Presbyterians looking for ways to hold General Assembly accountable

A presbytery executive in Pennsylvania agrees with the former head of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship that the procedures followed by the General Assembly were corrupt.

Alan Adams of Beaver-Butler Presbytery is calling into question the procedure followed in the 221st General Assembly’s approval of the Authoritative Interpretation (AI) allowing ministers to perform same-sex marriages.

GA221By a vote of 371-238 (61 percent in favor), the 221st GA gave its OK to the proposed AI in business item 10-03 in Detroit on June 19, and also voted to approve an amendment to the Book of Order that would change the definition of marriage from “a woman and a man” to “two people.” The vote on business item 10-02 was 429-175 (71 percent in favor).

The AI went into effect with the close of the General Assembly on June 21, and remains in effect even if a majority of presbyteries ultimately reject changing of the definition of marriage through amendment. That process can take up to a year as presbyteries meet to vote.

Adams alleges that in approving the AI, the assembly acted without receiving accurate information and advice from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC).


bbpbyMissing the whole story

In a packet of information for its July 15 pre-presbytery meeting, Beaver-Butler makes reference to an “added glitch” with the AI. The report claims that a spokesperson for the ACC neglected to tell the full assembly that it had ruled the AI was out of order because the Book of Order “statements are clear and unambiguous, (and therefore) cannot be interpreted in a manner that is inconsistent with their plain and ordinary meaning.”

The written report of the ACC to the Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues from the ACC, found at, advised that that item 10-03 be disapproved, noting that “If it is the will of the assembly to change the definition of marriage, such a change is better accomplished by amendment of W-4.9000 rather than by authoritative interpretation.”

However, Adams said that information was not conveyed to the GA by members speaking on behalf of the ACC. The first of those, Therese Howell, said the ACC believed it in order to bring an amendment in conflict because “it is up to the council – the General Assembly – to resolve this tension,” and Julie MacLemore Wells on two occasions indicated that it would be up to the assembly to resolve any “tension” brought on by the motion.

“The advice from the ACC to the (Civil Union and Marriage Issues) committee was that an authoritative interpretation did more than interpret language. It added to it,” Adams said. “In spite of what the ACC said the committee still sent it to the floor to be passed.”

Adams said even though commissioners during Plenary asked several times about the ACC’s recommendation to the committee, the ACC spokesperson did not divulge that the ACC had ruled the AI to be out of order when addressing the Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues.

Neil Zampella, a ruling elder from Redstone Presbytery noted early in the discussion that the authoritative interpretation was out of order according to Robert’s Rules of Order because it was in conflict with the PCUSA constitution and even if it passed it should be deemed null and void.

In a video clip (view from the 1:10:20 mark through 1:23:06) from the June 19 business session, the two spokeswomen from the ACC express three times that it determined the motion to be in order, prompting Moderator Heath Rada to propose a vote on the matter.

“The ACC spokesperson told the assembly this is up to you (as commissioners), describing it as a tension,” Adams said, adding that failure to accurately depict the ACC’s recommendation and possible inability of commissioners to see the report on because of continual Internet issues may have prevented them from acting in good faith. “The body was not told what the ACC said, so it voted without actually knowing what the ACC’s recommendation (to the committee) was.”


Can something be done?

So, what options are available to redress the matter?

“The General Assembly is the highest body of the church, so we have been told there is nothing we can do,” Adams said. “What we know is that the ACC is to provide checks and balances on that highest body. In this situation it appears there has been a means of sidestepping those checks and balances to skirt the voices of the presbyteries and avoid ratification (of an amendment to the constitution).”

Middle governing body executives and others are in consultation with commissioners examining all the options.

“I don’t know if we can do anything, but we’re hoping that we can,” Adams said, adding that he does not know right now if there is a way to get a stay of enforcement on the AI until further action can be taken.


Actions taken against prior assemblies

There have been complaints brought in reference to General Assembly actions in years past, through judicial filings heard by the GA Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) and a complaint that called for the assembly to be reconvened to revoke a decision. Neither action prevailed.

