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Saturday, January 31, 2009

charlotte flips (presbytery, that is)

While the main purpose of this blog is to explore how my church and I bear the light of Christ inside and outside our walls, I do from time to time comment on pressing denominational matters since we are part of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. The commentary below is my analysis of our Feb. 14 presbytery vote to remove G-6.0106b - the "fidelity and chastity" standard for ordained leaders - from our Book of Order (part of our denominational Constitution). This vote reversed a strong historic trend in Charlotte to vote conservatively on this subject. Charlotte Presbytery is 1 of 173 presbyteries voting nationally. A majority of 87 presbyteries must vote for "Amendment B" in order to remove the fidelity and chastity standard. A current (unofficial) vote count can be found HERE.

Analysis of the Amendment B Debate/Vote in the Presbytery of Charlotte
Yes – 133; No – 124; Abstain – 1
By Robert Austell - Pastor, Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church

Morning worship focused heavily on themes of justice and unity, with former GA Moderator, Doug Oldenburg, preaching. While he avoided any explicit mention of sexuality, the sermon and liturgy hit hard on themes that would come up later – unity in Jesus Christ and “no longer Jew/Gentile, male/female, slave/free.”

Amendment B was handled first of the amendments. A history leading up to this vote was given, ranging from the 1978 definitive guidance through the related authoritative interpretations (AI's) and votes through today. (The 2008 GA’s annulment of all previous AIs was not mentioned.) This presentation lasted approx. 15-20 minutes. Four presenters from the presbytery were pre-selected to speak for approx. 5 min. each.

5-minute Presenters
The first spoke for Amendment B, focusing on inclusivity and unity through sharing a personal story of a gifted gay man in his church who was suggested for elder. The man declined for the sake of church unity, even as another elder promised to quit and leave the church if the gay man was elected.

The second speaker spoke against Amendment B, focusing on leadership and the higher biblical standard for leadership in the church. This was all presented in the context of truth, with a repeating challenge, “Do not be deceived.”

The third speaker spoke for Amendment B, declaring her commitment to Scripture and obedience to it. She identified nine passages in the Bible which mention homosexuality and briefly exegeted each one to demonstrate why none directly dealt with our contemporary expression of homosexuality. While this paralleled material on the More Light Presbyterians (MLP) website, she made it her own and was thoughtful and winsome.

The fourth speaker spoke against Amendment B. Key components were expressed: grief over bringing this issue before the church again; poor exegesis on the part of those claiming scripture supports homosexual practice; and focus on the meaning of sin and repentance, with a comparison of homosexual practice to lying, gossiping, spousal abuse, or thievery. He ended with the question, “What if I’m wrong… what if they are wrong,” to point out the difference between obstructing some qualified people from ordination and encouraging those same people and others in sin.

The debate proceeded, with two-minute limits, alternating pro/con, and beginning with pro-B after the last con presenter. I will make some general observations about the debate content below, but the only speaker at the mic who really stands out to me is former GA Moderator, Thelma Adair, who was granted privilege of the floor (she happened to be in town visiting family). A small woman of powerful spirit, her voice filled the room and commanded attention more than any other speaker all day. She spoke passionately and intensely in favor of B. After 10 total speakers at the mic, there was a call to close debate, with overwhelming support. Voting Commissioners filled out numbered ballots and the Exec. Presbytery, one pro presenter, and one con presenter counted them. The body went on to consider all the other amendments and the results to B were announced afterwards (also the end of the presbytery meeting).

The press was present in full force. The large local paper had run a front-page article the day of the meeting, and two network news crews were there to interview folks as they came out. Both ran on the 10pm news and the paper ran follow-up articles (1, 2) the next day.

Overall Observations
1. Tone: on the whole, the pro-B folks were warm, genuine, full of faith, and focused on Jesus, Scripture, people, church unity, and justice (in that order); those against Amendment B, on the whole, were saying what was wrong with the pro-B folks and their arguments.

2. Content – Scripture: the pro-B folks lived up to their declared attentiveness to Scripture; the pro-B 5-min. presenter demonstrated how she interpreted each of the nine passages mentioning homosexuality and why she was voting consistent with her beliefs; the rebuttal to that was dismissive (“that’s poor exegesis”) rather than demonstrating equal or better attentiveness to Scripture.

3. Content – Morality: far more than I’ve heard in debate before, there was a steady and positive picture painted of the homosexual relationships in question being primarily long-term, committed, and monogamous. Those against Amendment B responded by attacking that premise, but it came across as attacking a class of people and was not effective. I think the real answer to this, which will come up again in other contexts, is to challenge the GLBT folks to define a “Christian gay sexual ethic.” That gets at the deeper theological question of “Is there any sexual sin?” “What is sin? What is holiness? What are standards for church leaders if all sexual issues are taken off the board?”

4. Presence: as noted from one analysis of the Western NC vote, the pro-B line at the mic was longer. More than once, looking for the alternating position, the question was called out “are there any ‘con’ in line?” The impression I got from the front was that there were few willing to speak against and many waiting and wanting to speak in favor. When the motion came to end debate, the line was still 10-12 people long, and the impression was that they were all for Amendment B.

5. Demographics: Charlotte is a large metropolitan area, and it is probably to be expected that votes would mirror culture (cosmopolitan!) more than in more rural areas. Having said that, the Presbytery of Charlotte has a large number of rural and smaller town churches. Many smaller churches are not involved (ever) in the life of presbytery, and many did not send elders to vote. Additionally, the presbytery has given almost all of the smaller churches who ever come to presbytery meetings an additional elder vote in order to correct the imbalance between ministers and elders. As many as 50-75 votes were not cast because small or rural churches did not send two or even one elder. Many of these would be more conservative. Conservatives did write, call, and otherwise invite these folks… to no avail.

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