Category Archives: same-sex union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The decision’s decisive paragraph says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Presbyterian News Topics Of 2015

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

Racial Reconciliation

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mass Shootings and Gun Violence

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

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

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


Presbyterian denominations and same-gender relationships

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

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


Reaction within the Presbyterian family to same-sex marriage decisions

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

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


Shifting between Reformed branches

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



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

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

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


Presbyterian branches working together

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


Membership trends continue

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


Publications and Media

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Happy New Year and a Joyful Hogmanay

Presbyteries Begin Voting On Same-Sex Marriage Actions

With General Assembly season now behind us we move into the portion of the year where the actions of the General Assemblies that require presbytery concurrence are now being considered by the lower governing bodies.

Coming from three of the Assemblies we have proposed actions that have implications for same-sex marriage/partnerships within the church and the progress is being closely watched within each branch. Here is a brief summary of what to watch and where each is at this time.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted a proposed constitutional amendment that now needs to be approved by the presbyteries. This change in the language of Book of Order section W-4.9000 has been bundled into the Amendment booklet and is now referred to as Amendment 14-F.

Presbytery voting has begun and the Office of the General Assembly is, as always, the official tracker of the votes. They have created a page specific to the marriage amendment that has not only resources about the GA action and that amendment, but a nifty map of the presbyteries that have reported their vote and which way it went. I have to admit that with only a few recorded so far it is a bit tough distinguishing between the shades of purple they use for yes and no, but once it begins to fill in the difference should be more obvious. And interesting to see that the Dakota nongeographic presbytery was geographically placed in southern Saskatchewan.

If you want the official tally of the voting on all amendments that is still there and shows that to date three presbyteries have officially recorded their votes ( 1 yes and 2 no on both 14-F and Blehar at this time ). Also interesting to note that the official page for the Belhar Confession does not have nifty map.

And for the polity wonks it is helpful to remember that the PC(USA) now has two less presbyteries for a total of 171 meaning that it takes 86 to approve a Book of Order Amendment and 114 to approve a change to the Book of Confessions.

For up-to-the-minute unofficial reporting I see that the Covenant Network is keeping an on-line tally with the presbytery voting results including the number of yes and no votes, something the OGA does not include. As of two weeks ago their tally was two presbyteries on each side.

While I will be doing a much more detailed analysis as more data are available, here is a quick comparison of the first four data point in comparison to 10-A. I will leave it for another time to discuss whether the comparison of two amendment that deal with significantly different equality questions is appropriate. Abstentions are included in the totals and the percentage after the total is the change in the number of total votes from 10-A.

Presbytery 14-F Yes 14-F No 14-F Total 10-A Yes 10-A No 10-A Total
New Castle 73 (74%) 24 (24%) 99 (-14%) 79 (69%) 34 (30%) 115
Palo Duro 25 (45%) 30 (55%) 55 (-35%) 35 (41%) 50 (59%) 85
San Diego 22 (22%) 76 (77%) 99 (+14%) 21 (24%) 66 (76%) 87
Yukon 27 (59%) 19 (41%) 46 (-22%) 21 (36%) 38 (64%) 59

So far we have two presbyteries with no on both, one yes on both and one switch from no to yes. In three out of four cases we see a significant decrease in the number of total votes cast. With 167 presbyteries left to go there is still a lot of data yet to be collected so I won’t go any further with this analysis now.


Church of Scotland

This past May the General Assembly 2014 of the Church of Scotland approved an act related to ministers in civil partnerships that affirms traditional language but includes proposed language (all found as an Appendix to the Legal Questions Committee report) for churches to request to depart from the traditional standards and it is now being voted on by the presbyteries as special legislation under the Barrier Act. There are 46 presbyteries and a majority of 24 are required for concurrence leading to the General Assembly giving it final considering in 2015.

The Principal Clerk’s office does not keep the official tally of the votes online but a group of evangelicals in the Kirk, Forward Together, has been monitoring voting. In a statement from last week (30 October) they indicate that they know of three presbyteries who have already voted no on the overture. That statement also contains a list of known dates of presbytery votes with the largest single day on the list this past Tuesday (4 November). The deadline to vote is in December.

In particular, the vote against by the Presbytery of Lewis received some publicity probably enhanced by the issuance of a statement following the vote. The story was picked up by the Stornoway Gazette and the KaleidoScot web site, among others.

Holding an alternate viewpoint on the question is Affirmation Scotland which says that they are disappointed the legislation does not go farther but supports it as an intermediate step. One of their affiliated churches, Greyfriers Church in Edinburgh, has recently made it clear that they are an inclusive congregation and that should the act be confirmed they will be an affirming congregation and request a departure from the act should the circumstances arise.


Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand

In their General Assembly about a month ago they reaffirmed their support for marriage between one man and one woman and the Assembly sent to the presbyteries special legislation under the Barrier Act that would confirm that language in their Book of Order.

