Category Archives: PJC decision

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 Themes Of 2014

As we close out this eventful year I will once again join the numerous sources putting out top ten lists for the year that was. And as in past years my primary focus will be on stories, or themes, that were seen across multiple Presbyterian branches with a few more selective ones thrown in.

General Assemblies and Same-Sex Relationships

This was probably the top news theme of the year: The Church of Scotland GA sending to the presbyteries, and the presbyteries approving, language for churches to opt-out of the traditional standards. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 221st GA approving language to redefine marriage in its Book of Order and it appears on path to approval in the presbyteries. The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand approving a change to their Book of Order to prohibit same-sex marriages. And momentum is building around an overture to the next Presbyterian Church in Canada GA that would remove the prohibition against ministers being in a same-sex relationship.


This was a category that really caught my attention this year but which I have yet to write up in detail. In any year there is interesting seminary news, like Doris J. García Rivera’s installation as president of the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico. But this seemed to be a year with more initiatives than normal.

These included the reorganization of the Free Church Seminary as the Edinburgh Theological Seminary. There was also the new joint initiative between Reformed Theological Seminary and Redeemer Church in New York City.

More radical seminary initiatives include a non-accredited communal seminary associated with Church of All Nations in Minneapolis and San Francisco Theological Seminary has launched a Center for Innovation in Ministry with a workshop on the theology of video games.

But the one that I have found most interesting is the Redesigned Master of Divinity Program at Fuller Theological Seminary. Fuller listened to their alumni and launched a new program which is described in part like this:

Many graduates can no longer count on traditional systems to create jobs for them. They will have to invent new ways to minister. Our reshaped curriculum is designed to prepare students with entrepreneurial skills.

One of the interesting things about this new initiative, and Fuller in general right now, is the prominence of Presbyterian leadership. In addition to Mark Labberton becoming President last year, the initiative is under the oversight of Scott Cormode, the Academic Dean. Behind the Vocation and Formation part of the initiative are some well-known Presbyterian faces that include Tod Bolsinger, Steve Yamaguchi and Laura Harbert.

Congregations Switching Branches

The moves between branches continue with the PC(USA) once again transferring more churches than it closes. And in the Church of Scotland there has been a slower, but noticeable, departure.

The other interesting movement is churches moving from the Reformed Church of America to the Presbyterian Church in America. Last Spring one of the flagship churches, University Reformed Church, voted to transfer. This fall five churches in Illinois have also voted to make the move.

Fossil Fuel Divestment

The General Assemblies of both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand considered this issue. In the PC(USA) the Assembly did not approve an outright divestment but referred it to the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee for further consideration. The PCANZ instructed their Property Trustees to divest and recommended that individual churches do likewise.

Independence Referendum in Scotland

The Church of Scotland was prominent in the time leading up to the Scottish Independence Referendum with an open session at their General Assembly that presented a variety of voices on the subject and further national and regional level gatherings leading up to the vote. Following the vote there was a service of unity hosted by the Kirk.

The Free Church of Scotland also held a session at their General Assembly and issued their own material providing viewpoints on Independence.


For the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) this was certainly a hot topic with a GAPJC decisioncivil legal challenges, settlements and high-valued negotiations. For this post the full extent of the property news is left as an exercise for the reader but there are still a lot of open questions and at the moment there seems to be momentum in favor of the hierarchical church.

Another property news item is the Greyfriars Church in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The historic structure was sold to a developer and it’s future is uncertain. Some preliminary demolition has begun and efforts are underway to try and preserve it.

PC(USA) Ethics Investigation

In a still developing story, it was revealed that four PC(USA) church development employees associated with Presbyterian Centers For New Church Innovation were the subjects of an internal ethics investigation for not following policy in setting up an outside non-profit corporation to facilitate distribution of 1001 Worshiping Communities funds. Initially there were administrative actions taken but as the story grew the four were placed on administrative leave and an outside law firm brought in to conduct an independent investigation. At year’s end it was decided that firm had a conflict of interest and a new firm was chosen.

Israel-Palestine Actions

The other hot topic leading up to the PC(USA) General Assembly was issues around Israel-Palestine. At the previous GA a proposal for divestment from three companies who profited from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory failed by a very narrow three-vote margin. The proposal was returning to this GA. In addition, a PC(USA) affiliated group, The Israel/Palestine Mission Network, (IPMN) issued a controversial study guide Zionism Unsettled that questioned Israel’s character and identity. While IPMN does not speak for the PC(USA) the study guide was sold by the official Presbyterian Distribution Services making the distinction fuzzy in many minds. In addition, there was some advanced controversy when the commissioner chosen to moderate the related commissioner committee was asked to step down because a number of people questioned his impartiality.

The 221st General Assembly did approve the divestment proposal by a slim seven-vote margin, but the action also encourages ecumenical dialogue in the region and affirms the denomination’s commitment to Israel and the peace process.

The Presbyterian Distribution Service dropped Zionism Unsettled shortly after the Assembly and it is now available on the IPNM web site. However, studies around this topic are available on Thoughtful Christian.

Women’s Ordination and Related

The religion gender issues news this year was dominated by the Church of England and the completion of the process to have women serve as bishops. In fact, in Presbyterian circles it was a very quiet year for complementarian/egalitarian discussions, which in itself is probably news.

The one big item is the decision by the Mizoram Synod conference to reject a long-standing request from Kohhran Hmechhia, the Women Ministry of the Presbyterian Church, to ordain women theologians.

In another story, history was made when Michael Barry and Liz Hughes tied in the first round of voting for Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Rev. Barry was elected in the second round by one vote over Rev. Hughes and a third candidate, Rev. McNie. This was the strongest showing that a female candidate has had in the election.

Death of Ian Paisley

Among several notable deaths in the Presbyterian community, the death of Ian Paisley stands out for his iconic status in both Northern Irish religion as the leading founder of the Free Presbyterian Church and for his important roll in politics and reconciliation in Norther Ireland.

And a couple of other Presbyterian-ish stories

Knox 500

While the date of birth of John Knox is not known with certainty, the best information suggests that it may have been in 1514 making this the 500th year of his birth. This was marked by the Knox 500 Conference in Edinburgh as well as the making of a documentary about him titled “Give Me Scotland.”

Spectacular Viking treasure hoard found on Church of Scotland land

Not your typical religion news story but a very important archaeological discovery involving the Kirk and a couple of its ministers as well as a metal detectionist.

And let me take a moment to throw in two transitions: The retirement of Jerry Van Marter after over 26 years with the Presbyterian News Service and Jack Haberer stepping down from the helm of the Presbyterian Outlook to return to parish ministry. Best wishes to both in their new settings.

And those are some of the highlights of 2014. Now as we look ahead to 2015 – and many of my friends around the world are already there or now busy celebrating Hogmanay – I wish all of you a very Happy New Years and best wishes for the coming year.

May you balance your ardor and order and remember to be decent and in order.

Happy New Year!

PC(USA) GAPJC Decision — Presbytery Of NYC v. McGee And Others

Last weekend the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) heard a remedial case brought against the Presbytery of New York City (PNYC) concerning details and process related to their Gracious Dismissal Policy (GDP). The complainants filed the case against the Presbytery concerning irregularities in the Gracious Dismissal Policy shortly after it was adopted. The Synod PJC agreed with the complainants and the Presbytery appealed it to the GAPJC.

The Executive Summary is that the GAPJC sustained none of the specifications of error in the SPJC’s decision, the GDP has been rendered null and void, and this decision has given other presbyteries something to think about. The first specification of error dealt with the claim that the PNYC GDP “conferred a unilateral right on a congregation to depart from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” The second was that the GDP “does not give effect to the Trust Clause.” Specifically, PNYC had specified a formula in their GDP for compensation for property and the GAPJC reaffirmed that this must be determined on a case-by-case basis. The third specification of error related to dismissal simply because there were theological differences. The GAPJC said:

It is the nature and weight of theological difference that is critical in a justification for dismissal. The mere presence of theological differences does not preclude coexistence within the PC(U.S.A.).

The fourth specification may be, from my experience, the one with the most implications. It was in regard to a congregation in schism and the GAPJC responded that “It is clear what a presbytery must do when confronted with a property issue… a presbytery is obligated to serve the interests and guard the rights of the ‘true church
within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” The final error related to PNYC allowing churches to retain their records.

OK, now let’s drill down into the detail.

In the matter of Presbytery of New York City Appellant (Respondent) vs. Ruling Elder Mildred McGee, Teaching Elder Flora Wilson Bridges, Ruling Elder Douglas Howard, Teaching Elder Lonnie Bryant, Ruling Elder Daniel Amiot Priso, Teaching Elder Phillip Newell, Ruling Elder Emmanuel Gouad Njayick, Teaching Elder George Todd, Ruling Elder Estella Taylor, and Ruling Elder Norita Chisolm, Appellees (Complainants) in Remedial Case 221-08 the GAPJC did not sustain any of the five specifications of error the Appellant charged regarding the trial decision before the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of the Northeast.

The case results from the PNYC adopting a Gracious Dismissal Policy on January 29, 2013 by a vote of 56 in favor and 49 against. The complainants filed a remedial complaint with the SPJC on February 13, 2013 and along with the complaint a request for stay of enforcement, which was granted. The complaint was filed specifically in regards to the adoption of the GDP and not in connection with the application of the GDP in the dismissal process of a church as was the case in the Tom and Anderson cases (noting that the latter was a complaint to a SPJC which was settled in mediation).

The complainants listed seven charges in their complaint and in the decision of the SPJC five of the seven charges were sustained. There is a direct relationship of these five sustained charges in the SPJC decision to the five specifications of error in the GAPJC decision so I will not dwell on those any longer. The respondent appealed the SPJC decision to the GAPJC.

The first specification of error by the respondent was that “The SPJC erred in constitutional interpretation by holding that the Presbytery GDP conferred a unilateral right on a congregation to depart from the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)…” This stems from a number of details of the GDP and a general sense in the GDP that if a church fulfills a certain set of steps it will be dismissed. In particular, there is no requirement that the presbytery votes to dismiss the congregation. The argument was put forward that since the presbytery approves the GDP that counts as their approval of any and all dismissals that follow the GDP.

This particular requirement is specifically addressed in a set of additional comments in the SPJC decision about the challenges of decision making in a narrowly divided presbytery:

We are sensitive to the difficult situation in which the PNYC finds itself and appreciate its sincere desire to deal with that as well as it can. [snip] Considering that the presbytery mustered a majority vote, however slim, for the GDP under consideration in this case, and with the case-by-case requirement satisfied in these cases, it ought to be possible for the PNYC to reach agreement on approval for such dismissal arrangements.

The GAPJC echoes this comment in their writing on the first specification of error:

While it may be understandable for a presbytery to develop a policy dealing with congregations considering dismissal with the intention of avoiding costly litigation, the GDP at the center of this case breaches the bounds of the Constitution of the PC(U.S.A.). [snip] A final vote by the PNYC is purposefully denied in the GDP in order to avoid divisive and argumentative response to a dismissal request, as admitted by the PNYC in the record and during arguments.

In responding to, and not sustaining, this specification of error the GAPJC finds three constitutional irregularities with the PNYC GDP: 1. The GDP is “self-executing” having the congregation jump through three hoops and meet the payment requirements in the GDP and dismissal will be granted. 2. The last of the three hoops is a congregational vote making that the effectual step of dismissal. And 3. “that a predetermined, formulaic mechanism runs counter to constitutional provisions for mutual dialogue and particular discernment.”

