U-C: What I See

Monday, October 03, 2005

Presbyterian Report on Peace, Unity and Purity


(For those who aren't up on Presbyterian lingo, this is the Task Force that has been dealing with hot topics like the ordination of Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Transgendered folks. This topic involves a lot of nuance about church governance. If that kind of thing doesn’t turn you on, I recommend you skip it. If this topic really interests you, please go to www.pcusa.org/peaceunitypurity to download and read the final report of the Task Force. My reflections cannot be substituted for reading the report yourself and forming your own opinions.)

My summer reading list was kind of a “cliff notes” version of some of the classes I would have taken had I completed my Seminary education twenty-years ago. As moderator I have had many conversations with Presbyterians who are deeply concerned that we are loosing our theological center, and those conversations have pushed me to further explore and better articulate my own understanding of Presbyterian Reformed theology. As a result, my summer reading list included a new book, called “Conversations with the Confessions” edited by Joe Small, who heads up our Office of Theology and Worship. (You can find it at www.ppcbooks.com/index1.asp.) As I read through the thoughtful and thought provoking essays in the book, I took the opportunity to re-read our book of Confessions, and to think intentionally about what I believe about God and why I believe it.

Later in the summer, I picked up Beau Weston’s books on Presbyterian History and read about some of the major conflicts (and how they were resolved) at critical moments in the history of our church. (If this interests you, you might start with Weston’s short “Leading from the Center,” which also can be found at www.ppcbooks.com/index1.asp.) By the end of the summer, I had gained a far deeper understanding of the debates in the early 1700’s over ordination standards and the “Adopting Act” of 1729 that crafted a uniquely Presbyterian response to those difficult disagreements. I read about “Old School” and “New School” divisions in the next century, and the ways in which our church was wrenched apart during the turbulent years surrounding the Civil War. I became fascinated by the heresy trials of the late 1800’s and the thirty-year struggle for power that defined the northern church in the early 1900’s.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of that reading was great preparation for the arrival of the report from the Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force. Many of you know that the Task Force was intentionally made up of a group that was extremely diverse in its theology and the ways that theology informed each person’s own ministry and witness. Their task was to help our Denomination think about how to talk with one another more appropriately in the midst of the difficult and divisive debates we’ve been having about hard theological issues – like whether or not Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual and Transgendered (GLBT) folks should be ordained, or how we talk about the sovereignty of God and the Lordship or Jesus Christ, or how we understand scripture, or how power is used for good and ill in the church.

I confess that I was among the many who could see no way that this diverse group could say anything clear and unequivocal about our life together. I was wrong. The members of the Task Force have offered a report in which all of their recommendations have been made with unanimity. This is not to say that they agree about everything they talked about. In fact, I believe most of them would say that they have not changed their own understanding of scripture or their own bedrock theological values. However, they have presented a report with full consensus on their understandings of our most important theological values, the ways in which we should talk with one another about important matters of difference between us, and suggestions on how to understand our Book of Order to move us to a genuinely new way to deal with our differences with one another.

I have read the report twice. (It’s about fifty pages long and makes a good airplane read.) I’ve spoken with many Presbyterians about what they understand the report to say and how they feel about its recommendations. Almost everyone I’ve spoken with can find something positive to say about this report, though most people also take exception to some of its specific recommendations.

My gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, while appreciative of the hard work that the committee has done, are deeply concerned about the specific recommendations of the Task Force regarding standards for ordination in the Book of Order. Among many other recommendations, the members of the Task Force have suggested that the Assembly in 2006 should take no action on the controversial provisions of G.6.0106b. As long as those standards continue to target them because of their sexual orientation, as long as it is remains impossible for GLBT folks to come to the table for a conversation in a way that allows them to be open about who they are in a place of genuine safety, I expect that our GLBT members and their straight allies will remain deeply skeptical about the report.

As I’ve traveled for the church I’ve had the opportunity to meet many thoughtful conservatives. Some of them have continued to stay in touch with me, and to share their concerns about how our denomination is handling these difficult issues. While many have been pleased at the theological affirmations on the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of scripture with which the Task Force begins, they are very troubled by the specific recommendations that the Task Force makes regarding the freedom of conscience clause in G.6.0108 in our Book of Order. Anything that looks to them like it might create permissiveness about the ordination of gay and lesbian folk is deeply disturbing, and they also have serious reservations about the report.

For the record, I am cautiously optimistic about the report and the future it lifts up for our denomination. Whether or not we can agree on all of the recommendations made in the report, it is indisputable that this group of committed Presbyterians is trying to lead us into a new way to have the conversation.

Here are the things I appreciate the most about the Task Force’s work.

