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Confession yes, subscription no, synod court rules

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    CALLED OUT From the PCUSA News Service. ... September 19, 2002 Confession yes, subscription no, synod court rules No appeals expected in closely-watched
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 19, 2002
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      From the PCUSA News Service.


      September 19, 2002

      Confession yes, subscription no, synod court rules
      No appeals expected in closely-watched Sebastian case
      by Alexa Smith

      LOUISVILLE � In a case widely considered to be a test of the
      Confessing Church Movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA), a
      synod court has ruled that local congregations can adopt faith
      statements that are "consistent" with the denomination's constitution
      but cannot use them as a "litmus test" for ordination or installation
      to church office.

      The unanimous decision by the Permanent Judicial Commission of the
      Synod of South Atlantic on Sept. 13 apparently resolves a dispute in
      Central Florida Presbytery that seemed headed for the General
      Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission � the church's highest court.

      So far, attorneys on neither side are recommending an appeal.

      The case began in 2001 when Norman Blessing, an elder at First
      Presbyterian Church of Sebastian, FL for more than 20 years, filed
      suit charging that the Sebastian session could not require those
      seeking office in the church to affirm the "confession" it had
      adopted prior to the 213th General Assembly.

      The Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbytery of Central
      Florida upheld Blessing's complaint.

      The Sebastian confession � modeled on the tenets of a loose coalition
      of churches calling themselves the Confessing Church Movement �
      affirmed heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable sexual
      relationship, the infallibility of the Bible and Jesus Christ as the
      only means to salvation. The Confessing Church Movement has rallied
      about 1,200 congregations to affirm similar confessions.

      The session approved the document at meeting when Blessing had an
      excused absence. He claimed that the Sebastian session subsequently
      tried to require that he and others either affirm the confession or
      leave the church.

      Blessing charged that writing such a confession exceeded the
      authority of the Sebastian church � an allegation that the presbytery
      court upheld. It ordered the church to rescind its confession,
      causing a firestorm among Confessing Churches.

      However, the synod court ruled that the Sebastian church "had the
      right and power to pass such a four-point �confession' � provided
      such �confession' is consistent with the constitution of the

      But it went on to say that the "so-called �confession' is not binding
      upon any officer or member of the PC(USA)" and that the church "may
      not use its �confession' as a litmus test for ordination or

      While Sessions have the right to examine and instruct those who are
      elected to church office, the court said, they may only "decline to
      approve a person for ordination and/or installation in the context of
      the questions required" by the Book of Order , the polity portion of
      the denomination's constitution.

      The ordination questions are found in section G-14.0207 and standards
      for leadership are defined in G-6.0108a., which states that church
      officers must adhere to Reformed faith and polity.

      The court stressed that elders are to be people of "faith, dedication
      and good judgment,' (G-6.0303) and deacons are to be people of
      "spiritual character, honest repute, of exemplary lives, brotherly
      and sisterly love, warm sympathies and sound judgment." (G-6.0401).

      The court also directed the Sebastian church's attention to an
      additional clause in the Book of Order (G-3.0401) which says the
      church is called to be open to the presence of God, to its own
      membership's diversity and to God's continuing reformation of the

      "We got what we wanted," said Sebastian's lawyer J. Christy Wilson
      III of Orlando, FL, who argued for a church's right to make a faith
      statement. "The court affirmed the right of a church to adopt a
      confession for its use and the use of its members, consistent with
      the confessions and also with scripture," he said.

      In the brief prepared for the court, Wilson and his co-counsel, Rick
      Franzen of Minneapolis, MN, likened the adoption of the confession by
      the Sebastian church to the renewal of marital vows.

      "When a couple renews their vows of marriage, they are not becoming
      newly married. Instead, they are reaffirming their commitment to vows
      made long ago, whether or not they use the precise words of their
      original wedding vows," they wrote.

      They insisted that Sebastian's affirmation of a few theological
      tenets simply affirmed the church's historic faith and "did not
      affect anyone outside of the First Presbyterian Church of Sebastian."

      Wilson told the Presbyterian News Service that he wasn't sure "what
      to make" of the court's counsel that the church respect diversity.
      "The Sebastian church has always tried to be inclusive," he said.
      "The issue here is not inclusivity, but the foundational principles
      of biblical faith."

      Blessing's attorney, David Coventry Smith of Winston-Salem, NC, said
      he is also "pleased" with the decision since his primary goal was
      ensuring that a local congregation's faith statement does not
      restrict its selection of officers.

      In his brief, Smith argued that the characterization of a renewal of
      vows is "misleading," since spouses voluntarily reaffirm a marital
      covenant entered into years before. Sebastian's confession, he wrote,
      is "more akin to a spouse who seeks to materially change the terms of
      that original vow, mandating adherence to it or dissolution of the
      marital relationship."

      Smith said Blessing's primary objection was subscription to tenets
      that elevated a certain view of the Reformed tradition above the
      broader questions delineated within the Book of Order .

      "As long as an individual's theological beliefs are within what we
      consider to be the Reformed tradition, that individual qualifies to
      be a church officer," said Smith. "You can't require someone to
      subscribe to something in addition to that," he said

      One example, Smith continued, is the Sebastian church's use of the
      term "infallible" to describe scripture. The current ordination vows
      say that scripture is a "unique and authoritative witness to Jesus

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