Lisa Larges moved a step closer to ordination on Monday (Sept. 29) when the Synod of the Pacific Permanent Judicial Commission (SP-PJC) affirmed by a vote of 5-4 San Francisco Presbytery's November 2010 decision approving her for ordination with a departure, or "scruple."

At stake was Larges' statement of departure from Book of Order section G-60106b which requires "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."

The close vote by the SP-PJC reflects the ongoing struggle in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over how differences of interpretation of Scripture, issues around sexual orientation, and authority and standards for ordination can be either reconciled or tolerated until resolution is reached.

The 2008 General Assembly approved an "authoritative interpretation" (AI) of the church's constitution that provides for candidates for ordained office to declare a "scruple," or conscientious objection to a provision of the Book of Order. It is then up to the ordaining body to determine whether the scruple is disqualifying for ordination.

Larges — an avowed lesbian — presented a four-page Statement of Departure at the time of her examination for ordination. After a four hour period of examination and debate, The Presbytery of San Francisco voted 156-138 to approve Larges for ordination to the ministry of the word and sacrament.

That decision was challenged in a remedial case filed by six individuals and the session of Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church.

The Presbytery of San Francisco was represented by Doug Nave, a Presbyterian attorney from New York; Pamela Byers, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and an elder at Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco; and Robin Crawford, an attorney who has been involved in similar PC(USA) judicial cases.

In briefs submitted to the SP-PJC, the complainants, represented by the Rev. Mary Naegeli, a retired minister member of San Francisco Presbytery and attorney Bruce McIntosh, made five specifications of error. First the complainants charged that by rejecting G-6.0106b, Larges was in effect saying "no" to the fifth constitutional ordination question, "Will you be governed by our church's polity, and will you abide by its discipline?" (W-4.4003e), and thus automatically disqualifying herself for ordination.

Second, they argued, the Presbytery failed when it found that Larges’ stated scruple on G-6.0106b was not a serious departure from Reformed faith and polity.

Third, they said, by granting the exception the presbytery was contributing to obstruction of a church-wide standard for ordination.

Fourth, they argued, exceptions to standards can only be granted for interpretations of Scripture, not for behaviors.

Fifth, the complainants asserted, the departure from G-6.0106b was beyond the bounds of freedom of conscience for office holders in the PC(USA).

The SP-PJC ruled for the Presbytery of San Francisco on all five counts on a 5-4 vote. The San Francisco Presbytery commission member recused herself. The Redwoods Presbytery seat on the SP-PJC is vacant.

The four dissenting commission members filed a minority opinion supporting four of the five charges. In forming the majority decision, the SP-PJC frequently cited the authoritative interpretation passed by the 2008 General Assembly and Book of Order section G-6.0108, which the AI addresses.

The AI affirms the rights of individual candidates to declare a departure from ordination standards according to freedom of conscience and requires governing bodies to give"... careful prayerful and careful consideration, on an individual, case-by-case basis, to any departure from an ordination standard in matters of belief or practice that a candidate may declare during examination."

The SP-PJC, counter to the first specification of the complaint, declared that statements of departure are a "qualified yes" and thus a suitable answer to the ordination questions.

On the second and third specifications the commission affirmed the San Francisco Presbytery’s authority to determine if the departure was serious enough to be a barrier to ordination and service.

The fourth charge was found to be irrelevant as the AI specifically includes behaviors as well as interpretation of scripture for statements of departure.

And on the fifth charge, the SP-PJC found that the AI includes all ordination standards within the bounds of freedom of conscience.

The SP-PJC dissenting opinion — which was filed by commission members Donald Baird (Sacramento), Melvin Khachigian (San Joaquin), Jean McClean (Eastern Oregon), and Kenneth M. Robbins (Stockton) — supported all but the fourth specification of error, which distinguishes between beliefs and behaviors.  

The dissenting opinion argued that the word "exception" — derived from the latin word exceptare which is translated as "to leave out" — can be understood as the equivalent of a negative answer to the fifth constitutional ordination question.

The minority commission members agreed with the complainants on the second and third charges, saying that scripture and confessional statements both explicitly prohibit "... infidelity in marriage or sexual activity in singleness." They argued that G-6.0106b remained the "controlling standard for ordination," taking priority over the AI.

In supporting the fifth specification of error on the limits of freedom of conscience, the dissenting opinion stated, "There are some standards of the church which are also referred to as “historic confessional standards” (G-6.0106b). Because those particular confessional standards may not be waived, to suggest that one rejects such historical standards based on conscience, exceeds the bounds of conscience as described in G-6.0106b."

The 10-hour hearing on the complaint was held here on Sept. 24. The 30 or so observers were requested to turn off all electronic devices which precluded live coverage of the hearing through the social-media website Twitter, an absence that was noted by several Presbyterian Twitter users in other states who were hoping to follow the trial on-line.

