Thursday, October 16, 2008

Is this really the right time?

Is this the right time for Status Confessionis?
An analysis of concerns and the practical outworkings of Advisory Opinion #22

During the past few weeks Rusty and I have been receiving and fielding a number of comments and concerns via e-mail and face to face conversations, mostly with members of Beaver-Butler Presbytery but also with voices around the broader PC USA denomination. We have received more questions. Some of them are repeats that we have addressed in this blog before. We have found that the Spirit is generating more refined answers to these questions and that the questions are evolving, as is the case with any good argument. This post is an attempt to address those old and new questions with sharper responses. We would like to thank all of those who responded because all of these responses aided in the development of our own understanding and further convinced us of the urgency for this declaration in this time in the life of our denomination.

The feedback we have received has been extensive. There is a broad group of people who understand what the declaration is all about and agree not only with its principles but also with its particulars. For that we rejoice. We have also received criticism (some of it constructive and some of it frothing with resentment but all of it helpful) from those on the left, those on the right, and even those in the middle (however that spectrum might be determined). Generally, concerns have fallen into three kinds of broad categories. Some of our conservative friends, with whom we share profound theological common ground, have accused us of being too nice or even cowardly. They say that the declaration has no teeth and that it should advocate for the departure of the whole Presbytery from the PC USA. Some of our institutionalist friends, who tend toward preservation of the institution at all costs, have accused us of hubris and of not being nice enough. They say we have created a mountain out of a molehill. Some of our friends on the left (and yes we do have friends on that end of the spectrum) have accused us of being knee-jerk crybabies who, after having won so many battles at GA or in Presbytery votes, are now ready to take our ball and go home after we lose one. In effect, they tell us that we were just getting interesting and are wondering why it is that we wish to react, in their estimation, with such a drastic measure.

In order to answer all of these concerns, we believe it is best to return to a basic understanding of what the GA did, what it did not do, and what we can expect as a result of their rulings. We believe the declaration answers these questions in its present form if one reads it in detail but obviously people are concerned on certain points so they bear further clarification/elaboration. This will require us to revisit some previous questions on this blog.

What is Status Confessionis?
A previous posting referenced an article on WRAC’s website concerning the definition of the term. It gives the historical background of the term and how it applies today. As we understand it, Status Confessionis is a simple declaration that the errant upper governing body, in this case the 218th GA, has left the Church constitutionally, confessionally, and biblically and, because of their profound errors, we will not go along nor can we be compelled to unless and until the upper governing reverses its folly and comes back to orthodoxy and orthopraxy. So far as we are aware, it is the only form of ecclesiastical protest that has any confessional and historic warrant within the Reformed tradition. This approach separates itself strategically from individual congregations seeking dismissal because of its corporate nature and separates itself from those on the left who advocate individual defiance of biblical and confessional provisions in the Constitution. We see its theological foundations lined out in the Second Helvetic Confession and the Westminster Confession. In fact, it is exactly the stand that our Reformed predecessors took in the face of the corruption in the Church of their day. We are compelled to do no less now.

Might this strategy invite disciplinary proceedings? It is possible. It certainly meant that for our Reformed predecessors. It may mean that for us. We are prepared to accept it if it comes. If it does not, we are prepared to hold fast to our confession and continue to confront the Church with her folly above and beyond this declaration. We view this as a first step. There can be no repentance without first recognition of sin. We hope that this will draw our denominational folly into the light and force us to deal with it post haste.

However, we are far from na├»ve. Repentance has never been our strong suit since the outset of the reunion in 1981 and arguably much further back than that. We have become experts at ignoring our sin, covering it over in legalese, and then holding our hands over our ears like the three year old who keeps repeating, “LALALALALA… I’m not listening!” as their parents attempt to get their attention. In fact, we expect the denominational hierarchy to ignore us as long as possible. We suspect this is why they have neither said nor done nothing yet. As of now we are nothing more than a few congregations petitioning our Presbytery to take a bold stand together. We will see what will happen if the Presbytery chooses to do so.