The act must be approved by a majority of the eleven presbyteries, two synods and two church councils.

It is relatively early in their process so we will see what announcements are made as it moves forward.



At this point the process is moving forward in each of the branches. While the Church of Scotland voting will be wrapping up in the next couple of months the other two branches will take a bit longer. As I indicated above, I will be taking the PC(USA) voting data and adding that to my database to see what observations we can make about that branch. For the other two there is a paucity of previous votes for statistical comparisons so we can only keep an eye on them as current snapshots of their denomination. We will see what happens.

Top 10 Presbyterian News Stories Of 2012

Well, I did this for the first time last year and thought I would continue again this New Years. So here, in no particular order, are my top ten Presbyterian news stories of the past year.

1. Korean Presbyterians celebrate their centennial General Assembly
With their first GA in 1912 this year Korean Presbyterians celebrated their centennial Assembly in September with guests from around the world including the Church of Scotland and the PC(USA). More from the World Communion of Reformed Churches.

Speaking of the WCRC…

2. World Communion of Reformed Churches to move headquarters
Finding the cost of operating in Germany to be cheaper than in Switzerland in November the WCRC executive committee issued a press release announcing the move from  Geneva to Hanover.

3. Departures from the Church of Scotland
While a few pastors and a couple of congregations began leaving last spring the news climaxed in December with the congregation of St. Georges Tron in Glasgow giving up their fight to keep their property and vacating the building.

And while we are on the topic of Scotland…

4. Presbyterian Opposition to Same-gender Marriage in Scotland
While the Church of Scotland has set a trajectory for ordination and marriage for same-gender partnered individuals, that policy change has not yet been made so the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland have expressed their opposition to the Scottish Government’s plan to introduce same-gender marriage. In addition, while the discussions in Northern Ireland are not as advanced, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland expressed their concern for government suggestions about introducing same-gender marriage in Norther Ireland.

Continuing the news about marriage…

5. Presbyterians Reaffirm Support for Marriage Between a Man and a Woman in New Zealand
Among the many actions at the October General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand was a resolution that “upheld the historic Christian understanding of marriage as the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman.” There was also an approval of presbytery status for the Pacific Island churches giving them the corresponding autonomy and authority.

In another General Assembly…

6. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly Sticks With The Status Quo
Presented with a number of major decisions the 220th GA of the PC(USA) chose to not divest from companies supporting Israeli occupation, to further consider restructuring synods, to propose no changes to the Book of Order related to marriage and preserve the special offerings in their current form.

7. The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission of the PC(USA) Decides Several Closely Watched Cases
Among the decisions handed down were a guilty verdict for conducting a same-gender marriage, a not-guilty verdict for participating in a same-gender wedding, a final case clearing the way for ordination of a same-gender partnered candidate, a clarification and restriction related to the trust clause and dismissal of congregations and a decision invalidating a presbytery’s statement of behavioral standards for ordained officers.

8. Presbyterian Church In Ireland Statements On Violent Attacks
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, in statements by the Moderator of the General Assembly, Dr. Roy Patton, expressed their concern following the killing of a prison guard in November and the December attempted murder of a police officer.

9. New Reformed Body
At a Covenanting Conference last January in Orlando, Florida, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (later renamed the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians) was formed. Over the year a number of churches have been dismissed to the Order, although a November Synod PJC decision has raised questions as to whether it is a Reformed body that churches can be dismissed to.

10. Presbyterians and the Elections in Ghana
Throughout the year there were statements and activity by both the Presbyterian Church of Ghana and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana leading up to the elections in the fall. After a series of exchanges the government did offer an apology for a misunderstanding. The church’s involvement was not always viewed favorably.

A couple of other noteworthy news items this past year that caught my attention:

The religious violence in Nigeria which has touched all the Christians including the Presbyterians.

The Affordable Care Act in the US was endorsed by the PC(USA) Office of the General Assembly but which has some Presbyterians, including PC(USA) affiliated College of the Ozarks and branches like the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, endorsing broad religious exemptions.

A PC(USA) and EPC ruling elder and Provost of Whitworth University, Michael K. Le Roy Ph.D., was named the President of the Christian Reformed Church of North America’s Calvin College.

So there you have my list — as always your mileage may vary.

And so, as we begin 2013 I wish all of you the best for the new year and that your lives may be decent and in order, but that you also have the appropriate balance of ardor and order.

Happy New Year!

Presbyterian News Headlines For The Week Ending May 26, 2012 — Assemblies, Departures and Arson

This past week the headlines seemed to be dominated by General Assemblies, particularly the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

Ministers attending General Assembly told to ‘clock in’ or lose expenses

Scotsman, 19 May 2012 (yes, slightly out of range but I wanted to keep the GA news together)
The Church of Scotland has a new electronic voting system which doubles as an attendance system at each session. Commissioners, not just ministers, must attend 10 sessions to get expenses reimbursed. A motion to change the Standing Rules to make it 12 sessions next year was defeated.