Larges was present and sat silently in the front row of the observers during the course of the hearing.

The confrontative nature of the hearing was quickly revealed when McIntosh objected to Nave’s first verbal presentation as being testimony rather than an opening statement. It was the first of numerous challenges in a sometimes heated hearing.

Testimony began with several members of San Francisco Presbytery testifying that during the Nov. 10, 2009 debate, San Francisco Presbytery member the Rev. Cal Chinn had declared, "I don't care what the constitution says, we have to ordain this woman!"

Later, when Chinn was called as a witness by the respondents, Chin denied that he had made such a statement and presented a written copy of his remarks he had prepared before the presbytery meeting. Two additional witnesses testified that Chinn made no such remark at the presbytery meeting.

The complainants then called three academic scholars. John Thompson, professor of historical and Reformed theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, testified on freedom of conscience, the role of the Book of Confessions in the church, and the limits of mutual forbearance.

Pulling primarily from the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Thompson defined conscience as an understanding of moral and immoral behavior as revealed by God. Conscience binds the human will, even when the conscience is ill-informed and out of compliance with God’s will. Thus, he said, it is important that individuals strive to be well informed so that non-compliance does not occur.

The law, Thompson continued, has three uses: to restrain human behavior, to convict humans of their need for grace, and to set out behavioral goals for Christians to which Christians must aspire.  

Repentance is key, Thompson argued, invoking several passage of the Second Helvetic and Westminster Confessions. "Obedience to God often looks more like repentance then going out to do big works," Thompson said. "I have friends who are alcoholic Christians. Sometimes they stumble. Then they get back up and repent. They don't preach a Gospel of Evangelism based on alcoholism."

Dale Bruner, a retired Whitworth University theology professor and author of a commentary on Matthew, demonstrated how to interpret scripture. Basing his work primarily on Matthew 5, Bruner testified that sexual ethics was important to Jesus. "If the number of times something is mentioned in scripture, then we might see how seriously it must be taken. How many times does God have to say it? Jesus invokes Sodom as cause for judgment five times," Bruner said.

Robert Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary brought a two-foot stack of books with him to the witness table as he followed Bruner. Gagnon testified that the whole of the Bible presupposes a two person, male-female committed relationship as the norm of sexual behavior. Jesus' lack of direct statements on same-gender relationships can be attributed, he said, to the fact that these relationships were already understood to be outside the bounds, just as incest or bestiality are also outside the bounds of ethical sexual behavior.

"Jesus Christ's Lordship is in question," Gagnon said. "He believed that two-person male-female relationship was the sole standard. If we say no to that standard then we reject Christ’s Lordship."

Testimony for the respondents began with Jack Rogers, moderator of the 213th General Assembly, professor of theology emeritus at San Francisco Theological Seminary and author of several books on the church and homosexuality.

Rogers began by reviewing church teachings on women and people of color. "For almost two hundred years we believed that they were cursed by God, inferior in character and intellect, and willfully sinful, sexually promiscuous, and deserving of punishment," Rogers said. "The church has changed its mind."

Rogers noted that the focus of biblical prohibitions against same-gender relationships was not about the sexual behavior but instead about confusing gender roles themselves, where men are to be active initiators and women are to be passive recipients.

The sin of Sodam was not a sexual sin, Rogers testified, but a violation of hospitality and when Jesus invokes Sodom, it is within the context of a refusal of hospitality. Rogers recounted how the prohibition against homosexuality was improperly inserted into the English translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. Rogers also testified that the word "chastity" which is used in G-6.0106b is not considered to be the equivalent of "celibate" but instead "in moderation."

Mark Achtemeier, associate professor of systematic theology at Dubuque Theological Seminary and a member of the General Assembly's 2001-2006 Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, which proposed reviving the historical practice of “scrupling,” followed Rogers.

Achtemeier reviewed the timeline of AIs centering on ordinations standards generated by General Assemblies and the General Assembly PJC, which have contradicted each other from time to time.

In closing arguments, Nave stated that "...there are differences in how we interpret the Bible from both sides, from deeply educated people who have served the church well." Nave suggested that the way forward is to honor a practice, first instituted by the denomination in 1789, of scrupling with mutual forbearance until the church comes to an agreement. 

Naegeli, on behalf of the complainants, asked the SP-PJC to "...bring peace to the church" by upholding the constitutional, confessional and connectional identity of the church. "The result of discipline is the strengthening of the church and the glory and happiness of the church."

When the SP-PJC decisions was released, Larges said, "Its good for the church to have a decision that says we can disagree and have a principled  disagreement, that we can stay in fellowship together."

The complaints' have indicated an intention to file an appeal to the General Assembly PJC.

Anitra Kitts Rasmussen is a free-lance writer in Santa Rosa, Calif., and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service. She is a candidate for the ministry under the care of Cascades Presbytery.