In 1992, a remedial case focused on the adoption of a major report of the Special Committee on Problem Pregnancies and Abortion was filed against the 204th General Assembly, alleging “the unconstitutionality and procedural irregularities” of actions taken by the assembly. It was determined that the GAPJC does not have authority to overturn the GA in programmatic decisions, noting that the Book of Order deals with complaints against GA agencies but does not include a complaint against the legislative body (General Assembly), thus ordering that the report of the committee was not subject to the review of any body but future assemblies.

There also was an attempt to reconvene the 214th General Assembly (2002) in response to compliance with the constitution of the PCUSA. The action required a petition with the signatures of 50 commissioners to the assembly, including at least 25 PCUSA ministers and 25 elders representing at least 15 presbyteries and five synods (The Book of Order now requires at least one-fourth of the teaching elder commissioners and one-fourth of the ruling elder commissioners to the last preceding stated meeting of the General Assembly representing at least 15 presbyteries under the jurisdiction of at least five synods). The complainants had 57 signatures from 26 ministers and 31 elders from 46 presbyteries and all 16 synods.

Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk at the time, and 214th GA Moderator Fahed Abu-Akel contacted the 57 signatories and were able to get 13 commissioners to say that they had changed their minds on the matter. Kirkpatrick and Abu-Akel then declared the petition invalid.

The GAPJC eventually ruled that Abu-Akel acted improperly when he implored those signing the petition to reconsider their decision to call for a special assembly, but it rejected the motion seeking a second gathering of the 214th GA.


Something deliberate?

Adams cited a similar issue regarding same-sex marriage with the 218th General Assembly in 2008 when the moderator did not allow any debate on a controversial issue. He questioned the parliamentary practices in reference to some of the denomination’s most controversial topics.

“I happen to think we have very competent parliamentarians; our stated clerk and ACC know this stuff well,” Adams said. “But in two of the most controversial issues before the church in a long time, our parliamentarians got it wrong both times. I have to suspect that something is deliberate.”

Adams pointed back to the fact that Wells did not convey to the full assembly what the ACC had agreed to say (and what its written report showed), and when questions were raised, Rada asked Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, who in turn referred the matter to the ACC – on several occasions.

Wells first said, “An authoritative interpretation is an action of the General Assembly which is binding on all councils. This would mean that if we had an AI that seemed to be in contradiction to the constitution … it would be this council’s obligation to resolve that tension.”

On the last reference, Wells said, “It is our opinion that it is within the rights of this council to consider taking this action. If there is tension created by taking this action, then it is the responsibility of this council (GA) to resolve that tension.”

“It’s a tension. That’s all we got. Frankly, that seems out of order as far as I’m concerned,” Adams lamented. “We have competent people in place who should have known better. The assembly might have heard and ignored (the ACC recommendation), but in this case commissioners were not allowed to hear the advice.”

Adams went on to say that the action taken in such a manner would have a negative impact on the PCUSA.

“(The GA) has taken an action that hurts the church, and people will leave the denomination over this,” Adams said. “But the more critical point is whether we can trust the church to give us a fair process. It’s not so much about the AI or gay marriage, I think, as it is about the process. That’s the question.”


A stance of ecclesiastical disobedience

In seeking a possible remedy to the action taken by the General Assembly regarding the AI, Adams pointed to Beaver-Butler’s adoption of a Theological Declaration in July 2009 that emphasizes its position on many of the decisions made by the 221st GA last month.

That declaration reads, “All church power … is only ministerial and declarative; that is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; and that all their decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God.” From this assertion in G-1.0307 (of the Book of Order) we declare that “Our denominational covenant has been broken by our own highest level of governing body. We refuse to break that covenant. We will honor it by constitutional, confessional and Biblical adherence.” This, we conclude in part: “Therefore, we the Presbyters of Beaver-Butler Presbytery, make the following resolutions:

“I. We will continue to uphold Biblical standards for ordination, particularly in areas of sexuality regardless of any Authoritative Interpretation, Advisory Opinion, alteration of the constitution, or retranslation of our confessions … .

“V. Rather than promoting same gender civil unions, we will support Biblical definitions of marriage in our society.”

And in conclusion we state: “we will abide by these statements. Our consciences are captive to the word of God. We will not accept discipline that, like many of the General Assembly actions, rest on human institutions instead of God’s Word. We trust in God through Christ for His deliverance and grace.”

Adams said such a stance calls for a level of ecclesiastical disobedience, but it remains one the presbytery holds to be true and faithful to God.

