Two cases established precedents for today’s battles in PCUSA
By John H. Adams, The Layman ,Volume 37, Number 1,Posted February 2004, February 24, 2004
The only things that Walter Wynn Kenyon and Mansfield Kaseman have in common is that their last names begin with “K” and that their historic church court cases are still being cited as authoritative for Presbyterian ordination standards.
Walter Wynn KenyonThey also reach across nearly three decades to provide a backdrop to today’s administrative and church court actions to oust or discipline unrepentant homosexual officers, as well as one of the denomination’s high-profile evangelicals, Parker T. Williamson, chief executive editor of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and editor-in-chief of its publications.
Boil it down to this: Kenyon, citing Biblical grounds, said he would not participate in the ordination of women – but he said he would willingly work with ordained women. Kaseman would not affirm that Jesus is God, the virgin birth or that Christ rose bodily from the grave.
After the Presbytery of Pittsburgh approved Kenyon’s call in 1974 to serve as minister to a small congregation, the highest court in the Northern wing of the mainline denomination (then the United Presbyterian Church USA) ruled in 1975 that he was unacceptable.
In 1981, the same denominational court affirmed the National Capital Union Presbytery’s approval of Kaseman’s call to serve a small congregation in Maryland despite his unwillingness to affirm the deity of Christ.
Today, Kenyon remains in self-imposed exile from the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative denomination that does not permit the ordination of women. He teaches philosophy, Bible and ethics at Belhaven College, a fast-growing evangelical school. Ironically, the PCUSA claims Belhaven as one of its own.
Meanwhile, Kaseman remains pastor of the United Church in Rockville, Md., a 120-member congregation that is affiliated with both the PCUSA and the United Church of Christ. The Rockville congregation is also allied with More Light Presbyterians and a similar organization in the UCC, both of which promote the ordination of practicing homosexuals and “marriages” of same-gender couples.
Consistent with his views about Christ, Kaseman has welcomed other religions at his church. Kaseman had a Jewish rabbi participate in his ordination and in 2002 he had an imam (a Muslim cleric) teach at his church.
In a story published on Sept. 4, 2002, the Rockville Gazette said, “Some harder-line religious leaders might find his actions heretical, but in the wake of the national tragedy a year ago, they would likely find themselves overruled by their congregations.” The newspaper quoted Kaseman as saying, “‘I think if you listen to our parishioners and the world today, they cry out for religious leaders who will be more ecumenical and universal and less divisive.’”
The Kenyon case has effectively silenced opponents of ordaining women in the PCUSA. There’s no record-keeping on how many ministers might have been drummed out of the denomination because of it, but Kenyon knows first-hand that ministers who agreed with him either left the denomination or remained quiet lest they risk their careers. The grandson and son of Presbyterian ministers, Kenyon says his father was told that no presbytery would approve a call from another church.
The 1975 language of the Kenyon case was explicit. “Neither a synod nor the General Assembly has any power to allow a presbytery to grant an exception to an explicit constitutional provision,” the court said. “A candidate who chooses not to subscribe to the polity of this church may be a more useful servant of our Lord in some other fellowship whose polity is in harmony with the candidate’s conscience.” In other words – remain silent or get out.
The Kenyon case has been applied selectively. Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick has cited it in an advisory opinion on current church law – affirming the principle that there are no exceptions to explicit constitutional provisions. But Kirkpatrick has also expressed sympathy toward sessions and presbyteries that continue to ordain men and women who are practicing homosexuals. Denominational leaders frequently refer to the issue of ordaining homosexuals as an “unsettled” matter – although it has been clearly settled by three national referendums, dating back to 1996, and by rulings of the PCUSA’s highest court. They have never regarded the issue of ordaining women as unsettled.
Meanwhile, while refusing to enforce the constitution, entire presbyteries have ordained ministers who not only – like Kenyon – express their disagreement with the constitutional status but also – unlike Kenyon – publicly defy church law. And numerous sessions of local congregations have publicly declared that they are ordaining homosexuals and that they will continue to defy the church’s law.
Following the court ruling in Kenyon’s case, there were some high-profile departures from the mainline denomination – including two national figures with whom Kenyon had close ties: Dr. John H. Gerstner and Dr. R.C. Sproul.
Gerstner was Kenyon’s professor and mentor while Kenyon was earning his master of divinity degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Kenyon says Gerstner, who died in 1996, had a greater influence on his understanding of the Christian faith than anyone other than his father. Gerstner was an international scholar and prolific writer about Reformed Christianity and the Westminster Confession, which was the confessional standard for American Presbyterians until 1967, when the United Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted the Confession of 1967 and began using other confessions as well.
Sproul, who was also mentored by Gerstner, was a member of the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia at the time of the Kenyon case. Today, thousands of Presbyterians – including many from the PCUSA – flock to his teaching conferences and buy his books, tapes and magazine, Table Talk. He is chairman of Ligonier Ministries, which reported income of $10.5 million in 2002.
Both Gerstner and Sproul were ordained ministers in the mainline denomination when Kenyon’s ordination – approved by the Pittsburgh Presbytery – was overturned by the court’s ruling on a complaint alleging that the presbytery had erred. They helped him prepare for the case. Also, at the time, both Gerstner and Sproul had serious reservations about the Northern mainline denomination – both expressing their opinion that it was corrupt.
But Gerstner and Sproul had different ideas about separation from the denomination. Corruption was insufficient reason for Gerstner. For Sproul, corruption was enough – and the church court’s rejection of Kenyon was more than enough. He left the denomination shortly after that ruling.
After wrestling with the Kaseman case, Gerstner left the mainline denomination – by then the Presbyterian Church (USA) – in 1990. He published, with Kenyon’s help, an attack on the denomination’s rapidly declining commitment to the infallibility and authority of Scripture.
After being banned from ordination in the mainline Presbyterian church, Kenyon sought to continue working toward a post-graduate degree in philosophy and theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but he said the school refused to let him do so. He decided instead to study philosophy at the University of Miami in Florida and served as the youth director at First Presbyterian Church in Miami, then an evangelical mainline church. He joined the faculty of Belhaven College in 1981 and has taught there ever since, while enrollment has tripled from 600 to 1,800.
The Kenyon and Kaseman cases had additional fallout, growing out of a 1979 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. In an aside during its decision, the court advised denominations like the United Presbyterian Church (USA) that subscribed to the “implied trust” doctrine of church ownership that they needed to make that explicit in their constitutions if they wanted it upheld in civil court.
Aware that rumblings about women’s ordination and the Kaseman affair could lead to a flurry of petitions for withdrawal, the United Presbyterian Church revised its constitution to make explicit denominational ownership of all local congregation’s property and assets.
That applies today to the Constitution of the PCUSA, Book of Order, Section G.80200.2: “All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”
Meanwhile, since the Kaseman and Kenyon rulings, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has continued its downward spiral that began in 1967 – the year of the expanded Book of Confessions and the controversial Confession of 1967. The loss has been nearly 42 percent – from 4.2 million in 1967 to 2.45 million at the end of 2002. Since its inception in 1972, the Presbyterian Church in America has grown by more than 750 percent.
“I’m really not bitter,” says Kenyon. “The issues you’re facing – we were afraid this is where everything was going.”