The Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies has ruled that John Knox Presbytery did not commit irregularities when it voted in February 2010 to approve for ordination Scott Anderson, a gay man in a long-term committed relationship.
Anderson, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, previously served as a Presbyterian minister in California, and set aside his ordination in 1990 when his homosexuality was publicly revealed.
He is now seeking to be ordained again — and has publicly declared a “scruple,” or conscientious objection, to the requirement in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Book of Order that those being ordained practice “fidelity within the covenant of marriage or chastity in singleness.”
John Knox Presbytery voted 81-25 on Feb. 20 to ordain Anderson, although a stay of enforcement was quickly issued to allow a challenge to the ordination to proceed.
In its Oct. 9 decision, the synod Permanent Judicial Commission ruled that John Knox Presbytery “acted within its authority” in following an authoritative interpretation that allows governing bodies to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to grant exceptions based on conscience.
That authoritative interpretation follows the guidance of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the PC(USA) — of which Anderson was a member — and which suggested that a governing body could approve a departure from the ordination standard if it determined that such a departure did not involve an “essential” of Reformed faith and practice.
Two of the nine commissioners signed a dissenting opinion, saying the presbytery’s decision to permit Anderson’s ordination “effectively allowed a presbytery to invalidate or amend” the denomination’s ordination standards.
Those commissioners, Charles E. Orr and Reginald S. Kuhn, wrote that “we do not believe that any governing body, including the General Assembly,” can amend a provision of the Book of Order through an authoritative interpretation.
The only way to change the ordination standards is through a vote of the presbyteries, they wrote.
In presenting this case, both Anderson and those who challenged his ordination in John Knox Presbytery have said they hope to present a clean case — unencumbered by technicalities or side issues — on which the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the highest court in the PC(USA) system, can rule on the central question of whether governing bodies can permit conscientious objections to the “fidelity and chastity” requirement.
Anderson’s is not the only case working its way towards that top church court.
The Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of the Pacific recently ruled that the Presbytery of San Francisco acted properly when it allowed Lisa Larges to declare an objection to the standard.
Larges, a lesbian and a graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, has sought for two decades to be ordained by the church. In her statement of faith presented to San Francisco presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, Larges wrote that the “fidelity and chastity” standard “deliberately and intentionally denies the dignity and lived experience of same-gender loving people,” and gives them an “impossible choice” by not honoring their faithful, covenanted partnerships.
Anderson has lived for two decades in a committed relationship with his life partner, Ian MacAllister. He said he told the presbytery that “if the state of Wisconsin granted us the privilege of a civil marriage license, Ian and I would be first in line to sign up.”