In 2010, the General Assembly approved an authoritative interpretation (AI) that included the following statements: “Neither the General Assembly nor the GAPJC [General Assembly Permanent Judicial Committee] may alter the wording of the Constitution by means of an authoritative interpretation. … The General Assembly and the GAPJC must exercise great care to ensure that any interpretation remains true to the plain meaning and context of the provision interpreted.” It was proposed by the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC). This AI fully comported with the intent and historic use of authoritative interpretations, so it was not surprising when the ACC recommended disapproval for the proposed AI that would reinterpret the words “man and a woman” in W-4.9000 to mean something else. The ACC stated that it should not be approved because “it suggests an interpretation contrary to the clear statement of W-4.9000.” It was also not a surprise when a point of order was raised when the proposed AI was moved for approval at the General Assembly in Detroit.
The point of order was that the proposed AI violated Robert’s Rules of Order because it violated our constitution and therefore could not be considered. The Stated Clerk referred it to the ACC for its opinion, and, three and a half minutes into the discussion, the Stated Clerk advised the moderator that based on the advice of the ACC, the motion was constitutional. That was a surprise, and it generated no fewer than nine questions over the next 15 minutes asking in various ways how it was that the ACC could change its advice from what it had written to say the motion was okay. (The full debate can be viewed at Vimeo.com/99068158, beginning at 1:11:40.) The answer the ACC gave to that question was even more startling: “The advice that was given to the ACC … was that … an AI could be in conflict [with the constitution]. It is the responsibility of the council to resolve that conflict.” In a clarification shortly thereafter, the ACC said, “[I]f we have an AI that seems to be in contradiction to the constitution, it would be the responsibility of this council to resolve that tension.”
This is significant because, from that point forward, the discussion turned on the term “tension,” not “contradiction” or “conflict.” It had the effect of redirecting the discussion from something serious (a conflict with the constitution) to something trivial. The 2010 AI says this about “tension”: “The General Assembly and the GAPJC must resolve tensions and ambiguities between provisions of the constitution in such a way as to give effect to all provisions.” The debate turned into a debate whether there was “tension” between something not a part of the constitution (the proposed AI) and the constitution itself, not on “tensions” within the Book of Order. In the end, the GA approved the AI.
This statement of the ACC that it had been so advised seems to demand further questions, which were never asked: Who gave that advice? When was it given? Where was it given?
Whether one stands for or against same-sex marriage, this episode raises matters of serious concern that affect the fundamental health and the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). There are three reasons for this degree of concern.
The first has to do with process at the General Assembly. Items of business are referred to assembly committees for consideration and recommendation. Resource people, staff, overture advocates and those invited by the committee can speak to the committee. The committee receives written advice and recommendations from agencies, committees and others advising what it should do about each item of business. There must be an open hearing. The ACC has the right to address the committee at will if the business involves an interpretation of the constitution. What is clear from the debate in plenary is that the written advice of the ACC stating the resolution for this AI was not constitutional was changed. We do not know when this happened, for the chairman of the committee declared that the committee never considered the written ACC advice. Somehow, some unknown person with sufficient clout — political or knowledge-based, we do not know — persuaded the ACC that its written (proper) advice was wrong. How did this happen? How could this happen? It is scary, for the way we handle issues has been short circuited in ways that were not transparent, proper or fair, and it calls into doubt the credibility and integrity of our General Assemblies.
The second matter is the effect on the church as a whole. The PC(USA) has a new rule: The General Assembly has the power to re-write the Book of Order to mean something that is different from the plain and intended words therein. This was done by an action of the General Assembly, without the consent of the presbyteries, in spite of the clear distortion of its power to interpret. The GA also passed a proposed amendment to W-4.9000 that would allow the marriage of same-sex couples, so presbyteries are in the strange position of voting to amend the Directory of Worship where it makes no functional difference how they vote. On one hand, it is necessary to amend; on the other hand, it is not necessary to amend because the GA said so.
Finally, there is the matter of the use of procedures. Joe Small in a recent article in First Things analyzing the last General Assembly has criticized the “proceduralsim” that has become the norm for our church, most certainly at the General Assembly level. Proceduralism is “the displacement of substantive consideration by parliamentary process in the service of prevalent opinion.” He points to a basic truth about what is happening in the church. In matters such as this, the emphasis in preparing, advocating and presenting matters has shifted from seeking the will of God to winning. The fallout is that the in-depth and thorough discussion of questions such as this is bypassed by the use of parliamentary, judicial and council processes to ensure a win. The slippery part is that it looks decent and in order, but decency and order can limit the activity of the Holy Spirit — see 1 Corinthians 14:39-40. In truth, we have embraced the standards and norms of society at large, specifically the practice of politics. The great tragedy is that we have surrendered our calling to be “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (F-1.0304) and succumbed to the temptation to win at any cost. We have become not an exhibition of the kingdom of God, but an exhibition of the kingdoms of this world. The approval of the AI redefining marriage shows how this happens: all for the sake of some perceived greater good.
When procedural objections are raised, many turn away. Sometimes they say that procedural objections are nitpicking and not substantive. Some say that procedure should not get in the way of some “truth.” But when we give up on procedures, procedures that are designed to ensure transparency and fairness, procedures that preserve a polity that glues us together, procedures designed to allow full and comprehensive discussion and debate, procedures that can work when people are open to hearing the still, small voice of the Holy spirit whispered in the midst of discussion and debate, we risk losing our soul. And that is serious indeed.
We have all been advised. This is not a drill.
ED KOSTER is a retired attorney and a member of the Presbytery of Detroit.