From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Complying - or defying?

Date 15 Jun 2002 15:32:32 -0400

Note #7220 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Complying - or defying?
June 15, 2002

Complying - or defying?

Overture asks GA to declare a congregation out of compliance

by Alexa Smith

COLUMBUS, OH - In what polity-watchers are calling a surprising move, Shenango Presbytery in Pennsylvania has submitted an overture (02-59) to the 214th General Assembly urging it to intervene in a case in the Presbytery of Northern New England (PNNE) by declaring that a Vermont congregation's compliance with a two-year-old General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission decision is "inadequate."

Shenango wants the GA to require the Synod of the Northeast to order PNNE to create an administrative commission to "assist" the Session of Christ Church in Burlington, VT, in complying with a constitutional provision (G-6.0106.b) forbidding the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians.

	On June 2, Christ Church's session issued a statement advising the presbytery that it had "set aside" the resolution of dissent it adopted in June, 1998, in an effort to "clarify and strengthen our statement of present conviction." The presbytery received that report.
The Rev. Mark Tammen, director of the OGA's Office of Constitutional Services, pointed out that Christ Church was not the litigant in the original case. Rather, the action was filed against the presbytery and the presbytery may still be subject to other remedial actions.

	But many within the renewal groups that backed G-6.0106.b - the commonly called "fidelity and chastity" provision of the Book of Order - want to see more proof that the presbytery has required the Christ Church session to comply, arguing that "set aside" and "rescind" may not be the same.

	Elder Peggy Hedden, of Columbus, OH, a co-moderator of the Presbyterian Coalition, is among those who want a more straightforward sign of willingness to comply.

	Hedden believes compliance would require the Christ Church session to "rescind" its statement and remove its "statement of inclusivity" from the congregation's Web site. (That hadn't been done by Friday afternoon.) Once compliance is established, Hedden said, the question becomes whether the session ought to make a further statement - that it intends to comply with the constitution, including G-6.0106.b, even if the congregation disagrees with it.

	"They certainly have the option of working for change," said Hedden, who also argues that two years is too long to wait for compliance.

	However, the Rev. Richard Wyatt, PNNE's executive presbyter, said it isn't the timing that's crucial.

	The PJC ordered the presbytery to work "pastorally" with the Christ Church session to "assist it in fulfilling its obligation to comply with the constitution," to notify the session in writing of its "concern" about the congregation's statement, and to "warn" it of the spiritual and disciplinary consequences of non-compliance.

	Wyatt told the Presbyterian News Service (PNS) that Christ Church is still undergoing a discernment process and that the pace of that process is "prudent, neither precipitous nor delaying." He said the presbytery is still engaged with the congregation, even though the pastoral commission it established for the purpose is finished with its work.

	"The path to reconciliation in our church," Wyatt said, "is not through legislative or judicial actions. It is through working pastorally with one another."

	Wyatt said the PJC ordered the presbytery to work with Christ Church, not to "punish" it, and pointed out that the judicial decision was directed to the presbytery, not the congregation.

	He also said that, while Christ Church has talked openly about its ministry to gays and lesbians, the presbytery has no evidence that the congregation has violated the constitution by ordaining practicing homosexuals. "Fact is, they're not in non-compliance," he said.

	One of Christ Church's co-pastors, the Rev. Rebecca Strader, was quoted in a June 13 release on the Web site of That All May Freely Serve, an organization that supports the ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians, as having said that the church won't comment further on its statement until after the Assembly.
She asked "our allies, and our opponents, I suppose," to read it carefully, adding, "After General Assembly, we will be more able to talk about it."

	Christ Church did not return a call from PNS.

The Christ Church case has been a lightning rod since its filing in 2000 by the session of Londonderry Presbyterian Church. It was the first judicial case to deal with a congregation's dissent from G-6.0106.b. Shenango Presbytery contends in its overture that the decision established an enforceable precedent.
Conservatives were critical of the GA's stated clerk last year for failing to prepare a case-by-case report on responses to PJC directives. There was talk then of asking the Assembly to deem Christ Church's compliance inadequate and challenge the presbytery's action.
According to the Rev. Bob Davis of Escondido, CA, a spokesman for the conservative Presbyterian Forum, momentum is building behind the Shenango overture.

Defiance of the constitution, Davis said, referring to Christ Church, "is a different animal" than mere dissent. 

"Defiance means that we no longer recognize the authority of the church over us; in effect, it is a renunciation of the jurisdiction of the church," he said. "We abide by it. Otherwise, we have anarchy.  If we say one part of the constitution doesn't apply  it all doesn't."

If liberals are allowed to ignore the ordination provisions, Davis said, conservatives who choose to leave the denomination ought to be allowed to disregard property clauses.

	He characterized the Christ Church statement as what appears to be "smoke and mirrors, " issued just days before the Assembly convened without further explanation of its meaning.

	Overture 02-59 from Shenango Presbytery is scheduled to be considered by the Assembly Committee on Church Polity Monday, June 17, at 5:00 p.m.
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