“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.” George Orwell, “1984”
“The ACC, Moderator, Stated Clerk, and the assembly itself today declared that the General Assembly has the power to say that the plain words of our governing documents (Book of Order and Book of Confessions) can be ‘interpreted’ to say things that they do not in fact say.” Ed Koster, Stated Clerk, Presbytery of Detroit
In the book of 1 Kings, chapter 18, King Ahab saw Elijah the prophet and said, “Is that you, O troubler of Israel?” Elijah answered, “It is not I who trouble Israel, O King, but you.”
Some may see this article about actions of the 221st General Assembly as troubling the church. One of the great ends of the PC(USA) is “the preservation of the truth.” In this article, I am trying to preserve the truth. I see certain actions of the 221st GA as having denied truth and as troubling the church.
In the seventh PC(USA) ordination vow, all in ordered ministries (including all teaching and ruling elders) promise to “further the peace, unity and purity of the church.” In the third vow we all promise to “be instructed and led by the confessions,” and in the fifth vow we promise to “be governed by our church’s polity.” I am convinced that in its authoritative interpretation on marriage, the 221st GA was not instructed and led by the confessions and also was not governed by our church’s polity. Therefore I do not believe it has furthered the peace, unity and purity of the church.
Some time ago, after the 2012 GA, I wrote an article published December 31, 2012, in The Presbyterian Outlook entitled, “How the 220th General Assembly Almost Threw Out The Confessions.” I argued then that in coming quite close to adopting new Directory of Worship language saying that marriage could be between “two people” (whereas the confessions at numerous points affirm marriage as being between a man and a woman) the 220th assembly almost denied Part I of our Constitution, the Book of Confessions.
Now, in adopting what it has (wrongly, I believe) called an “authoritative interpretation” which allows same gender marriages by PC(USA) clergy in states where they are legal, I think the 221st GA has denied both parts of its own Constitution—the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order.
First let me explain how I think the PC(USA) has denied its own Book of Order. W-4.9001 says three times that marriage is between a man and a woman. If it had only said that marriage is a civil contract between a man and a woman, the argument could perhaps have been persuasively made that in states where the nature of that civil contract is changed, the GA could issue this authoritative interpretation. That interpretation of things cannot stand if we read all of W.4.9001. It says, “Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship. In a service of Christian marriage a lifelong commitment is made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith”(emphases added). So, if a state changes the definition of the civil contract of marriage, this action does not change the PC(USA) Constitutional understanding that Christian marriage as both covenant and lifelong commitment continues to be between a man and a woman. Over this no state has jurisdiction, and it should be PC(USA) law unless and until amended by the presbyteries.
Ed Koster is stated clerk of Detroit Presbytery which hosted the 221st GA. (Ed and I both stood for GA stated clerk in 2008.) Ed has written about this recent AI and how it contradicts the plain meaning of the Book of Order. What he has written is so profound and clear that I wish to quote it at length in closing this first part of my argument.
“This was a significant and momentous event. We have covenants that lay out how we shall govern ourselves. The Constitution gives authority of the General Assembly (by resolution or judicial decision) to interpret what our governing documents say. But that authority was predicated on the notion that an interpretation would be necessary because of an ambiguity. (A 2004 AI approved by the GA says: “The process of authoritative interpretation should be used sparingly, and for the purpose of defining potentially ambiguous words or phrases in the Book of Order, rather than for setting forth detailed procedures or advice as to how the provisions of our Constitution should be administered.) The ACC, Moderator, Stated Clerk, and the Assembly itself today declared that the General Assembly has the power to say that the plain words of our governing documents (Book of Order and Book of Confessions) can be ‘interpreted’ to say things that they do not in fact say.
This action constitutes a significant shift away from the notion that we are a church governed according to the covenant we have adopted. In this covenant, the only rules that apply to the entire church are contained in the Book of Order. The GA has used its power to interpret to make a rule that is not in the Book of Order. And where trust in the authority structure of our denomination is a significant problem, this adds one more bit of evidence for those who claim the “GA” cannot be trusted to follow the rules.
The issue here is not that same-sex marriage was approved. What alarms is that the GA has claimed authority to declare a statement that is clear on its face to mean something else entirely. We have stepped on a very slippery slope indeed.” To read all that Ed wrote, click here and scroll down to comments.
