By Ruling Elder Robert B. Fish.
During its June, 2014 meeting, the 221st General Assembly (GA) issued an Authoritative Interpretation which altered the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s definition of marriage without following the required process for amending its Book of Order. On Feb. 14, the denomination’s highest court, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) ruled that there is no basis to challenge this action.
The decision of the GAPJC was technically correct. One presbytery and the sessions of four separate churches filed a remedial complaint that the input given to the commissioners during the GA from the Advisory Commission on the Constitution was contradictory to the plain language of the Directory of Worship and of Holy Scripture and also contradicted the ACC’s own written opinions. The GAPJC dismissed the case and ruled that they had no authority to correct the GA’s action, even if the allegations were true and that wrong or contradictory advice had been given to commissioners from the ACC.
Organizational chaos and unintended consequences?
In other words, since a body – in this case the General Assembly — has the right to make and interpret its own rules, it may interpret them in a way which is inconsistent with its rules, as long as it follows proper procedure in reaching that inconsistent interpretation. The inconsistent interpretation then becomes the new rule.
While that may seem to result in organizational chaos, it comports with the concept that an organization with the power to establish its rules has the equal power to set them aside or change them. So logically, under this principle, a church can change its bylaws, including the provision that says it can’t change them, because the power to put that provision in in the first place is equal to the power to remove it.
Chaos is only avoided if the organization follows logical procedures in making changes, and otherwise respects its core principles.
If the PCUSA is going to go down this path, it needs to recognize that the principle will apply equally to particular churches, as well. And while they will argue that the difference is that the GA is the highest body in the church judicatory, certain rights are reserved for Presbyteries and local churches. There are no provisions in the PCUSA constitution permitting a presbytery or GA to override a local church’s bylaws.
PCUSA isn’t like the federal government
The GAPJC decision was surprising to some since we are used to our divided form of federal government in which the Supreme Court can invalidate laws found to violate the Constitution. However, for most organizations, including the PCUSA, no such analogy exists. Organizations that use Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised as their parliamentary authority place that responsibility on the organization itself.
In this case, the body itself erred when it decided to adopt an Authoritative Interpretation that allowed for pastors to perform same-sex marriages if permitted by the civil laws of the state. Procedurally, the GA should have operated like this:
- After the offending motion was made, GA Moderator Heath Rada had an obligation to rule that the motion would not be allowed because it violated provisions the Book of Order.
- After he failed to do so, a point of order should have been raised and the moderator would then rule on the point of order, giving his reasons for that ruling.
- Commissioners who disagreed with the ruling could have appealed the ruling and the GA commissioners would vote on the question with a majority vote being needed to overturn the moderator’s ruling.
During the General Assembly debate on the issue, the moderator essentially ruled that while the bylaws explicitly say, “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,” that can be interpreted as “two persons.”
Even if there were a point of order, the moderator could rule against it and, if put to a vote, the GA could side with the moderator, thereby creating an Authoritative Interpretation that is not only clearly at odds with the Book of Order, but also the Book of Confessions and Holy Scripture. While one might ask, “how could they do that,” the answer would be “because they could.”
While it was understood from the pre-election responses that Candidate Rada favored allowing homosexual marriages, Moderator Rada had a responsibility to moderate fairly and to rule properly on this issue. Since the GA supported his position, it is now too late to correct that error.
There is a much bigger piece, however. Some might say that the commissioners were confused by the contradictory advice provided by the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) which provided a written statement opposing the Authoritative Interpretation and then provided oral statements before the GA stating the opposite.
As ordained officers of the church they could hardly fail to recall their ordination vows to accept be governed by the church’s polity, to accept the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do and, foremost, to accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as “God’s Word to you.” The church’s polity requires that amendment to the Book of Order would proceed in a particular, orderly process which was not done. The confessions of the church speak of marriage as being between a man and a woman and not between two persons. Christ also spoke plainly about marriage being between a man and a woman.
This action was not unforeseen. The Apostle Paul warned, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:30) Sadly, that Scripture was fulfilled by these actions of the 221st General Assembly.
Presbyterians trust that commissioners to the councils of the church will abide by the rules for governing, even though there is no way they can be forced to do so. “Decently and in order” should be expected rather than blatant disregard to the bylaws of the church. However, even more sadly, this precedent sets the stage for further erosion of trust as future GA’s will feel free to bypass the process for amending the governing documents by issuing further statements of “Authoritative Interpretation.”
The 221st GA approved an Authoritative Interpretation that is in contradiction to the Constitution of the PCUSA, to the confessions and to Scripture. This action has caused a great loss of trust between the membership of the PCUSA and the General Assembly. The responsibility for this loss of trust clearly rests with Moderator Heath Rada and the GA commissioners who agreed with his ruling.
The author is a member of the National Association of Parliamentarians. He has served as chairman, parliamentarian, rules chairman or similar roles in numerous volunteer, civic, political, and church settings at local, regional and national levels. He served as clerk of session, a member of his presbytery’s general council and its permanent judicial commission and he was a commissioner to the 202nd General Assembly (1990). He is a board member of the Presbyterian Lay Committee.
 “Each society decides for itself the meaning of its bylaws. When the meaning is clear, however, the society, even by a unanimous vote, cannot change that meaning except by amending its bylaws.” (Page 588, Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th ed.) Robert’s Rules or Order Newly Revised is the parliamentary authority for the PCUSA.