Titular Presbyterian Heads Endorse Controversial Report

Top Presbyterian figures from the 1980s to the present released a joint statement endorsing a report meant to maintain unity in a denomination that has been splintered over the issue of homosexuality.

“We believe the Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church reflects the ‘best of Presbyterianism,’” the statement read.

Signers include 25 former moderators of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. General Assembly as well as the current Moderator, Rick Ufford Chase. The General Assembly is the highest legislative authority in the PC(U.S.A.), and moderators serve as the titular head and representative face of the Assembly throughout their tenure.

According to the Presbyterian News Service, which received the letter on Nov. 16, signers include “every living moderator” since the denomination formed in 1983 except the moderators of the 1986, 1993 and 1989 assemblies. Signers also include moderators of the PC(USA)’s predecessor denominations, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church in the United States.

The Theological Task Force that drafted the report on “Peace, Unity and Purity” was created by the 2001 General Assembly “to lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century.” While the task force was specifically asked to address issues of “Christology, Biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards and power,” most debates surrounded the thorny issue of homosexual ministers.

Both conservatives and liberals have openly criticized the report, which was released in mid September. According to conservatives, the report’s recommendations would overturn the denomination’s current prohibition of sexually active gay individuals by giving room for individuals to choose which standards of ordination they want to keep. Liberals, meanwhile, criticized the report as not going far and fast enough for gay rights.

Despite such opposition from the poles, most Presbyterian leaders have supported the Task Force report as a model for maintaining unity in a diversity of opinions.

“With the task force, we believe it ‘offers the church ways to live together that may demonstrate to a violently divided world the peace, unity, and purity given through Jesus Christ,’” the moderators wrote.

The Task Force report will be up for adoption at next summer’s General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala.

The following is the full text of the moderators’ statement:

Each of us was extremely honored and privileged to be elected moderator of the General Assembly. During our tenure as moderator, we saw many signs of the “best of Presbyterianism,” but we also saw destructive conflict that was harmful to the mission of the church. We have prayed daily that God’s Spirit would lead our church to a new unity and commitment to Jesus Christ. We believe God is now answering that prayer.

We believe the Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church reflects the “best of Presbyterianism.” The way this very diverse group of twenty people with convictions across the theological spectrum came together with mutual respect and unanimously produced this report is surely the work of the Holy Spirit. They have modeled for us the gift of unity that is given to us in Jesus Christ.

We believe their report also reflects the “best of Presbyterianism.” They strongly urge us to “stay together in one body.” They call us to follow their example and engage in “discernment groups” with diverse views that meet for worship, study, community building and theological reflection. They encourage us to study together the theological basis of their report in the prologue. And they invite us to reclaim the long established principles of Presbyterian polity: having denominational standards for ordination, yet allowing ordaining and installing governing bodies to apply them after rigorous examination of candidates, “deciding whether a candidate has departed from essentials of the Reformed faith and practice.”

We urge prayerful study and discussion of their report and its recommendations. With the task force, we believe it “offers the church ways to live together that may demonstrate to a violently divided world the peace, unity, and purity given through Jesus Christ.”

The signers are the Rev. Silas Kessler (1963, UPCUSA); the Rev. Robert C. Lamar (1974, UPCUSA); Thelma C. D. Adair (1976, UPCUSA); Jule C. Spach (1976, PCUS); the Rev. William P. Lytle (1978, UPCUSA); Sara Bernice Moseley (1978, PCUS); the Rev. Albert C. Winn (1979, PCUS); the Rev. Howard Rice (1979, UPCUSA); the Rev. John F. Anderson (1982-83, PCUS); the Rev. Harriet Nelson (1984); the Rev. Benjamin Weir (1986); Isabel Wood Rogers (1987); Price H. Gwynn, III (1990); the Rev. Herbert D. Valentine (1991); the Rev. John M. Fife (1992); the Rev. Robert W. Bohl (1994); Marj Carpenter (1995); the Rev. John M. Buchanan (1996); Patricia Brown (1997); the Rev. Douglas W. Oldenburg (1998); Freda A. Gardner (1999); the Rev. Syngman Rhee (2000); the Rev. Jack Rogers (2001); the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel (2002); the Rev. Susan R. Andrews (2003); and Rick Ufford-Chase (2004).