Nary An Unpublished Thought







February 13, 2008: The GA PJC Decisions and Advisory Opinion #21

Last week, I mentioned that there were three cases pending before the GA PJC (General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission). The outcome of those three cases will have a dramatic impact on the 218th General Assembly (2008) and on the direction forward of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The decisions have been issued:

Buescher, et al v. Olympia Presbytery (218-09)

Bush, et al v. Pittsburgh Presbytery (218-10)

1st Presbyterian Church, Washington, et al v. Washington Presbytery (218-15)

Also released and relevant is Advisory Opinion #21 from the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly.

The Decisions:

The first thing to mention is that all three decisions are without dissent; that is, the GA PJC is speaking with one voice on the issues.

The second thing is that the Bush decision appears to be the standard bearer for all three. A decision of the GA PJC is an Authoritative Interpretation. (G-13.0103r -- one of the provisions lost in the proposed new Form of Government -- but that's an issue for a different day.)

The third thing is that the decisions should -- and it remains to be seen whether "should" becomes "does" -- resolve the controversies pending in San Francisco Presbytery (Lisa Larges); Twin Cities Presbytery (Paul Capetz); and John Knox Presbytery (Scott Anderson).

The headnotes for the Bush case summarizes all three decisions:

1. No Departures from “Fidelity and Chastity” Requirement: Candidates and
examining bodies must follow G-6.0108 in reaching determinations as to whether
the candidates for ordination and/or installation have departed from essentials of
Reformed faith and polity. Such determinations do not rest on distinguishing
“belief” and “behavior,” and do not permit departure from the “fidelity and
chastity” requirement found in G-6.0106b.

2. Examinations of Candidates: Ordaining and installing bodies must examine
candidates for ordination and/or installation individually.
The examining body is
best suited to make decisions about the candidate’s fitness for office, and factual
determinations by examining bodies are entitled to deference by higher governing
bodies in any review process.

3. Statements of “Essentials of Reformed Faith and Polity”: Attempts by
governing bodies that ordain and install officers to adopt resolutions, statements
or policies that paraphrase or restate provisions of the Book of Order and/or
declare them as “essentials of Reformed faith and polity” are confusing and
unnecessary; and are themselves an obstruction to constitutional governance in
violation of G-6.0108a.
(bold in original; italics mine).

The result was that the resolutions approved in Olympia, Pittsburgh and Washington Presbyteries were declared to be unconstitutional; however, no license has been granted to presbyteries by the Authoritative Interpretation to allow exceptions to ordination standards established in G-6.0106b.

These decisions are powerful, unequivocal statements that G-6.0106b is binding. Every candidate must be examined, thus the resolutions were voided. That said, the decisions are unambiguous that no candidate is exempt or excused from compliance with the constitutional standards set forth in G-6.0106. Scruples are not permissible; they shall not be accepted.

The Advisory Opinion

The Stated Clerk's office released Advisory Opinion #21. It seems like a direct statement and application by the Stated Clerk of the decisions to the three other cases pending -- San Francisco, Twin Cities, and John Knox Presbyteries.

The GAPJC, in the three February 2008 cases, found the following:

  1. Authoritative Interpretations may not change an ordination standard.

The GAPJC affirmed the General Assembly’s Authoritative Interpretation adopted from the Peace, Unity and Purity Report and Recommendations and found that “the GA Authoritative Interpretation did not (and constitutionally could not) change any ordination standard found in The Book of Confessions or the Book of Order.”

2. Governing bodies may not restate, augment, diminish or define ordination standards.

The GAPJC found that attempts by other governing bodies to adopt resolutions, statements or policies that paraphrase or restate provisions of the Book of Order and/or declare them as “essentials of Reformed faith and polity” are confusing and unnecessary and are in violation of the constitution.   Such declarations are obstructions to the requirement that a governing body must examine candidates for ordination. (See at G-10.0102 l and G-11.0103n.)  “… [N]o lower governing body can constitutionally define, diminish, augment or modify standards for ordination and installation of church officers.” “Governing bodies do not have the authority to restate or define these standards.”

