What to Watch for in the Southard Decision: What Kind of Church are We?

When I was a child in the 1950’s, my father delighted in telling a joke about the four approaches to the law in Europe:

In England, everything is permitted except that which is prohibited.
In Italy, everything is permitted including that which is prohibited.
In Germany, everything is prohibited except that which is permitted.
In the Soviet Union, everything is prohibited including that which is permitted.

It might have been a little advanced for me at the time, but I’ve always remembered his joke with fondness. As I reflect on it today, I see how relevant it is. Embedded in this story are polity differences that I see troubling the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) so deeply right now.

Next week, when we learn of the verdict in the appeal hearing for Rev. Jean Southard, the PCUSA could reach a new level of clarity on which approach to law we, in the church, are living under today. Rev. Southard is appealing her case to our church’s highest judicial level, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission.

I see Rev. Southard as having acted in the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament with the assumption that the PCUSA is modeled after what my dad called the English approach to the law: Everything is permitted except that which is prohibited.

When Rev. Southard was asked by two of her faithful parishioners to officiate at their legal wedding, she looked at the rules. There was no mandated prohibition in The Book of Order or in the GA actions (1991 AI) or in the GAPJC decision known as Benton against ministers presiding at the marriage of two men or two women. Rev. Southard was free then to follow her conscience with respect to the love and commitment of the couple before her.

On the other hand, the Prosecuting Committee in the Southard case seems to me to reason from assumptions based on the German model for the law: Everything is prohibited except that which is permitted.

From this point of view, The Book of Order is presumed to be a set of rules and anything done outside those rules is prohibited. This position also relies upon their repeated contention that the definition of marriage in W-4.9001 is a prohibition.

Both of these assumptions raise large questions: Is The Directory for Worship a set of rules — especially given its historic source as an alternative to the rubrics (rules) for worship in the Catholic Church? And, can a definition be a rule? This second question is especially relevant, given words with more than one meaning such as the challenge posed by the word, “sanction,” which figures the 1991 AI and has two diametrically opposed meanings.

In my vision of the church, it’s clear that the English conception of law — that everything is permitted except what is prohibited — brings us closest to Jesus’ treatment of the law. The German approach — that everything is prohibited except that which is permitted — keeps tight control of the church in human hands, perhaps out of fear of where the Holy Spirit might blow or fear that we will actually be falling into the Italian model — everything is permitted including that which is prohibited. Unfortunately, these fears may drive us toward the Soviet approach to the law.

For a church community to be open to the Holy Spirit, it must have the wide latitude for fresh ideas and movement that is embedded in the so-called English approach.

Next week, the GAPJC has to decide between these seriously different models of the church. Let’s pray for their faithful discernment and watch for the outcome.

And for those of you who are not PCUSA polity wonks, tensions between these distinctions probably trouble your church as well. Which model to you feel best structures the body of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior? Why? I look forward to continuing this conversation with you.


Reverend Janet

12 Responses
  • Karen on January 28, 2011

    It seems to me that this church spends too much time following the books authored by man, and not enough following Jesus’ mandate to “Love one another”.

  • Chuck Hale on January 28, 2011

    I suspect the conservatives have inside information, that what Peter ate after God said that it was OK to eat forbidden food – actually gave him indigestion. The law was so firmly established in his mind that he could not break it without suffering. They are just trying to reduce our dependence on anti-acids!

  • Janet Edwards on January 28, 2011

    Dear Karen and Chuck,

    Thank you both so much for your swift comments! You make my heart sing.

    I am less willing to predict the thinking of our conservative brothers and sisters than you are here, Chuck, though I do suspect that your application of Peter’s dream in Acts 10 to our present situation in the church might mystify them. I hope some will comment and let us know what is in their hearts regarding these models of the law, Scripture and the church right now.

    And, Karen, you prompt me to reflect upon how open ended a rule “Love one another” is. It hardly fits into any of these four models, requiring us to move beyond either permission or prohibition into a world of simply relating. Of course, being together is obviously not so simple. It is holy ground.

    Thanks again to you both for pushing me to think more deeply. Peace, Janet

  • Jessica on January 28, 2011

    Janet, your commentary reminds me of President Obama’s commitment during his State of the Union address, when he proclaimed so proudly that “no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”

    At last, our nation has stopped prohibiting our LGBT brothers and sisters from living lives filled with love AND patriotism and service to our country. Love, permitted at last!

    And then, I think, does not Jesus stand for love above all else? May the day come soon when the church, too, permits all of the faithful to experience lives filled with love AND service to God!

