In the never-ending story of the comings and goings within the PCUSA, there is a new development on the whole "scruple" issue. For those of you who have not followed the earlier posts on this topic (or followed the story elsewhere), in 2006 the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church issued an "authoritative interpretation", adopted by the General Assembly, finding that a candidate for ordination within the PCUSA could declare a "scruple" to matters contained in the PCUSA Constitution. Basically, this means that the candidate can disagree with something in the Constitution.
Once a candidate expresses a "scruple", it is up to the ordaining body to decide whether the provision being "scrupled" is one of the "essential tenets of the reformed faith." If not, the candidate is allowed to be ordained in spite of his or her disagreement with that particular provision of the Constitution.
Some people have used this "authoritative interpretation" to express scruples to one of the ordination requirements. After all, the ordination requirements are part of the Constitution.
The specific requirement at issue is the one that requires an officer within the denomination to live either in fidelity within marriage or in chastity in singleness (i.e., if married, be loyal to your spouse; if single, live in chastity). The specific context in which this arose has been people who are openly practicing homosexuals seeking ordained office. In the eyes of the church they are not married to their partners. But they also do not want to live in chastity. At least two Presbyteries have allowed people to express scruples to this provision and permitted them to be ordained as Ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
On February 11, 2008, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (the closest parallel for explanation purposes would be the Supreme Court) decided three cases interpreting the "authoritative interpretation."
In those cases the Commission unanimously stated as follows:
"The constitutional process for amending ordination standards (or any other provision of the Constitution) is defined in Chapter 18 of the Form of Government. While the General Assembly and the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission may interpret these standards, the authoritative interpretation did not (and constitutionally could not) change any ordination standard, including the requirements set forth in G-6.0106b. Similarly, no lower governing body can constitutionally define, diminish, augment or modify standards for ordination and installation of church officers."
"G-6.0108a defines the limits of this freedom of conscience for ordained church officers. It first states the requirement that all church officers adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity as expressed in the Book of Confessions and the Form of Government. It next assures freedom of conscience, but only with respect to the interpretation of Scripture. Even then, freedom of conscience is permitted only to the extent that it (a) is not a serious departure from the essential standards of Reformed faith and polity, (b) does not infringe on the rights and views of others, and (c) does not obstruct the constitutional governance of the church."
"G-6.0108a sets forth standards that apply to the whole church. These standards are binding on and must be followed by all governing bodies, church officers and candidates for church office. Adopting statements about mandatory provisions of the Book of Order for ordination and installation of officers falsely implies that other governing bodies might not be similarly bound; that is, that they might choose to restate or interpret the provisions differently, fail to adopt such statements, or possess some flexibility with respect to such provisions."
My personal take of the "punchline" of these decisions is that while a candidate is free to have a difference of opinion on some theological or Biblical interpretation issue (as long as it is not one of the essential tenets of the reformed faith), that does not mean that he or she can refuse to comply with the ordination standards, in this case requiring a certain kind of behavior. In other words, you are free to say, "I do not believe that the Bible requires me to live in fidelity in marriage or in chastity in singleness," but if you want to serve in ordained office of the PCUSA, you need to actually live that way regardless of what you personally believe.
Evangelicals within the denomination (myself included) were obviously pleased with the decisions. However, there are a few overtures to the General Assembly (meeting later this year) that will seek to overturn these decisions (an "overture" is basically a request from a Presbytery asking the General Assembly to take some type of action).
The first is an overture from the Baltimore Presbytery that seeks a Constitutional amendment to remove the fidelity and chastity requirement from the Constitution altogether. This has been tried in the past and failed.
The other is an overture from John Knox Presbytery asking for a new authoritative interpretation that would in essence state that candidates can scruple anything in the ordination requirements, including issues of both belief and behavior.
It remains to be seen whether these overtures will reach the floor of the General Assembly or whether they will pass. All I can say at this point is to stay tuned and to ask for your prayers that the Holy Spirit will accurately guide the denomination in this time of potential serious division.