A move to restrict the use of Church of Scotland buildings to activities not in conflict with the religious principles of the Kirk led to a couple of different stories

General Assembly: Church accused of facilitating worship of ‘false idols’

Scotland on Sunday, 20 May 2012

Hindus object labeling of their deities as ‘false idols’ in Church of Scotland assembly

South Asia Mail, 26 May 2012

In other Assembly News…

General Assembly: Cash-strapped congregations told to donate more to Kirk

Scotsman, 25 May 2012
Insurance costs are rising dramatically

General Assembly: Pay day loan firms ‘doing great damage to society’

Scotsman, 22 May 2012
Related to the major economic report presented to the Assembly

At the same time the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland was meeting and their work generated a couple of headlines

Free Church of Scotland study sees same-sex marriage as ‘social experiment’

STV, 22 May 2012
Reporting on the marriage report the Free Church adopted

New ministers admitted to Free Church of Scotland

Stornoway Gazette, 25 May 2012
Two ministers that left the Church of Scotland over the choice of trajectory to move towards the ordination of active homosexuals were received by the Free Church GA.

In other news around the world

Southern Presbyterians Lose Third of Members, But Amicably

Christianity Today, 24 May 2012
In a commentary piece it is noted that in the church dismissals I mentioned last week two presbyteries, Mississippi and Tropical Florida, each graciously dismissed about one third of their membership.

And two high-profile congregational votes to request dismissal

Church votes to join new denomination

WYFF Greenville, 21 May 2012

Texas Presbyterian Church Splits Over Vote to Leave PCUSA

Christian Post, 23 May 2012 – Although in this case there was a large enough minority that a continuing group will be organized

Mixed reactions over Malawi’s plan to repeal anti-gay law

Christian Science Monitor, 21 May 2012
The proposal by the new president of Malawi to repeal laws banning homosexual practice and same-sex marriages is opposed by, among others, the Nkhoma Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian.

Church daycare fire ruled arson

WAVY, 23 May 2012
A fire at Royster Memorial Presbyterian Church of Norfolk, VA, on May 9 was ruled to be arson

2012 General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland

  Just down the street and around the corner from where one General Assembly has begun meeting you will find a second one convening tomorrow – the 2012 General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland.

The Assembly will begin at 6 PM on Monday 21 May at St. Columba’s Free Church and conclude its business on Friday 25 May. (Note, unless there is a time warp somewhere in there and the 25th of May is missing like the Order of Business says.   ) [Update: The time warp has been resolved.]

Now, you may have to chose, or be good at multi-tasking to do this, but to follow along with the Free Church GA here is what you need to know…

  • The General Assembly 2012 page has most of what you need
  • The Programme for the meeting gives the order of proceedings
  • Reports are available individually from the General Assembly 2012 page
  • The Assembly will be webcast through the facilities of the host church
  • This GA is not big on Twitter but if I spot consistent activity I will update here [Update: Yes, there is Twitter activity! The Free Church is now in the twitterverse at @FreeChurchScot and the meeting is using the hashtag FCGA2012.]

If you want to have the polity documents at the ready you can begin with the Acts of Assembly page.  Some more detail, a bit like a Book of (Church) Order, is found in the online Free Church Practice. In addition, for reasons I will discuss in a moment, it might be useful to have the Worship Papers – 2009 available.

Having just gotten back on the grid from a weekend in the desert I am still scanning the Free Church reports for items of interest.  For now, let me highlight the two special reports.

The first is the report of the Special Committee on Praise.  This Special Committee was formed by the Plenary Assembly of November 2010. After they decided to make the church’s requirements for worship music broader than just exclusive psalmnody, they formed this group to help them find additional music that would be appropriate. To to this the report says:

The Committee decided to draw up a list of hymns which, in its judgement, are “consistent with the Word of God and the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith”. After examining a wide variety of praise material, including hymnals and web-based resources, the Committee has produced, in the first instance, a list of hymns from the hymnbook Praise!, published by Praise Trust in 2000.

This list is not attached to the report but I am hoping it might be published elsewhere during the Assembly. The Committee does emphasize in their report the need for following copyright law noting that only 11 congregations have so far obtained a CCLI license. The Committee has also been selecting and editing Scripture passages for singing and a booklet will be circulated to commissioners.

The second report contains the final report on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage produced by a Study Panel on the subject. The report is 39 pages long and I will not review the document here. It is an interesting read and reflects the input received from the church following the release of the review version at the last GA.  The committee also notes: “In view of the Scottish Government’s current consultation about proposed legislation for “same-sex marriage”, the Panel thought it wise to include a section on this subject to explain the Biblical basis for the Church’s opposition to this proposed legislation.”

Both of these reports are docketed for Tuesday evening.

As always, our prayers for the deliberations and discernment of this General Assembly and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

“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…