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.