The GAPJC decision notes that the Constitution at G-3.0301a and G-4.0207 “reserves as a direct act of the presbytery the authority to dismiss a church,” thus arguing against the first two constitutional issues. Furthermore, case law helps clarify the latter two issues. In Sundquist v. Heartland Presbytery (219-03) the GAPJC affirmed “Withdrawal from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not a matter that can be considered at a congregational meeting.” In the case of formulaic application in polity matters the GAPJC ruled against that in ordination matters in the case of Larson v. Los Ranchos Presbytery (221-04).

The second specification of error was that the SPJC had erred regarding its decision “that the GDP does not give effect to the Trust Clause.”

This issue relates back to the various formulas incorporated into the GDP to determine payments to the presbytery for dismissal and specifically a payment of 10% of the assessed value of the property. The GAPJC decision reiterates the findings in the case of Tom v. San Francisco Presbytery (221-03) and continues on to say:

Under the facts of this case, the PNYC argues that the requirement of due diligence under the Trust Clause has been met by adopting a formula for determining the value of the property at the time of enacting the GDP by the PNYC. However, the fiduciary nature of the Trust Clause requires an individual determination of the facts and circumstances related to dismissal of any church rather than a set formula, which may not be appropriate to the particular circumstances of a congregation. As stated by the SPJC, there must be an “individual assessment and valuation of the church’s unique situation, finances, history, spiritual needs and financial needs” when considering dismissal.


In addition, the exercise of the fiduciary duty must be carried out during the course of discernment of a particular church’s request for dismissal. A formulaic predetermination fails to account for the individualized requirement demanded by proper application of the fiduciary duty incumbent upon a presbytery.

and finally

Thus, the presbytery, in exercising its authority to perform due diligence under the fiduciary duties required by the Trust Clause, is required to make an appropriately timed, individual, unique determination of the circumstances applicable to any church requesting dismissal. In accountability to the PC(U.S.A.) as the beneficiary under the Trust Clause, such determination must be reasonable and based on documented facts.

With the third specification of error we begin to get into fresh territory with this decision, that being polity areas without substantial previous case law or interpretations. The specification is: The SPJC erred in constitutional interpretation by holding that the GDP did not provide specific guidance regarding discernment of theological differences as a basis for dismissal, in violation of F-1.0302a and F-1.0301.

The GAPJC begins their brief response to this specification saying:

The PNYC adopted the GDP “to provide for reconciliation and resolution within the Presbytery of New York City” and to permit their congregations to be dismissed to join another Reformed denomination for theological reasons. The policy did not seek reconciliation and resolution as the initial step in the process (G-4.0207). The policy accepts notice from a congregation of perceived theological differences as sufficient for dismissal without concern for mutual discernment and dialogue (Sundquist). It is the nature and weight of theological difference that is critical in a justification for dismissal. The mere presence of theological differences does not preclude coexistence within the PC(U.S.A.).

The section concludes with this:

The SPJC rightly concluded it was important that the PNYC “ensure that dismissal is the only viable remedy for the relevant theological differences.”

The fourth specification of error also helps to clarify an area that seems to be an occasional but potentially murky situation – the deference to be shown to a minority who indicate their loyalty to the PC(USA). The specification of error concerned “that the GDP did not provide an opportunity for the minority of a church in schism to retain the
property of a congregation.”

The GAPJC decision notes that in the formulaic dismissal process adopted by the PNYC there was no consideration of G-4.0207 and the determination of a true church in the group wishing to stay with the PC(USA). The second paragraph of this response puts this in more general terms:

It is clear what a presbytery must do when confronted with a property issue. Under G-4.0207, a presbytery is obligated to serve the interests and guard the rights of the “true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” regardless of who is in the majority of any session or congregational vote. The presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is the “true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” majority notwithstanding. Any negotiation and decision about the disposition of the property must consider this interest of the true church. The GDP failed to comply with G-4.0207.

More on this in a moment.

The last specification of error is a bit of a technicality in my opinion, but the PNYC GDP allowed the church to retain its records. The GAPJC succinctly notes that upon dismissal the church ceases to exist as a PC(USA) council and the presbytery takes possession of the records as the successor council. The church may retain copies for historical purposes.

As I read this decision the interpretations for errors 1, 2 and 5 seems to me to reinforce previous interpretations rather than really breaking new polity ground. It is primarily a reiteration and application of constitutional requirements and polity interpretations that have been written on before. To me, these sections are consistent with the interpretations and practice in previous cases.

I would note a polity discussion I was involved in since the release of this decision stemming from the section regarding error 1. In PC(USA) polity there are congregational meetings and then there are meetings of the congregation. This may seem a minor semantic difference but under our polity there is a big difference. Section G-1.05 of the Form of Government defines and controls Congregational Meetings with subsection G-1.0503 regulating the business that may be transacted at them. As the 218th General Assembly said – and is subsequently quoted in the Sundquist decision and this one – “Withdrawal from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not a matter that can be considered at a congregational meeting.” So what is going on when a congregation has a meeting to vote to accept the dismissal terms? If we keep reading in Sundquist it says:

This does not mean that a congregation is prohibited from requesting dismissal. However, it is the presbytery (or its duly appointed administrative commission or its Committee on Ministry) that has the responsibility to consult with the members of a church about dismissal (G-11.0103i). The presbytery is required to afford all persons affected by a dismissal notice and an opportunity to be heard on the subject (G-9.0503b(2); Item 04-20). These consultations (which may be in the form of listening sessions, hearings or other consultations) are for the benefit of informing the presbytery as it considers a request for dismissal, but are not meetings at which any business of the congregation may be conducted…

So the meetings to discuss and vote on the terms of dismissal are meetings of the congregation held in conjunction with the presbytery for the purpose of consulting with the presbytery on this particular matter. For most GDP’s that I am familiar with, this meeting considers terms already negotiated and not subject to change at that meeting. In my experience the congregation may vote to select between different predetermined financial arrangements but no new terms or options may be proposed in the course of the meeting.

In summary, a Congregational Meeting is a specific constitutionally defined meeting usually called by the session for the congregation to transact certain business named in the constitution as the sole right and responsibility of the congregation. There are also meetings of the congregation (or whatever you would like to call them) which may discuss other items but may only transact business in a manner that is in cooperation with the presbytery which, as noted in the present decision when it quotes a 1991 GA Authoritative Interpretation, “Nowhere is written that the congregation is permitted to make the decision that the presbytery commits itself in advance to confirm.”

OK, that was a bit of a polity wonk discussion to distinguish the two types of meetings but 99.99% of the church will still consider both types of meetings as the same thing. C’est la vie. And other polity wonks are invited to try their hand at playing this game and giving their distinctions between these meetings. (And thanks to my correspondents for helping me refine this discussion.)

Returning to the specifics of this decision… In the interpretation of errors 3 and 4 the decision does not really shake things up but I see it as a call for presbyteries to examine their own GDP’s or at least to be careful to properly address these items in the negotiated settlement with a church.

For example, it appears advisable that presbyteries be intentional about considering the question of whether theological differences are great enough to warrant dismissal. It may even be a reasonable practice to be so specific about this as to spell it out explicitly in the negotiated agreement. I am not sure that it is necessary to take this to the extreme and hold a specific vote on this point much as a specific vote is required to certify that the body to which the church is being dismissed is another qualifying Reformed body. But it may be advisable to specifically list steps that have been taken to attempt reconciliation and resolution as the initial steps in the process, possibly in an appendix to the agreement or as part of a timeline presented in the introduction to the report.

Similarly, in light of this decision it now seems advisable that a presbytery be intentional and transparent about its due diligence when it comes to a congregation with a PC(USA)-loyal minority. Again, investigation, discussion and documentation appears to be the order of the day in leading up to any negotiated settlement and that settlement must “serve the interests and guard the rights of the ‘true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),’ regardless of who is in the majority.” This decision does say that “The presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is the ‘true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).'” I will venture a bit of pushing the polity envelope here and suggest that the determination be made on a case-by-case basis as other property decisions are but that the “true church” must be properly provided for. Retaining the property with the PC(USA) may be the right thing to do, but mission may dictate otherwise. Is it best to continue the congregation in that location or has the neighborhood changed? Is the property of size and condition that it can be maintained and utilized by the PC(USA) group? While it needs to be documented retaining the property may not be preferable to another arrangement that provides for that group. And please realize that I write this from a distinctly urban multicultural perspective – your situation may be different and retaining the property for a group in a rural more culturally homogenous setting may more often than not be the best thing to do.

Let me suggest that the bottom line on this decision, as on other decisions, is that there are certain hard and fast items a presbytery must consider in dismissals. In this case it is that the church is dismissed by action of the presbytery, that the property must be properly considered in light of the Trust Clause, that theological differences must be considered and reconciliation attempted and if appropriate an inquiry into whether it is a church in schism and a “true church” can be identified and cared for. While not mentioned in this decision, the GAPJC in other decisions has noted that the presbytery’s authority is broad as long as it is guided by the church’s constitution and polity. With this in mind, presbytery decisions should be well reasoned and documented, rooted in the circumstances, context and mission of that particular presbytery while being guided by PC(USA) polity.

So that is what I gather from this particular GAPJC decision. Your mileage may vary.

At this point let me make an editorial note that I will be going into GA mode for a while. I am hopelessly behind on the headlines and probably will not get caught up on those. Most of my attention for the next couple of months will be related to the Assemblies, beginning with the Church of Scotland later this week, and then I will fall back into more general items later in the summer. For the Assemblies, it promises to be an exciting few months so we will see what develops. Stay tuned…

Top Ten (Plus) Presbyterian News Topics of 2013

As we spend this day looking back I thought I would once again post my personal list of the top ten news topics related to Presbyterians around the world from 2013. In this list I deliberately use the term “topics” because, as you will see, there were a number of parallels in the different branches when it came to certain items.

And so here, in no particular order, are my picks for the top ten news topics of 2013…

Elections, Elections, Elections and a Referendum

This fall it seemed that various Presbyterian branches were regularly linked with elections happening in their state or country. The list includes the Presbyterian Synod in Mizoram state in India asking for – and getting – a change in polling dates, CCAP synods defining the terms for political involvement of clergy running for office and commentary from the Presbyterian Church of Ghana on election decisions.

Falling into this category is the work of the Church of Scotland running forums and debates ahead of next year’s Scottish independence referendum.


Somehow the natural disasters, and the global Presbyterian response, for this year stick out more than in previous lists and it includes damage done in a tornado outbreak in the central U.S. in May and typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November.

World Hotspots

The variety that could be included here is pretty large but let me mention Presbyterians speaking out to two of them – the response against attacks on Syria (e.g. PC(USA) ) and those speaking out about the violence in South Sudan (e.g. Presbyterian Church in Ireland).

In a particularly moving story, a Church of Scotland pastor lost many members of his family in an attack on a church in Pakistan and spoke of forgiving the attackers.

New Presbyterian Leaders at Seminaries

Four Presbyterian teaching elders were named, approved and/or installed at seminaries in the Presbyverse: Rev. Dr. Stafford Carson at Union Theological College, Belfast; Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes at Princeton Theological Seminary; Rev. Dr. Mark Labberton at Fuller Theological Seminary; Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Church of Scotland General Assembly Middle Way on Same-sex Issues

The Church of Scotland General Assembly dealt with ordination and marriage issues and rather than adopting one of the two options presented by their Special Commission chose a middle option that affirmed past teaching while opening the door to congregations being able to dissent. This led to their speaking against the proposed legislation in the Scottish Parliament that would permit same-sex marriage and asking for robust religious protections. In addition, the compromise solution was not completely satisfactory to the whole church and a few pastors and congregations have left.

Congregational Loss in the PC(USA) and Gracious Dismissal

In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 2012 Membership Statistics for the first time ever the number of churches transferred out of the denomination (110 churches) was larger than the number of churches dissolved (86 churches).

Associated with this was the emphasis on presbyteries having Gracious Dismissal Policies and fairly generous allowances to be dismissed with property, although there was at least one PJC case and some civil litigation, e.g. Caldwell and Highland Park.

