined by two additional pieces – hard to call the relatively short How Will Our Children Have Faith? a book – that I might get time to review in the future.

But the series in general, and the Learn Eldership in particular, have been recognized by different organizations. In addition to being a best seller, Eldership was a finalist in the Publications category of the Scottish Creative Awards. It was also recognized in the Innovation category as being among the crème-de-la crème of Scottish magazines in the Scottish Magazine Awards.

From Westminster John Knox Press we have a winner of the 2015 Christianity Today Book Awards in the Theology/Ethics category. It is Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. (Yes, technically announced in 2014 but awarded in 2015)

I would also include in this topic the just-released book by Dr. Sean Michael Lucas, For A Continuing Church: The roots of the Presbyterian Church in America. It is described as the “first full scholarly account of the theological and social forces that brought about [the PCA’s] creation.”

Finally, two films directed by PC(USA) Presbyterian Disaster Assistance agency photojournalist David Barnhart have been invited to the Beaufort International Film Festival in February. The films are “Kepulihan: When the Waters Recede” about the aftermath of the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami and “Locked in a Box” about immigration detention facilities.

 

So there you have my list of what caught my attention.

Some of you may be wondering where all the issues that were happening in Louisville are? In my list above I tried to capture more broad themes and those are more denomination specific. But, to add them here the news out of Louisville included: an outside audit of cost overruns at the last Presbyterian Youth Triennium; continued investigation, dismissals and lawsuits related to the New Church Initiative fiscal management; the departure of Linda Valentine and hiring of Tony de la Rosa in the Executive Director position; the search for a new Stated Clerk and Gradye Parsons announcing he would not apply again; and the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s own budget crisis.

For more information specific to the PC(USA) you can check out the Presbyterian Outlook’s list of top stories. For that matter, the Free Church of Scotland has their own year in review, and the Church of Scotland Mission and Discipleship agency has one as well.

And so I hope that 2015 was a good year for you and my prayers for all of you for a good 2016. My year will start out on a very high note, so stay tuned for that. Until then

Happy New Year and a Joyful Hogmanay

Stated Clerk Nominee For The Cumberland Presbyterian Church

With the announced mid-term retirement of the Rev. Robert D. Rush as the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church a search team was formed, the job was posted, and yesterday the General Assembly Ministry Council announced that their nominee to fill the partial term is the Rev. Michael Sharpe.

Rev. Sharpe currently works for the denomination as the executive director of the Missions Ministry Team, previously the Board of Missions before the denominational reorganization. (And still reflected in the web site architecture.)  The press release cites his leadership through the reorganization as well as his denominational experience as strengths he brings to the position.  While he began in parish ministry he has been working for the denomination in the area of missions since 1989.  He has been the director of the Board of Missions and now the Missions Ministry Team since 1999.  The press release lists an extensive number of ministries and units that he has worked with in his 21 years with the denomination.  He is a member in good standing of Red River Presbytery.

Our best wishes and prayers for the Rev. Sharpe as he assumes this position following his confirmation by the General Assembly in June.