Sunday, May 28, 2006

A Standard is a Standard Even If Exceptions Are Allowed

The debate over the Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Presbyterian Church is heating up, as we get closer to the General Assembly a few weeks from now.

The Task Force proposes two crucial ideas:
1) that the church leave in place its existing ordination standards; and
2) that the ordaining body decide if any particular candidate's scruples about those standards touch on essential tenets of the Reformed faith.

Some conservative groups in the church say the Task Force's two recommendations contradict one another. Either a standard is a standard, or it isn't. In their reading, a standard is an absolute requirement, set from the center, that every individual must meet.

In the Presbyterian Church, the central body is not where candidates are examined and, if they pass, ordained. There is no bishop, and certainly no Vatican, in the Presbyterian Church. The body that examines and ordains ministers is the regional presbytery. The presbytery, not surprisingly, is the central unit of the Presbyterian Church, the level where church leaders live with one another the most, and the unit that any unspecified powers are reserved for in the church. The General Assembly, with the agreement of most presbyteries, can set the standards for the church, but the presbyteries are where they are applied. In nearly all cases, that is where it ends: the church as a whole accepts the presbytery's judgment.

Still, since the first two presbyteries were brought together in this country, the church has faced the problem of presbyteries interpreting and applying the standards differently. In those cases, the church has had two mechanisms to smooth out the conflict or, if smoothing out is not possible, for deciding the contested issue. The main mechanism is to trust each presbytery to ordain well. That ordination is for the whole church. However, if a minister wants to "labor within the bounds" of another presbytery, he or she must be examined and approved by that new presbytery. The second presbytery can't change an ordination granted by the first one, but it can say, "you may be ordained for the whole church, but you can't work in this corner of the church." This is a long-established tradition of the Presbyterian Church in this country, going back to the first synod in 1729.

The second way the church deals with a conflict of standards between two ordaining bodies is to hold a trial in the higher governing bodies (the synod, and then the General Assembly). This trial is not about the particular minister's beliefs, but rather is about whether the presbytery applied the church's standards correctly. The presbyteries are given a great deal of leeway in applying the standards, but ultimately there are limits.

Existing church standards would, among many other things, forbid the ordination of practicing, unrepentant homosexuals. Some presbyteries think this prohibition is clearly required by the Bible, and therefore is essential. Other presbyteries have made it clear that they do not think such a prohibition is essential, or even just, regardless of what the Bible appears to say.

The Task Force says this standard is still the standard for the church. They also call on the whole church to trust the local presbytery to apply that standard properly. However, if the presbytery does not apply that standard (or any other standard) correctly – or worse, denies the standard altogether – then the presbytery can be tried by a higher governing body. If necessary, the presbytery's ordination decision can be overturned. That is the way things are now. That is what the Task Force is proposing to keep and strengthen.

A standard is a standard, but every organization needs some way to judge whether a particular case comes under the standard or not.


Denis Hancock said...

Thanks for your posting today.

It's a good reminder that things really aren't undergoing a tectonic shift, the rhetoric from both fringes notwithstanding.

Gruntled said...

It is unfortunate, though, that the Task Force used the term "aspirational" to describe the standards, rather than, say, "the rule except in extraordinary circumstances."

Michael W. Kruse said...

"It is unfortunate, though, that the Task Force used the term "aspirational" to describe the standards, rather than, say, "the rule except in extraordinary circumstances.""

Thanks for your insights Beau. There is a difference between saying "Here is a standard. Let the presbyteries decide about those cases at the margin of the standard." and saying "All standards are open to scrupples and need not apply unless a presbytery decides they are essential." The later is what I see the PUP report advocates saying in the articles I read (It is my interpretation as well.) If this is just about "the rule except in extraordinary circumstances," then there would be no need for this report for that is what we do now.

If the report passes I think it will bring massive confusion to the denomination. I have zero optimism that people are going to act in the trusting manner you suggest and upon which the whole scenario is based. I wish I shared your optimism.

Anonymous said...

There is an overture from the Presbytery of Santa Fe which would limit judicial complaints, so that a complaint could only be filed by someone from within a presbytery. This would virtually eliminate Jensen's complaints, but it would also limit any other ordianed officer from outside the presbytery from scrutinizing a presbyteries decision resulting in a judicial remedy by a higher governing body.