“If challenged we’d lose but that’s the stance we chose to take. It’s a good stand to make,” Adams said.


Comments 20

  • Has anyone asked themselves what the end game of all this is? It can’t be about building the Kingdom or ensuring the financial viability of member churches – we’ve chased away 3 million members in the last generation and continue to do so at an accelerating rate.

    At some point not too far off – there will remain a few hundred thousand “Presbyterians” whose leadership will magically have complete, unopposed control over $3 billion + in Presbyterian Foundation funds. Hum?
    The interest alone would buy an awful lot of political influence – and having rid themselves of that pesky conservative element….. you get the idea. Follow the money!

    • frankly i don’t think they’re smart (i.e. blessed) enough to hang on to the money much longer. at the idiotic rate things are going it’ll be gone in no time. keep the faith.

  • This getting all too uncomfortable. In reading the chart of all the things the GA voted on and/or against, I don’t know which way to turn. I work for a federal agency. I cannot support drugs being legalized or promote illegal immigration (and come on, guys, this is not a refugee situation – sending children alone was golden; no one will ever send them home – doesn’t matter that they came because of opportunity). I like my mortgage deduction and I live in California so a car is pretty much a necessity so divesting from oil companies or fossil fuels is not an idea I support either. I fully support Israel and I am a gun owner. Now where the heck am I supposed to go now? Those are only the items I remember most of all. Oh, and the gay issue is the one that bothers me the least. I have so many gay friends that I would find it difficult to stand against their happiness and, since some of you are now probably considering me a heathen, I am SO glad I am not a pastor today! It’s confusing to know how to take a stand when nothing makes sense and there are no “burning bush” answers that make everything clear, at least not in my heart. All I know if that, regardless of what I believe on these issues pro or con, I love Jesus and I love reading the Bible and all these things that the GA voted on are just none of their business. I want to go to church, not a political activist meeting, just church. They have divided and pretty much destroyed the church by “invading my home” – maybe that was the point. We have to go.

  • The only way to hold the PCUSA accountable is to leave. You can’t talk to liberals.

  • Just another example that PCUSA is rotten to the very core.

  • Presbyteries look for ways to hold the GA accountable? Maybe there should be some sort of system in which the presbytery selects the commissioners to GA?


    • “Presbyteries look for ways to hold the GA accountable? Maybe there should be some sort of system in which the presbytery selects the commissioners to GA?”

      Stop all monies to Babylon(Louisville), and let everyone connected to the PCUSA, fund themselves, Pastors, Teachers, churches, schools, especially the cemetaries, Seminaries. Get a real job, doing real work for your living as did the Apostle Paul, and you might have some accountability.

  • Hey Alan, we get it. You’re trying to save your job – by begging the remaining conservative Georconstituents to stay. But the more hilarious part for you will be next spring when Beaver Butler actually votes to support the change in definition of the Book of Order because the Beaver Butler once 2/3 conservative has shifted to 60% liberal. Absolutely hilarious. Then again, don’t you think the Lord’s wrath is upon the presbytery – really how many dump trucks run through the very place of your last presbytery meeting?

    • I have avoided commenting on this issue for over 30 years but with the mean spirit that prevailed at the G.A. in Detroit it was not surprise that we would find such persons as Mr. Smithson out of order by making such attacks on fellow Christians.

      While he obviously holds a different view that Alan, ( one that he and his colleagues believe is certainly superior ) that does not give him permission to smear a Minister of the Gospel and member in good standing in a Presbytery of the PCUSA.

      Alan was simply recognizing that PC no longer stands for Presbyterian Church it is now just
      Politically Correct. Alan is owed an apology.

      • @ Rev. Wright…
        ‘in good standing in a Presbytery of the PCUSA’ – is a phrase without much meaning for me. Oh, I surely understand the polity; and I also understand what that phrase might have indicated. That phrase no longer signifies anything about the individual. Furthermore, I know nothing about any of the individuals named. I just know that there has been a marked downward trend in the character and preparation of those going through the ordination process. That makes it extremely difficult to ascribe priority to an individual’s seminary training, their journey of preparation for ordination and their standing within the Historical Christian Faith.

