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PJC Ruling Strikes Down... (Revised)

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    CALLED OUT INFORMATION SERVICE From the PCUSA News Service ... March 6, 2002 Confessional test stricken down PJC: Church can t require leaders to endorse
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 6, 2002

      From the PCUSA News Service


      March 6, 2002
      Confessional test stricken down
      PJC: Church can't require leaders to endorse theological statement
      by Alexa Smith

      (Note: In an earlier version of this story, the Presbyterian News
      Service cited language from the complainant's brief as though it were
      part of the PJC decision. The PJC did not write its own decision, but
      affirmed the complainant's brief.)

      LOUISVILLE - The Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of a Florida
      presbytery ruled last week that a church session may not require its
      ordained leaders to subscribe to the specific theological tenets of a
      confession drafted by the session.

      Central Florida Presbytery's PJC ruled unanimously that the session
      of First Presbyterian Church of Sebastian does not have the authority
      to amend confessional statements or to bind church officers to
      theological standards apart from the ordination vows in the
      denomination's Book of Order as a prerequisite for ordination or

      The commission unanimously sustained all but one of the complaints of
      Norman Blessing, an elder on the session of 240-member First
      Presbyterian Church of Sebastian, FL, whose session approved a
      confessional statement last May 22 urging sessions and presbyteries
      to refuse to ordain, install or employ anyone who would not affirm
      four theological tenets.

      The PJC issued no written decision, but in a letter dated Feb. 20
      said it had unanimously sustained all but one of Blessing's
      complaints. On that issue - his objection to being excluded from a
      session meeting - the Rev. Dale Heaton, of Titusville, FL, moderator
      of the PJC, said no ruling was necessary because it has long been
      "taken for granted" that a session member may not be excluded from a
      session meeting.

      "The brief is a part of the decision," said Heaton. "All the things
      in the brief were sustained except what was noted."

      The decision probably will be appealed to the PJC of the Synod of the
      South- Atlantic. A protest was filed yesterday by some members of the

      J. Christy Wilson III of Orlando, the attorney representing the
      Sebastian church, is recommending that it seek a review of Heaton's
      participation on the PJC.

      The PJC's decision is eliciting outrage from some in the Confessing
      Church Movement (CCM), a loose coalition of conservative churches
      whose sessions have adopted confessional statements typically
      affirming three beliefs: that Jesus Christ is solely Lord and the
      only agent of salvation; that the Bible is infallible; and that
      sexual activity is appropriate only within heterosexual marriage.

      The Sebastian church added a fourth: that church leaders "are called
      to uphold these confessions and to be people who are chaste in
      singleness and faithful within the covenant of marriage."

      The commission ordered the church to rescind the confessional
      statement, citing two sections of the constitution (G-18.0201 and
      G-14.0207b). The first lays out a national process for amending
      confessional documents; the other lists questions that must be asked
      during ordination.

      It said a session may not require affirmation of the statement as a
      prerequisite for ordination or for installation of members, nor may
      it make the demand of ministers seeking employment. "This
      requirement could result in discrimination against non-ordained
      employees in ministry positions," the PJC's statement reads.

      It also ordered that the decision be printed in the Sebastian
      church's newsletter in an article enumerating the ordination
      questions specified in G-14.0207b.

      In an interview with the Presbyterian News Service, Blessing said the
      session's confession was less a theological statement than a
      political gesture directed at the 2001 General Assembly, which was to
      take up the question of the ordination of homosexuals. He did not
      attend the meeting at which the confession was adopted. He was
      excluded from a subsequent meeting after he refused to affirm the

      "If you want to make a statement of faith, no problem," Blessing said
      shortly after the Feb. 20 decision was handed down," but if you want
      to make a confession, this is not the way to go about it."

      His lawyers argued - and the PJC agreed - that confessions must
      approved by two General Assemblies and by a two-thirds vote of

      Blessing told PNS that the document adopted by the Sebastian church
      was a paraphrase of a few historic statements in the PC(USA)'s Book
      of Confessions, which comprises half of the constitution. "Why
      couldn't the session have used what the church has already included
      in its authentic teachings?" he asked.

