Friday, October 21, 2005

Pittsburgh Presbytery meeting at Westminster: (2) Considering "A Season of Discernment"

Front cover of "A Season of Discernment"One of the highlights of Thursday's meeting of Pittsburgh Presbytery at the Westminster Presbyterian Church had originally been billed as a presentation, discussion, and questions with representatives of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. This blog entry is the second in my series on today's presbytery meeting, as well as my second (in a slowly developing series) on "A Season of Discernment" - the final report of the Task Force.

In the original mailing for the meeting, we had been hoping for two members of the task force to be present: Elder Mary Ellen Lawson, the stated clerk of nearby Redstone Presbytery, and the Rev. John B. (Mike) Loudon, a pastor from Tampa Bay Presbytery. Unfortunately, a family illness prevented Elder Lawson from being present.

I had an opportunity to chat with Mike Loudon before the meeting began. He is a graduate of Westminster College, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and McCormick Theological Seminary. He has been a pastor in New Castle. The news about Hurricane Wilma was more than just idle talk about the weather. When he would finish his presentation he would head to the airport to fly back to Florida, ending close to the path of the storm.

Unfortunately, the presentation that took place did not really include the meaningful dialogue for which I had hoped. Mike presented some very good information, and explained it very clearly. Perhaps it was the absence of a second member of the Task Force, or perhaps it was the weariness of pastors (to which Pastor Jim Mead would refer later in the meeting). The presentation was not dialogical; it was essentially a very linear communication, with the opportunity for only a couple of questions after it was all over. It was very heartening to discover after Mike had left, that there had already been some conversations about the possibility of Pittsburgh Seminary hosting a day-long event to have dialogue about the report. It was even more heartening to discover from the straw poll that there was a high level of motivation among those present to participate in such an event.

Mike gave a good overview of the history of the Presbyterian Church's handling of issues on which Presbyterians have disagreed: numerous splits and reunions that involved tensions between local autonomy and discretion and the authority of the higher governing bodies to set and establish policy.

From the very early years, the Adopting Act of 1729 was the action by which the colonial Presbyterian Church established the Westminster Confession as the church's system of doctrine. It was recognized that some ministers seeking admission might not wholeheartedly embrace every statement in that document. In such cases, the minister could declare a scruple, and then the presbytery could determine whether the scruple was essential to the faith of the church.

Part of Mike's report was an explanation of "Recommendation 5" which in my view restates the balance our polity strikes between national standards and local autonomy. It would be an administrative nightmare if the General Assembly were to be responsible for applying the church-wide standards for ordination. It makes the most sense for the local presbytery to be the body that makes the ordination decision, given the deeper knowledge that the local presbytery has of the individual's gifts, character, strengths, weaknesses and the setting where the minister will work.

Mike really got my attention when he stated explicityl that it was his opinion that Recommendation 5 "reverses Kenyon." He was referring to a 1975 decision in Maxwell v. Pittsburgh Presbytery by the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. That decision was that "action of Pittsburgh Presbytery in voting to ordain Walter Wynn Kenyon was not in conformity with the requirements of the Form of Government." The salient fact was that Mr. Kenyon had stated that he believed that the policy of our denomination was wrong to ordain women. The PJC said that the church had expressed "its understanding of the equality of all people (both male and female) before God .... with such clarity as to make the candidate's stated position a rejection of its government and discipline."

There is clear tension between Recommendation 5 and the use which the church has made of the Kenyon decision over the last thirty years. Kenyon interpreted a church constitution that ceased having effect over twenty years ago when the PCUSA was formed by the reunion of the UPCUSA and the PCUS. At reunion the new church also inherited a line of PJC cases from the "Southern Church" (PCUS) including the 1983 case Hambrick v. PJC, Synod of North Carolina. In Hambrick the PJC gave instructions for how the presbytery was to re-examine the candidate, and what the presbytery should determine on the basis of those answers, a markedly different result from the Northern decision in which Kenyon's ineligibility for ordination was a closed matter.

Recommendation 5 includes an attempt to set a legal standard to be applied by a Permanent Judicial Commission, in addition to the constitutional standards described in the Rules of Discipline. It is not clear yet that the General Assembly's PJC would accept this limited standard. It would take a test case to learn what the PJC's decision would be. I would expect the GA PJC to show some deference to the standard until and unless they get a case in which the presbytery's decision is so plainly in error that it offends the sensibilities of the commissioners.

Unfortunately, such a hypothetical test case would represent someone's failure to follow the exhortation of the Task Force in Recommendation 5e that "[a]ll parties should endeavor to outdo one another in honoring one another’s decisions, according the presumption of wisdom to ordaining/installing bodies in examining candidates and to the General Assembly, with presbyteries’ approval, in setting standards.

I'm looking forward to the discussion at Pittsburgh Seminary.

My other articles about this Presbytery meeting are: 1 2 3, 4
My other articles about "A Season of Discernment" are: 1 2

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