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July 5, 2008: A Wrap-Up, of sorts

There are plenty of analyses out there regarding the decision of the 218th General Assembly regarding sexuality and ordination standards. I'll get to that at the end.

Some impressions (as they occur to me, not in any particular order):

1. Bruce Reyes-Chow was the best moderator I have seen, bar none. He was not perfect but he was fair. He handled the meeting extraordinarily well. He received challenges to his decisions and rulings with grace. He seemed very comfortable in front of this meeting. I know people were not happy about the process regarding the ordination standards vote -- but I also am convinced that he got the call right and (more importantly) changing the process would not have changed the voting results. The people who were upset about missing the chance to speak should be frustrated with the Assembly, not the Moderator. So, within the confines of the meeting, I thought he served the Assembly well.

After the Assembly? I would not want his job. It will not be an easy road.

2. I am glad that the issue between the GAC and Foundation disappeared from the front pages. You will have to search to find any articles about what happened -- evidence of God's hand at work in the midst to resolve this conflict.

3. The nFoG hangs around despite my best efforts. I still think it is a mistake to try to become missional via polity. We are going to end up arguing about the rules rather than focusing on the mission. That said, it also is fair to conclude I was not persuasive.

4. I am not sure proposed changes to the Heidelberg Catechism or the effort to include the Belhar Confession in our Book of Confessions will ever pass the presbyteries. It will be interesting to see whether Presbyterians can engage the issues involved theologically or if we will simply use these additonal opportunities to batter each other politically. Two ironies: 1) many Presbyterians would not know what is in the Book of Confessions if it were not for some of these controversies; and 2) confessions are issued in the midst of controversies for the purpose of addressing the situation theologically. So, whether the changes should be made and whether Belhar ought to be adopted as ours are appropriate topics for the larger church to consider. Instead of lamenting, we can be thankful for the opportunity to engage in a much deeper study of what our confessional documents teach.

5. The Friday night Assembly dealing with the proposed re-definition of marriage was a completely different group than the afternoon group that voted on ordination standards. It was like someone slammed the brakes on the progressive slide. I wonder what would have happened if the "graciousness in separation" commissioners resolution had come up for a vote before ordination standards had been handled.

6. Our social witness continues to be self-perpetuating; though with one important change. The pattern of having the advocacy committees (ACREC, ACWC, ACSWP) do self-evaluations as their only substantive review has come to an end; there now is in place an external review that will take place. Along with the six agencies of the General Assembly, the advocacy committees will be subject to questions of:

  1. examining the interaction, cooperation between such committees and commissioners, as well as their scope and authority;
  2. the collective role each contribute complementing and implementing the General Assembly's total mission program or directives.

7. PC-Biz was a moderate success. It was not confidence-inspiring, but improved during the course of the week. On the learning curve of such changes, this was a big step forward. Within the context of this meeting, it was not a trustworthy tool. I relied more on the paper copies that were provided than anything I could find on screen; but as time went on, the electronic versions came up faster and more accurately.

8. It is hard to tell what will be the impact of having Gradye Parsons as stated clerk. He is a fan of the "consensus" process; which was a disaster in one of the experimental committees. (So much of a disaster that it was reported several commissioners left and did not return.) As one who is consistently in the minority at Assembly meetings, I would be repeating myself to say I am not a fan. But -- truth be told -- I am not. However, the Stated Clerk's office is much more than consensus process. It is one of the primary centers of power within the denominational structure. With a new hand at the helm, some changes are inevitable.

9. Ordination standards. Sigh. Undoing thirty years of work in one swipe and making a foundational change without consulting the presbyteries was not good.

The followup was not good, either. I was at the press conference where Stated Clerk Kirkpatrick declared that the Constitution had not changed. Hmmm. That's a bit of Orwellian double-speak. Yes, it is true the words in the Constitution have not changed (yet); that is, the amendment has to go through the presbyteries for votes. However, the reality is that ordination standards have been changed completely:

What was never previously allowed is now allowable.

Regardless of the lack of compliance previously, it was understood that self-affirmed, unrepentant, practicing homosexual persons were not eligible for ordination. Not so now. I serve a congregation where there is a split of opinion about whether it would be a good thing to permit the ordination of self-affirmed, unrepentant practicing homosexual persons. They all were disappointed with the decisions of GA. Something about, "Let your yes be yes and your no be no."

