The following resolution was adopted by the Session at its regular meeting on May 12. The statement was offered by a committee of the session consisting of interim pastor and session moderator Bernard Nord, associate pastor Ann Palmerton, interim associate pastor Otto Zingg, and elder presbytery commissioners Jay Anstaett and Jim Wilson, in response to the session's request at its April meeting.
At the close of the 209th General Assembly in June of this year, a new provision, adopted by a majority of presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church (USA), will become part of the Book of Order of our denomination. Specifically, the amendment adds a new paragraph to the portion of the Book of Order describing the qualifications for the offices of deacon, elder and minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA):
Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historical confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
We the Session of Broad Street Church are profoundly distressed by this amendment to our constitutional documents. During the debate over its passage, we stated our reasons for its adoption. Specifically, we urged to our fellow Presbyterians that the amendment:
During the debate, proponents argued that the amendment simply restates the historical standards for ordination and reaffirms the church's moral stand. We strongly disagree. The historical stand of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been that the body asked to ordain (i.e., sessions for deacons and elders and presbyteries for ministers of the Word and Sacrament) had to wrestle with their own understanding of scripture and the confessions to determine whether a candidate for ordination lived a life that is a demonstration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Fundamentally, this amendment rests on the premise that some sessions and presbyteries cannot be trusted to carry out their historical role as interpreters of scripture and the confessions in the context of ordination, because they might decide such issues differently than the amendment's proponents would. Ultimately, however, a polity that rests upon such a lack of trust for one another is not faithful to the gospel. We reject any understanding of the Book of Order that deprives our Session collectively of the obligation to interpret scripture and the confessions as we examine, ordain and install officers.
This amendment arose because some in the Presbyterian Church (USA) do not believe a session or presbytery could interpret scripture and the confessions to find a gay or lesbian person who affirms and expresses his or her sexual orientation is leading a life in demonstration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We reject the assertion that this understanding of scripture is an essential tenet of the Reformed faith and therefore one upon which Presbyterians cannot have faithful differences of opinion. Indeed, as a Session, we understand that the primary standard for all human relationships, sexual and otherwise, is the love of Jesus Christ. We reject any standard for sexual behavior that precludes the possibility of responsible sexuality within loving, committed, same-gender relationships, or which focuses solely upon fidelity and chastity, without consideration of whether legal, economic or social barriers prevent the individuals involved in committed relationships from entering into the covenant of marriage.
2. EXPRESSING DISSENT AS PRESBYTERIANS
As Presbyterians, one of our fundamental theological stands is that "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men [and women] which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship." G-1.0300. Accordingly, "we ... believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men [and women] of good character and principles may differ. And in all these we think it is the duty of both private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other." G-1.0305.
The history of our denomination has been deeply shaped by those whose consciences prevented them from quietly accepting the decision of the majority when it was contrary to their understanding of God's will for the body of Christ. We are the church of the Scottish covenanters, who at risk to life and liberty, rejected efforts to conform the church to the world. We are the church of those who would not be silent when the church condoned slavery or the exclusion of women from office.
We nevertheless acknowledge that the liberty of conscience must be exercised within certain bounds. As the Book of Order notes: "[W]hen any matter is determined by a majority vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his [or her] conscience permits him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. Provided always that this shall extend only to such determination as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government' G-6.0108b (footnote).
Because we cannot accept the ordination standards amendment as consistent with God's will for this denomination and our congregation, we have searched carefully for the appropriate course of action. Are we called to withdraw from the Presbyterian Church (USA)? We do not believe we are. We love our denomination. We believe that we as a congregation have much work to do within the Presbyterian Church (USA). In short, the option of withdrawal is incompatible with where the Spirit is leading us.
Nor do we believe our dissent from this amendment requires withdrawal. The church has repeatedly reaffirmed that faithful Presbyterians can disagree about whether gay or lesbian men and women can be ordained. See Minutes, 190th GA UPCUSA (1978), Part I, at 263 ("[N]ot all United Presbyterians can in conscience agree with our conclusions. Some are persuaded that there are forms of homosexual behavior that are not sinful .... This is wholly in keeping with the diversity of theological viewpoint and the pluralism of opinion that characterize the United Presbyterian Church. We are concerned not to stifle diverging opinions and to encourage those who hold them to remain within the church."); Minutes, 205th GA (1993), Part I, at 76 (notwithstanding the Authoritative Interpretation, "there is confusion and serious division in the church"); Minutes, 208th GA (1996), Part I, at 79 ("Is homosexual practice sin? We listen to many who are struggling with that question. Faithful people differ in their understandings of Scripture."). Accordingly, we conclude that our faithful dissent from this amendment is not a dissent from a matter "indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government."
Finally, our interpretation of the amendment leads us to conclude that it imposed no requirement that we ignore the Spirit's voice in making decisions regarding ordination and installation. First, the last sentence of the amendment (which is the only portion of the amendment that specifically prohibits any action) applies only to "self-acknowledged" conduct that confessions call sinful. Accordingly, we do not understand the amendment to prohibit ordination or installation of an individual engaged in conduct that he or she (and the session) do not acknowledge as sinful This understanding is bolstered by the fact that the amendment does not expand the session's obligation to examine candidates beyond the areas of "personal faith; knowledge of the doctrine, government, and discipline contained in the Constitution of the church; and the duties of the office." G-14.0205. Even proponents of the amendment have stated publicly that if enacted "the amendment will be calling for self-examination, not governing body examinations." Accordingly, we conclude that notwithstanding its intent, the amendment does not and cannot require us as session members to breach the communion of trust that links our congregation by second guessing the decisions of nominees for office that their lives are in conformity with their understandings of scripture and the confessions.
Accordingly, humbly seeking the Word of God for us in this time and place, the Session of Broad Street Presbyterian Church resolves:
1. To uphold the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in all its provisions, except in any interpretation of the newly-enacted G-6.0106b that would require the Session to inquire into conduct it and candidates for office have concluded is not contrary to scripture and the confessions as interpreted in light of scripture;
2. To remain in the Presbyterian Church (USA), working to change its constitution to reaffirm the historic responsibility of sessions and presbyteries to interpret scripture and the confessions as they examine, ordain and install officers:
3. To continue to support the mission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and its per capita apportionment;
4. To pray for the reconciling spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ to transform the entire church by calling the church to repentance of its failure to include all of God's people in the work of the church, and calling the church to repeal all of the amendment and to affirm and return to the traditional Presbyterian form of government; and
5. To continue to practice full hospitality for all of God's children in our life and work as a community of Christ's disciples, and to request that the Social Witness Council and Congregational Life Committee report to Session how actions can be taken by which such hospitality can be made more visible.