Presbyterian "Fidelity And Integrity" Amendment
Adamant that new constitutional language about standards for church officers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is graceless and divisive, 140 backers of a new amendment revising that language, passed by the 209th General Assembly (1997), met last week in Chicago to strategize how to get it affirmed by the presbyteries.
Comprising largely "big-steeple" pastors from 42 of the denomination's 173 presbyteries, the gathering was convened by two of the PC(USA)'s former moderators – the Rev. John Buchanan of Chicago and the Rev. Robert Bohl of Prairie Village, Kan. – to launch the Covenant Network of Presbyterians (CNP), a group organized solely to support passage of Amendment A.
Presbyteries will be debating and voting on Amendment A from early winter until the General Assembly convenes next June in Charlotte, N.C. This vote is the latest volley in a more than 20-year intrachurch battle about whether or not to ordain sexually active homosexuals and, more recently, whether or not to ordain sexually active but unmarried heterosexuals. Passed last spring, the current G-6.0106b – commonly called Amendment B – clearly prohibits both.
But proponents of Amendment A say the debate this time is not about sexual fidelity as much as it is about fidelity to a theological tradition that puts grace before judgment and about the unity of an increasingly fragmented church. Amendment B, they argue, skews Reformed understandings of sin, particularly sexual sin, scriptural authority and the role of the confessions. They also argue that it is divisive to legislate a solution now to a visceral debate that is so unresolved for many Presbyterians that succeeding General Assemblies have proposed virtually contradictory amendments.
"Amendment A," Buchanan told the Presbyterian News Service, "does not alter our current policy [about ordination of sexually active homosexuals]. But it does, I think, return our `Book of Order' to its foundation on God's grace and our respect for one another as brothers and sisters who disagree. . . .
"We cannot live as a denomination if we have to resolve this one way or another," he said, describing the fervor of feeling on both sides of the ordination issue. "And in the long run, Amendment A gives us a better chance of holding together, of not driving people out of the church."
Princeton Theological Seminary theologian Jane Dempsey Douglass said the tension between preserving tradition and remaining open to ongoing revelation is nothing new within the Reformed tradition. She said that not even the 16th-century Reformers grasped the sinful implications of slavery and the subordination of women that the contemporary church sees now. "The church," she said, "must continue to confess its faith anew [as circumstances change] . . . and as our understanding of [faith] grows."
But interpreting what it means to be Reformed – or what part of the Reformed tradition gets emphasized – is another aspect of this long-standing debate.
Citing his own "deep reservations that legislation helps us resolve pastoral problems," Presbyterian Coalition spokesperson the Rev. Jerry Andrews of Chicago said that the concept of covenant is crucial to his own understanding of the Reformed faith – and he has yet to find a model that could replace the biblical standard of a covenant between a man and a woman as the fullest expression of human sexuality.
The Presbyterian Coalition is the organization that worked to pass Amendment B and is now working to defeat Amendment A.
Andrews said the denomination needs to address its differences now, not just search for commonalities. "It is the differences that are leading toward division," he said, stressing that no formulation – B or A – has yet brought unity to the PC(USA). "And I advise we stop this before we exhaust the alphabet."
Stated Clerk the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick told CNP that he has seen gruesome consequences of religious and ethnic conflict in churches around the world and does not want to see the PC(USA) tear itself apart. "I am convinced that in God's time the church will indeed find a greater understanding of the mind of Christ for the difficult issues surrounding Amendment A," he said.
"What I worry about," Kirkpatrick said, "is what shape the church will be in by the time we reach that understanding together of the mind of Christ. When all of this is resolved, will the church be divided? Will so many have dissented from our constitution that it has little meaning for our common life together? Will so many have withheld their funds and created their own organizations in ministry that we no longer will have the capacity to stand together and witness for God in the world? I hope not."
U.S. Feature: Summer Conventions '97. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Reports from American denominations that are holding national meetings this summer. (July 31, 1997)
U.S. Brief: Presbyterians Approve Chastity Amendment (June 1, 1997)