3. Governing bodies may not waive the G-6.0106b ordination standard.

Specifically, the GAPJC reiterated that “[t]he examining body is best suited to make decisions about the candidate’s fitness for office and in this determination they may not permit departure from the ‘fidelity and chastity’ requirement found in G-6.0106b.” In determining whether a candidate is in compliance with the constitutional standards, the examining governing body may allow a candidate to exercise their freedom of conscience with respect to interpretation of Scripture under G-6.0108 “to the extent that it is not a serious departure from the essential standards of Reformed faith and polity, does not infringe on the rights and views of others, and does not obstruct the constitutional governance of the church.” An examining governing body may not allow a candidate to exercise their freedom of conscience if that “ignore[s] or waive[s] a specific standard of behavior that has been adopted by the whole church such as the ‘fidelity and chastity’ portion of G-6.0106b or any other similarly specific provision.” 

4. A candidate’s actions must conform to the ordination standards.

“…[T]he church has required those who aspire to ordained office to conform their actions, though not necessarily their beliefs or opinions, to certain standards in those contexts in which the church has deemed conformity to be necessary or essential.  G-6.0106b contains a provision where conformity is required by church officers….” The responsibility for determination of failure to repent of any “practice which the confessions call sin" is first placed on the candidate and then on the examining governing body to determine whether a departure is a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity. 

5. “The ordaining body must examine the candidate individually.
The GAPJC also emphasized that each candidate must be examined individually by the examining governing body.  Only in this way can the body determine whether any potential departure is a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity.

The Impact of the GA PJC Decisions

1. San Francisco Presbytery was correct in examining Lisa Larges. Based upon the clarity provided by the GA PJC's decisions, San Francisco Presbytery acted irregularly by approving her examination in light of her stated non-compliance with G-6.0106b. Her continued non-compliance with G-6.0106b also should result in San Francisco Presbytery's removal of her name from the enrolled candidates for Ministry of Word and Sacrament.

2. Twin Cities Presbytery was correct to consider reinstating Paul Capetz' ordination. Based on the clarity provided by the GA PJC's decisions, Twin Cities Presbytery acted irregularly by approving his reinstatement in light of his stated unwillingness to comply with G-6.0106b.

3. John Knox Presbytery's care of Scott Anderson is a little more complex. Anderson was a member of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity. His biography for that Task Force was given as follows:

Scott Anderson is a long-life Presbyterian who currently serves as executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. Scott served for twelve years as director of the California Council of Churches and is a former Presbyterian minister. He lives with his life partner, Ian MacAllister, in Madison, Wisconsin. Scott served as national co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians.

In November, 2006, Anderson was enrolled by John Knox Presbytery as an "Inquirer" -- the first stage of the process to be ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). At the time, there was a general perception that his enrollment would not be subject to challenge until the point he would seek to move to candidacy, based upon the decision in Sheldon, et al v. Presbytery of West Jersey (212-12). However, in another decision this past year, Stewart v. Mission Presbytery (218-04), the GA PJC wrote,

[T]his Commission notes with concern that the record shows that both the Presbytery and the SPJC appear to have relied on the Book of Order: Annotated Edition entry for the Sheldon, et al. v. Presbytery of West Jersey, Minutes, 2000, p. 589, case, rather than the language of the case itself. Such reliance was misplaced. The erroneous explanation given under G-14.0305d of the Book of Order: Annotated Edition to the Sheldon case provides “An inquirer may be received as a candidate even if not currently eligible for ordination because of G-6.0106b, but could not be ordained if found at the time for certification of readiness for ordination not to be in compliance.”
The annotation is a misstatement of the cited case. Sheldon concerned an inquirer being considered for candidacy who was a celibate gay man, and therefore eligible to become a candidate.

Furthermore, the GAPJC specifically found in Sheldon that “…the evidence supports a determination that the candidate has not violated the standard of G-6.0106b.” Sheldon concludes by stating, “However, if the [Presbytery] should determine the Candidate to be ineligible for candidacy at some point in the future, the [Presbytery] should remove the Candidate’s name from the roll of candidates, as provided by G-14.0312.”

The correspondence in the record from the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly also cites Wier v. Second Presbyterian Church, Ft. Lauderdale, Minutes, 2002, p. 339, which is more relevant to this case: “If the governing body has reasonable cause for inquiry based on its knowledge of the life and character of the candidate, it has the positive obligation…to uphold all the standards for ordination and installation.”

Based on the clarity provided by the GA PJC's decisions, and if Scott Anderson's position and circumstances have not changed, John Knox Presbytery should remove his name from the enrolled list of inquirers or candidates to be a Minister of Word and Sacrament.

This is an important day in the life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).