Re-purposing Church Buildings

Along with the dissolution of churches comes the question of what to do with the property? Although to be fair this also may be a question if the church outgrows their existing property. Answers this year include a residence in Scotland, a restaurant in Belfast, and maybe a town hall in Maryland. In addition, there were several, at least, demolished and controversy down under with a presbytery of the Uniting Church proposing to close churches and sell off the buildings to satisfy debts.

With that I have hit all the cross-branch and big-topic themes that I ranked highest and have to decide on the last three from a field of several worthy and interesting candidates. Well, this is my blog and I can adjust the rules so here are five more…

The BBC Northern Ireland produced a documentary on Irish Presbyterians called “An Independent People”

Also from Northern Ireland, there was an agreement that the leaders of the failed Presbyterian Mutual Society would be ineligible to head up other companies and word of at least one bank that declined the offer to take over the failing institution.

The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarding the dark history of native residential schools continues in Canada and this year the Commission was addressed by the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the church issued a formal apology to Kenora residential school survivors.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year issued guidelines on what was required to be included in employee health care plans and several Presbyterian-affiliated organizations objected to the contraception mandate. This year at least two, Geneva College and Westminster Theological Seminary, won court cases exempting them from the HHS mandate. Review by the U.S. Supreme Court is expected so this may come back again next year.

And the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation issued a new hymnal, “Glory to God”, but not without a little controversy about one hymn that was originally to be included but deleted when a slight word change was not approved by the authors.

And there you have my suggestions for the top ten twelve Presbyterian news topics of 2013. Your mileage may vary.

So as we look ahead to 2014 – and many of my friends around the world are already there or now busy celebrating Hogmanay – I wish all of you a very Happy New Years and best wishes for the coming year.

PC(USA) Synod PJC Decision — St. Andrews Session v. Santa Barbara Presbytery Regarding Union Presbyteries

On Friday, 9 November , the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii heard a remedial case against the Presbytery of Santa Barbara that challenged their action to reorganize themselves as a union presbytery between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). The decision in Session of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara, CA, et al., Complainants vs The Presbytery of Santa Barbara, Respondents, was announced the next morning but the written decision was not released until the following Wednesday morning.

For a whole variety of reasons I have been working through various ways to present my analysis of this case. I have decided to present an executive summary, then discuss the bulk of the case in my typical fashion. The issue that has engendered the greatest amount of discussion since the decision was announced are the parts dealing with ECO so I want to address those in their own section. And then I will finish up with a look at the dissenting opinion and some general conclusions and comments.

Executive Summary
Nineteen charges were brought against the Presbytery for their action to try and restructure themselves as a union presbytery. All but one of the charges were sustained. The sustained charges included two that argued that ECO, with its Presbytery of the West, is not a Reformed body and not qualified for participation in a union presbytery.

What this means: Santa Barbara’s efforts to create a union presbytery are effectively halted unless this case is overturned on appeal to the General Assembly PJC (GAPJC), a prospect I consider unlikely based on this decision and other recent decisions.

What this does not mean: Since a Synod PJC decision is only binding on the parties involved in the case (207th GA AI on D-7.0402b) this does not automatically disqualify ECO as a Reformed body that churches may be dismissed to.

What this might mean: This decision is precedent setting for the presbyteries in the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii (same AI as above). However, the decision was regarding a union presbytery and not dismissal and in my mind there are a bunch of other issues that call into question the applicability of this precedent and make me think it could be successfully challenged. (That is why the ECO issue gets its own section further on). But I could be wrong.

The SPJC Decision
On 2 June 2012 the Presbytery of Santa Barbara held a called meeting and approved with a 73% majority a Plan of Union for Santa Barbara Union Presbytery (the Plan). Shortly after a remedial case was filed with the Synod PJC listing 19 irregularities. At trial on 9 November both Complainants and Respondents were represented but the Respondents only presented opening and closing arguments and did not have pre-trial briefs or present any additional documentation or witnesses at trial. The Complainants did.

The SPJC ruled unanimously in favor of the Complainants on all but five counts. There is a dissenting opinion that disagreed with the majority on four of the charges. One charge was not sustained.

Two details before I begin breaking this down. First I would like to note a stylistic choice made by the SPJC in
writing their decision. Formal citations are few in this decision and nowhere in the
statement of the charges and the rational for the decision on each one
is there a citation to relevant portions of the Book of Order. Furthermore, for only one charge is there a reference to applicable GAPJC decisions.

Second, as I break down this decision I will be drawing from a wide variety of sources. This was the trial court and their formal decision can only be based on the evidence presented at trial and the ecclesiastical law. While I may have disagreements or concerns at points I also have a larger set of sources to draw from. Documentation related to this case includes, besides the decision itself, the original complaint and the packet Santa Barbara Presbytery put together in advance of the called meeting where the Plan of Union was approved. Almost all documents in this case are posted on a web page St. Andrews Church of Santa Barbara maintains.

Counts 1, 3 and 4 deal specifically with the nature of ECO and I will return to those in a moment. (This decision uses the acronym ECOP. Those are the initials of the original name of ECO and ECO is now an official logo. I will try to use the preferred title ECO but ECOP will appear inside quotations. For the record, the new initials would be COEP.)

It is worth noting that the decision is, shall we say, streamlined and with the large number of counts the commissioners did not expound beyond the minimum on many of them.

Count 2 accused the Presbytery of promoting “division and schism in the church.” The SPJC found that a fuller discernment process would have been better since the Plan, while not intended to be so, it was judged that the “action did indeed bring about schism in the presbytery.”

Count 5 alleged “Mis-use of our constitutional provisions for union presbyteries” and Count 6 alleged the “disregard of important constitutional requirements.” The decision notes that union presbyteries are intended to promote ecumenism and reconciliation and “reduce unnecessary expense.” Instead they found that this plan “has been formed to serve as a ‘shield’ to the denomination’s action and judicial decision.”

Let me take a moment and drill down into this a bit. In the complaint the “Union Presbytery Movement” is discussed in paragraphs 19-21 pointing out that it was developed as a method for churches in the northern and southern branches to cooperate in advance of reunion in 1983. Fair enough – this union presbytery does not fit that model but rather fits the opposite of churches that are dividing but still desire to work together on mission.

But let me take this a step further. While we know historically what union presbyteries have been about is there a fundamental problem with using our polity in new creative ways? After all, one of the objectives of the New Form of Government was “With greater freedom and flexibility, the New Form of Government encourages congregations and councils to focus on God’s mission and how they can faithfully participate in this mission.” (emphasis in the original)

And when I looked at this in the Annotated Book of Order I noticed something interesting — There are no additional instructions in this section. The section of the Form of Government dealing with Union Presbyteries (G-5.04) has no interpretations from GA or the GAPJC.

The bottom line is that while we have a history behind union presbyteries the language of the Book of Order includes nothing of that history and from what I see puts no fundamental prohibition on a union presbytery between the PC(USA) and any other Reformed body.

Now, this does not mean that this specific union presbytery is constitutional and it does suffer from a couple of problems the Complainants point out and the SPJC agreed. First, we have the problem that the SPJC found that ECO is not a reformed body. Second, the ECO Presbytery of the West is not a “comparable council” because it did not yet have the size required of a PC(USA) presbytery. And third, an argument that is in the complaint but is not in the decision at this point — Santa Barbara Presbytery and Presbytery of the West are vastly different geographic sizes and so it would make Santa Barbara Presbytery a de facto non-geographic presbytery. (Presbytery of the West covers all churches west of the Mississippi River.)

A fourth issue is that the Plan of Union did not properly reconcile the requirements of the PC(USA) Book of Order and the ECO Polity. This was not however for lack of trying as Santa Barbara Presbytery had overtured the 220th GA with a proposed method to reconcile the two polities as G-5.0401 requires. The overture and another like it were rejected and the annotation noting this is the only annotation for section G-5.04.

Counts 7, 8, 9 and 10 were grouped together. Count 7 is “Violation of our constitutional guarantee of respect for biblically-formed conscience.” Count 8 is “Conditioning congregational membership on more than a profession of faith.” Count 9 is “Infringing congregations’ right to elect, and sessions’ responsibility to assess the fitness of, congregational leaders.” And Count 10 is “Violation of presbytery’s obligations in assessing its congregations’ choices of pastoral leadership.”

The SPJC responded to all four charges by saying:

Councils do not have the right to bind the conscience of either pastors or members to a pro-forma set of essentials. While teaching elders’ consciences are free within the confines of the church’s polity interpretation of Scripture as put forth in the Constitution, members have the right of conscience to a greater degree as well as freedom of conscience to determine the fitness of their own leaders, both at the congregational level as well as the level of the presbytery. The “litmus test” for ordination is given in the Book of Order and provides presbyteries with the freedom to examine candidates on a case by case basis and determine whether or not they meet those standards and are judged by a particular presbytery to be fit for pastoral leadership.

I have printed it all because this reflects the core of their argument why ECO is not a reformed body as I will get to in a minute.

The implication of Charge 8 is that to even be a member of an ECO church you must agree to something more than accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Here the SPJC brevity does them a disservice. Paragraph 1.0402 of the ECO polity talks about congregational membership (covenant partner) saying:

A covenant partner is a person who has made a profession of faith in Christ, has been baptized, has been received into the membership of the church, has voluntary submitted to the government of this church, and participates in the church’s worship and work. Covenant partners are eligible to vote in congregational meetings.

For comparison the PC(USA) says in G-1.0303a

Public profession of faith, made after careful examination by the session in
the meaning and responsibilities of membership; if not already baptized, the person making profession of faith shall be baptized;

The next section lays out the responsibilities of membership which include “taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation” and “participating in the governing responsibilities of the church.”

While ECO has consolidated the participation into the paragraph and the PC(USA) sets it up as a response to membership, in a bottom-line sense I don’t see enough of a difference to sustain Charge 8.

But the SPJC apparently saw something and I have to wonder if the SPJC was interpreting the phrase “has voluntary submitted to the government of this church” as meaning they accepted the Essential Tenets document. Taking it on face value I have trouble seeing this as adhering to anything other than faith in Jesus Christ because when talking about qualifications for officers in 2.0101 the Essential Tenets are explicitly mentioned.

As for the other three charges, the discussion of ECO below pertains to those.

The next six charges are related to details in the Plan of Union and how they conflict with PC(USA) polity and many are related to the failure of the overture to GA.

Charge 11 is “Defiance of the church’s discernment that categorical exclusion of gay and
lesbian Presbyterians is improper.” The decision points out that the ECO Essential Tenets do not conform to the GAPJC decisions in the Parnell and Larson cases. (As I noted above this is the one place in the whole Findings and Rational section where there is a formal citation to the Book of Order or an Interpretation of it.)

Charge 12 is related as it says “Denial of our commitment to remain open to God’s continuing reformation of the church.” The charge is sustained with the logic that by adopting Essential Tenets “…the processes of dialogue and discernment whereby divergent views may be examined with the goal of discovering common ground for agreement have been inhibited significantly…”

Charge 13 is “Violation of presbytery’s duty to exercise genuine, good-faith discernment in
providing for dissident congregations.” Dismissal of congregations is now like examinations for ordination and membership and they must be conducted on a case-by-case basis. To make summary pronouncements like the Plan of Union does is a violation of the constitution.

The rational is similar for sustaining Charge 14 concerning the Plan of Union not enforcing the Trust Clause.

Charges 15 and 16 are parallel. The first is that proper provision is not made in the Plan of Union for churches that are “exclusively loyal to the PC(USA).” The second is that the Plan of Union does not properly provide for ministers in validated ministries and not serving in a congregation. The SPJC agreed with both charges noting that the Plan of Union polity mentions, but does not adequately cover these cases “contrary to assertions otherwise.”

