"Remember The Authoritative Interpretation!" (PC USA Issues)
While the nation breathes a collective sigh, exhausted from an election that seemed never to end, PCUSA presbyteries soldier on, focusing their attention on whether to ratify a new Amendment B, which nearly everyone believes will be a game-changer.
The new Amendment B, if passed, would replace the Book of Order's "fidelity/chastity" requirement for ordained officers found in section G-6.106b of the Book of Order with a new, more amorphous standard. According to Terry Schlossberg of the Presbyterian Coalition, the impact of Amendment B "is the difference between day and night, between right and wrong." But as important as Amendment B is, it may not be the worst result of last summer's General Assembly.
Evangelicals are hopeful Amendment B will be defeated, since similar measures have failed in the recent years by increasing margins. Still, nothing is being taken for granted. The various reform groups are strategizing, providing resource kits, working on ways to maximize the vote to defeat the measure. Progressive groups are matching stride for stride.
Getting rid of the fidelity/chastity requirement has long been a goal of the progressives. And the obvious purpose for the proposed revision is to loosen the ordination standards to open the way for the ordination of unrepentant adulterers, gays, lesbians and transgendered persons. For Amendment B to become church law, 87 of the 173 presbyteries must ratify the amendment by next July.
And while Amendment B is important, and must be defeated if the denomination is to restore godly standards to ordination, there is another assault on doctrine and biblical authority that is perhaps more pressing—certainly more pernicious—than Amendment B.
Deleting the fidelity/chastity requirement is one way to relax ordination standards. Another way is to subject it to local option. In addition to sending Amendment B out to the presbyteries for ratification, the General Assembly also passed a new Authoritative Interpretation, or "AI" for short, "interpreting" the part of the Book of Order dealing with individual freedom of conscience (G-6.0108).
In 2006, when that year's General Assembly approved the PUP recommendations, progressives believed they had achieved subjecting the fidelity/chastity requirement to local option; that is, until they read the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission ruling in Bush v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh. In response to Bush, progressives presented the new AI, known as the John Knox Overture, for approval at the General Assembly this summer in San Jose.
In Bush, the commission held that departures from ordination standards must be considered on a case-by case basis, reaffirming the PUP discernment procedure.
However, Bush also holds that the fidelity/chastity provision found in G-6.0106b was a mandatory church-wide provision from which no departure, or "scruple," could be granted. The commission reached this conclusion based on the plain language of the Book of Order: "Among these standards is the requirement to live in either fidelity…or chastity…" Fidelity/chastity is not just a standard, the commission found, it is a requirement.
The proponents of the John Knox Overture set out to overrule the holding of Bush by interpreting the freedom of conscience provision of G-6.0108 "to apply equally to all ordination standards." The proponents argued that it "would not repeal the standard set forth in the second sentence of G-6.0106b (regarding fidelity/chastity), but would restore it to its proper status as one among many standards..."
In other words, fidelity/chastity would no longer be a church-wide requirement, but would be subject to local option.
With the passage of the John Knox Overture, progressives believed they had overturned the holding of Bush.
Doug Nave, a trustee of the Covenant Network, a progressive group that seeks to remove barriers to the ordination of gays, lesbians, and transgendered persons, recently wrote in The Presbyterian Outlook that the Knox AI overrules Bush by requiring that freedom of conscience "applies equally to all ordination standards, including departures from G-6.0106b." Nave also opined that Amendment B "has little practical importance insofar as ordination standards are concerned.... [T]he new AI's make clear that sessions and presbyteries are free to consider alternative interpretations [regarding the effect of G6-0106b]." In other words: local option is already here.
And Jerry Van Marter, writing for the PCUSA News Service, reported that adoption of the John Knox AI "effectively overturns a recent General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) ruling — Bush vs. Presbytery of Pittsburgh — that G-6.0106b, the commonly called "fidelity and chastity" ordination standard, cannot be scrupled."