Gruntled said...

I understand that the reason we do not limit standing to bring charges to members of the same presbytery is to prevent miscreants (think adulterous pastors) from fleeing justice by moving to another presbtyery.

Stuart Gordon said...

There is one tricky aspect to the review process proposed in the PUP report, noted in the Presbyterian Outlook by a stated clerk (of,I believe, the Presbytery of Detroit). Though he would endorse the ordination of homosexuals, he opposes the PUP report for two reasons: one is that a definitive guidance ruling effectively circumvents the presbyteries and makes it feel as if something is being "forced" on the church. Two is the review process.

He cites the specific language to point out that what can be reviewed by higher governing bodies is not whether the standards have been applied rightly; instead, what may be reviewed is whether a process was followed that was careful and deliberative. That's a big difference, one that makes the historic principle of review by higher governing bodies irrelevant.

Gruntled said...

Is there any way to rebuild trust in the Presbyterian Church?

Ed McLeod said...

The best way to rebuild trust in our church is to stop thinking that outmaneuvering each other politically is our chief end. Whether we like the PUP report or not, and all things considered, I think it's a step forward, I do admire the faithfulness and the spirit of hospitality that seemed to guide the work of the committee. My prayer is that the church will draw as much from their process as we do from their report. Theirs is a living testimony that peace is not an achievement, but a gift received.

Gruntled said...

I share your sentiment. I think the Task Force's hope that others can build trust by replicating their proceedure is based on a common sociological error. A small, face-to-face group can build courtesy just because they have to keep living with one another. This is why most congregations do not have the bitter ideological fights that occur on the denominational level. You can't simply reproduce that courtesy by imagining the denomination as a small group writ large. Even if every presbytery had a dozen people replicating the Task Force process, that would not begin to touch the reservoirs of mistrust of the vast "them" on the other side of the ideological divide that most Presbyterian will never meet face to face.

Michael W. Kruse said...

IMO, the way you restore trust is being trustworthy.

I believe our polity envisions a theology that is embodied in the body and then expressed through its governmental actions. If you find yourself in opposition to the will of the body you have two choices. First, work to persuade the body through respectful and constitutional engagement until the body embodies the values you champion. Second, withdraw and join a community that embodies your convictions.

Over the last thirty years or more the left has largely abandoned embodiment for prophetic engagement. They are more compassionate and are in better tune with God’s will than the broader church. (Don’t believe me? Just ask them.) Thus, prophetic “civil disobedience” and disregard for the constitution are justified in their minds. They will be perfectly content to have their way even if they know that way is not embodied by the majority of the body.

Meanwhile, the right has largely abandoned the denominational structures. They hold up the Constitution as the standard (and I think rightly so) but contribute nothing to the health and renewal of the structures that make the constitution work. On the contrary, they often work to undermine them.

Key to any competitive church model must be clear rules and reliable referees. The reason why we have rules, contracts, and covenants is not for the times when things are going well but when there is disagreement. Right now, one side sees themselves as above the rules another side is withdrawn and disillusioned with the referees.

The comment in the PUP report about the Constitutional standards being “aspirations” and the fact that a governing body can only review a lower governing body’s decisions for procedure, not for compliance to standards, effectively creates a cafeteria style Constitution. It brings confusion not clarity. It increases agitation not embodiment.

The way back to trust is willing compliance with the Constitution and participation in the structures that support the Constitution, while responsibly seeking to have a public witness grounded in corporate embodiment.

Gruntled said...

And a few heresy trials. Until the church shows some backbone, the left will continue to act above the Constitution, and get away with it.

Stuart Gordon said...

Personally, I have to say that I don't trust those who advocate for the ordination of homosexuals because I believe that they will stop at nothing until they succeed. When reporting to my Presbytery on the work of the Task Force, the member from the "left" affirmed in the Q and A that when and if the Task Force report passes, he will go back to working vigorously to have G-6.0106b repealed. In other words, all the accomplishments of the Task Force come off sounding like nothing but a temporary measure, a cease-fire to provide time to reload.

My heart sank. I value the work of the Task Force. It's as good a job as the church could have hoped for. And yes, it does ask of the church a colossal amount of trust, trust that simply is in short supply.

