Assembly adopts Theological Task Force report
Controversial 'authoritative interpretation' garners 57% support
by Jerry L. Van Marter
Assembly attendees hold hands and pray after the Assembly voted to accept the report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. Photo by Joseph Williams.
BIRMINGHAM, June 20 — By a vote of 298-221 (57% to 43%), the 217th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) today approved an "authoritative interpretation" of the church's Constitution that maintains current ordination standards for church officers but gives ordaining bodies greater leeway in applying those standards to individual candidates for ordination.
"Today we saw the Presbyterian process of doing things at its best," said the Rev. Joan Gray, moderator of the 217th General Assembly, at a press conference following the vote. "We saw people working fairly and treating each other justly."
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, added, "With the vote today we have not altered the fundamentals; we have the same standards as before. The report encourages a more pastoral approach to ordination and encourages our governing bodies to do a thorough work of examining people for office."
The proposal was one of seven contained in the report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (TTF) that has spent the last four years looking for ways to help the deeply divided denomination stay together despite its differences.
Four other recommendations passed by an overwhelming 87% majority. They "strongly encourage" all Presbyterians to witness to the church's oneness and "to avoid division into separate denominations"; to urge congregations, governing bodies and other groups of Presbyterians to engage in "intensive discernment" in the face of difficult issues; to study the theological reflection section of the TTF report; and to encourage church bodies to "explore the use of alternative forms of discernment and decision-making as a complement to parliamentary procedure."
In tandem with the authoritative interpretation — of G-6.0108 of the Book of Order — the Assembly voted to disapprove more than 20 proposals also pending before the Assembly to delete G-6.0106b of the church's Book of Order — which requires of church officers "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness" — or an authoritative interpretation dating back to 1978 that undergirds it.
The Assembly Committee on Ecclesiology, which brought the TTF recommendations to the Assembly, presented the two proposals as "one indivisible package."
The authoritative interpretation affirms that The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order "set forth the scriptural and constitutional standards for ordination" and that the standards "are determined by the whole church."
But in what TTF member the Rev. William Stacy Johnson of Princeton Theological Seminary called "a simple and time-tested framework for staying together in times of conflict," the authoritative interpretation harkens back to the Adopting Act of 1729 in stating: "Ordaining and installing bodies, acting as corporate expressions of the church, have the responsibility to determine their membership by applying these standards to those elected to office."
The 1729 act allowed ordination candidates to declare a "scruple" against any matter of church doctrine (then the Westminster Confession and Catechism), with the ordaining body determining if the scruple constituted "a departure from scriptural and constitutional standards for fitness for office" and "a failure to adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity."
The authoritative interpretation approved today borrows that language.
Supporters of the authoritative interpretation expressed hope it will break the cycle of conflict in the PC(USA), particularly over the gay ordination issue.
Ecclesiology committee moderator, the Rev. Blair Monie of Grace Presbytery, said the authoritative interpretation "clarifies what is already in the Constitution, calling G-6.0108 "one of the oldest legacies we have that we've used to keep the church together through many crises."
The authoritative interpretation, Monie added, "includes four important Presbyterian ordination principles: maintaining standards, rigorously examining candidates, protecting individual conscience and protecting the church through judicial review."
To reinforce that understanding, the Eccelesiology Committee amended the authoritative interpretation to add that ordaining bodies have responsibility to to determine "whether the examination complies with the constitution of the PC(USA)." The Assembly then voted to include "and ordinations and installations" with examinations in the compliance statement.
Former General Assembly moderator, elder Marj Carpenter of Big Spring, TX, said, "I'm against the ordination of homosexuals, though I love ‘em. But we've been fighting in this ditch for 28 years and ditch is getting deeper." Her voice quavering with emotion, Carpenter continued, "It's starting to affect our mission work, our youth ministry and our evangelism and I'm ready to try something else. Please, let's get on with being the church, taking the gospel into the world and offering them something else other than arguments."
But the Rev. David Miller of Tampa Bay Presbytery called the measure "a wrong turn." He called it "a license…to overlook clear standards that have been set, a license to ignore the larger discernment of the body of Christ and a license to legislate by interpretation."
Saying that people are "looking for churches where people are gracious but have clear boundaries," the Rev. Michael Carey of Central Florida Presbytery said approval of the measure would "open the floodgates of controversy."
A minority report asking that the authoritative interpretation be stricken from the recommendations failed 234-287. A subsequent motion to refer the tandem proposals to presbyteries for further discussion and comment also failed, 234-281.
The TTF was created by the 2001 General Assembly "to lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in a time of discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century." The group was specifically asked to address issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards and power.
"We were not instructed to solve any of the issues included in our mandate," TTF co-moderator, the Rev. Gary Demarest of Pasadena, CA, told commissioners. "It was our mandate then and it is now that the issues run deep and will not end soon. But we know that winner-take-all solutions will only perpetuate the conflict."
Added his co-moderator, elder Jenny Stoner of Craftsbury Common, VT: "We have concluded that though we may be on different pages, we are all in one book — biblical, Presbyterian and Reformed. We need each other, we are a faithful but diverse body of Christ and we must learn how to remain one body."
June 18, 2006
Minority report promised on authoritative interpretation
June 17, 2006
Theological Task Force report clears most hurdles
Quick Reference Guide to the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church
May 22, 2006
General Assembly backgrounder: Theological Task Force