What did Advisory Opinion #22 really say?
For those who would like a full transcript of the AO, here it is: The opinion is a summary of the actions of the 218th. It is an accurate summary. We take the Stated Clerk and his staff at their word in this report.

Why talk about this subject in the first place? Since some of our critics have accused us of sloppy interpretation of the actions of the 218th, we enter this opinion as exhibit A of our accuracy which has been further confirmed by the denominational news services, commissioners from the Assembly, and subsequent interpretations from both renewal groups and those groups advocating liberal theological practice. We assert that our interpretation is based upon the very words of the Assembly itself, its spoken intentions, and the products of the Stated Clerk’s office since the GA which has only been confirmed by these other sources.

Grayde Parsons and his staff state clearly, just as we do, that the GA approved an overture to remove G-6.0106b from the BOO in its present form and replace it with revised language that has no reference to sexual practices as an ordination standard. The report sums up the net effect of this action in this way under Roman numeral I:

Until a majority of the presbyteries vote to approve that amendment, the standards contained in the current G-6.0106b remain among the standards to be applied in examinations for ordination and installation.

Of course, according to our polity, this is true. However, the sentence is deliberately evasive. This standard is only among those standards to be applied in examinations. Others may supersede it. And it can only be applied during examinations rather than the outcome of those examinations. Nowhere does the report say that this standard cannot be scrupled.

In fact, when one reads further, under Roman numeral III concerning the authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 one finds this:

We believe this modifies the 2008 GAPJC decision of Bush v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh, in that the scrupling of either belief or practice is now allowed.

In fact, this is the very interpretation that Stated Clerks have been handing down to their Presbyteries nationwide. One can scruple belief. One can scruple practice. The AI has changed the meaning of the Constitution without changing the words and has thus turned it into a piece of paper with meaningless words.

In the last paragraph of this section, there is a paragraph that attempts to place the little Dutch boy’s finger back into the hole in the dike which says this:

The 218th General Assembly left in place the prohibition in Bush, which told ordaining bodies: “Restatements of the Book of Order, in whatever form they are adopted, are themselves an obstruction to the same standard of constitutional governance no less than attempts to depart from mandatory provisions.”

Some believe this sentence (oddly constructed as it is) means that candidates still cannot scruple mandatory provisions of the Constitution. If this is the case, it is a direct contradiction of the statement made just one paragraph before it. We believe this is a reference to the development of a litmus test or subscriptionist statement within a Presbytery which is still not allowed. Hence, any of those documents approved by some of our Presbyteries as expressions of the Presbytery’s collective belief and used to inform candidates of same are rendered effectively obsolete.

Grayde Parsons and Mark Tammen both affirmed that this is indeed what they meant and what the GA said at the recent leadership gathering for middle governing bodies. They are quoted in an article in the Presbyterian Outlook ( where they said:

Tammen: “First, the Assembly deleted the specific prohibition against ordaining gay and lesbian persons [contained in authoritative interpretations dating back to 1978]. That’s gone. It leaves us with the whole constitution, and the responsibility to examine people’s lives. That is a change. It may not change the process in your presbytery. But it is a change. Taking away one explicit prohibition doesn’t change the process. It just means the process is more important in asking the follow-up questions.”

Parsons: “In some sense, ordination is very unique to the presbytery. But once you are ordained, it is for the whole church. But re-examination is required to move to another presbytery. Therefore, we have a hybrid system — ordination is for the whole church, but every governing body reserves the right to determine their own membership.”

We believe that what the Stated Clerk’s office has affirmed in this opinion is exactly what we have said from the beginning when we crafted this declaration and exactly what the GA actually did. The AI and subsequent reversal of court precedent have together overturned the plain meaning of the Constitution without ratification by the Presbyteries. It is not only bad theology. It is horrible process and a clear violation of our covenant. This is unique in our history. That is why the time for Status Confessionis is now.

How do we know that is what the opinion really said?
This question is related to the above because there are some institutionalists who are convinced that we have no idea what the GA has done. These institutionalists also argue that we will further have no idea what the GA did until we have a few court cases to interpret it for us. They say that we will have to be ready to launch court cases and challenges when other Presbyteries act on these (in their opinion) false interpretations of the Stated Clerk’s office. In other words, we need to wait until the lawyers tell us what the GA actually did and then we will know for sure what the net effect of this GA was.

