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Let Down in Houston
Alan Wisdom November 18, 2010
Sometimes when a person leaves an office of responsibility, in the church or public life, they let down their guard and reveal what they had been thinking all along. That appears to have been the case recently when former Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick spoke at the pro-homosexuality Covenant Network conference in Houston.
During the twelve years (1996-2008) that he served as the PCUSA’s highest ecclesiastical officer, Kirkpatrick maintained apparent neutrality in the debates regarding the denomination’s standards of sexual behavior. But, according to a report in the Layman Online, the former stated clerk has now abandoned all pretense of neutrality.
In a sermon at the Covenant Network conference, Kirkpatrick called on the PCUSA to repent of its “exclusion” of persons in same-sex relationships. He was referring to the Book of Order passage setting forth the biblical standard that church officers are expected “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b). Kirkpatrick’s words imply that all those many Presbyterians who believe that the marriage of man and woman is the proper God-ordained channel for human sexuality are sinful in holding this belief, and we must be brought to repentance.
Preaching on Paul’s letter to the Galatians—“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28)—Kirkpatrick equated “sexual orientation” with the categories of ethnicity, social status, and biological sex named by the apostle. In the former stated clerk’s view, the kind of sexual relationship that one seeks is morally irrelevant, in the same manner that being male or female is morally irrelevant.
Kirkpatrick went further and claimed that “for Paul, the law was really not important.” (He seemed to have forgotten the part in Romans where Paul affirms, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (7:12). When Paul asks rhetorically, “Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” the apostle’s reply is a resounding “By no means!” (6:15)
“We are in the process of what God is calling us to be … an open community,” Kirkpatrick said of the PCUSA. “Our only intolerance should be an intolerance of efforts to exclude those who are different.” (Can he really mean this categorical statement? Is the church open to everything without moral limits? Is social exclusion really the only sin that must be resisted? Are we supposed to accept every other behavior that the Bible had taught us was sin?)
The former stated clerk joyfully predicted the demise of the PCUSA’s “fidelity and chastity” standard. “The hope of the Gospel is that in Jesus Christ things like this are set aside,” he said. “Things like G-6.0106b will end—I believe it will end this year.” (Is moral approval of sexual relationships outside of marriage truly “the heart of the Gospel”? Paul had a different notion of the Gospel when he proclaimed to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (2:19b-20)
Kirkpatrick’s words would be dismaying coming from any source. But they are particularly dismaying coming from one who was the PCUSA’s chief ecclesiastical officer for so long, so recently. We probably should be grateful that, while in office, he kept these opinions to himself and strove to act as a neutral servant of the church seeking to bring its factions together in unity. Yet the stated clerk is supposed to be more than a neutral referee. He is supposed to uphold the constitution of the PCUSA, to express before the church and the world what it teaches and to explain why it does so.
The “fidelity and chastity” requirement, previously implicit, was inserted explicitly into the constitution just after Kirkpatrick took office in 1996. It remained in the constitution throughout his twelve years in office. But he did very little to uphold or defend that requirement. When conservative churches withheld per capita payments to protest various General Assembly actions, Kirkpatrick came down hard on them. When liberal churches ordained persons in open same-sex relationships, the stated clerk said there was nothing he could do. When General Assemblies proposed deleting or weakening the “fidelity and chastity” standard, he spoke glowingly of how the Holy Spirit had moved. When General Assemblies voted to retain the standard, he reported the result dryly.
Many observers, including this one, suspected that Kirkpatrick was not truly neutral on the sexuality issues. We criticized his actions that seemed one-sided. But we liked him and we respected his office and we trusted that he was fulfilling its duties in good conscience. We did not accuse him of advancing a Covenant Network pro-homosexuality agenda, because he had never (until now) publicly stated that position as his own.
It is hard not to feel a bit let down by Kirkpatrick’s disclosure of where he (presumably) stood all along. This is, sadly, a common phenomenon that we have seen in the oldline Protestant denominations: A man or woman—personally attractive in many ways, as Cliff Kirkpatrick was and is—is elevated to leadership even though he or she does not really affirm the clear confessional teachings that he or she has pledged to uphold. The person undermines those teachings directly—or, more often, weakens them through neglect.
The result is tragic for the church, as it is left with no clear teachings (on sexuality or anything else) to guide Christ’s flock. People end up believing that God’s moral law is “not really important” and “our only intolerance should be an intolerance of efforts to exclude” and “the hope of the Gospel” is to bless non-marital sexual relationships. Thus the sheep without a shepherd are left as prey for all the predatory forces that stalk the weak ones of this world.
Is it too much to ask for a pastor, a presbytery executive, a stated clerk who wholeheartedly supports the church’s historic teachings? But first church members must ask. Whenever they consider calling a pastor, a presbytery executive, a stated clerk, they must insist on women and men who eagerly confess the Gospel as taught in the church’s confessions. Being a nice person is not enough for salvation, and it is not enough for church leadership. May we all, with fear and trembling, hear that higher call of Christ.
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