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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Line in the Sand

A commissioner rises to speak of his great love for the Presbyterian church, and of the joy he feels as he watches his young daughter grow up in the church. But then he promises that, if the motion currently on the floor passes, he and his family will leave the church - and, whether those in other parts of the church will be able to tolerate it.

It’s a line in the sand.

Anyone familiar with the actions of recent General Assemblies can predict what the issue is: whether or not sessions or presbyteries in some parts of the church are permitted to approve the ordination of those living faithfully in gay or lesbian relationships.

Specifically, the action before the Assembly is to remove the present text of G-6.0106b...

“Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.”

...and replace it with:

“Standards for ordained service reflect the church's desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate's calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate's ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”

After extended discussion – including two failed motions to end debate – the Assembly voted to approve the change, sending the amendment to the presbyteries for yet another attempt at ratification: 53% yes, 46% no, 1% abstentions.

Earlier in the afternoon, the Assembly rejected a move to reinstate the earlier authoritative interpretations of the Constitution that had been removed by the 2008 Assembly. These former interpretations declared “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” ineligible for ordination as ministers, elders or deacons.

If a majority of the presbyteries concur with the amendment that replaces G-6.0106b with the new language, there will no longer be any constitutional impediment to the ordination of those in same-sex relationships.

Past experience has demonstrated that presbytery approval of this change is no foregone conclusion. Last time around, though, it failed by the smallest of margins. Surprisingly, a significant number of presbyteries long considered to be reliable “no” votes switched over to the “yes” column. Given the fact that an overwhelming majority of the church’s younger members favor the change, it’s only a matter of time before it’s enacted. Sheer demographics make it inevitable. If not this year, then maybe two years from now, after the 2012 Assembly.

What about the poor commissioner with his line in the sand? I feel a little sorry for him. Did he seriously think that putting his own future out there in such a public way would sway the voting of hundreds?

It’s never a good idea to make a promise you aren’t prepared to keep – although maybe he is prepared to follow through on it, for all I know. Whatever the case, I hope he will change his mind, coming to a new understanding of the church as a big tent that can accommodate believers with a wide range of views. That requires a certain amount of humility, which for some of us is not so easy to come by.

There was another personal testimony that was part of this afternoon’s debate. Jane Plantinga Pauw witnessed to a powerful, Spirit-led “transformation” in the Assembly Committee on Church Orders and Ministry, as people of vastly differing viewpoints and experiences risked sharing their faith with one another and experienced a deep sense of unity. “It is not only possible to be united in Jesus Christ,” she reported, “but it has happened here.” In her view, the new G-6.0106b language actually gives the church its best hope for unity in the midst of diversity.

That, in fact, has been the experience of every General Assembly working group in recent years that has sought to find a broadly-accepted solution to the thorny sexuality issue. After much research, conversation, debate and prayer, the members of these groups came to a place where they agreed to disagree. Along the way, they discovered a rare sense of community, arising not so much out of their mutual agreement as out of the pain of their differences.

This they considered a sort of miracle, one they could attribute only to the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps this unexpected gift of unity, this surprising serendipity, will prove to be their most lasting gift to the church. Long after the words of their heavily-redacted reports will have been forgotten, it just may be the example of their stubborn love for one another that will endure.

Should this amendment pass a majority of the presbyteries, will those who suddenly find themselves in an unaccustomed minority respond by drawing their own, individual lines in the sand? Or, will they risk exploring, along with those on the other side of the proverbial aisle, what the Holy Spirit may be doing in our midst?

Only God knows.

Only God can make it happen.

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