PCUSA Polity Reflection - Note 12 - April 4, 1997

(Approved for Distribution and Permission to Copy Granted)

TO: Stated Clerks and Executives of Presbyteries and Synods

FROM: Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk and C. Fred Jenkins, Assoc. Stated Clerk

DATE: April 3, 1997


Ballots reporting the vote on Amendment B, generally referred to as the Fidelity and Chastity Amendment, have been returned by the stated clerks of 157 presbyteries, 89 affirmative, 68 negative. The amendment adds a paragraph to the section entitled Gifts and Requirements which sets standards of character to be applied at any time a person's suitability for church office is being evaluated.

The discussion of issues of character, as the amendment has been debated, has increased awareness of the manner of life expected of elders, deacons, and ministers of Word and Sacrament, and of the task of examining persons for church office. The evaluation of individual practice continues to be the responsibility of the governing body in which the person serves or is being prepared to serve. Each committee, commission or governing body determines its own process and draws its own conclusions. This decision may be subject to review by the governing body that has appointed the committee or commission or by a formal process of complaint. It is expected that committees, commissions and governing bodies will note the new paragraph as they do the work of examination as they have in the past.

In response to a number of questions that have been received, the following advice has been prepared for release on PresbyNet.

1. Q. What is the meaning of "Fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman?"

A. Marriage for purposes of G-6.0106b is defined by W-4.9001 as both a civil contract between a man and a woman and a covenant by which a man and a woman are called to live out together their lives of discipleship. The plain language excludes covenanting ceremonies or holy unions which are not consistent with this definition.

2. Q. What is the meaning of "chastity in singleness?"

A. There has been much discussion of what precisely being "single" or being "chaste" mean. In the examination of persons for church office this will be decided initially by those doing the examination. A person considered to be living an unchaste life as a single person or living outside of a covenantal marriage as defined in W-4.9001 even in a faithful relationship whether heterosexual or homosexual, is not eligible for ordained office under the provisions of G-6.0106b.


3. Q. Are words like "chastity," "repent," or "self-acknowledged" clear enough concepts for the church to apply G-6.0106 fairly and consistently?

A. The words are not defined. Examining bodies will need to consider reasonable definitions and decide which to apply. Ambiguity is not necessarily a barrier to applying a rule to specific circumstances. An example of a familiar ambiguous term which has broad and differing applications in the church is "acceptable" in G-14.0401 in reference to what is a call for ministry that qualifies for ordination. From a polity point of view the interpretative problem is the same.


4. Q. What is "self-acknowledged practice?"

A. It has been argued that this means the examination is dependent entirely on voluntary self-disclosure by the person being examined during the examination. The decision in the PJC case LaTourneau v. Twin Cities (Minutes 1993, p. 163) is not limited to the fact that in that case there was self-disclosure of sexual orientation. The PJC held that once the examiners knew there was a question of practice, they had a duty to ask it. The question of when any examining body ought to make specific inquiry as to behavior is not necessarily limited to homosexual practice by the fact that this was the subject in the only case on record. For instance, if a member of session is aware that one of the persons being examined for ordination as an elder is under investigation for fraud, the session has a duty to inquire, whether or not the person volunteers the information.


5. Q. What is the significance of "refusing to repent?"

A. It suggests that in applying the rule in any specific case, the examining body ought to give the person being examined opportunity to repent, to express repentance, or to demonstrate repentance.


6. Q. What may those who examine church officers do?

A. Each examining body, a CPM, COM, PNC, Nominating Committee, Session or Presbytery decides its won procedures, as it does now. They may ask what is necessary to satisfy themselves of the fitness, or lack of fitness, of the person for the church office under consideration. Each examining body decides when it is satisfied, but may be subject to administrative review or judicial review. For example, see the judicial decision in Bedford-Central Church v. Presbytery of New York City, Minutes 1987, page 119 in which the decision of the candidate's committee received administrative review on the floor of presbytery and the presbytery's decision subsequently received judicial review.


7. Q. May an examining body seek information on an individual from a variety of sources with or without that person's permission?

A. Yes. Anyone who has seen or heard a candidate or minister or church member in public activity may be asked and may give information about what was seen or heard regardless of whether that person has been identified as a reference on an information form. However, the examining body must recognize that some information may have been received in confidence and should not be disclosed to the person. It is important that examining bodies be trained to be fair in their treatment of persons being examined. Those doing examinations have a positive duty to allow individuals to respond to negative information and correct misinformation.


8. Q. What recourse does someone have who believes a governing body has ignored violations of the provisions of G-6.0106b and improperly ordained or installed a person? How can errors in judgment regarding the suitability of individuals for ordained office by governing bodies be addressed?

A. Each governing body is responsible for implementing the provisions of the Constitution and for bearing the consequences of their actions or inaction. Remedial or disciplinary cases may be filed by eligible parties under the Rules of Discipline or administrative review of governing bodies may be initiated under G-9.0407-.0411.


9. Q. Following disciplinary or administrative action what are the potential consequences for (a) the person improperly ordained or installed? (b) the governing body that authorized the ordination or installation? and (c) the church officers that may have encouraged or participated in the ordination or installation?

A. (a) A church officer may be removed from active service. (b) The governing body may be corrected in its understanding of the provisions of the Constitution and its obligations to apply those provisions; it may be instructed to take a remedial action; or it may be replaced by the higher governing body taking original jurisdiction. (c) Active elders or ministers of Word and Sacrament may be disciplined by being rebuked, temporarily excluded from the exercise of ordained office, removed from ordained office, or removed from membership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).


10. Q. Is there any way for the new G-6.0106b to be declared unconstitutional or out of order?

A. No. Once a proposed amendment has been approved by a majority of the presbyteries it becomes constitutional law during or at the conclusion of the next General Assembly. The Advisory Committee on the Constitution, permanent judicial commissions, governing bodies, stated clerks, and church officers are then obligated to live under its provisions. G-6.0108b clearly states that an officer's "conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek or hold office in that body." G-6.0106b, of course, may be amended, to change or remove it, through normal procedures or further interpreted through the provisions of G-13.0103r.


11. Q. What is the proper role of stated clerks and clerks of session regarding the provisions of G-6.0106b?

A. As with all provisions of the constitution it is their role to instruct and educate their governing body regarding its application, and to advise individuals on the proper procedures to use when they believe a governing body or individual has functioned inappropriately.


12. Q. What is the responsibility of a governing body toward a church officer who comes forward as an act of conscience to self-disclose a practice which the confessions call sin and which the person refuses to repent?

A. The Form of Government at G-6.0108b says that freedom of conscience is exercised within bounds and "the decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of the Reformed faith and polity is made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves." When it adopted the Westminster Standards in 1729 the Synod provided that any candidate or minister who had any scruple (reservation) about any article could declare it and the governing body would decide whether it would make that person "uncapable of communion with them." The same examining process has continued ever since and will be a way the sessions and presbyteries will decide practices the confessions call sin will be considered so serious that a person shall be considered unfit to hold office.


13. Q. What are the sins in the Book of Confessions, anyway?

A. There is no single list and many are stated in generalities. This has been an acceptable ambiguity since the Westminster Standards were adopted in America, while the Second Helvetic Confession clearly states that sins are not equal, some being more serious than others. B/C 5.039.

Response to "Polity Reflection" by Frank B. Baldwin, III, Elder, The Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church

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