Well we are in the home stretch on this section. Charge 17 is about the differences in the physical size of the two Presbyteries and the SPJC writes that in considering the union the Presbytery “has put theological affinity ahead of doing ministry in a geographical location and to work to develop and strengthen ecumenical relationships with believers of other denominations as a sign of the unity of Christ’s church.” This is also where the concept that this physical mis-match would effectively make Santa Barbara a non-geographic is mentioned in the decision.

Charge 18 was “Failure to conduct business decently and in order.” The SPJC agreed saying:

While those supporters placing the Plan for Union before the presbytery membership observed the letter of the law, the spirit of open dialogue, using every avenue available to share information, using gatherings to answer questions, responding appropriately to written requests for information, allowing open discussion without time constraints – all were clearly missing. Both written documentation and trial testimony confirm this. While the plan was clearly laid out and a timeline presented, members felt excluded and their concerns given little importance. While the process may have been orderly, a significant portion of members did not feel that they were treated decently.

Finally, Charge 19 was that the Presbytery had gone ahead with the Plan of Union before receiving Synod approval and the SPJC found that this was not the case and did not sustain the charge.

I hope you are still with me because that section alone is longer than I usually write for a PJC decision. But wait – there’s more! We have one more important issue to address…

Is ECO a Reformed Body?

The focal point of this question is Charge 3 which says the ECO has been mischaracterized as a Reformed body. The SPJC agreed citing the fact that ECO has Essential Tenets and that by requiring agreement to these the group is placing on members a requirement for membership beyond the “only membership requirement one’s personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.” The discussion concludes with this:

The preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that the requirements of ECO are otherwise, and by requiring a signed agreement of like belief, exist beyond the boundaries of what it is understood to be Reformed.

I discussed the membership issue above and my reading that the ECO membership requirements do not differ significantly from those of the PC(USA). In a moment here I want to explore the larger context of ECO’s doctrinal requirements for ordained officers embodied in the Essential Tenets.

Charge 1 follows from Charge 3 — if ECO is not a Reformed body the Presbytery must be “Conferring on a “special interest” group a veto over the constitutional governance of the church.”

Charge 4 is that the Presbytery of the West is not a comparable body with which to unite. This was sustained on a couple of points, one being the problems with ECO. In addition, at the time of the trial it did not have the necessary number of churches and teaching elders for what the PC(USA) would recognize as a presbytery.

In reading through this decision the perspective on ECO is the point that really jumped out at me and that particularly bothered me. But what bothered me was not that they declared ECO to be a “special interest group” and not a Reformed body, but how they did it.

Now, ECO may or may not be a Reformed body in your book and I am personally still in waiting mode before I draw any final conclusions. But for a number of reasons I thought the path to this conclusion in the decision had some issues that I would like to explore.

I find three areas to highlight. (And I would include at this point a reminder that the decision was based on the submitted evidence and I am probably going beyond that.)

1. The decision’s reasoning

For starters there is an AI from the 218th GA on G-3.0301a that says in part:

The 218th General Assembly (2008)… advises the presbyteries that they must satisfy themselves concerning the conformity with this denomination… in matters of doctrines and order.

  • doctrinally consistent with the essentials of Reformed theology as understood by the presbytery;
  • governed by a polity that is consistent in form and structure with that of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A);
  • of sufficient permanence to offer reasonable assurance that the congregation is not being dismissed to de facto independence.

Failure on the part of the presbytery thoroughly to explore and adequately to document its satisfaction in these matters may thus violate, however unintentionally, the spirit of the polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)”

First, this AI is not specifically referenced in the decision. In regards to that it should be noted that it is an Interpretation on the section on dismissals and not partners in a union presbytery and that it was issued for a particular situation involving transitional presbyteries in a denomination other than ECO. It does however, in the portion quoted above, contain important useful guidelines for assessing another denomination. Furthermore, as I look ahead I suspect future cases involving the nature of ECO are more likely to be about dismissals and not other topics like union presbyteries.

I would further note one important point in this AI which is not referenced in this case — It is the responsibility of the presbytery to determine the status of the body that a church is being dismissed to.

OK, back to the decision. Now, since the Complaint and the Decision do not reference this three-part test we don’t know if the SPJC applied the first (doctrine) or the second (polity) in considering the issue of freedom of conscience. In the end it really does not matter.

But regarding ECO, let’s go ahead and break this down. The question of doctrine is initially fairly straight forward as ECO has adopted the current PC(USA) Book of Confessions. The conditional, of course, would be whether ECO’s inclusion of the Essential Tenets changes the doctrine enough so it is no longer “consistent with the essentials of Reformed theology.” As for the polity, while not adopted verbatim from the PC(USA) there is a strong similarity in structure and practice, as can be seen in the membership requirements I compared above. Probably ECO’s weakest point in the test is the last “sufficient permanence” test since ECO has only been in existence as a body for less than a year.

I’ll return to ECO itself in a few minutes but my point here is that a broad test exists in the Interpretation of the Constitution. The Decision emphasizes one point as the linchpin of Reformed doctrine and the deciding factor regarding Charge 3.

This argument for the Complainants is emphasized by a Director of the Covenant Network, Doug Nave, who represented the Complainants in this case. When the decision was issued the Covenant Network posted notice of it on their web site and a lively discussion ensued in the comments. At one point in the comments Mr. Nave says this:

The SPJC discerned that the PC(USA) Constitution, interpreted as a whole, gives particular meaning to the term “Reformed.” This includes a rejection of both subscriptionism and “works righteousness” — both of which are found in ECO’s theology and polity documents. While other communions might self-identify in a manner that leaves room for the imposition of abstract “essential tenets,” or for requirements that condition church membership on more than a person’s profession of faith, the PC(USA) does not.

It is lost on almost no one that one of the tensions in the PC(USA) is that officers vow “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?” The denomination has steadfastly refused to say what the Essential Tenets are. In the PC(USA) the Essential Tenets only become specific when examining a candidate for membership. It reminds me of the card game Mao where “the only rule we can tell you is we can’t tell you the rules.”

However, the PC(USA) does have a guide to our Reformed theology and polity and that is the new Foundations section of the Book of Order. Before the reorganization of the materials San Francisco Theological Seminary created a document based on the old chapter G-2 that listed ten Essential Tenets of the Presbyterian Reformed Faith. Interestingly, freedom of conscience did not make their list. (To be fair, they based it on the old Chapter 2 and the “Right of Judgement” was in the old Chapter 1.)

There is an interesting parallel piece by Dr. Jack Rogers where he breaks down the various doctrine in a like manner. In the introduction of that article he begins by noting that presbyteries and sessions can not construct fixed sets of tenets. He then goes on to point out how the GAPJC in giving this interpretation then broke that rule by affirming the status of the then in force “fidelity and chastity” section. It is interesting to consider if this SPJC has similarly broken this rule when they suggest an essential when write “Councils do not have the right to bind the conscience of either pastors or members to a pro-forma set of essentials” or in the decision on Charge 8 when they declare that there is a “litmus test” regarding how examinations for ordinations are to be carried out.

The point here is that to many reading this decision the “look and feel” is that the value of freedom of conscience has been raised to a position above, or maybe even in place of, the other Essential Tenets of the Reformed Faith. As the SFTS document demonstrates there are multiple Tenets yet this decision deals with only one without creating a context in regards to the others. This has the feel that in saying there are no stated Essentials one has been declared.

To put it another way, Mr. Nave in his discussion interprets the decision like this – “In all of this, the SPJC applied the principle… that each part of our Constitution – including its use of the term “Reformed” – must be interpreted in light of the whole Constitution.” While the SPJC may have applied this principle their reasoning is not as transparent in their writing as it could be.

What adds to this problem of the “look and feel” is that as officers we agree to “exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds.” The reference to G-2.0105 was abbreviated and without citation in the decision on the combined Charges 7, 8, 9 and 10. This is the section in the PC(USA) Constitution that sets the openness and also the limits of an officer’s freedom of conscience:

G-2.0105 Freedom of Conscience
It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that the persons who serve it in ordered ministries shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity as expressed in this Constitution. So far as may be possible without serious departure from these standards, without infringing on the rights and views of others, and without obstructing the constitutional governance of the church, freedom of conscience with respect to the interpretation of Scripture is to be maintained. It is to be recognized, however, that in entering the ordered ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek, or serve in, ordered ministry. The decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity is made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the council in which he or she is a member.

2. Historical background in American Presbyterianism

In an interesting line in the decision the SPJC writes

In spite of evidence that the history of the Reformed Tradition did involve
adherence to “essential tenets” and required signed affirmation of same for short periods of time, it is the current understanding that the Reformed Tradition rests on a clear understanding that Jesus Christ alone is Lord of the conscience…

I think this minimizes this very conflict in our ecclesiastical heritage and it would be better phrased that “American Presbyterianism has throughout much of its history held a tension between, and struggled with the balance in, freedom of conscience and subscriptionism.” Let me quote from an interesting article titled Jonathan Dickinson and the Subscription Controversy:

In the early eighteenth century the Synod of Philadelphia was a unique blend of two ecclesiastical traditions and theological mind-sets. Within its small compass the synod was home to both a Scotch-Irish contingent, whose training and heritage rendered its members more likely to be the traditionalists or conservatives on each newly rising issue, and a New England party, whose emphasis was on personalized religion bound only by the Word of God and individual conscience. The confluence of these two traditions within the infant synod meant that controversy was inevitable. As new problems arose, the Scotch-Irish naturally tended to impose the structure and rigidity of Old-World Presbyterianism while the New Englanders opted for a freer, less hierarchical approach. The Scotch-Irish tended to translate the Old-World model of a strong, centralized ecclesiastical government and rigid creedal conformity into a world as yet ecclesiastically unshaped. The New Englanders, by contrast, fearing a return to what they considered the too-rigid control over religion from which their forefathers had narrowly escaped, naturally sought theological and moral protection in places other than tight ecclesiastical control. [Bauman, M., 1998, JETS, v 41, n 3, p 455-467, quoted from p. 456]

Does this sound at all familiar? This has been the struggle throughout the history of the American Mainline Presbyterian Church. Among other things, the Adopting Act of 1729 and the Special Commission of 1925 dealt with this issue. For this decision to cite only written subscription “for a short time” misses one of the major arcs of American Presbyterianism.

This has been a continuing discussion in mainline American Presbyterianism and the general, although not exclusive, trend has been for those favoring confessional adherence to depart the mainline. The present situation is no exception. What this decision seems to imply is that enough confessionalists have departed that the preferences of those on the “personal religion” side now dominate.

3. Bigger picture of Reformed Churches

What probably frustrated me the most with this decision is the implication that the PC(USA) gets to define what it does and does not mean to be Reformed.

Presumably the SPJC had as evidence the Packet with the call to the Special Meeting. In this packet the Presbytery Council had their own analysis of ECO as well as documents from three of their experts – Rev. Eunice McGarrahan, Dr. Richard Mouw and Dr. Wayne Darbonne – all speaking favorably of ECO as a Reformed body. Whether through the choice of the SPJC or the minimal response by the Presbytery the arguments in this packet are not reflected, or rebutted, in the decision.

One of the arguments that the Complaint makes against ECO not being a Reformed body is that it is not yet a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) (Complaint paragraph 17(b)). Fair enough. So if WCRC membership is the imprimatur of being Reformed, or at least goes a long way towards that designation, I would point out that there are denominations in WCRC that require forms of subscription (e.g. Christian Reformed Church, see Article 5 Supplement in Church Order. And the CRC has a page on “What is Reformed?” and I could not find freedom of conscience in there.) And to take it a step further from what PC(USA) polity understands, it is in full communion with the Moravian Church, a Reformed body that has bishops. (They use the term for an ordained office with teaching responsibilities and not in the sense of an episcopal hierarchy.)