  • Val on January 28, 2011

    In my church at the moment, I’m seeing an interesting corollary to the four approaches. In fear of raising “disunity”, we are prohibited from talking about what is prohibited and what is permitted, or at least we are only permitted to talk about talking about such things. In other words, dissent on behalf of an all-inclusive love for ALL our brothers and sisters is not permitted by citing the idea that we must be “all of one accord”. Fear is a powerful force at the moment, but I do believe that Love is stronger than even fear, ultimately.

  • Janet Edwards on January 28, 2011

    Dear Jessica,

    Thank you for reminding us how expansive the notion of “love” is and how rules can inhibit it. You bring to my mind Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13.

    When I look at that text with rules, law, prohibitions and permissions in mind, I am struck by how free from those associations Paul’s understanding of love is. His comment on love that I have taken most to heart is “It does not insist on its own way.”

    In that single line, Paul shows us how to be the church together. Paul allows to each of us our own way. To love one another means that we do not insist that another has to follow us in our way. When we live that way then peace and harmony can be ours in the church, in our neighborhoods, our country and our world.

    I hope that makes some sense to you, Jessica. Peace be with you, Janet

  • Janet Edwards on January 28, 2011

    Dear Val,

    Yes, application of rules and prohibitions in the area of speech is a whole complex consideration of its own. Of course, our country stands for freedom of speech as a fundamental value.

    But the church has a very mixed history with regard to freedom of speech. For me, that freedom is just as important in the church as in our state because Jesus is the Word. Or another way to say it is that we receive the wisdom of the Holy Spirit through the inspired words–the speech–of one another. Human prohibitions against most kinds of speech threaten our receiving of God’s wisdom.

    Fear is very powerful at the moment. I agree. I also agree that Love is stronger than fear and I take inspiration from your hope. Thanks very much for sharing your hope with us.

    Peace, Janet

  • Chuck Hale on January 29, 2011

    Janet, your comment that Peter’s dream might confuse conservatives confused me! To me there is no Scripture more crucial to understanding our dilemma. Peter’s dream dealt with the question, shall we accept the movement of the Holy Spirit in bringing Gentiles into the church without also having them observe the law?
    This was HUGE. The promises to Abraham rested on the LAW.
    How could non-law Christians inherit the promises to Abraham?
    It went against Scripture and Tradition – everything Judaism held dear.
    Are we ready to accept the Holy Spirit again moving in a new way?
    Probably 99% of us Christians wouldn’t be Christians today if that battle hadn’t been won for the Holy Spirit’s validation of Gentiles as bona fide Christians.
    The battle we’re dealing with today is PEANUTS compared with what the early church faced, because they had no Scripture support – but we do – Peter’s vision.

  • Janet Edwards on January 30, 2011

    Dear Chuck,

    What a beautifully clear and succinct explanation of the centrality of Acts 10 to our Scriptural foundation for LGBT equality in the church! Thank you for it, Chuck!

    So, I live in a presbytery with a large majority of vocal conservative Presbyterians. I have mentioned Acts 10 as Scripture that undergirds my understanding of how the church should be and experienced their mystified dismissal of my and your perspective, as I expect you may have as well. I could speak for these colleagues but that is not my place.

    If there is someone reading this who objects to Chuck’s approach to Acts 10 then I encourage you to share your interpretation of this passage and Scripture, in general, to support your position on LGBT equality in the church. Please join this dialogue.

    Thanks, again, Chuck, for sharing of yourself here. Peace be with you , Janet

  • Charles Hale on January 31, 2011

    Janet – read Jeremiah 29 – “Pray for your captors.”
    I moderated the annual meeting at Trinity, Warren, where members wore the rainbow scarves you gave them!

  • Roberta Cole on February 7, 2011

    I belive Jesus would not refuse to hold out his hand to me because I belive I am a woman even though missguided Dr. at my birth said outherwise. Will the Church that calls it self Presbyterians not hold out its hand to me also ? Am i alone, out side, looking in,with my face pressed agents the glass ? I though I also am a child of GOD.
    bobbie cole

  • Janet Edwards on February 8, 2011

    Dear bobbie cole,

    You are, indeed, a BELOVED child of God and your strong belief that Jesus holds you tight is an inspiration to me. Thank you for it.

    And I humbly ask your forgiveness for all the ways my own church, the PCUSA, and the church in general have failed to embody God’s love for you.

    I yearn for you to know that there is a host of Presbyterians who love you and surround you with the love of Christ. I yearn for you to find a church that can be home and family for you. Perhaps you know already Through More Light Presbyterians you may be able to find that church home.

    May you know ever more deeply God’s peace and love, Janet

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