Wednesday, June 21, 2006

PUP Passes – Let the Local Application Begin

The Report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church was debated by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) last night. After a serious, civil debate, the report passed, 57% to 43%.

The debate was all about conservative attempts to prevent the Authoritative Interpretation from taking effect. There were no liberal efforts to stop the two-year moratorium on amending the constitution. Indeed, an overture to delete the chastity and fidelity provision of the constitution was rejected later in the evening by 81% of the Assembly.

By my reading, the PUP report marks a return to the great centrist principle of the Adopting Act of 1729. This is the standard the church has returned to again and again after major conflicts. The Adopting Act requires all officers to subscribe to the church's standards, explaining any "scruples" they might have about particular parts of the constitution. If the ordaining body judges that those scruples do not touch essential matters, then the officer is ok. This judgment by the locals is subject to review by the higher bodies. But everyone is better off if, in the words of the PUP report, all parts of the church "outdo one another in honoring" the judgments of the other parts of the church. The Authoritative Interpretation says that the church does not have to change its constitution to adopt this standard of judgment, because it has been there in the constitution all along.

The PUP report says that it will promote "local application" of national standards. Opponents say that the AI will lead to "local option" or, in more heated moments, "local license," in which the locals will simply make up their own standards.

I believe that the PUP report is a centrist measure. Restoring the Adopting Act rule will take a little doing – we don’t have one confession any more, and we don't have the same track record about how scrupling applies to the rules of order as it does to the confession of faith. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the effect of the PUP report will be to promote the peace of the church.

To do that, though, we need to have the locals apply the national standards justly. Nearly all presbyteries and sessions will be just and honorable. A few, though, have already demonstrated their determination to simply defy the constitution and the rest of the church. Most of this open defiance has been on the left, especially about gay ordination. A few conservative congregations, though, have long resisted ordaining women, in defiance of the very clear standards of the church. And one or two conservative presbyteries have come close to threatening defiance if the PUP report were adopted.

To make local application work, the national church will have to clearly discipline defiance on the right and the left. It will only take a few judicial cases, or a few public rebukes, and maybe a few firings. The church as a whole can only trust that the standards are really standards if they are enforced in egregious cases. They have the rules – all the church leaders need is the will.


Mark Smith said...

Or maybe, just maybe, the church truly will outdo each other in honoring local decisions and BOTH sides AND the middle will stop filing judicial complaints.

I know that it won't happen, but it should.

Gruntled said...


Is it your reading that it is the middle that has been filing the judicial cases?

Mark Smith said...

Until now, most of the judicial cases have been filed by the right, targetting the left.

However, you describe yourself as someone from the middle, AND you advocate for punitive action against those at the extremes of left and right. From that, I conclude that you would favor the filing of cases by people in the middle against the extremes.

Is my logic faulty?

Note that I don't say that YOU personally would do this. But if someone is going to "clearly discipline defiance on the right and the left." if not the middle?

Perhaps some tolerance and a decision not to repeat the errors of others will allow some peace. You can discipline a disruptive student with a verbal rebuke or with actual punishment such as detention or suspension (or a whack with a ruler). Those disciplined with rebuke serve as an example of why not to do something. Too often, those disciplined with a harsher method become martyrs to their cause.

If you need examples of martyrs, look at Janie Spahr and Parker Williamson.

Gruntled said...

I was expecting that the charges would be filed by the right against the left, and vice-versa.

It seems to me that in order for the church to honor one another's judgments about faith and practice, the church has to protect the polity which gives us the freedom to vary. Defying the constitution is a different kind of problem then whatever the substance of the defiance is about. I don't think defending the polity is a mistake.

Ray Schroeder said...

Unfortunately, I believe the PUP report will not bring the peace we seek. The judicial commissions at the synod and GA level lean to the left, while the grassroots membership of our presbyteries are middle-to-right. What PUP does is take away the power from the people, and negate our constitution. We have standards and "essentials" that no one will state, thus nullifying the one standard that was stated (6.0106b). We will see the results of this crisis soon enough I'm afraid.

Jon said...

"They have the rules – all the church leaders need is the will."
Exactly. But then that was the case before this General Assembly, and before the PUP Task Force.

Gruntled said...

It is true that the rules -- the substance of the Adopting Act -- was already there in the constitution before this Assembly. Indeed, that is why the Task Force proposed an Authoritative Interpretation of the constitution, rather than a constitutional amendment. But the interpretation of the constitution had been muddied by the Kenyon case and, I think, by the proliferation of confessions. PUP restored the church's understanding that the Adopting Act still applies. Now, as I have argued in this post and the next, we need to really do it.

Michael W. Kruse said...

"If the ordaining body judges that those scruples do not touch essential matters..."

Here is where this whole PUP scenario unravels. If we had a binding confession or statement of faith, this scrupling business might make sense. But we don't. There are no pre-existent sui generis "essential tenets." Apart from the discernment of the denominational body, they do not exist. The notion that one body can decide that something is essential and another can decide it is not, and still say we are all living by "the essential tenents" as a denomination is lunacy.

If we had started as a denomination with articualted essential tenents and then introduced these rules, then fine. But we didn't. We now have asked 173 presbyteries and 11,000 congregations to evaluate their candidates on the basis of a non-existent standard. This is not about left, right or loyalist. This is about plain old human systems. NO organization can effectively function without clear boundaries. This will not bring peace. It will bring massaive confusion and chaos.

Gruntled said...

Well, Michael, it may be lunacy, but it is what the Presbyterian Church has always done. I think we are greatly hampered now by the fact that we have a Book of Confessions, rather than one clear confession. Still, the church is now investigating a congregation in Texas that admitted an atheist. I fully expect that his position will be outside the "essential tenets," no matter how mushy the standards may seem.