But let’s look at a “close relative.” Historically and polity wise the two closest Reformed bodies to the PC(USA) are the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The PC(USA) is in correspondence with both through WCRC.

If you consider the EPC Book of Church Order, section 13-6 says:

The candidate or transferring Teaching Elder shall provide a written statement of any exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of this Church, and the Presbytery must act to allow or disallow the exceptions. The Presbytery shall not allow any exception to “Essentials of Our Faith.” If the Teaching Elder develops exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms after ordination, he or she must report those exceptions to the Presbytery and the Presbytery must act to allow or disallow these exceptions.

And this is fundamentally different from the ECO requirement how? The EPC is a recognized similar Reformed body the PC(USA) is in correspondence with and that churches from the PC(USA) have been dismissed to and it has a subscription requirement in its Constitution that if anything is stronger than ECO’s. Can I get a QED?

It is interesting as you look around that what is meant by “Reformed” varies a bit and is something of a Rorschach test or the five blind men and the elephant. There is not a single definition and as you would expect different emphases reflect different theological perspectives. WCRC probably represents the broadest view of what it means to be in the Reformed tradition while other councils, like the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council have more specific scriptural and confessional standards.

Minority Report

There is a dissenting opinion authored by the Rev. Michael D. Haggin which is joined in part by two other commissioners. No objection is made to the overall decision but as the intro says

I completely concur in the unanimous decision of the Commission that the action of the Presbytery of Santa Barbara to create a union presbytery together with the Presbytery of the West of the ECO is irregular and unconstitutional. This could have been a single point of complaint and would, by itself, justify the remedial action ordered in this case. Complainants, however, allege a large number of additional points of complaints which appear to impute unnecessarily negative motives to the Respondent. Accordingly I cannot concur with my colleagues in their decision on several of the counts of the Complaint.

Pursuant to the discussion of whether ECO is a Reformed body the opinion says

The Form of Government (G-5.04) authorizes a presbytery to unite “with one or more comparable councils or governing bodies, each of which is a member of another Reformed body.” Accordingly, on June 2, 2012, Respondent presbytery voted “to recognize ECO: a Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians as a Reformed body.” This Commission has effectively found that ECOP is not “another” body and that Presbytery of the West is not a “comparable council.” In this count, Complainant asks us to deny that ECOP is “Reformed.” Witness testimony was presented to indicate that ECOP fails a particular theological ‘litmus’ test. I believe that it is at least equally legitimate to classify as “Reformed” bodies whose theological witness descends historically from the central preachers and teachers of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, including Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Zacharius Ursinus, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and others of that ‘school.’ When any individual seeking ordination is examined, the ordaining council has the responsibility of determining whether or not the candidate has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity (G-2.0105). In this case, Respondent presbytery exercised its analogous responsibility responsibly and defensibly.

The dissenting opinion speaks similarly about Charge 2 – promoting schism: “By prompting
this Complaint, their action gave rise to divisions in the Presbytery community, but it would be a sheer speculation to say that the divisions and schisms resulting from one course of action were greater or less than those resulting from another course of action… I do not endorse Complainant’s desire to mark it as malevolent..”

Regarding Charge 12 about not being open to continuing reformation he says “Since this count appears to charge Respondent with doing something improper in the future, I cannot concur with the Commission decision here.”

Finally, all three commissioners object to the findings on Charge 18, not conducting the business decently and in order. They say “The presbytery was ready to proceed to a decision on June 2, 2012, even if the Complainants felt themselves to be ‘behind the pace’ in the competition of ideas. Respondent presbytery’s actions were (as we have found) mistaken and irregular, but they were not indecent or disorderly.”

General Discussion
Let me begin by echoing Mr. Haggin’s comments.  There are clear grounds in my mind for ruling the Santa Barbara Plan of Union as unconstitutional — if nothing else the failure of their overture to General Assembly probably guaranteed as much. But what really struck me was the tone of the decision as I read it. I recognize that this could be completely unintentional on the part of the SPJC, but the terse, streamlined and citation-free nature of the decision left this polity wonk with some concerns about the impression it was trying to leave.

The other thing that contributed to my disappointment with the nature of the decision was my knowledge of people in Santa Barbara Presbytery that I have worked with at the synod level. I am more than willing to accept that for some this proposal was an escape or shield from the new reality of the PC(USA) following the passage of Amendment 10-A. But 73% of the commissioners approved the Plan of Union and I have talked with friends in the Presbytery for whom this is not an ideal choice but agreed with it as a possible path forward. They do not want to see division but recognize that one way or another it will probably come. These are good Presbyterians of integrity who came to the conclusion that the Presbytery, as well as the PC(USA) as a whole, is better off working together in a union presbytery setting than as two separate entities. I was disappointed that there was no acknowledgement of this reality in the main decision and only in the dissenting opinion where it says “The evidence shows that the moving actors in Respondent presbytery sought to form a union presbytery in the belief, hope, or expectation that it would hold the Presbytery of Santa Barbara together and prevent a number of the member congregations from seeking dismissal.”

So what does all of this mean? Let me turn to the AI for D-7.0402b for guidance:

Decisions of the permanent judicial commissions of synods and
presbyteries are binding on the parties to the particular cases in which
the decisions are rendered unless overturned on appeal. No synod or
presbytery permanent judicial commission is able to make its decisions
binding beyond the parties to the particular case by simply declaring it
to be so.

At the same time, decisions of synod permanent judicial commissions
are precedent setting for that synod, its presbyteries, members of the
presbyteries, sessions, and members of the particular churches in the
That is to say, governing bodies and members in the same jurisdiction
and a lower jurisdiction below the one rendering a decision should be
aware that the permanent judicial commission will render similar
decisions in cases on the same issues and with like fact situations.

So the first thing we can say that this attempt at a union presbytery has probably ended.

However, as the AI says this decision is binding on no one beyond the parties involved so alternate models for union presbyteries might be acceptable. As I stated above, while this decision appealed to history and original nature of the presbyteries to invalidate the concept, another SPJC or the GAPJC may interpret the constitution only as written and find that they are permitted when all the explicit constitutional requirements are met.

Likewise, the parts declaring ECO is not a Reformed body are not binding elsewhere. At the present time ECO is not seriously threatened by this decision and dismissals to ECO by other presbyteries have gone unchallenged as to the nature of ECO. In fact, in the GAPJC decision in the Tom v San Francisco case the decision’s focus was on process for the Trust Clause and no issue was raised with the body the church was dismissed to regarding it not having a Trust Clause.

Now according to the AI the decision is not binding but precedent setting for the other churches and presbyteries in the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii. So does this determination that ECO is a special interest group carry over to congregations being dismissed to ECO? For me the key phrase is “…the permanent judicial commission will render similar
decisions in cases on the same issues and with like fact situations.” I would expect that future cases tied to this issue would be more comprehensive in submitting evidence regarding the nature of ECO changing the “fact situations.” In addition, ECO is also changing as churches join it. In my opinion the precedent here is not strong, will be short-lived and stands a reasonable chance of being revised in future cases. Finally, the Book of Order and the AI regarding dismissal do make it clear that it is the presbytery’s responsibility and right to determine if the other body is in the Reformed tradition and that usually gives the presbytery an edge when their decisions are appealed.

If this case were to be appealed to the GAPJC I would not expect any of the key charges being overturned. New evidence can only be included on appeal if it is newly discovered so more than likely an appeal would proceed based on the original material. Some findings might be overturned, but even overturning a few of the decisions would still leave enough in place to retain the trial court’s verdict regarding the union presbytery. There is a chance that the GAPJC could be convinced that the available evidence at trial was not properly considered with regards to the nature of ECO and that part of the ruling could be overturned. But one must weigh the risk of a decision that now applies to only one presbytery being upheld and becoming a standard for the whole church.

Let me conclude with these points:

  • From the evidence presented the flaws in the Plan of Union are significant enough to invalidate it, especially in light of the 220th GA not approving the details reconciling the two different polities.
  • The evidence presented and argued at trial ended up presenting a narrow view of Reformed doctrine and based on a more comprehensive view of the world Reformed movement I think ECO’s doctrine and polity would be found to lie well within the bounds of what is more widely considered to be Reformed. In addition, what might disqualify a body as a partner in a union presbytery where cooperation is required might not necessarily be a barrier to dismissal.
  • While the Plan of Union had defects, the dismissal of the fundamental concept of the union presbytery suggests that we are not ready for creative answers to modern issues and are more concerned with preserving the institution as we know it. It has the feel of the Seven Last Words of the Church – “We’ve never done it that way before.”

I think I can say that one way or another at least some of this is not yet a settled question. While I would think the odds are against seeing another union presbytery proposal I would not completely rule it out. On the other hand, the disqualification of ECO sent a collective gasp through much of the denomination from what I read and heard and that is a discussion which could be around for a while before it becomes settled law. While many presbyteries have dismissed churches to ECO without issues this case opens up the suggestion that future dismissals are more likely to be challenged, particularly since this is a question that presbyteries must answer and even the GAPJC can not issue an overriding decision on that question (although they could “counsel” a presbytery when they find the presbytery may have done it incorrectly).

OK, at about 7000 words I have probably written enough – maybe too much.
This ended up being a bit of a core dump so I hope my arguments are
coherent and thought-provoking, and maybe even convincing.

I have a couple of related items in the works but after spending two solid weeks researching and writing this maybe it is time to turn geek share a couple of data sets. Stay tuned…

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

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…

PC(USA) GAPJC Decision — Tom and Others v Presbytery of San Francisco

It was a busy and significant week for the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). A bit over a week ago they heard three important cases and a week ago 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 am hoping to have 221-04 Larson v. Los Ranchos posted in a couple of days.

But here is today’s case…

Remedial Case 221-03: Wilber Tom, David Hawbecker, and Thomas Conrad, Appellants (Complainants), v. Presbytery of San Francisco, Appellee (Respondent)

This decision includes a concurring opinion. It is also notable that, as the decision says, “Presbytery of San Francisco (Presbytery or Appellee) waived its appearance at the hearing and chose to rely on its written submissions.”

If you want the bottom line, from a polity standpoint, here you go:

When a congregation seeks dismissal under G-11.0103i (now G-3.0301a), it is the responsibility of the presbytery to fulfill its fiduciary duty under the Trust Clause.

OK, now let’s dig into this. I will first discuss the case, make a few comments about the GAPJC arguments themselves, and conclude with some thoughts on what this decision means.

To begin, few preliminary notes:

First, two types of issues were part of the appeal: the Trust Clause and process issues including possible conflict of interest of commissioners and documents received into evidence. The latter is specific to this case, I will make some mention of it, but because it does not provide any real polity issues I won’t do a lot with it.

Second, while this was tried under an earlier version of the Book of Order the language of the cited sections has not changed, only the section numbers. The two most important sections are the Trust Clause (G-8.0201 is now G-4.0203) and the presbytery’s authority to dismiss (G-11.0103i is now G-3.0303b).

Third, this case is a bit unusual in that no remedy could be provided the Complainants. The Presbytery has changed their Gracious Dismissal Policy (GDP) and the church in question has been dismissed. As the decision says “[I]n cases where circumstances prevent a remedy, this Commission may exercise its declaratory authority to provide guidance to lower councils and prevent future violations. Daniel J. McKittrick v. The Session of the West End Presbyterian Church (Remedial Case 215-5, 2003).”

