The Presbyterian Church (USA)'s General Assembly begins later this week, and yours truly will be enjoying every minute of it, no doubt, in lovely Birmingham. My job will be to follow the ins and outs of the debate over the final report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. I will keep you posted about the PUP report.
The main proposal of the report is that Presbyterians, at all our many institutional levels and forms, need to outdo one another in honoring each other's decisions. To be sure, there are still checks and balances. But the main thrust of the report is that we should trust one another more to make just decisions for the church. If one presbytery says that someone is good to ordain as a minister, then the other presbyteries should try mightily to believe that they are right.
I fully support this proposal.
However, the church, like any other human institution, needs to enforce its own rules sometimes, or all that trust will erode. Nearly all the time, in nearly every case, presbyteries do make good decisions in who they ordain and how they judge their officers' subsequent actions. But in those rare cases when a potential officer, or even an already ordained one, openly defies the rules of the church in order to defy them, then the church has to try 'em and toss 'em.
The worst instance of this kind of defiance is the case of Jane Spahr, lesbian evangelist, who finally got someone to try her for conducting same-sex marriages. As she well knows, Presbyterian ministers may not perform same-sex marriages. She opposes that rule, and has been breaking it publicly in order to get a trial. But it is not Spahr's defiance that is the real problem. The real problem is that, by a 6 –1 vote, the judicial commission of Redwoods Presbytery ruled that Spahr did nothing wrong in openly violating clear church rules.
Redwoods Presbytery as a whole has responded to this breach of trust by its own judicial commission by appealing the decision to the synod, which in turn will no doubt be appealed to the General Assembly's judicial commission. The worry here is that the church's top court will evade the open defiance of church rules on a technicality. In this case, that would be very bad. The church is a voluntary institution. No one has to belong. If you deeply disagree with a church's confession and rules, go join another one. It is a very free country when it comes to religion.
The best way to build trust in the church nearly all the time is to have real consequences for the untrustworthy – no, the openly destructive – in those exceptional times.