After nearly four years of theological debate and discussion, the task force assigned with finding the Christian Identity of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. released its recommendations on how to handle the thorny issue of homosexual ordinations.
Meeting in Chicago, the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church unveiled several recommendations, all centered on one central theme: avoid division into separate denominations.
According to Jerry Van Martyr, the director of the Presbyterian News Service, this hackneyed conclusion may disappoint Presbyterians who were hoping for more definitive answers to some of the disputes afflicting the church.
They didnt make any controversial recommendations, and they focused on creating the process for discernment, rather than discerning issues or solutions on their own, said Van Martyr.
However, according to reformed leaders, the recommendations were indeed controversial and came close to granting local option on whether to ordain practicing homosexuals.
Current PC(USA) law prohibits the ordination of sexually active homosexuals through two provisions: the G-6.0106b standard that requires pastors to be faithful in marriage defined as a union between a man and woman only and to maintain chastity otherwise; and the G-6.0108 provision that determines if a pastor is in violation of an essential policy of the church.
One of the task forces recommendations calls for an authoritative interpretation of the second provision to allow for more flexibility in applying the first standard on ordination.
The proposed interpretation insures freedom of conscience in interpretation of scripture within certain bounds, requires ordaining/installing bodies to determine whether there is a serious departure from standards and makes an important distinction between standards and essentials.
Simply speaking, it would give local presbyteries the option of ordaining homosexual pastors who do not meet the chastity standard if the candidate seems fit to minister in every other way.
Task force members took pains to emphasize this Authoritative Interpretation is not the same as local option, which would give the local presbyteries authority to change standards of ordinations.
"No matter what a particular governing body does, I think first they have to keep the standards in place," said Stacy Johnson, a faculty member of Princeton Theological Seminary and one of the 14-member Task Force. "Anyone who wants to claim this is local option has a hard point to prove."
However, reformed leaders warned that the recommendation comes very close.
This is not local option because local option refers to the condition where local governing bodies would be able to set their own standards, and thats not what this recommendation accomplishes, explained Rev. Michael Walker, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal. But instead, while the standards would be set nationally, the way those standards could apply would be varied at the local level.
I would call this local licensing, he said. This is really technical language because essentially they are creating a technical loophole for local governing bodies to choose not to abide by the national standards of the church.
This debate over local option and homosexual ordination strikes the heart of the most controversial topic that is nearly splitting the denomination apart. The PC(USA), like most other historic mainline denominations, have factions of liberal and conservative members battling over the standards of ordination. Some liberal denominations, such as the United Church of Christ, have already legalized the ordination of sexually active homosexuals while others barely maintained the ban.
According to Rev. Walker, the task forces recommendation would set the PC(USA) in the wrong direction the same direction as the UCC.
In order to pass, the Authoritative Interpretation needs a majority vote at next years PC(USA) General Assembly.
Rev. Walker said he plans to rally opposition to the recommendation by teaching evangelicals what the Authoritative Interpretation is really saying.
I hope this doesnt pass, said Walker. Evangelicals in the church as well as the great moderates of the church should rise up in opposition to this recommendation because it does not reflect the will of the majority of Presbyterians.
Meanwhile, in regards to the other works of the Theological Task Force, Walker said he is surprisingly pleased.
Some of the things they said were surprisingly good, said Rev Walker. The good things include the fact that they made a very strong affirmation that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and life and the only way to salvation. They also made a strong statement about biblical authority that the Bible is the only way for the faith and life of the PC(USA).
But ultimately he said these positive statements will not hold if the Authoritative Interpretation passes.
They affirmed the authority of Jesus and the calling of Christians to live holy and obedient lives, but at the same time sought diversity in practice and behavior. explained Rev. Walker. These seem very inconsistent to me.
The final draft of the Theological Task Force recommendations will be released on Sept. 15. The preliminary drafts, the last of which were released yesterday, are already available online at: www.pcusa.org.