This case results from the dismissal of Community Presbyterian Church of Danville (Danville) by the Presbytery of San Francisco in November 2010. The church was dismissed under the Presbytery’s Gracious Dismissal Policy (GDP) with their property and an agreement to make payments representing per capita and mission funding to the Presbytery over five years. Right after the dismissal the Presbytery voided their first GDP and began work on a new one. Following the dismissal decision a remedial case was filed with the Synod PJC of the Synod of the Pacific and in March 2012 the SPJC ruled in favor of the Presbytery and affirmed the dismissal of Danville. In May, as the GAPJC was accepting the case, the Presbytery signed a quitclaim deed and finalized the Danville dismissal. Based on this the Presbytery argued the GAPJC case was moot but as noted above the GAPJC proceeded with the case. This helps explain the fact that the Presbytery only submitted written briefs.

There were 15 specifications of error by the SPJC which the GAPJC reordered in their decision, but they did not consolidate any.

The first seven specifications of error deal with issues related to the Trust Clause and the last eight deal with proceedings at the trial concerning conflict of interest of a commissioner, questions asked and receiving evidence. All specifications of error in the first group were sustained and only two specifications of error in the second group, those regarding documents that were not received as evidence, were sustained.

The seven dealing with the Trust Clause were answered as a group. Several of these specifications are related to specific details and that the Presbytery “failed to consider or to understand the meaning of the property trust clause (G-4.0202, formerly G-8.0201) or that the church property in question was in fact unequivocally owned by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” The specifications include that the testimony of a witness was not properly considered, that the meaning of the trust clause was not properly interpreted, that the Presbytery did not properly consider two General Assembly (GA) Authoritative Interpretations (AI), that the Presbytery’s Engagement Team did not properly consider the Trust Clause in their negotiations and that the Presbytery had exercised too broad a power with regards to the Trust Clause.

The GAPJC in their decision says:

Under the Trust Clause, a presbytery’s discretionary authority to determine property rights, while broad, must be guided by the presbytery acting as a fiduciary for the benefit of the PC(U.S.A.), the beneficiary of the Trust Clause. A congregation’s financial and all other assets are also understood to be covered by the Trust Clause. Chesterbrook Taiwanese PC v. National Capital Presbytery, Remedial Case 217-12, 2006.

Under the fiduciary obligations inherent in the Trust Clause, a presbytery must take into consideration the PC(U.S.A.)’s use and benefit of the property in every decision concerning its disposition. To comply with the Trust Clause, the presbytery must consider the interest of PC(U.S.A.) as a beneficiary of the property. Payments for per capita or mission obligations are not satisfactory substitutes for valuations of the property held in trust. (G-4.0203)

Note that the case cited (217-12) regards a dissolving congregation so the application to this case beyond the scope of the Trust Clause is somewhat limited. The decision continues:

Based on an examination of the record, this Commission finds that the GDP developed by Presbytery, its implementation, and SPJC in its trial decision, failed to duly consider the economic interests of the PC(U.S.A.). Such consideration is essential. SPJC’s exclusion of documents which were the most convincing evidence of the position of PC(U.S.A.) in regard to the Trust Clause and of the financial position of Danville, strongly supports the allegation of erroneous interpretation. Failure to consider the property value and the PC(U.S.A.)’s beneficial interest in the property was a fatal omission of the trustee’s duty to the PC(U.S.A.).

The justification given by Presbytery for dismissal of the Danville church with property, which included only “Great Ends of the Church” and avoidance of litigation, was erroneously upheld by SPJC. While certainly valid, such considerations alone are not sufficient to satisfy the due diligence requirement imposed by the Trust Clause. SPJC erred in finding that due consideration had been given to the interest of the PC(U.S.A.) as the trust beneficiary under the Constitution. Due diligence, of necessity, will include not only the spiritual needs of the congregation and its circumstances, but an examination of the congregation’s financial position and the value of the property at stake. It is undisputed that Presbytery failed to make such an examination. SPJC erred in failing to require that financial due diligence be undertaken by Presbytery.

So, based on that can we determine exactly what steps a Presbytery needs to take to do “due diligence” and fulfill it’s “fiduciary responsibility”? More on that in a minute.

The other specifications of error related to process – questioning of witnesses, possible conflict of interest, and documents received or not received as evidence. With the exception of the documents alluded to above none of these specifications were sustained. The two documents that should have been received are the GA Stated Clerk’s Amicus Brief to the California Supreme Court and the Annual Statistical Report of the Danville Church.

[On a side note: I had to laugh where the decision refers to the Amicus Brief as “a clear statement of the legal position of the PC(USA).” Have a look. It is 5,294 words written for a civil court case with legal citations and vocabulary. For a document that is here described to as a “clear statement” I have always found to be a slow read. And I sometimes wonder if a document written for a civil judicial proceeding has much value in an ecclesiastical judicial case. In this case it reinforces the nature of the Trust Clause but does not really enlighten a Presbytery in determining how to properly consider it.]

The final decision section is brief, but important. Here it is in its entirety:

When the lower council’s actions cannot be undone, this Commission may exercise its declaratory authority to provide guidance to lower councils and to prevent future violations.

When a congregation seeks dismissal under G-11.0103i (now G-3.0301a), it is the responsibility of the presbytery to fulfill its fiduciary duty under the Trust Clause. This fiduciary duty requires that the presbytery exercise due diligence regarding the value of the property of the congregation seeking dismissal. Due diligence, of necessity, includes not only an evaluation of the spiritual needs of the congregation and its circumstances but also financial analysis of the value of the property at stake. Payments for per capita or mission obligations are not satisfactory substitutes for the separate evaluation of the value of the property held in trust.

There is a helpful concurring opinion that, while not authoritative, helps suggest some details for the process.

We also join in the majority’s conclusion that the language of the Gracious Dismissal Policy adopted by the Presbytery of San Francisco did not require adequate consideration of property retention issues. The needs of future congregations, the involved debt, the probability that a substantial number of dissenting members may be enabled to continue a PCUSA congregation would compel retention of a property or equity facilitating those or similar interests are all matters to be considered to be involved in the Presbytery trustee’s decision. The Gracious Dismissal Policy did not require the PET to deal with those aspects of the dismissal decision.

However erroneous the omissions of the GDP, and the construction given by its PET, it may well have been within the discretion of the Presbytery to dismiss the Danville church with its property.

and after considering the circumstances of the Danville situation

In short, there may have been no apparent reason to require retention by the PC (USA) of any property interest. With the evidence in that stature, the burden of proof that the Complainant would had to have met to show an abuse of discretion by the Presbytery would have been heavy.

And they conclude:

What the Presbytery did in securing additional mission and per capita payments may or may not have been sufficient to “balance the books” in this particular scenario, but it was within their discretion once they exercised due diligence and considered all the factors inherently required by the fiduciary duty of a trustee.

Let me take a brief look at a couple of the points in the arguments before the GAPJC that an observer at the hearing passed on to me. One point that the complainants argued for was step by step instructions that show the presbyteries understand the Trust Clause. Beyond this there also was a request that the GAPJC constitutional interpretation include payment of just compensation. In questions from the commissioners there was one of the nature of “Aren’t you in effect asking us to write the rest of the trust clause?” The response was along the lines that they wished they didn’t have to but it is clearly not understood so the presbyteries need procedural steps.

So we have this decision and it does not contain a step-by-step checklist as the complainants suggested. How does it fit into the patchwork of interpretation and what does it mean? Well, I had to chuckle when I read the two Authoritative Interpretations cited in the Specifications of Error. The first, 9-88, was from a stated clerk asking for guidance in these matters. The second, 89-10, was the same stated clerk coming back to GA a year later asking for further clarification. Yup, clear as mud.

So what interpretation do we have? The first AI says:

A presbytery may dismiss a church with its property pursuant to
G-11.0103i and G-11.0103y, provided the request is made in proper form
and provided proper consideration is given to the interests of the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as provided in Chapter VIII. In particular,
G-8.0201 recognizes the principle that all property by or for a
particular church is held in trust for the use and benefit of the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Thus the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a
party in interest when a presbytery takes action with respect to a
request to dismiss a church with its property.

The second expounds on this:

When dealing with a request by a church for dismissal with its
property pursuant to G-11.0103i and G-11.0103y, the presbytery is
responsible for exercising the expressed trust provisions of G-8.0201
recognizing and protecting the interests of the Presbyterian Church
(U.S.A.). Separate consideration should be given to the questions of
dismissing the congregation, the disposal of property, and the
relationships of ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

Each request for dismissal should be considered in the light
of the particular situation and circumstances involved. If guidelines
are established, it should be done with extreme caution. Any guidelines
which restrict presbytery in its deliberations and in the exercise of
its responsibility and authority might be subject to question in a case
of judicial process within the church. Instead of establishing
guidelines a presbytery might be better advised to trust its good
judgment in particular situations.

This decision says:

Under the Trust Clause, a presbytery’s discretionary authority to determine property rights, while broad, must be guided by the presbytery acting as a fiduciary for the benefit of the PC(U.S.A.), the beneficiary of the Trust Clause. A congregation’s financial and all other assets are also understood to be covered by the Trust Clause.

and later

Under the fiduciary obligations inherent in the Trust Clause, a presbytery must take into consideration the PC(U.S.A.)’s use and benefit of the property in every decision concerning its disposition. To comply with the Trust Clause, the presbytery must consider the interest of PC(U.S.A.) as a beneficiary of the property. Payments for per capita or mission obligations are not satisfactory substitutes for valuations of the property held in trust. (G-4.0203)

and finally

Due diligence, of necessity, will include not only the spiritual needs of the congregation and its circumstances, but an examination of the congregation’s financial position and the value of the property at stake.

At the present time there is Advisory Opinion 19 from the Office of the General Assembly that talks about the Trust Clause for the Unity of the Church. The detail contained in there talks about dismissing a church but does not address the due diligence discussed in this decision. There might be an update in the works based on this case. There is also a constitutional musing on Transferring Congregations that talks a lot about process but does not detail the property aspect.

Based upon all of these let me make a few observations and suggestions that relate to this and what these passages suggest to me is due diligence.

  • In spite of the AI above cautioning against a fixed policy the 218th General Assembly encouraged the development of Gracious Dismissal Policies. It would seem that based on the interpretations above these policies would entail process and guidelines but not specific dismissal terms. It should also be noted that the GDP postdates the two AI’s.
  • The thoughts that follow are contingent on a number of conditions including that the dismissal is to another recognized reformed body, there is near unanimous agreement in the congregation for dismissal, the process has been followed and there are no encumbrances on the property or at least all sides can agree on how loans and deed restrictions will be handled.
  • The first thing that these guidelines seem to say is that the real and other property must be specifically accounted for in the dismissal agreement and an acknowledgement that they are presently held in trust for the PC(USA) as a whole.
  • The requirement for due diligence indicates that the value of the property should be determined by appraisal or some other reasonable method.
  • As the concurring opinion suggests, a case can be made in the agreement for dismissal with property, possibly without financial compensation in consideration of the property, where the case for mission supports it. But it appears that this case needs to be laid out in detail in the agreement or an associated document.
  • One spiritual and fiduciary consideration should be the cost, in money and good will, of civil litigation.

As I look at the collection of documents this is the conclusion that I reach. Your mileage may vary.

There is certainly the possibility that there will be official clarification on this by one of the usual channels. We can get official interpretations by an AI from the General Assembly or a future judicial case that has the GAPJC clarify this decision. There can also be clarifications, recommendations and guidelines that might be issued by various entities or individuals (like my thoughts above) that are helpful but do not rise to the level of Constitutional Interpretation like those from GA or the GAPJC. [Guidance has been issued by the Office of the General Assembly – See UPDATE at bottom.]

On thing I would not expect and would caution against is a definitive number that is recommended. I often hear suggestions of a payment of 10% of the value of the property but the AI above talks about taking these on a case-by-case basis and the Assembly Committee on the Constitution gave the advice to the 220th General Assembly, regarding a different matter, not to enshrine specific numbers in the constitution as that was against the spirit of the new Form of Government.