Tongue in cheek references to Shakespeare aside, we will grant that while many of us were extremely upset after the passage of the TPUP recommendations that the many who decried it ended up being wrong because of the amendments to recommendation #5 on the floor. Subsequent court cases at the GAPJC proved that PUP actually strengthened the Constitution. Could we be wrong now like we were then?

There are a number of reasons why we believe we are correct about the 218th but none so critically important as this question right here. If we are indeed wrong about the actions of the 218th, then this declaration is out of bounds. Here are a number of reasons why we believe we are not:

1. The TPUP recommendations are no more including the amendment to recommendation #5 that made it a constitutional protection.
2. All cases supporting the plain reading of G-6.01016b have been overturned leaving no other precedent that the wording of the provision which can now be interpreted in any way a candidate or Presbytery desires.
3. The Stated Clerk’s office confirms our interpretation.
4. The courts will use, among other things, these new AI’s and this new AO to guide their decisions. They have no other precedent left upon which to base their decisions.

We believe that all of this is enough to settle the question but there is one last all-encompassing point that needs to be made. The question is, “Could we be wrong now like we were then?” We believe that question is now irrelevant. Even if the GA PJC makes a ruling that we would find favorable, the courts are now irrelevant in the land of the 218th. They can be overturned in an instant by a majority vote of any Assembly. While that has always been the case, no Assembly has been this brazen in its use and abuse of its powers. It has opened the doors for future Assemblies to walk down paths which God’s people would only tread on the way to exile. Because of this, we believe the time for Status Confessionis is now.

We need to wait until after the vote to amend the Constitution is finished. We will not know if we need this unless the vote fails.
The above is another institutionalist argument. The fear is that the only way we will know for sure is if the Constitution itself is changed or a court tells us differently. Surely we desire to work against any changes to the Constitution that will damage orthodoxy. We have no desire to see this recommendation pass and, as we have already vowed, will work against it.

The only problem with this argument is this: there is no need for the passage of the constitutional change for the liberals to get what they have desired all along. They have it already because of the actions of this Assembly. No doubt they will work to codify it into the Constitution through this means but they also know that they no longer need to. One can simply read their own publications to see this.

We have already taken a trip with Alice down the rabbit hole. That is our reality. Our denominational leaders have told us so. Our renewal leaders have told us so. Our liberal compatriots have told us so. Clearly everyone gets it. If we already live in that world now, then the time for Status Confessionis is now, not after another vote. Otherwise we fail as watchmen.

This declaration does not go far enough.
This is an argument from our conservative friends. We agree with them theologically and that is evident from the declaration itself. Attempting to lump us together with liberals or institutionalists are charges that will not stick. Hence we have been told that it has no teeth. They wish that it advocated separation. They accuse us of being too set in staying put because we do not advocate schism.

Our staying is rooted in our call. We would refer our friends to the recent writings of Mark Roberts on his blog (the series on “Why I am staying in the PC USA”). We are still called as witnesses to and within this denomination until God releases us from it. Some disagree with that assessment. They are entitled to their opinion.

The reality is that some of these folks are advocating wholesale schism right now. My question to my brother and sister conservatives is this: “How will schism happen under your plan?” We are Presbyterians. Everything we do has a process. Whatever a conservative Presbytery is going to do, it must respond at least by pointing out what the issues are first. That is what we do here.

Secondly, this document does take demonstrable action. If you still do not think so, do a Google search of the terms Status Confessionis and read more about it. It is no small thing.

Thirdly, some have said that because it has no teeth it will simply be ignored as the Confessing Church Movement has. The accusation is that it is just one more proclamation in a long string that have been ineffective. That may be true, but we have no idea what the subsequent actions of any governing body will be once we make it.

What we hear from our conservative friends is that they are not willing to endorse another statement. They are done with proclamations. They are ready and willing to act. We insist that this declaration is an act and a timely one. We further insist that any action beyond it would be premature without it.

In Christ

Pat and Rusty