If the progressives are right that the new AI overturns Bush, then defeating Amendment B will be of little moment. The John Knox Overture is the belt to Amendment B's suspenders. Unless both are turned back, it will be the Evangelicals who will be caught with their pants down.
And, while Amendment B is being debated and voted on, the John Knox AI is the law of the realm; it did not require ratification, but became effective with the close of the General Assembly last June; that much is clear. What is unclear is what effect it has.
Notwithstanding pronouncements to the contrary, it is an open question whether the Knox Overture really did overturn the decision in Bush. Even the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, in its Advisory Opinion No. 22, states merely that the new AI "modifies", not overrules, Bush.
The Bush commission correctly observed that while a General Assembly may interpret the constitution, it cannot change it. Speaking of an AI adopted in Birmingham by the 2006 General Assembly, the commission held that "[w]hile the General Assembly and the GAPJC may interpret these standards, the Authoritative Interpretation did not (and constitutionally could not) change any ordination standard, including the requirements set forth in G-6.0106b." Changing the constitution, Bush reminds us, must be done in accordance with the Book of Order; that is, proposed revisions must be ratified by he presbyteries.
But the John Knox AI, if given the effect its proponents claim it achieved, would in essence excise the word "requirement" from G-6.106b. The Bush commission looked to the plain language of the provision—"among these standards is the requirement…"—and determined that the fidelity/chastity is a church-wide standard that is mandatory—required—and thus could not be scrupled. According to the Bush commission, G-6.0106b is not subject to local option.
So, does the John Knox Overture reinterpret or re-write the Book of Order? There is only way to find out: submit the question to judicial review.
Fortunately, there is already a remedial case on file and ready to go to trial sometime in March 2009 that will take this question on squarely: Naegeli v. San Francisco Presbytery.
On January 15, 2008, the San Francisco Presbytery voted 167 to 151 to declare Lisa Larges, an open and defiant lesbian, "ready in all aspects" to be examined for ordination. Ms. Larges is the executive director of a progressive group called That All May Freely Serve. In her Statement of Departure provided to the presbyters before the vote, Larges declared that she would not obey the fidelity/chastity requirement of G-60106b, calling it a "mar on the church." Notwithstanding this overtly defiant stance, the presbyters, with the encouragement of the presbytery's Committee on Preparation for Ministry decided to overlook her departure and voted to advance her toward ordination anyway.
Of course, this is the very event Evangelicals across the country feared would result from the PUP recommendations.
Several Evangelical San Francisco Presbytery ministers—Mary Naegeli, Margaret Gelini, and Mark Stryker—filed a remedial case challenging the constitutionality of the presbytery's action. The outcome of the case will determine whether the Book of Order—both regarding ordination standards and the manner in which it is amended—means what it says, or bends to the popular fashion of the times.
The case is poised to go to trial, but has before it a long, expensive legal process in the ecclesiastical courts, starting first with a hearing and a trial before the Synod of the Pacific and culminating, undoubtedly, with an appeal to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission.
The outcome of this case is as important as the defeat of Amendment B. Indeed, unless Naegeli's challenge succeeds, defeating Amendment B will have little impact and the prospect for permanent restoration of biblical authority in PCUSA ordination standards will be set back many years.
While progressive groups have provided legal counsel to defend the action of the presbytery (Doug Nave, trustee for The Covenant Network, is lead counsel), Naegeli must rely on the support of Evangelical Presbyterians and churches. It is estimated the case, through appeal to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Committee, could cost more than $100,000. It is imperative that orthodox Presbyterians support Naegeli's effort.
Bruce A. McIntosh chairs the Religion and Church Property Law Group for Shapiro Buchman Provine LLP. He is an elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a member of Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church. He is lead counsel for the complainants in Naegeli v. San Francisco Presbytery. You can contact Mr. McIntosh by phone at (925) 944-9700 or by email: email@example.com.