Let me conclude with some thoughts on the implications of this decision. The original San Francisco GDP has been held up as a model for use by other presbyteries, my own included. At the risk of inviting a remedial case I would add that the agreements with the churches we recently dismissed would probably not meet the test the GAPJC puts forward in this decision. I have to wonder how many other dismissal cases currently in process or recently completed would be in the same category. Clearly all future agreements need to seriously address the Trust Clause and provide due diligence regarding property.

In addition, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the Trust Clause has become a bit of a Rorschach Test across the denomination and different people and groups see it differently.

But the bottom line is that the GAPJC did not give a definite process or very many specific steps as to what would constitute due diligence. Until or unless such authoritative guidance is given each presbytery that dismisses congregations has some latitude in determining for itself what it’s good faith due diligence work entails.

Enough about that for the moment. Something tells me this question may arise again in the future.

Now I set my sights on the last of the three cases, Larson and other v. Presbytery of Los Ranchos. We will see how quickly I can get that written. Stay tuned…

UPDATE: 11/12/12 – Late last week the Office of the General Assembly issued a Frequently Asked Questions document about this decision. There guidance is a bit less detailed than the suggestion I had above but my thoughts are pretty much in line with the guidelines they gave.

PC(USA) GAPJC Decisions — Presbytery of Newark v McNeill

This was a busy and significant week for the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). A week ago they heard three significant cases and earlier this week issued their decisions. I am going to take these individually because of the importance of each one and taking them in order of their case number hoping to have all three finished by the end of the weekend.

Disciplinary Case 221-02: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through Presbytery of Newark,
Appellant (Complainant) v. Laurie McNeill, Appellee (Accused)

This decision includes three concurring opinions and a dissent.

The GAPJC decision gives a good summary of the origins of this disciplinary case:

On October 17, 2009, McNeill, a minister of the Word and Sacrament, Pastor of the
Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC(U.S.A.)), and member of Presbytery, was married under the state law of Massachusetts to
Ms. Lisa Lynn Gollihue. The ceremony took place at Christ Episcopal Church in Harwich Port,
Massachusetts, and was officiated by a minister of the United Church of Christ and two priests of
the Episcopal Church, according to a modified marriage rite from the Book of Common Prayer of
the Episcopal Church.

Upon the announcement of the marriage a complaint was filed with the presbytery, an investigating committee was formed and TE McNeill was tried on two charges:

Charge 1: You, Laurie McNeill, on or about October 17, 2009, did commit the offense of  participating in a same-sex ceremony, in which two women, namely yourself and Lisa Lynn  Gollihue, were married under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in violation of W-4.9001 of the Book of Order, and thereafter representing to your then congregation and others that such ceremony was a “marriage” all in violation of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Charge 2: You, Laurie McNeill, during the period beginning at least as early as October 17, 2009 and continuing until the date hereof, did commit the offense of being involved in a relationship described as a “happy marriage” with Lisa Lynn Gollihue, a person of the same sex as yourself, in violation of G-6.0106(b) of the Book of Order, in failing to live a life either in fidelity in marriage between a man and a women [sic] or chastity in singleness, all in violation of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 

You will note that the charges were filed under the previous Form of Government and before G-6.0106(b) was changed.

The Presbytery PJC acquited her on both charges and on appeal the Synod PJC concurred. The case was then appealed to the GAPJC.

The GAPJC consolidated the 32 specifications of error by the SPJC down to 11 specifications. For the sake of space I will be consolidating a bit further and summarizing the specifications. None of the errors were sustained by the GAPJC.

The first error addresses the Directory for Worship and the definition of marriage in W-4.9001 and the second error addresses the SPJC determination “that the Constitution of the PC(U.S.A.)  does not regulate the conduct of ordained officers of the PC(U.S.A.) in services conducted outside the auspices of the PC(U.S.A.).”

While the present decision does not reference the Southard decision at this point, part of that decision does reflect on this:

This Commission further held in Spahr, for prospective application, “that the liturgy should  be kept distinct for the two types of services.” In light of the change in the laws of some states, this Commission reiterates that officers of the PCUSA who are authorized to perform marriages, when performing a ceremony for a same-gender couple, shall not state, imply, or represent that the same-gender ceremony is an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PCUSA polity, whether or not the civil jurisdiction allows same-gender civil marriages.

In response to these two specifications of error the present decision says:

The Directory for Worship “…sets standards and presents norms for the conduct of  worship in the life of congregations and governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” In this case the service of worship did not occur in a PC(U.S.A.) church nor was it conducted under the auspices of the PC(U.S.A.); therefore, the Directory for Worship does not apply.  The Constitution is silent regarding the marriage of an officer of the PCUSA in civil marriage ceremonies.  Further, Scripture and Confessions were not argued as part of the trial record and, therefore, could not be considered on appeal.

Note that there are two circumstances that combined brought this ceremony outside of the established legal precedent for the PC(USA) — First, is that it was not “conducted under the auspices of the PC(U.S.A.)” and the second was that prior decisions involved those that preformed the ceremonies not simply participate in them. Since this ceremony was only connected to the PC(USA) in that a teaching elder in the PC(USA) was one of the individuals getting married under a narrow reading of the Directory for Worship and previous decisions they would not apply in this case. This rational also applies regarding specification of error number four not being sustained.

The third specification of error said that it is a violation of the Constitution to describe this relationship as a marriage to which the GAPJC points out “The stipulated facts from the record reflect that, although Appellee did describe herself as married, she made it clear that the PC(U.S.A.) did not recognize her marriage.”

The fifth and sixth errors were regarding G-6.0106b — what constitutes a violation of it and when it should be applied. In the rational the decision says “the evidence did not support a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that McNeill committed an offense.” In part, as one of the concurring opinions points out, this is a diplomatic way of saying that there was no evidence presented of sexual activity in this marriage.

But the decision leaves unanswered one part of the fifth specification of error where it says “The SPJC erred in determining  that it was not clear in what circumstance or to whom G-6.0106b applied and that G-6.0106b was only applicable in the context of an examination and, therefore, could not be enforced in a disciplinary process.” Without answering if G-6.0106b was applicable outside the context of an examination they have affirmed that view in this case but do not give the church guidance for future cases. (And even though G-6.0106b is now in a different form in G-2.0104b it does raise an interesting question of the applicability of this or other specific standards for ordination in the Book of Order.)

The next three specifications of error address the applicability of Scripture and the Confessions in this case. These errors were not sustained because, as you can see in the charges above, the charges focused on the Book of Order provisions and did not include support by Scripture or the Confessions and support from these sources was not introduced at the original trial. The decision says:

Appellant charged Appellee for violating two specific provisions of the Book of Order. In the trial before PPJC, Appellants neither argued nor presented evidence of violations of Scripture or Confessions.  An appellate body cannot find that a trial court erred by not considering argument or evidence when neither the argument nor the evidence was presented to the trial court.  Further, it is impermissible for an appellate body to consider new arguments and evidence on appeal, except on application as set out in D-14.0502.  No such application was made in this case.  By not arguing or presenting evidence of violations of Scripture or Confessions at the trial level, Appellant waived making such arguments and presenting such evidence on appeal.

Finally, the last two errors suggest that the case was proved beyond a reasonable doubt but the GAPJC in their decision sides with the opinion of the PPJC that it was not.

Most of the rational is in the reply to the specification of charges but the GAPJC adds a bit of commentary in the formal decision section:

This case illustrates the tortuous place in which the PC(U.S.A.) finds itself on the matter of same-gender marriage.  Previous cases, which dealt with teaching elders officiating at such services, state that unions between same-gender couples, whether legally recognized or not, cannot be declared to be marriages under the current interpretation of W-4.9001.  Our Constitution, specifically this section of the Directory for Worship, did not anticipate the range of issues facing the church today surrounding same-gender relationships. In light of the number  of cases coming before this Commission and the convoluted grounds upon which cases are brought and decided, it would be beneficial for the church to provide a definitive position regarding participation of officers in same-gender ceremonies whether civil or religious. 

No errors were sustained, all appeals are exhausted and no PJC found grounds to affirm the charges against TE McNeill.

Now some other opinions in the matter.

The first concurring opinion, signed by three commissioners, takes the main and expands upon it saying that the General Assembly needs to supply clear guidance regarding same-sex marriage because of the spiritual and financial toll these cases are taking on the church.

The second concurring opinion, signed by two commissioners, is a bit more specific about discussing whether sexual activity could be addressed. The bulk of the opinion says:

There was no evidence of sexual activity here. Appellee entered into her civil marriage on October 17, 2009, when former G-6.0106b was in effect. Since PPJC refused to presume sexual activity, there was no evidence that G-6.0106b had been violated. While it is tempting to assume that “happily married” persons are engaging in sexual activity, it would be inappropriate to reach a guilty verdict exclusively on a presumption. See Wier v. Second Presbyterian Church, Minutes, 2002. Defendants in disciplinary cases are presumed innocent until proven guilty (D-11.0401), and have a right to remain silent. (D-10.0203c). If a rebuttable presumption of sexual activity were allowed, a defendant would have to waive the right to remain silent in order to rebut the presumption. The PPJC verdict was therefore supported by the evidence and was properly sustained by SPJC.

And in case you are thinking “does this really hinge on sexual activity” the answer is “yes” and you can refer to decision 220-01 White and Crews v. Session, St. Paul Presbyterian Church of
San Angelo, Texas

The third concurring opinion addresses the very narrow scope of the charges and the decision when it says that the Directory for Worship guides “congregations and governing bodies” but does not mention individuals. This opinion says, in part:

…Clearly the Directory for Worship does not reach to services of worship held outside of Presbyterian Churches without absurd consequences.  For example… Presbyterians may worship in churches that do not share our theology of the Word or the sacraments without being accused of an offense.
However, “the Directory for Worship reflects the conviction that the life of the church is one, and that its worship, witness, and service are inseparable. …. [I]t describes the theology that underlies Reformed worship.”  (Preface, Directory for Worship)    Here is suggested an integrity of theology, worship, and life.

It is troubling that the Appellee in this case, by virtue of being a subject in a marriage ceremony held in a church over which the Directory for Worship has no jurisdiction, succeeded in doing for herself what she would be unable (under Spahr and Southard) to do for others, i.e., enter into a marriage that, while not recognized by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is legally recognized under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. 

This Commission is bound by the charges brought by the Complainants/Appellants.  Therefore, this case is limited to considering the application of W-4.9001 and G-6.106b.  The Commission was restricted to these particular matters of polity and could consider neither Scriptural and Confessional arguments nor standards of pastoral accountability rooted in the Constitutional questions for ordination.   It is conceivable that, had the charges referenced Scripture and/or Confessions or the ordination question concerning the peace, unity, and purity of the church, the argument and outcome of this case may have been different. 

The dissent in this case is filed by two commissioners. This dissent takes issue with all of the underlying issues in this case and how they were viewed by the majority. It is not diplomatic about arguing for the presumption of sexual activity. It argues for the applicability of the Directory for Worship to the conduct of individuals:

[T]he argument that the Directory for Worship, which is an integral part of our Book of Order, does not provide grounds for which to regulate the conduct of our officers outside the context of worship, is also troublesome given that “This Directory for Worship reflects the conviction that the life of the Church is one, and that its worship, witness and service are inseparable.” (Preface). It also states in Section W-1.1005 that “a Christian’s personal response to God is in community” and that “the Christian community worships and serves God in shared experiences of life, in personal discipleship, in mutual ministry, and in common ministry in the world.” How can any officer of the church, or any member for that matter, separate his or her life as being within the church in part, and outside the church in part, or as was argued in this case, single in the eyes of the church and married in the eyes of the state?  Our life as Christians is integrally a part of the church, or as stated in W-1.1005, “A Christian’s personal response to God is in community”.

