G-13.0103r gives the General Assembly the power to interpret the Constitution in a way that is binding on the Church. These pronouncements, authoritative interpretations, can be made by the Assembly in plenary or through its General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission. The provision states that the most recent prevails. This last rule was challenged during the Assembly in the form of a minority report to Item 05-21:
The General Assembly in plenary session has the authority to approve authoritative interpretations of a general character, while the GAPJC has the authority to interpret the Constitution on specific issues as needed to resolve particular cases of judicial process. Because the GAPJC is a commission of the General Assembly, no authoritative interpretation adopted by the GAPJC may differ from an authoritative interpretation approved by the General Assembly in plenary session.
As an observer, I watched the debate with growing alarm, for this simple rule change would significantly alter how the church works. What distressed was that even though many knew the effect this change would have, no one mentioned it in the discussion. Moreover, the reasoning of the minority report was flawed in many ways never lifted up by those who knew.
The proposal claimed the GAPJC can make only specific rulings, not general pronouncements of law. This is a general rule of civil law. The GA can create law (with the approval of the presbyteries) and a GAPJC cannot, but the proposal was not about creating law; it was about interpreting it. The distinction between legislative power and judicial power found in civil law does not apply in a polity where both the legislative and the judicial powers to interpret the Constitution are given to one body, for a PJC ruling is nothing less than a decision of the governing body.
The proposal would have distorted the rule of law. By nature, PJC rulings are specific applications of general law. The interpretation of general and specific rules is covered in Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (10thed.), p. 571, where it says that a general statement of rules is always of less authority than a specific statement, and yields to it, a standard rule of interpretation of law. If the Form of Government were silent about whose interpretation of the Constitution takes priority, which is not the case, Robert’s Rules would give precedent to the specific (PJC) over the general (GA), precisely the opposite of what the minority report wanted to suggest.
The minority proposal would have generated a constitutional paradox that could have had serious consequences. The ACC sang one note during the discussion, and it sang it numerous times: G-13.0103r states that the most recent authoritative interpretation prevails. That is simply true. The proposal would have been an AI that declares any General Assembly AI trumps an AI of the GAPJC. The minority proposal was trying to use an AI to change the Constitutional rule on AIs, a logical paradox. If a matter were to come up that challenged the proposed AI, and the GAPJC decided the GA overstepped its authority given in G-13.0103r, the resulting conflict would be irresolvable.
The arguments in the minority report distorted the record. The report suggested that the AI was necessary because the GAPJC had overruled, or might overrule, AIs of the General Assembly. The GAPJC said it had never done that.
The elephant in the Assembly, never uncovered, was the motive. The proposal was made because the GAPJC has consistently interpreted the Constitution to uphold the prohibition of the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians, while the Assembly in recent years has taken a different position. The GA has tried to change our policy by use of AIs, so far unsuccessfully. This was very clear to those who closely follow these kinds of things, but many commissioners did not know it. It was never explained to them. Discerning God’s will is very difficult when the issues are hidden.
The matter was of extreme importance to our Church and our polity. If the proposal had been successful, the result would have shifted power substantially in favor of the General Assembly.
An AI is a binding interpretation of the Constitution generated solely by the Assembly by vote or by judicial decision, which requires no approval by the presbyteries. The GAPJC is called to be governed by applying the Constitution to the facts of a case in judicial process. The GA is governed and often swayed by political arguments, so these two processes can generate different outcomes. To grant priority to political considerations over interpretations of the words of the Constitution would change the nature of the covenant relationship.
Recent history suggests that if the minority proposal had been approved, it would be the vehicle for proposals aimed at permitting the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians. For example, there were three overtures before the Assembly to permit pastors to conduct same-sex marriages by interpreting W-4.9000 to mean it can be done. There were at least two cases in the judicial pipeline where ministers were accused of conducting same-sex marriages. If the minority proposal and Item 12-06 (a proposed AI to authorize same-sex marriages) had been approved, the GAPJC would be prohibited from applying the plain language of W-4.9000.
Distrust of the General Assembly is a very serious problem. If the minority proposal had been approved, and if it should allow a change in our ordination standards, the resulting hue and cry would have a double prong: it violates Scripture (as interpreted by some); and it violates our own rules by evading the requirement for presbyteries’ approval of changes to the Constitution.
If this provision had been approved, it would have constituted a tectonic shift in authority away from the presbyteries and to the General Assembly. The effect would be church shaking and probably irreversible.
EDWARD H. KOSTER is stated clerk of Detroit Presbytery in Detroit, Mich.