Second, let me explain how I think the PC(USA) has also denied its own Book of Confessions, Part I of its Constitution. The Book of Confessions broadly affirms at multiple places that marriage is between a man and a woman: Second Helvetic Confession, B.C. 5.246; Westminster Confession as amended by United Presbyterian Church USA circa 1958,B.C. 6.131; Westminster Confession, as amended by Presbyterian Church US circa 1981, B.C.6. 133, 6.134. The Confession of 1967 at B.C. 9.47 also affirms that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Thus this new AI, a GA vote without any need for presbytery approval, has at one fell swoop ignored both parts of the PCUSA’s Constitution. Even if the Book of Order amendment making marriage possible between two people of the same gender is eventually passed by a majority of the presbyteries, it would happen in a now-compromised context where the church has been told that the language the GA seeks to amend in the Directory of Worship is already meaningless and without force (!), and W-9.4001, if amended, would still be inconflict with the church’s confessions unless and until they are amended. (The Scriptures upon which they are based cannot of course be amended.)
In George Orwell’s book, “1984,” he originated the term “doublethink” to mean a government using words to mean things that they do not really mean. I believe the 221st GA has done this with the words “authoritative interpretation.”
In Boris Pasternak’s novel, “Dr. Zhivago,” the new revolutionary state had decreed there was no typhus in Russia. The average citizen might have believed this, but Zhivago was a doctor, and he knew there was typhus. Dangerously he said so. He denied the power of the state to create fiat verbal realities which flew in the face of facts. He did not think truth could be legislated. He did not think truth was a matter even of majority determination. He denied doublethink.
According to Orwell doublethink is “telling a lie you believe to be true.” For Orwell doublethink was always (paradoxically) deliberate, but I suspect that for the average GA commissioner who relied on polity experts, the wrong use of the term “authoritative interpretation” to describe what they did was not necessarily deliberate. GA commissioners may have sincerely believed they were issuing a genuine authoritative interpretation, but as Ed Koster has shown, an interpretation it was not – whatever it was called and whatever commissioners subjectively thought it was. For the rulers to say that there is no typhus does not make it so. An interpretation which negates what you are interpreting is not an interpretation, even when you say it is.
Isaiah also understood that just because a majority says something is true doesn’t mean it is so. Inspired by God, he wrote, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”
I believe that the GA’s authoritative interpretation was not really an “interpretation” at all, but was instead a decree which was short-sighted, unilateral, unlawful, and ultimately trust and community-destroying. It was issued under the auspices of high officials-some of whom surely knew better. It could only attempt to stand because it was packaged as an authoritative interpretation.
Again let me quote Ed Koster:
“The ACC, Moderator, Stated Clerk, and the Assembly itself today declared that the General Assembly has the power to say that the plain words of our governing documents (Book of Order and Book of Confessions) can be ‘interpreted’ to say things that they do not in fact say.”
Please understand what I am saying and what I am not saying. I am not saying that because of this misapplied AI that any reader should leave the PC(USA), though sadly I do believe this decree disguised as “authoritative interpretation” will make it harder for those of us who want to stay to do so and easier for those who want to leave to do that. In spite of this GA action, I believe Jesus is still present in the PC(USA) and is certainly present in very many of its members and congregations.
Furthermore I continue to believe that the PC(USA) (along with the Baptists, the Roman Catholics, ECO, the EPC and a vast host of other churches) is still a part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. Yet the PC(USA) (at least at the level of its General Assembly) is also now a church which has shown that—in this instance at least–it thinks it no longer must abide by its own Constitution and no longer must abide by the rule of law. Instead of having a balance of powers and separation of powers under a Constitution which “constitutes” the church and which requires amending by both GA and presbyteries, we have now arrived at the place where a GA can decide willy-nilly that words in its own Constitution no longer mean what they say but rather what the GA says they mean.
It may be 2014, but it also increasingly feels to me like 1984. I think it is a darkening time, and I suspect we have still more death to go through. Yet please pray continuously for our church and pray expectantly. He calls us the Body of Christ. To quote GK Chesterton, “The church has died many times, but she has a Savior who knows his way out of a grave.”
Winfield Casey Jones has been pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Pearland Texas since 1986. He ran for GA stated clerk in 2000 and 2008 and has served as an adjunct faculty member in polity at Fuller Seminary Houston. He can be reached at [email protected].