First, they are insisting that this is a disagreement among family members. We are all followers of Jesus Christ who are seeking to be faithful. We all share one baptism. We are one church. This is not a battle between those who are the true, scripturally-founded Christians on the one hand, and those who don’t read the Bible at all or who willfully misinterpret it on the other (an argument I regularly hear from both ends of the theological spectrum in our church). This is a disagreement between Christians who are trying very hard to be faithful.

Second, The Task Force has made concrete suggestions about how to develop new processes that will move us from a win/lose debate to a genuine process of seeking discernment with one another.

Third, the Task Force’s specific recommendations regarding our standards for ordination and the Books of Order and Confession are classically Presbyterian. They return us to the path toward reconciliation that we have turned to numerous times throughout our history, beginning with the debate over the Westminster Standards in the early 1700’s.

For those of you who need my cliff notes version of the cliff notes of that historical debate, here we go. The debate that divided the church right down the middle three hundred years ago was over whether a candidate for ordination had to affirm all of the tenets of the Westminster Standards (including the Confession and the Shorter and Longer Catechisms – a series of questions and answers about the faith) in order to become ordained. Half the church said “absolutely,” your faith wasn’t genuinely reformed if you couldn’t affirm those Standards. The other half said “absolutely not,” you couldn’t put anything in between the believer and the scripture if you truly believed in the wisdom of the reformation. It looked as if this was a genuinely irreconcilable difference.

However, the Adopting Act of the General Assembly of 1729 set the standard for dealing with such a difficult dilemma. They said that every candidate for ordination absolutely did have to affirm the essential tenets of the Westminster Standards, and then they refused to define the word “essential.” They said that it was the responsibility of each ordinand to name his “scruples” or differences with the tenets of the Westminster Standard, and it was the responsibility of each Presbytery to discern whether the candidate’s scruple was over an “essential.”

Some may say that this sounds like doublespeak, but I don’t think so. Their resolution recognized that no one is capable of fully knowing the mind of God, and that it is always the job of Christian community to try to discern God’s will together. The Adopting Act put the responsibility right where it should have been, with the Assembly (that set the standard), the Candidate for Ordination (who honestly sought to wrestle with the standard and name his scruple) and the Presbytery (that was tasked with interpreting the standard in light of the candidate’s soul-searching and faithful reflection.

As I understand it, our Task Force is asking us to return to this classic understanding in with our differences today. They are asking the General Assembly to adopt an “Authoritative Interpretation” of G.6.0108. Though it may seem tedious, I believe it’s worthwhile to see the language.

“It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that the persons who serve in it as officers shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity as expressed in ‘The Book of Confession’ and the Form of Government. 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 consititutional governance of the church, freedom of conscience with respect to the interpretation of Scripture is to be maintained.”

The following paragraph then goes on to state: “It is to be recognized, however, that in becoming a candidate or officer of the Presbyterian Church (USA) 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 hold office in that body. 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 governing body in which he or she serves.”

No one who has had a high level of investment in the protracted debate about standards for ordination in our denomination - and whether GLBT folks who affirm their sexual orientation as a gift from God should be allowed to serve – will be fully satisfied by this set of recommendations. For my GLBT sisters and brothers who deeply desire to serve the church, I understand and respect the fact that nothing short of the removal of G.6.0106b from the Book of Order will be a genuine affirmation that our church welcomes their gifts. For other sisters and brothers who are genuinely trying to be faithful to their reading of scripture, nothing short of a clear, clean, bold statement of the standards of purity required for leadership in the church is likely to be satisfactory.

To each, I would say, “God isn’t finished with us yet. We’re family, and we must look for new ways to have this painful and difficult conversation.” I hope that all Presbyterians will take a careful look at the report of the Task Force. I hope that all of us will affirm the difficult work that our sisters and brothers on the Task Force have done. I hope that all of us will take up their challenge to have the conversation in new ways. And I hope that all of our deliberations will continue to be based in prayer and study of scripture and discernment with one another.

To that end, I know that this blog entry is likely to touch off a new round of debate out there. In the spirit of the Task Force’s recommendation that we find a new way to talk about this, I’m not going to post entries to "it's your turn" that fall into the old patterns of ideological or theological insistence that one side is correct and the other isn’t. If you want to write on this topic, please write about your own struggles with this issue. Please write about your own doubts, and how prayer and scriptural study and experiences of community and the Holy Spirit have helped you to think in new ways, even if you haven’t changed your mind and don’t expect to.

And PLEASE – Do not write to respond to my own reflection until you have read the entire report from the Task Force yourself. (www.pcusa.org/peaceunitypurity)

Blessings on all of us as we continue to try to be the Church of Jesus Christ - like Jesus’ earliest disciples - in the midst of confusing and difficult times.