“Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, ‘Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.'”
― Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Clearly the flashpoint for Trinity’s leadership in deciding to seek dismissal from the PC(USA) was removal of the “Fidelity and Chastity” clause (G-6.0106b) from the Book of Order, with the passage of amendment 10A at General Assembly in 2010, and its ratification by a majority of presbyteries in May 2011.
It is often overlooked however that G-6.0106b had only been added to the Book of Order in 1996, and that prior to 1996 the PC(USA) did not specifically name any standards in the Book of Order which would preclude someone from ordination. Nor were any additional standards added following the passage of G-6.0106b. Prohibitions against slander, greed, pride, gluttony…none of these ever made the list.
10A simply reaffirmed the long-held right and responsibility of ordaining bodies (local church sessions for deacons and elders or presbyteries for ministers) to specifically examine each individual candidate for ordination on a case by case basis, and for members to vote their conscience.
Here is where it starts to get interesting.
By September 2011 a group within Los Ranchos Presbytery made an effort to circumvent 10A and push back against this long-held constitutional right with a resolution affirming,
“…Los Ranchos Presbytery believes the manner of life of ordained Ministers should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world, including living either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness and will so notify candidates for ordination/installation and or membership in the presbytery…”
The resolution passed in the presbytery but not without controversy.
Opponents in the presbytery did not think the resolution was constitutional. As a result they filed a complaint and a request for a stay of enforcement with the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii.
I am writing about this case because at Trinity’s congregational meeting in November, our pastor, The Reverend Dr. Doug Rumford, referred to it during his impassioned defense of seeking dismissal from the PC(USA).
He labeled the opponents as “activists” and stirred the congregation’s emotions with his side of the story of how our presbytery was attacked by outsiders who prevented us from doing what we want to do locally. But there are two sides to every story and I see this story very differently than how it was presented to the congregation.
To begin with, before the resolution was even presented, opponents inside the presbytery made an effort to talk the sponsors of the resolution out of acting. The sponsors were told in advance that if the resolution passed it would be challenged. The efforts fell on deaf ears, and the constitutionally questionable resolution was presented to the presbytery.
After the resolution passed, the action to initiate the case was made by twenty-one members of Los Ranchos Presbytery.
The complaint was drafted by Susan Currie, a local attorney and member of Los Ranchos Presbytery. The Complainants were later referred to an attorney from outside the presbytery, Doug Nave, who agreed to represent the claim, pro bono, along with Susan.
The proponents won a favorable judgment regarding the constitutionality of the resolution at the Synod hearing. However, the Synod Permanent Judicial Committee’s (PJC) ordered that
“the Presbytery of Los Ranchos be admonished that while this PJC considers the resolution constitutional, the use of specific language known to be divisive and inflammatory flies in the face of the responsibility to seek the peace, unity, and purity of the church.”
Furthermore there were dissenting votes on the Synod PJC, and a dissenting opinion was provided.
The Synod judgement was appealed to the General Assembly PJC where the Commission declared that the resolution as written was unconstitutional and, therefore, void. No dissenting opinion was provided. Case closed.
The constitutional error hinged on the resolution’s practical effect of discouraging those seeking ordination or membership prior to the required case by case evaluation or examination.
So what has Los Ranchos Presbytery lost? Nothing.
Following the final decision of the General Assembly PJC, The Reverend Dr. Keith Geckler, then Stated Clerk of Los Ranchos Presbytery, wrote in a letter to the presbytery,
“Your Stated Clerk has, from the beginning of this conversation several years ago, stated that passing such a Resolution would not permit the presbytery to do anything it was not already permitted to do—and would not prevent it from doing anything it was not already prevented from doing…However, because nothing is changed by the Decision—and nothing would be changed by adopting a new Resolution—the presbytery would do well to consider whether energy would be better spent crafting a new statement—or directed toward creating healthy congregations within this presbytery.”
Los Ranchos Presbytery remains free, and constitutionally protected, to prevent any individual from joining the presbytery for theological and/or moral reasons, following the long-held right and responsibility to specifically examine each individual and for members to vote their conscience.
If proponents knew the resolution was constitutionally questionable and would be challenged if passed, if they were told by the Stated Clerk from the beginning that the resolution would not permit any new practice or prohibit any current practice, if it was the order of the Synod PJC to admonish the presbytery for using inflammatory language that flies in the face of responsibility to seek the peace, unity, and purity of the church – you have to ask yourself who are the real activists? And was the whole exercise nothing more than an opportunity to go on record as opposing the recent changes to the Book of Order?
Much of the rhetoric I hear at Trinity, and in the larger church by those seeking dismissal from the denomination, is based on fear and attacks. But when I look at bigger picture, what I see looks much more like we are just tilting at windmills.
Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)