An unconstitutional Constitution?
December 1, 1997
A growing movement among local church sessions to redirect their per capita contributions has understandably increased anxiety levels in the office of the stated clerk. But a response from lower-level officials – and the stated clerk’s refusal to correct or modify his subordinates’ opinions – is a cause for concern. Absent a remedy that only Clifton Kirkpatrick can provide, his office, which is responsible for protecting and defending the Constitution, will hurl this denomination into a full-blown constitutional crisis.
Regardless of how one assesses the wisdom of sessional decisions to withhold or redirect per capita contributions – and this is an issue over which thoughtful and faithful Presbyterians differ – there can be no question but that each session has the constitutional right and responsibility to determine the distribution of congregational contributions. The Book of Order (G-10.0102i) explicitly lists this duty among the powers of session.
Further, in a 1992 case in which a session chose not to pay its per capita contribution after its presbytery sponsored a seminar taught by a self-designated witch (we’re not kidding), the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission reaffirmed the right of the session to take such an action and specifically proscribed higher governing bodies (in this case, the presbytery) from punishing the session for having done so.
An associate in the stated clerk’s office is now warning ministers that they risk disciplinary action if, after attending a presbytery meeting that supported per capita apportionments, they return to their own session and advocate nonpayment of the session’s per capita contribution (see story, p. 6). He holds that these individuals’ participation in the presbytery meeting, whether or not they voted with the majority, precludes them from advocating a position contrary to the will of the presbytery.
We are amazed that an idea so blatantly unconstitutional would be proffered in the name of the Constitution. We are not at all comforted by the stated clerk’s assurance that he has no intention of enforcing the notion. As this denomination’s chief constitutional officer, he should repudiate it. And we are confounded by his staff’s forays into the Rules of Discipline regarding actions that are constitutionally protected when these same officials have failed to take even the first step toward disciplining those who have issued covenants of dissent, openly declaring that they will disobey the Constitution.