By Steve Salyards, The GA Junkie.
I typically do not chase presbytery PJC rulings but rather wait until there has been a review by either a Synod PJC or the GA PJC so that they have had a chance to be digested a bit by another commission. However, a recent case is, as the decision notes, “…a question of first impression in this Presbytery and to the knowledge of this Commission in the PCUSA.” So here we go.
The case heard by the Permanent Judicial Commission of Salem Presbytery is Thomas E. Morgan – Complainant v. Session, First Presbyterian Church, Asheboro (North Carolina) – Respondent. My thanks to the Layman Online for making the full text available.
The circumstances of the case are rather straight-forward — A remedial complaint was filed against FPC Asheboro regarding a policy their session put in place that says, in part:
The Session will exercise due discretion in affirming marriage service requests, but affirms that all marriage services conducted at First Presbyterian Church shall reflect the understanding that Christian marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman.
The complaint alleges that this conflicts with the Book of Order section F-1.0403 which says, in part:
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership. No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than those stated in this Constitution.
With that in mind, the case boils down to the new language regarding marriage, W-4.9, and the placement of the final section (W-4.9006) that says:
Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.
The question before the Commission was whether this language would permit a session to take a categorical stand in a church policy. The PJC said it does not and that section W-4.9 represents a process that must be followed and requests for marriage services must be handled on a case-by-case basis. More specifically, the decision says that the earlier sections of W-4.9, those involving meeting with the teaching elder and counseling, must happen first before a decision is made about the appropriateness of the marriage. They point out that this is a “shall” phrase in the Constitution where it says that following their request the couple “shall receive instruction from the teaching elder.”
The decision’s decisive paragraph says:
A categorical decision by the session not to permit any marriage by a couple of the same sex on church property without consideration of their commitment to each other, their understanding of the nature of the marriage covenant and their commitment to living their lives together according to its values is inconsistent with the process required by W-4.9001-9006. There is absolutely no question that W-4.9006 authorizes a session to prohibit any marriage on church property contrary to its discernment of the Holy Spirit and understanding of the Word of God. However, that authority is granted in the context of a process that requires the teaching elder to counsel with every couple seeking Christian marriage whether they are of the same sex or not. With regard to each such couple, the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session and the session is authorized to determine whether that couple may be married on church property. By adopting and publishing a policy that categorically excludes any same sex couple from being married on church property, the session has contradicted the policy requiring inquiry and counselling [sic] for any couple seeking a Christian marriage, including same sex couples. The logical effect of this policy will be to discourage any same sex couple desiring Christian marriage to seek counsel from the teaching elder called by the congregation or to seek permission to be married on church property regardless of any other circumstances. A categorical prohibition of same sex marriage on the property constitutes a categorical discrimination against same sex couples who present themselves for consideration for marriage in the congregation.
In one of the more interesting parts of the commission’s discussion they let the session off the hook a bit by pointing out guidance, but not authoritative language, in two document from the Office of the General Assembly does specifically say that sessions can make a categorical prohibition.
PJC ruling indicating that congregations cannot put in place blanket policies on ssm does not require congregations or TEs to perform ssm or any marriage for that matter. It just indicates that each request be examined in a consistent and like manner. No blanket exclusion policies – seems like a good idea to me. Each request and decision examined and handled in a similar fashion.
Bottom line we were “told” during the last GA that there would be a “freedom of conscience” if I were still on the session I would have voted to not allow SSM on our property or the Teaching Elder to even consider it, this ruling undercuts that, which again is another reason that nobody trust louisville.
James, you’re aware, I assume, that this PJC is not located in Louisville?
Mr. H – I don’t doubt that for a minute based on your comments here on the layman website. However, that does not mean you are right or right or righetous in your judgement. This ruling in no way impacts freedom of conscience, just means you have to consider each request as it comes and then let the Holy Spirit guide your discernment. I guess that is too much to ask from evangelicals?
Tom, I don’t care where the PJC is located, it’s still part of the same lying crowd..
Peter S, “let the Holy Spirit guide your discernment”
The Holy Spirit would never condone SSM, because God cannot go against his own Word.
The plain reading of the BOO amendment, and the interpretation by the Stated Clerk was that Sessions and T.E.s COULD make a blanket ruling to not perform SSM.
