Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Church Has Been Given A Gift

"We have not fundamentally changed our standards in ordination," said Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Clifton Kirkpatrick during a press conference this afternoon.

It had been a long day to bring the church to the point it could hear such wonderful news. More than that -- it was a long 3 decades!

Today was the day our General Assembly voted on the important report on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church. During the day's meeting, several people rose to speak to the report, including Marge Carpenter, who is one of the great saints of the Presbyterian Church, USA. When she speaks, people listen with extra attention.

"I'm tired," she said. "Our church has been in conflict for 28 years. I do not believe in the ordination of the homosexual, but I love my gay brothers and sisters. It is time for us to move beyond this debate. We've been in this ditch too long. It is hurting our church. It is hurting our youth. It is hurting our missions. Let's get on with being the church."

Marge speaks for a lot of Presbyterians.

We are all tired and we have been torn for a long time. Jesus clearly calls us to love all people. The Presbyterian Church accepts all who confess Christ as Savior. Hopefully, we can all agree on that. But we don't all agree on what Scripture teaches or how to interpret the Bible. The Presbyterian Church has, in past General Assemblies, made clear statements about lifestyles that we have applied to the standards of ordination, but we have continued to debate the ordination of gays and lesbians year after year and it is wearing out our church. At the 213th General Assembly, meeting in 2001, the theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church was created to "lead the Presbyterian Church (USA) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st Century." After years of work and study, their report was ready to be presented for adoption.

There were several recommendations in this report. The first 4 were adopted -- practically unanimously. Item 5 caused a bit of a stir.

The first recommendation calls on every Presbyterian member "to avoid division into separate denominations that obscure our community in Christ, and to live in harmony with other members of this denomination."

In other words, we are a family - and families stick together.

The second recommendation urges all groups in our church to follow the example of the task force -- when we face difficult issues we should engage in "processes of intensive discernment through worship, community building, study, and collaborative work."

The third recommendation encourages churches to study the theological reflections of the Task Force.

The fourth recommendation urges those who "plan and moderate meetings of other governing bodies, to explore the use of alternative forms of discernment and preliminary to decision-making, especially in dealing with potentially divisive issues.

It did not take long for us to adopt the first four recommendations -- the General Assembly took them as a single unit and adopted them quickly.

The last recommendation took a while.

First there was a substitute motion, which failed. There was an amendment to the motion, which also failed. There was another amendment, which was approved. There was a motion to refer the matter to the presbyteries for consideration, which also failed.

After discussing the matter for 3 hours and 13 minutes, we were ready to vote on the motion as amended-- but only after a word of prayer was offered by Vice Moderator Robert Wilson.

The controversial recommendation #5 passed: 298 in favor, 221 opposed and 1 abstaining.

Moderator Joan called on the commissioners to join in hands in groups of 4, 5 or 6 and to have prayer, which we did.

So what was this controversial item? What was all the agony about?

Recommendation 5 has several parts:

First, the standards of ordination and installation come from the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order.

Second, these standards are based on a careful study of Scripture and theology and are interpreted by the General Assembly and its Permanent Judicial Commission.

Third, installing bodies (which might be a Session for elders and deacons, or a Presbytery for Ministers) have the responsibility to apply these standards -- this means they must determine whether a candidate has departed from scriptural or constitutional standards for fitness for office, and whether any such departure should bar the candidate from ordination and or installation.

Fourth, the decisions of the ordaining body are always subject to review by higher bodies (meaning a Presbytery might review a Session's decision to ordain or install a particular elder, General Assembly might review a Presbytery's action)

And finally, all parties should endeavor to outdo one another in honoring one another's decisions.

Some saw this as an affirmation of what the church has always taught. Some saw this as permission for "local option," allowing individual presbyteries or congregations to decide independently whether they can ordain active and and self-professing gays and lesbians.

I attended the press conference following the General Assembly's session. Other press conferences this week have been attended by 6 to 12 folks. This conference was standing room only.

Joan Gray spoke first: "We saw the Presbyterian process doing what it does best, decently and in order. It was done fairly and justly." She spoke of how proud she was of how the Assembly had handled itself.

I counted at least 7 times that someone used the phrase, "The standards of ordination have not changed."

A reporter from the L.A.Times asked if this opened or closed the door for ordaining gays. Clifford Kirkpatrick again repeated, "Our standards have remained unchanged." More weight and responsibility is given to the local sessions and presbyteries to be sure that candidates fulfill those standards."

Prior to the press conference, I noticed Parker Williamson, of the Presbyterian Layman newspaper, instructing a large group of people to meet and demonstrate their dissatisfaction. After the conference, they gathered and read a statement that proclaimed that today's adoption of the Peace, Unity and Purity report "marks a profound deviation from biblical requirements, and we cannot accept, support or tolerate it. We will take the steps necessary."

When asked if this meant that there would be a split in the church, Williamson said, "Schism has already happened."

As for me, I prefer the words from the press conference spoken by the chair of the task force, "My great hope is that commissioners can gohomee and spread the news that this is a new day... our conflict is over. The church has been given a gift."

(Photo of Marge Carpenter by Danny Bolin. Other Photos by Maynard Pittendreigh)


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