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.