And finally, they argue for the applicability of G-6.0106b in this case.

There is one additional expression of dissent in this case beyond the GAPJC decision and it comes from a press release from Mauck & Baker, LLC, the law firm that worked with the prosecution throughout the case. In addition to expressing their disappointment they provide more details on their case and take issue with all the reasoning by the GAPJC majority in the decision.

Regarding the lack of admissibility of Scriptures and Confessions on appeal the press release says:

is in clear distinction to the recent Davis case from 2009 in which a
Presbyterian Teaching Elder was accused of viewing pornography on a
church computer. There the charges were as unspecific as to what had
been violated as in this case, citing the ordination vows generally,
there being nothing at all in Scripture or the Constitution which
addresses pornography.  Nevertheless the GAPJC had no trouble sustaining
the conviction on the general grounds that viewing porn disturbed the
peace, unity and purity of the Church.

I would first note that, unlike this case, in the Davis case (Decision 219-09) the charges on which the trial was held contained specific reference to Scripture (the Seventh Commandment as explained in the Confessions) and ordination vows (guided by the Confessions and furthering the peace, unity and purity of the church). I would also note that in the current decision I could find no reference to the Davis case.

But this press release is correct that in the Davis case G-6.0106b was cited in regards to prosecution based on standards in daily life and not just in the context of examination. The decision says:

The Book of Order and the Book of Confessions make it clear that church officers are to conduct themselves within certain limits. While there are few specific church-wide standards of proscribed conduct, (e.g., G-6.0106b), there are many aspirational statements in the church constitution for how church officers should behave. Notwithstanding the church’s preference to avoid a code of forbidden conduct, the church expects that the life and character of its officers be marked by adherence to Biblical and confessional principles.

The Davis decision later goes on to say

This Commission finds that a session or presbytery may determine whether one of its members acted or failed to act in a particular manner that “is contrary to the Scriptures or the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” (D-2.0203b)… The question before this Commission is this: “Was Davis’ use of pornography on a church computer a constitutional offense?” The governing body of membership first determines whether a church officer has departed from biblical and constitutional standards (G-6.0108b) and whether to impose a censure (G-11.0103n and r). The PPJC did make such determinations about Davis’ use of pornography. The SPJC affirmed that decision and this Commission concurs.

There are a number of other outlets that have expressed opinions on the outcome of this case including More Light Presbyterians, The Layman and the Covenant Network.

A couple of my thoughts on this case…

First, Detail Matter! From reading the GAPJC decision much of the outcome was related to the way the charges were drawn up and the trial conducted. Once the trial is concluded it is only under specific circumstances that additional arguments can be introduced.

I was reminded of the importance of details listening to the news this evening regarding insurance coverage for those affected by Superstorm Sandy earlier this week.  One important distinction relates to the cause of damage to your house. If you have rain or wind damage than standard homeowners insurance will cover it, but if the damage is due to flooding you better have special flood insurance. The second distinction regards the storm itself. If your homeowners insurance has the higher hurricane deductibles it matters if the storm that hit you was Hurricane Sandy or Superstorm Sandy.

In a way this decision came down to details and how the GAPJC decided to interpret the constitution. They could have applied G-6.0106b to manner of life similar to the Davis case, they could have interpreted the Directory for Worship to have had greater applicability to an individual’s life and not just congregational worship, but they kept to narrow interpretations. As the one concurring opinion says, “It is conceivable that, had the charges referenced Scripture and/or Confessions or the ordination question concerning the peace, unity, and purity of the church, the argument and outcome of this case may have been different.”

My second comment is the implication of that last quote: This was one case but because it was so tightly tied to the details I believe it has very little applicability and interpretive importance going forward. Those interested in prosecuting these cases know what does not work so clearly the roadmap now is to construct charges and prosecution strategy that includes Scripture, the Confessions and interpretation of the Directory for Worship that balances both the covenant community and the individual within it. Charges should have a theological depth like the Davis charges or the charges against Charles A. Briggs.

Enough on that for this evening. Next stop: San Francisco and the trust clause. While I think the McNeill case has a limited scope going forward I think the San Francisco decision presents us with the most important decision of the three this week. It is a decision that could have significant implications and broad applicability.  At least that is my read on it – your mileage may vary. Stay tuned…

Presbyterian News Headlines For The Week Ending May 19, 2012 — Bullying, Departures and a Merger

A few items that caught my attention this week

Church of Scotland hit by staff bullying claims

Herald Scotland, 19 May 2012
As the 2012 General Assembly gets underway there are reports that a secret survey of the Kirk’s central office staff alleges “disturbing levels of bullying.”

Congregations leave local Presbyterian district

Sun Sentinel, 16 May 2012
At its regular stated presbytery meeting the Presbytery of Tropical Florida dismissed nine churches from the PC(USA), most to ECO.

Vicksburg churches switch affiliation

My San Antonio, 19 May 2012 [Originally from the Vicksburg Post post which requires registration – link within this article.]
The Presbytery of Mississippi dismissed three churches from the PC(USA) to the EPC.

France will have new denomination with Protestant merger

ENI News, 16 May 2012
The Reformed Church of France – the largest Protestant body in France and tracing its origin back to the Huguenots – merged with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of France to form the United Protestant Church of France.

Finally, if any news item went viral this week it was the resolution of the Presbytery of the Redwoods objecting to the rebuke of Teaching Elder Jane Spahr by their PJC that was upheld on appeal to the SPJC and the GAPJC. I commented on that and there are numerous article about it including ones from the San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post and the Associated Press.

We now have two General Assemblies underway so there will be lots to talk about next week.

“A Vast Diversity Of Interpretation” — Redwoods Presbytery Expresses Their Disagreement With The Spahr II Decision

The biggest news in the Presbyverse right now is the motion passed by the Presbytery of the Redwoods objecting to the decision and punishment and failure to overturn those on appeal in the most recent disciplinary case against the Rev. Jane Spahr (the Spahr II decision).

In case you have missed it, this past Tuesday was the first stated presbytery meeting of Redwoods Presbytery since the PC(USA) General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission heard the appeal in this case and upheld the decision from the Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission trial. Teaching Elder Spahr was found to have committed “the offense of representing that a same-sex ceremony was a marriage by performing a ceremony in which two women were married under the laws of the State of California and thereafter signing their Certificate of Marriage as the person solemnizing the marriage.” In addition, she was accused of persisting in this since the first disciplinary action (Spahr I decision) and of violating her ordination vows by failing to be subject to the authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order.

At the Presbytery meeting, in the Stated Clerk’s report of the GAPJC decision, a motion was introduced that laid out a series of reasons the judicial decisions were wrong and concluded with this resolution:

Be it RESOLVED that the Presbytery of the Redwoods opposes imposition of
the rebuke set forth in the decision dated August 27, 2010, as
inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Constitution of the
Presbyterian Church (USA), and the faithful life of ministry lived out
in this Presbytery.

The full text of the resolution is available from the Presbytery (with a follow-up letter from the Stated Clerk), MLP web site or Mary Holder Naegeli’s blog.

Let me begin with some polity observations.  We need to be clear at the onset that the Presbytery resolution is an objection or protest. The rebuke has been made and registered.  The Presbyterian News Service article about the resolution says this from the Presbytery Stated Clerk:

“Perhaps the majority, perhaps all of them, thought they had removed the
rebuke but I don’t see how it is in the power of the presbytery to do
that,” Conover said, adding that he had about 30 minutes notice on the
Clark motion before the beginning of the meeting.

The article goes on to say that Laurie Griffith, manager of judicial process in the Office of the General Assembly affirms this as well with the article saying that “The rebuke stands, whether Redwoods Presbytery reads it publicly or not.”

Let’s drill down on this for a moment. In Book of Order section D-11.0403e about the degree of censure it ends with this line: “Following such determination and in an open meeting, the moderator of
the session or permanent judicial commission shall then pronounce the
censure.” In the decision Charlotte v. Jacobs (GAPJC decision 215-09) the Commission clarifies that “Unless there is a stay of enforcement in place, censure takes effect immediately upon the pronouncement of the decision at trial…” The Presbytery PJC decision did specify a stay in the event of appeals so with the exhaustion of the appeals the rebuke pronounced at the conclusion of trial on August 27, 2010 would go into effect with the decision by the GAPJC on February 20th, 2012.

Bottom line – they can express opposition to the rebuke, but under our polity the rebuke decided upon and initially imposed 21 months ago by the Presbytery through their own judicial commission became effective earlier this year.

What have they done? First and foremost, the Presbytery by a 74-18 vote has effectively registered a protest to the current authoritative interpretation of the PC(USA) Constitution. And, if I understand the news reports correctly (and I would welcome someone who was there to provide more accurate information in the comments) the resolution did not stop the Stated Clerk from reporting and distributing the decision, but it stopped the decision, including the rebuke from being read. Based on usual practice the rebuke has been read at lease once and probably twice before after the PPJC trial and the SPJC appeal.

I have spent a good deal of time in the last 36 hours working through GAPJC decisions and the Annotated Book of Order to see if I can find a precedent. I am not aware of one but I invite anyone to comment if they are aware of a previous similar presbytery action. From reports on-line it appears that others are not aware of a precedent either. The Louisville Courier-Journal has this in Peter Smith’s column: “Jerry Van Marter, director of Presbyterian News Service, said he knows
of no other case where a presbytery has refused to carry out a court
directive.” And in her blog Mary Holder Naegeli, an experienced watcher of these things, says “I cannot recall in almost 25 years as an ordained minister ever witnessing open defiance of a direct PJC order.”

What next?  The PNS article says:

Laurie Griffith, manager of judicial process in the
Office of the General Assembly said there “are two possible options for
redress if anyone wanted to raise the issue” of the presbytery’s

“Each presbytery submits a ‘compliance report’ to
the GAPJC, which is reported for information to each General Assembly,”
she told the Presbyterian News Service, but it’s always been just pro

The other option, Griffith said, “could be a
remedial complaint against the presbytery, but remedial complaints are
not usually used to challenge disciplinary processes.”

My only comments on the remedial complaint is that 1) while they are not usually used to challenge disciplinary processes this resolution appears to be without precedent so “usually” is the operative word and 2) it strikes me that this is not so much an issue with the disciplinary process itself as with the Presbytery’s response to it and enforcement of it.

[Please see update at the end of this] Now, I want to mention one non-polity issue that – if correct – I do find disturbing. Reports have mentioned a significant media presence at the presbytery meeting for this item.  If the media were there just expecting the reading of the decision, that is one thing.  There seems to be a feeling, and I have no independent confirmation of this, that the media was made aware of the counter-motion in advance and were there for a sensational story. In itself that is still OK, we have open meetings… except note what the Stated Clerk said above – that he “only had about 30 minutes notice [of the motion] before the beginning of the meeting.” Presumably the same goes for the Presbytery Moderator who had to handle this business. (If the Moderator had notice but the Clerk did not then the Moderator and the Clerk need to talk more.) It strikes me as a break with our much-valued “mutual forbearance” and “peace, unity and purity” if the mainstream media was given notice to be there but those charged with the decently and orderly conduct of the meeting were not.
[Important update: Did get information from someone who was there and it was their impression that the media was there for the reading of the censure. In fact, they observed one reporter grumbling because they had already written the story and now had to rewrite it.  I stand down from my concerns expressed above.]

I might have a lot more to say about this later, but there are more pressing events for a GA junkie upon us now and I will postpone any further thoughts on this, possibly indefinitely. If you want more coverage you can get it from all the usual suspects including…

Enough for now — This will have reverberations for a while to come in many forms and on many levels. We will see where this leads.  Stay tuned…