The Presbytery of San Gabriel has asked the 221st General Assembly to issue a new Authoritative Interpretation, (AI) “regarding the dismissal of congregations to ecclesiastical bodies of other denominations.”
However, that language used in Overture 46’s title may be a little misleading. The proposed AI reads:
“Presbyteries may dismiss congregations to other ecclesiastical bodies of this denomination, and to denominations whose organization is conformed to the doctrines and order of the Presbyterian Church (USA). No congregation may be dismissed to independent status, or to the status of a nondenominational congregation. It is the responsibility of the dismissing presbytery to determine whether the receiving body meets these standards, and this responsibility cannot be delegated to any other entity within the presbytery (such as an administrative commission). Thus the General Assembly may not determine in advance whether a particular denomination or its constituent bodies qualify under these standards.
“The provisions of G-3.0502a, however, require that the General Assembly provide resources for presbyteries as they execute their constitutional responsibilities. The 221st General Assembly (2014) advises the presbyteries that they must satisfy themselves concerning the compliance of a denomination to which a PCUSA congregation seeks dismissal to its constitutional and organizational documents, which the General Assembly has previously determined to be conformed to the doctrines and order of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Presbyteries may facilitate the exploration of conformity by means of an administrative commission, although such commissions may not be empowered to approve the dismissal of the congregation.
“Failure on the part of the presbytery thoroughly to explore and adequately to document its satisfaction in these matters may thus violate, however unintentionally, the spirit of the polity of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”
Speaking to the AI’s first sentence “Presbyteries may dismiss congregations to other ecclesiastical bodies of this denomination, and to denominations whose organization is conformed to the doctrines and order of the Presbyterian Church (USA),” Presbyterian Lay Committee President Carmen Fowler LaBerge observed that “the proposed AI appears to cover not only the dismissal of churches from the PCUSA to other Reformed denominations but also the dismissal of churches within the PCUSA among presbyteries. I do not see the introduction of intra-denominational or non-geographic presbytery membership addressed in the rationale.”
Fowler LaBerge said, “The repetition of language is important. The proposed AI sets conformity to the doctrines and order of the PCUSA as the standard by which other denominations will be judged. Here’s the challenge with that: Churches are leaving precisely because of the procedures and lack of order in the PCUSA. To suggest that the PCUSA will serve as judge over the sufficiency of another denomination’s Reformed nature and practice is unhelpful.”
According to the rationale written by San Gabriel Presbytery that accompanied the overture, the current authoritative interpretation, approved by the 2008 General Assembly, assigned the task of determining what constitutes a legitimate Reformed body a congregation can be dismissed to, to each presbytery.
“This means that different presbyteries could make different decisions about whether or not the same denomination was Reformed,” read the overture from San Gabriel. “This proposed change would assign such determination to the General Assembly, rather than to individual presbyteries; thus providing for greater uniformity in such decisions. … This is also more fitting to be determined at the General Assembly level in the same way that council determines (already) with which denominations the PC(USA) will be in correspondence (a similar type of decision).”
The rationale clearly states that the AI in no way changes a “presbytery’s responsibility to determine if a particular congregation would be dismissed to such an entity.”
At the time of publication, this overture did not have the required concurrence from a second presbytery. A Book of Order amendment went into effect in 2013 requiring all overtures to have to have at least one other presbytery’s concurrence before it will be referred to the General Assembly.
An AI is an interpretation of the denomination’s constitution that has the authority of the General Assembly and is binding on all the councils of the church. AI’s are either approved by a General Assembly or through a decision of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission,