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Tension Expected at Upcoming PC(USA) Assembly

Challenges to the denomination’s ordination standards, stance on abortion and allocation of mission funds underpin debates
( [email protected] ) Jun 19, 2004 05:53 PM EDT

Fire and flare is expected to ignite once again when the delegates to the Presbyterian Church (USA) convene on July 26 for the denomination’s 216th General Assembly in Richmond Va.

As in previous years, the thousands of delegates to the 2004 Assembly will undoubtedly have multifarious opinions on how the denomination should handle its mission initiatives, do social justice works, view abortion, of course, set ordination standards – i.e. the ordination of active homosexuals.

The aforementioned tensions will be amplified this year by record membership losses - recent statistics revealed a loss of 46,583 in 2003, and the decision by the Presbyterian Church of East Africa to sever ties with certain sections inhe PCUSA – the evangelical PCEA rejected the fellowship of the Presbytery of National Capital because of the presbytery’s support of ordaining homosexual pastors.

Meanwhile, three evangelical contenders have challenged the incumbent Clifton Kirkpatrick for the denomination’s Stated Clerk position – the highest executive seat in the PC(USA). The more liberal Kirkpatrick, who will be running for his third four-year term as stated clerk, will face three evangelicals - Robert "Bob" Davis, Linn Rus Howard and Alex F. Metherell – for the same seat.

At a recent debate sponsored by the Presbyterian Lay Committee, the three evangelical candidates answered questions about their stance on various issues and how would improve the denomination. While each candidate offered wide-ranging answers to many issues, they expressed a unilateral desire to boot Kirkpatrick off his seat. Kirkpatrick did not take part in the debate saying that it was not part of the official process for electing a stated clerk.

The election of a new stated clerk will be held on the last day of the Assembly – July 3.

In addition, the Assembly will elect a new moderator to succeed Susan R. Andrews – the liberal leader who advocates the ordination of practicing homosexuals by changing the current “fidelity/chastity” ordination standard in the denomination’s Book of Order. Andrews’ home presbytery is National Capital - the same presbytery that strained the relationship between the PCUSA and the PCEA.

The election will take place on the first day of the Assembly – Saturday, June 26. Three candidates will be running for the 2-year position: David McKechnie, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Houston, Tex.; K.C. Ptomey, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn.; and Rick Ufford-Chase, an elder and immigrant activist in Tucson, Ariz.

In total, the Assembly’s 544 commissioners and 193 advisory delegates will debate and decide on 72 overtures and proposals.

Last year, Kirkpatrick and the Office of the General Assembly released their assessment on the top ten issues that will be discussed during the 2004 Assembly. The ten issues – in no specific order – were: National Ministry Strategies, Procedures to implement, War and Peace, Abortion Policy, Agency and Ecumenical Reviews, Women Ministers, Changing Patterns of Family Life, Budget Concern, Abolition of For-Profit Prisons and Resolution on Africa

Meanwhile, evangelical groups within the denomination listed Ordination Standards as the top issue of consideration. The current standard precludes that active homosexuals cannot serve the church as pastors. There have been 5 overtures seeking to “diminish or remove” the standard.

Presbyterians for Renewal – the largest evangelical group in the PCUSA, briefly summarized these overtures: “Overture (Ov) 1 (Western NY) would change “fidelity in marriage” to “fidelity in covenanted relationship” in G-6.0106b. Ov 4 (Baltimore) would remove G-6.0106b. Ov 49 (Twin Cities) would remove G-6.0106b, strike the Authoritative Interpretation (AI), and insert a new AI. Ov 18 (Santa Fe) and Ov 27 (Detroit) would remove the AI. Ov 52 (Hudson River) would make fallen individual conscience the final arbiter in ordination decisions.”

They also added their interpretation on these overtures:

“The issue has not changed, nor has God’s immutable moral will. All the arguments remain pertinent that caused 74% of the presbyteries to vote to uphold our standards the last time around. The big push this year to remove the Authoritative Interpretation is predicated on the fallacy that it is superfluous. It is not! It undergirds and defines G-6.0106b, and its removal would sow confusion throughout the church. Furthermore, attempts to remove it are actually a prior strategy to attacking G-6.0106b next. Commissioners will need to stand firm about biblical moral standards, as they are spelled out in the Authoritative Interpretation and G-6.0106b. The push this year to radically change our policy promises to be substantial.”

While the outcome is unknown, the PFR wrote its desired outcome in a June 11 statement: “ Both G-6.0106b and the Authoritative Interpretation remain solidly in place.”

PFR also wrote that it hopes that “The Moderator and Stated Clerk elected are persons who will uphold biblical authority and begin to heal the spiritual and institutional malaise of the PC(USA),” and that the denomination’s “lamentable Presbyterian culture of abortion promotion” will end.