      David Coventry Smith, John Coventry Smith and Alan Pickering,
      Blessing's attorneys, specifically objected to the second item in the
      Sebastian document, which describes Holy Scripture as "the revealed
      Word of the triune God, and the church's only infallible rule of
      faith and life."

      They argued that the 1969 General Assembly of the United Presbyterian
      Church in the United States of America replaced the phrase, "only
      infallible rule of faith and practice," with this language: "unique
      and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church Universal,
      and God's Word to you." The revised language was retained in the
      ordination vows when the United Presbyterian Church and the
      Presbyterian Church in the United States reunited in 1983.

      They said the constitution ascribes "infallibility" only to Jesus
      Christ, and that the witness of Scripture is always to Christ, the
      "living Word."

      Blessing maintained that Presbyterians have a right to freedom of
      religious belief within the bounds of the Reformed faith, and that
      his religious beliefs are consistent with the vows he "undertook on
      becoming a church officer."

      Wilson - who represented the Sebastian church and has recommended
      that it appeal this decision - argued that the PJC overlooked two
      things: that "Confessing" churches like Sebastian are not trying to
      adopt new confessions or amend existing ones, but to witness to the
      essential truths of the church's historic confessions; and that the
      constitution contains criteria for ordained leadership other than
      those addressed by the ordination questions. He specifically cited
      G-0106.b, the clause requiring fidelity in marriage or chastity in

      "The church is called upon to confess in conformity with our
      confessions," he said, referring to the Confessing Church Movement.
      "And this issue is very important to a large percentage of our
      churches, who are attempting to call the church back to its
      historical roots, the tenets of the Reformed tradition, which they
      believe have been obscured as of late.

      "The General Assembly has refused to define the essential tenets,
      which is why it is up to individual churches - or groups of churches
      - to say what is important for them. That is what the Confessing
      Church Movement has done."

      Wilson noted that bodies making ordination decisions traditionally
      are treated with "great deference" in church cases.

      David C. Smith, one of Blessings' attorneys, said the crux of the
      case is the intent of those who draft statements independent of the
      wider church and ask members who do not agree to withdraw from the

      "In this particular case, the confession was used as a means of
      exclusion, to exclude people not only from the session, but from the
      membership of the church," he said, noting that Blessing and another
      church member were told to endorse the statement's four tenets or
      "peaceably withdraw," which is language that is drawn from a footnote
      attached to G-6.0108b which addresses the freedom of conscience of
      church officers. The provision applies specifically to matters
      judged "indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government."

      On March 5, some members of Central Florida Presbytery signed a
      formal objection to the PJC's decision. It charges that the Sebastian
      church's statement is not in conflict with the constitution, because
      it makes no attempt to amend the confessional documents of the
      church; that in G-9.0102b, the constitution grants governing bodies,
      including sessions, the right to "frame symbols of faith, bear
      testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life (and)
      resolve questions of doctrine and discipline"; and that
      qualifications for ordination or installation go beyond affirmative
      answers to the nine questions set forth in G-14.0207.

      The protesters also argued that the Sebastian resolution contains no
      doctrinal errors and does reflect the session's dedication to its

      A protest requires no response from the PJC.

      The Rev. Howard Edington, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of
      Orlando, FL, the largest church in Central Florida Presbytery and one
      of the nation's first to adopt a "confessing" statement, said the
      First Church session intends to stand in solidarity with its
      counterpart in Sebastian. He said First Church may redirect its
      financial resources from the presbytery to the Sebastian church's
      legal defense - although the synod PJC could enjoin such action.

      The Rev. Eleanor Lea, the pastor of the Sebastian church, said its
      session probably will file an appeal of the PJC decision, but the
      session has not yet voted.

      Send your response to this article to pcusa.news@...

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