However, your comment:
“This ruling in no way impacts freedom of conscience, just means you have to consider each request as it comes and then let the Holy Spirit guide your discernment.”
contains an opinion that was held after the initial General Assembly approval on the ordination of women. However, not long after there was a blanket ruling that impacted freedom of conscience.
I guess the impact on freedom of conscience doesn’t work both ways or to paraphrase:
“I guess that is too much to ask from liberals?”
Court decisions reflect the wayward nature of the denomination and have an affect on the churches which they serve. The courts should provide a check on the practice and beliefs of the churches. They are the disciplinary arm of the denomination. However the courts have abandoned their duty to hold the church to the reformed faith and especially to Sola Scripture.
Where does the decision to not allow a session to have essentials clearly stated for the practice of their church come from? Why is is not OK for the session to guide their Spiritual life of their members by clearly stating essentials?
Long ago there was the Sweargingen Commission that set forth the idea that no one should have to subscribe to essentials. The GA then needed to get the agreement of the majority of churches to make changes to the constitution. It has filtered down to no governing body being able to proclaim essentials of faith. As recently as 2012, the Parnell vs San Francisco case in the court said there could not be any over arching one interpretation of Scripture for the denomination. This has led to undermining the very word of God to us and left us with no check on any meaning from Scripture on which to base our practice.
Should we presume that God has no guidance for our denomination and that “everyone can do what is right in their own eyes” on a case by case basis. This takes away any connectional nature of our life together and has pitted one group against another group with the reality of great chaos and disunity. This is not the way God wants us to be His church.
The courts play a big role in what has happened in the denomination and the down ward spiral and loss of coherence in belief. They condone wrong belief under the guise of fairness in answer to the clamor from the leaders, yet they fail to listen rightly to God and God’s word in the midst of
chaos where boundaries need to be clearly articulated. It is the last broken chain in a fractured body that rejects any check on belief and that is sad.
For me the key phrase in the opinion is ” A categorical prohibition of same sex marriage on the property constitutes a categorical discrimination against same sex couples who present themselves for consideration for marriage in the congregation”. I suspect that phrase will be quoted verbatim and form the holding of future cases in the civil courts for discrimination.
You’re aware that if you’re an ordained ruling elder, you’re eligible for service on a PJC. How many Presbytery committees have you volunteered to serve on?
I think if you understood Presbyterian polity, you’d realize that “the crowd” is us.
But acknowledging that would probably disrupt your us-vs-them narrative, so … carry on.
The policy of the Session in this case is standard language written by Christian legal defense groups such as Pacific Justice Institute, to protect congregation and their leadership from lawsuits brought by homosexual couples. Absent this language, look for civil lawsuits against Congregations which do not allows marriage between same-sex couples. Another reason why close to 100,000 people left the PCUSA last year.
Tom your point is well taken if the process works as intended. Having watched the entire proceedings of the last GA online I understand why folks believe the system is rigged. The tortured reasoning which contradicted a written opinion of the ACC and allowed a rewrite of the BOO through an AI is one example. The fact that the PJC notes that the Office of the General Assembly issued advice to sessions that they can enact categorical prohibitions certainly supports the position that folks were misled. The fact that in recent comments commissioners to the last GA and on the committee that considered the issue have stated the enacted language as interpreted by the PJC contradicts the clear intent of the GA is additional evidence folks were misled. As I’m sure you are aware numerous reports by committee members after the last GA raise real concern about the biased nature of information presented to committees and the body on complex issues like BDS. The concern I and I suspect others like James have is that Presbyterian polity which as you say should insure that “the crowd is us” is being manipulated for specific purposes.
Just for the sake of amusement, please consider the following scenario. A session issues a blanket policy that the sanctuary of its congregation will not ever be used to host non-Christian worship services. It is fully within its right (and the weight of Christian history as well as theology) to decide this. Over a series of months, first a Buddhist group, then Hindu, then Muslim, then Jain, then Wiccan, then Satanist, all seek to utilize the church’s sanctuary as a place for worship. The session tells each group it has a blanket policy against any non-Christian groups using the sanctuary for worship. If there were a complaint lodged with the presbytery by a member of the congregation who found the session policy exclusivistic and unwelcoming, would the PJC be right to rule that every case needed to be decided individually and that the session had erred by creating a blanket policy?