      • Don,

        I too have avoided playing out these issues in the press. While I’ll say that the Layman reporter did a pretty good job representing what I said, I am keenly aware that this is not the best media for discussion and probably shouldn’t have given an interview at all. Nevertheless, I appreciate all the comments that have been left and I realize that these issues have caused pain among brothers and sisters in Christ. I appreciate your comments, Don, but I do not seek an apology from anyone. Following is my thoughts as to how the presbytery I serve will respond. I do not speak for them but this is my thought and ‘suspicion’ as to the direction we would take.

        First, it is my understanding that there are two possible outcomes to litigation against the ACC.
        (1) “a judgment that the GA cannot change the plain meaning of the Book of Order with an AI, and
        (2) possibly a new AI on marriage interpreting  W-4.9000.”

        I believe the first one is already the case in spite of the decision by the Assembly. In fact, that’s what the ACC ruled but failed to tell the Assembly in plenary. Frankly, the issue that I was trying to highlight was the ACC’s failure to reveal their decision not the issue itself.

        And, I believe, the second possible outcome will become moot if the overture on changing the definition of marriage in the Book of Order is passed – which I suspect it will.

        Accordingly, I do not believe that it would be a good use of time or resources to pursue a lawsuit. Even if the above two reasons were not the case I would still resist the use of litigation as the best solution to our differences. The presbytery I serve has been historically opposed to using litigation as a way of resolving our differences. Even in regard to churches that desire to depart we have avoided that method of resolution as much as possible.  

        So I suspect that going forward, our strategy will be to ‘speak the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15), maintain fidelity to the Scriptures, pray for those who have come to believe that we are their enemies, and seek (‘in as much as it depends upon us’, – Romans 12:18) ‘peace with all people’ and unity in the body of Christ.

        Some will see this strategy as naive and ‘lofty’ but I think we’ll give it a shot anyway.

        Peace and God’s blessings,


    • Mr. Smithson,

      As a progressive Presbyterian, I’m embarrassed by your post. Have you forgotten that we are, above all, to love one another?

      • Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God”. – 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1).
        “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” – 1 John 1:5–10).
        I confess that it is difficult to hate the sin and love the sinner. The PCUSA – the organization and a number of those in leadership within the PCUSA are no longer in fellowship with the churches and individuals who affirm the Christian Faith, conform their lives to the Scriptures, surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and renounce the works of the Devil, Satan, our Adversary in their lives. To remain silent – to sit back and not despair over the degradation within the PCUSA is to be complicit with those degrading it.
        Would you prefer Jesus’ words in Matthew 23? Under the tutelage of teaching elders, educators, Pastors, teachers, et al we have been undermined. What should our demeanor be when we rightly proclaim that there are ‘hypocrites’, ‘blind guides’, in positions within the PCUSA and they are destroying the witness of Jesus Christ and his Church in the USA and around the world. Recent pagans / converts are appalled by the decisions of the PCUSA.

  • In their rush to get to the land of rainbows and ponies for everybody, the PCUSA forgot one thing. AI is the functional equivalent of a papal encyclical, or divine rights of kings, pre Magna Carta. That somehow an appointment or physical presence as some assembly at some time and date given them some special god given dispensation to behave as tyrants.

    As the PCUSA rushes to out episcopal the Episcopalians on matters of assumed power, they choke on their own bile and stupidity. Yes by all means hold all accountable. And use whatever means and methods possible to that end.

  • Gay marriage will not fly where I am anyway, but I can already hear the far left in the PCUSA calling this sour grapes. And the way they are getting heavy handed these days about property etc, Churches where the trust clause is not legal, should start bolting, because there is NOTHING that can be done now about this. It’s over.

  • I’m amazed that there is still a “stay and fight” contingent among conservatives in PCUSA. This effort to block implementation of the AI will fail; but even if it were to succeed, does anyone really believe it would have any long-term effect in stopping the “progressive” agenda of denominational leaders?

  • If the PCUSA is so sure that God is leading them, and that they are finally interpreting scripture correctly, then the mysterious passing of the AI must have been a miracle. If that is the case, just take another vote with the same people. Don’t say it can’t be done. If, on the other hand, the passing of the AI reveals deceit, manipulation, lies, etc., that might change how the people voted. In either case, how can we not call for another look a the issues? Either God’s will be affirmed, or evil will be exposed. Wouldn’t either result be good to know?

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