The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission has dismissed a challenge to the ordination of Scott Anderson, which means that Anderson – a gay man who set aside his ordination in 1990 after congregants publicly revealed his sexual orientation – may once again be ordained by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
But the commission remanded back to the Synod of the Pacific Permanent Judicial Commission a case involving Lisa Larges, a lesbian who has sought ordination in the PC(USA) for roughly a quarter-century.
The commission ruled that the synod commission erred in not addressing concerns raised in the appeal of her case ― basically, an argument that some standards of sexual morality are based in the Bible and the confessions, and can’t be set aside even if the denomination’s ordination standards change.
Anderson, who has been in a committed relationship with his life partner, Ian MacAllister, for about 20 years, had declared a conscientious objection, or scruple, to the PC(USA)’s Book of Order requirement at the time that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single.
The commission ― the highest court in the PC(USA) ― ruled that because the PC(USA) removed the “fidelity and chastity” language from its constitution in July by approving Amendment 10-A, the challenge to Anderson’s ordination is moot and John Knox Presbytery is free to ordain him.
Larges also declared a conscientious objection to the “fidelity and chastity” requirement, calling it “a mar upon the church and a stumbling block to its mission,” and said she could not in conscience comply with it.
By a 156-138 margin, San Francisco presbytery voted to ordain her in November 2009. The presbytery also voted 157-144 to approve That All May Freely Serve, for which Larges serves as minister coordinator, as a validated ministry.
In Larges’ case, however, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission ruled differently than in Anderson’s – in part because those who challenged her ordination raised arguments in the appeal about biblical and confessional standards of sexual morality.
The commission ruled that the synod court should have addressed those arguments. It remanded the case back to the synod court for further consideration, and encouraged the synod court to direct the Presbytery of San Francisco to re-examine Larges under the new ordination language placed in the denomination’s constitution under Amendment 10-A.
In its ruling in the Larges case, the commission declined to sustain nine allegations of error ― some of which dealt with the question of whether a candidate for ordination could declare a conscientious objection to the “fidelity and chastity” requirement.
“Given that the constitutional provisions under which the candidate was examined are no longer part of the (denomination’s) constitution and that the candidate was not in a same-gender relationship at the time of the examination, this commission declines to interpret provisions that no longer exist,” the commission ruled in its Aug. 1 decision.
But it upheld two of 11 specifications of error and reversed part of the synod court’s ruling.
Those challenging San Francisco presbytery’s approval of Larges for ordination also contended that the presbytery had committed doctrinal error and an abuse of discretion. The commission’s ruling stated that the synod court should have made some direct determination regarding this – but the commission said it was not ruling “on whether doctrinal error or abuse of discretion occurred.”
The commission ruled that the issues raised by those opposing Larges’ ordination are broader than whether the “fidelity and chastity” standard applies.
The record does not reflect whether the synod court ruled directly on the doctrinal argument presented “that Scripture and the Confessions prohibit certain sexual behavior,” the decision states.
The commission remanded the case back to the synod court to consider those issues “and such other matters as may come before it.” It also urged the synod court to consider directing San Francisco presbytery to conduct a new examination of Larges under the 10-A language.
In both concurring and dissenting opinions, four commissioners raised concerns about the degree to which a presbytery should be shown forbearance as the presbytery makes determinations about which candidates it approves for ordination or installation.
In a dissenting opinion, which disagreed with the decision to find two specifications of error, commissioners A. Bates Butler III, Jay Lewis and Susan J. Cornman wrote that “our polity recognizes that it is the ordaining body that is best suited to make decisions about a candidate’s fitness for office, and factual determinations by examining bodies are entitled to deference by higher governing bodies in the review process.”
They also wrote that “for an appellate body to be empowered to micromanage the ordination process without there being extraordinary reasons would be ill-advised.”
In this case, the presbytery “conducted a reasonable, responsible, prayerful and deliberate examination” of Larges, the dissenters wrote, considering both the scriptural and confessional standards of the church.
John Knox presbytery voted 81-25 in February 2010 to ordain Anderson, who was a member of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the PC(USA) and serves as executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. During his examination by the presbytery, Anderson said his relationship with his partner was “in every respect” exactly like a marriage except for procreation, the commission’s decision states.
In making its ruling, the commission noted that the challengers to Anderson’s ordination cited the “fidelity and chastity” language formerly in the Book of Order and authoritative interpretations regarding it.
The commission granted a motion from Anderson’s attorneys to declare the case against him moot since 10-A had passed, stating that “this commission declines to rule upon the application of a provision of the Book of Order that no longer exists. Nothing in this decision should be construed to interpret the ordination standards under the new Form of Government, as that issue is not before the commission.”
A number of commissioners wrote dissenting and concurring opinions in the Anderson case – with some making it clear they would not have been willing to support Anderson’s conscientious objection. Commissioner William E. Scheu described Anderson’s declaration of a scruple as “an obstruction of constitutional governance” had 10-A not passed.
Commissioners Michael J. Lukens and Margaret MacLeod wrote that the permanent judicial commission of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, which heard an earlier appeal of the case, should have considered whether the presbytery’s approval of Anderson for ordination “was consistent with the range of acceptable doctrinal formulation in the Reformed interpretation of Scripture and Confessions.”
And MacLeod, Gregory A. Goodwiller, Tony Cook and Flor Vélez-Diaz wrote in a dissent that they did not agree that the passage of 10-A rendered the case moot. They wrote that the decision “is essentially creating a decision-free zone of time in which an ordination can occur without substantive review beyond the synod level.”
The four commissioners urged Anderson to voluntarily submit to another examination by John Knox presbytery under the provisions put in place by 10-A.