A Pivot Point

There is no question that we have reached the pivot point in time that has been expected for quite a while now. For many, the issue of official sanctioning of actively gay ordination signalled the step across the line needed to justify seeking spiritual asylum.

Most of the focus of the analyses I have seen has been on the big picture -- how does this impact the witness and integrity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)? There is not a whole lot more to be said on that front.

There is, however, a word to be said about how the decisions of the 218th General Assembly impact us personally. You see, there is more to the story than simply eliminating the Authoritative Interpretations and allowing "local option." It is likely that within a year or two, people like me will not be ordained or ordainable within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

One of the more under-reported aspects of what was approved is this Authoritative Interpretation in response to the question raised in 04-14, "If a moderator refuses to ordain an individual whom the session has approved for ordination,has this moderator committed an offense as defined by the Rules of Discipline?" The pertinent part of the approved response is this:

Without the concurrence of the session, there is no provision on the basis of conscience for a moderator to refuse to fulfill the functions of the office of moderator in participating in the ordination and installation of duly elected, examined, and approved elders and deacons. That notwithstanding, the request highlights the importance of section “e” of the authoritative interpretation approved by the 217th General Assembly (2006) (Minutes, 2006, Part I, pp. 28–29, 523, Item 06-01), which states, “All parties should endeavor to outdo one another in honoring one another’s decisions, according the presumption of wisdom to ordaining/installing bodies in examining candidates and to the General Assembly, with presbyteries’ approval, in setting standards.” Moreover, the same assembly encouraged all members to exercise their biblical and constitutional responsibilities “to conciliate, mediate, and adjust differences without strife” prayerfully and deliberately (D-1.0103) and to institute administrative or judicial proceedings only when other efforts fail to preserve the purposes and purity of the church.

We encourage all members, and especially officers, to exercise mutual forbearance toward one another, respecting the conscience of those who disagree with the decision of the body. It is equally incumbent on the session to respect the conscience of the moderator and authorize the invitation to another minister to preside, as it is incumbent upon the moderator to fulfill the responsibilities of moderator on behalf of the whole church, and to welcome colleagues in ministry.

Whether the moderator in question would be considered to have committed an offense would be determined by a permanent judicial commission (PJC) relying on the specific facts in the incident referred to it.

In short: we hope it does not come to this; however, if it does, the moderator may be subject to disciplinary action.

Suddenly, we move from local option to mandatory requirement. Remarkably, it cites Kenyon as a model of forebearance. (I'm leaving that short-hand; if you need to know what it means, send me a note.) Unless in my memory is faulty, Walter Kenyon is not ordained within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

As I mentioned earlier, I would not want Bruce's job now. What is the compelling hook to stay in community?

Months ago, Bruce posted a note asking the question, "Can We Agree To Disagree?" I responded, "Why We Can't Agree To Disagree." That's where we are.

The issue is not whether God loves gay people. The issue is whether we submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture. Scripture declares God's sovereignty over all aspects of our lives, including our sexuality. If we endorse sinful behavior, we are declaring rebellion against God. The remarkable thing is that God loves us so much that He sent Christ to die for us while we were yet sinners; while we had taken up rebellion against Him. But the cost of our redemption was high. There's a popular contemporary worship song that has the refrain, "I'll never know how much it cost, to see my sin upon that cross." I am a sinner in daily need of reminder of my redemption. I hold no rights against God, I hold no claim to righteousness without Christ. The only one whose Authoritative Interpretation matters is Jesus Christ; and He has revealed His judgment in Scripture. I do not have the luxury, confidence or desire to face God's questions:

"Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified?"

For now, I am privileged to preach the gospel in my congregation. I cannot guarantee for how much longer that will be the case. It was not the result I hoped to see when I volunteered to be a commissioner to the 218th GA.

Final Word

This is my last post about General Assembly stuff. I am called to serve a local congregation and -- until and unless God calls me otherwise -- I am turning all my focus and attention towards being a faithful shepherd for them. I hope these posts have been helpful. If so, praise God.