It seems to me that we are called to love each other by being willing to pay a price. It would be unfaithful to continue attacking "the other side," or to storm out of the church if "our side" loses.

For those of us who feel caught in the middle, the choices don't seem very good, except that we know where Jesus is - in the middle, reconciling the world to God in painful ways, and people to people in equally painful ways.

Gruntled said...

So this was a member of the Task Force -- the same Task Force which calls on the church not to change the constitution -- who says openly that if the report passes he will go home and try to change the constitution?

Stuart Gordon said...


Jeff said...

I might have agreed with your description 25 years ago as it relates to the PUP proposal. However, the way that women's ordination, particularly at the local church/session level, was handled in conjuction with reunion completely changed the way sessions, presbyteries and the higher governing bodies related to each other. I have read at least one task force member quoted as saying he supports the proposal because he thought the incorrect decisions were made at that time and this was a chance to put things right again, but so far as I've seen, the other members of the task force have been pretty unforthcoming when asked whether a scruple could be approved regarding women's ordination (by the way, I'm married to a Presbyterian minister, so I'm not writing out of opposition on that issue).

Mark Smith said...

I think Michael has hit it on the head.

About 10 years ago, I worked with PLGC (the gay "left" that you speak of) on their electronic communications. I am straight, but very supportive of gay rights within and outside the church.

A split began to grow within PLGC over approach. This was back when PLGC was disrupting communion at the General Assembly meetings every year. There was one group that was pushing working within the system to change the system (your "embodiment"), and another group pushing for "in your face" tactics (which you charitably call "prophetic engagement"). One of the PUP task force member was in the "change the system from within" group. Unfortunately, the "prophetic" group started name-calling. After I got called homophobic enough times, I discontinued my work with the group.

I truly believe that over time, ordination of homosexuals will be accepted by the PCUSA. The same happened with opinions on slavery, interracial marriage, and women's ordination. However, the denomination moves at a glacial pace. The change will only happen if it comes from within. It will only come from within if the folks trying to change it WORK within the system.

For that reason, I don't see any problem with adopting the PUP recommendations AND lobbying to change the rules. I DO agree that the "in your face" tactics need to end, and that anyone who threatens to leave the denomination over the issue needs to put up or shut up.

I am now looking to get reinvolved with the church after leaving it so long ago (for reasons not related to this discussion). However, this split is to a certain extent scaring me off. Why go to dinner when you KNOW that there will be a knock-down -drag-out fight at the dinner table?

In the end, I honestly feel that a schism is coming. The question is how messy it will be. Will we allow congregations from either the left or right to leave with their property, or will there be a final fight to the death with the CENTER leaving because they're tired of it?

Gruntled said...

"For that reason, I don't see any problem with adopting the PUP recommendations AND lobbying to change the rules."

The problem is that the report itself explicitly calls on the Assembly to refrain from changing any of the constitution. If Task Force members are both promoting the PUP report and calling for amending the constitution, they are contradicting themselves.

Stuart Gordon said...

Dear Mark:

In the spirit of the task force, I want to ask genuine questions of you in an irenic manner.

When you say that you are very supportive of gay rights within and outside the church, can you tell me more?

I promise not to start an argument!

Grace and peace to you.

Mark Smith said...

Stuart - it's too big a topic for this line of comments. If you want to start a discussion, send me an e-mail (go to the link for my name and then to my e-mail found there). I don't know that I want to have a public debate about sexuality at this point in my delicate dance around returning to the church, but I will be happy to talk to you about it privately.

For the other point:

I do believe that it is right to continue to advocate for your ultimate goal, while accepting a temporary compromise. If that was not acceptable, the denomination would either have split or people would have left over many issues: slavery, ordination of women, temperance, etc. We have to allow people to speak their conscience in church councils, or we have STOPPED the "always reforming" nature of the denomination.

Having said that, the "tear down the walls" tactics must stop. People need to understand that they aren't gonna get their way - right away - everytime. If they can't handle losing on an issue that is important to them, they MUST decide to stop being very disruptive, or LEAVE. That's the whole point of the BOO passage on schism. And that goes for BOTH sides in this debate.