PCUSA Theological Task Force Report Clears Committee Intact
- Theological Task Force report clears committee intact
Minority report promised on authoritative interpretation
PCUSA News Service
by Jerry L. Van Marter
BIRMINGHAM, June 18 * The report of the Theological Task
Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church (TTF) cleared
one major hurdle Sunday when the Assembly Committee on
Ecclesiology voted 41-22 to send it to the floor of the
217th General Assembly virtually intact.
Only one amendment was made to the report, and it was
blessed by the TTF as helpful. Four of the TTF's seven
recommendations * calling the church to stay together, to
engage in processes of "intensive discernment" around
divisive issues, to study the theological reflection
portion of the report and to "explore the use of alternative
forms of discernment and decision-making as a complement
to parliamentary procedure" * were approved unanimously.
The most controversial of the TTF's recommendations * a
proposed "authoritative interpretation" of G-6.0108 of the
Constitution that would maintain all of the denomination's
current ordination standards but give ordaining bodies
greater leeway in determining if any individual candidate's
conscientious objection to any constitutional provision is
disqualifying * generated prolonged, heated debate.
When a motion to strike it from the report lost 40-22, talk
of a minority report openly surfaced in the committee,
guaranteeing that debate on the measure will spill over
onto the plenary floor when the committee reports Tuesday
At a press conference after the vote, committee moderator
Blair Monie of Grace Presbytery and vice-moderator
Catherine "Kate" Kotfila said they were not sure what the
minority report would contain. Monie said, "Every committee
has the right to a minority report." Kotfila said, "I don't
believe they'll be coming with a sense of rancor."
A last-ditch effort to refer the authoritative
interpretation to the presbyteries for their "consideration
and response" * and a recommendation that the General
Assembly approve no further amendments or authoritative
interpretations "changing denominational policy on any of
the major issues in the task force report" * was defeated
The motion to refer was supported by a number of overture
advocates, most of whom had earlier argued for either the
deletion of the authoritative interpretation (Sacramento,
San Diego, Santa Barbara, Tropical Florida), an amendment
of G-6.0108 on which the authoritative interpretation is
based (Mississippi, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh), an
alternative authoritative interpretation (Stockton,
Riverside, Palo Duro) or the referral of the authoritative
interpretation for more work (Charlotte, Plains and Peaks).
Though some argued that giving greater discretion to
presbyteries and congregations on ordination decisions will
lead to a "balkanization" of the PC(USA), several supporters
echoed former General Assembly Moderator Marj Carpenter,
who told the committee during Friday's open hearing, "I've
always thought [non-celibate gay ordination] was a biblical
issue, and I oppose gay ordination."
"We've fought this battle in the ditches for 30 years and
the ditch just keeps getting deeper and deeper, and now it's
affecting mission and evangelism. I don't know if [the
authoritative interpretation] is right or not, but I'm
willing to compromise if it will get us back to being the
church * we can't just go on and on like this * but stay
inside the Constitution."
The Rev. Richard Brondyke of Boston Presbytery, in his
hearing statement, said the authoritative interpretation
would merely "shift the [ordination standards] controversy
to the local level." With interpretation and application
of ordination standards made locally, he said, "There will
be no consistency, and the church's balkanization would be
Task force members argued otherwise, noting that ordaining
bodies' responsibility for ordination decisions dates to
the Adopting Act of 1729, with its balance between doctrinal
standards for church officers (at that time the Westminster
confession and catechism) and the right of ministers to
declare "a scruple" against any Westminster standard with
which they disagreed. The presbytery would then determine
whether the scrupled article was an essential tenet.
"This balance we've spoken about has to do with putting
responsibilities in the right place," TTF member and Dubuque
Seminary professor Mark Achtemeier told the committee. "We
say the whole church defines standards, but when it comes
to the individual person before you, the people best
qualified are the ones who know that person best."
"So the whole church establishes the teaching while the
ordaining body decides if the individual is a right fit."
TTF members also rejected the assertion that the
authoritative interpretation constitutes what is
euphemistically called "local option" * that ordaining
bodies are free to establish their own ordination standards.
Ken Thomas of New Harmony Presbytery told the committee
during the hearings, "I don't see any way to read [the
authoritative interpretation] without reading local option."
Calling the proposal "congregational polity," Thomas said,
"I've heard some say this week they will jettison virtually
all standards. I don't want to abandon my brothers to local
needs and options."
TTF member and Auburn Theological Seminary president Barbara
Wheeler responded, "Local option allows local bodies to
establish their own standards. This [authoritative
interpretation] maintains national standards and requires
local bodies to explain and justify their decisions in
applying them. There can be no blanket deletions or
"If the ordaining body sets the standards, that's local
option," Achtemeier added. "This is not local option."
The committee reinforced that understanding by amending the
authoritative interpretation to add that ordaining bodies
have responsibility to determine, "Whether the examination
complies with the constitution of the PC(USA)." The
amendment passed unanimously, with TTF member William Stacy
Johnson of Princeton Theological Seminary musing, "Gee, we
wish we'd thought of that."
The committee also added a comment to its endorsement of
the TTF report, stating that, "The success of this proposal
is dependent upon all governing bodies taking all standards
of the church seriously and applying them rigorously in
the examination process. All governing bodies are encouraged
to develop resources to ensure that this happens."
At the press conference, Monie said, "We went into this
wanting an open, fair process. We felt we'd be successful
if everyone [on the committee] was heard and if they heard
everyone they wanted to hear."
Monie refused to speculate on predictions in some quarters
that Assembly approval of the TTF report will produce
schism, saying, "If the committee is a microcosm of the
church, I didn't hear anyone wanting to walk out."
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