Presbyterians’ procedural problems

dividedBy Joseph D. Small

The 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be remembered for its approval of same-sex marriage, but its most lasting effect may be the decisive victory of proceduralism—the displacement of substantive consideration by parliamentary process in the service of prevalent opinion. The church’s reliance on legislative procedures produces, but decisions do not necessarily signify agreement. Presbyterians are divided on a number of important matters, but proceduralism overrides differences by simplifying issues, hastening legislative decisions, and producing winners and losers.


Marriage and the Church’s Constitution

The last two decades have marked a dramatic shift in American public opinion about the place in American society of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. Many polls show a growing majority of Americans approves of same-sex marriage, and so it comes as no surprise that the Presbyterian General Assembly does as well.

What is (mildly) surprising is the two-fold way the General Assembly acted—first by an authoritative interpretation of the church’s constitutional definition of marriage as between “a woman and a man,” and second by a proposed amendment to alter the constitutional definition. The PCUSA constitution is composed of two parts: The Book of Confessions (eleven historic and contemporary creeds, confessions, and catechisms) and the Book of Order (rules and guidance concerning governance, worship, and discipline). Oddly, the current Book of Order defines marriage as “a civil contract between a woman and a man” before going on to state that, “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 . . . a lifelong commitment made by a woman and a man to each other, publically witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.” In the PCUSA constitution, marriage as a generic, civil contract precedes and encompasses what marriage means for Christians.



Comments 6

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  • Procedures can be very helpful, but they are means, rather than substance. The problem with General Assemblies lies not with the procedures, although things have been deliberately skewed for decades to overload commissioners with more overtures and reports than any deliberative person can consider and decide upon. No, the problem lies in the spirit of the commissioners who allow themselves to be herded and in the wolves in shepherd’s clothing that run the procedures, from Louisville to presbyteries and in careless or ignorant or gutless undershepherds in too many congregations. The sin of deviating, slightly and slowly, from God’s plain truth, Assembly by Assembly, has been going on a long time. The rot of that sin is now blatantly manifest throughout the procedures and substance of the Assembly. Its pronouncements are now Orwellian–1984 in 2014.

  • Many thanks to the Layman for linking to this article and to Joe Small for writing and publishing it. In addition to the problem he elucidates, that of succumbing to proceduralism, it seems that the general assembly also failed even to follow its own procedures well. For instance, the assembly adopted an authoritative interpretation of a passage in the Book of Order that was not unclear to start with, and it did so in such a way as to claim that the words mean something very different from what they actually say. This runs the risk of debasing language itself and therefore of leaving other parts of the Book of Order, perhaps such as the ordination vows or the property clause, completely meaningless. Moreover, the assembly adopted the interpretation in plain contradiction of multiple documents in The Book of Confessions, so that the interpretation is out of accord with the officially articulated faith of the church, which perhaps suggests that the interpretation may be less faithful instead of more faithful. Finally, the assembly adopted the interpretation in clear contradiction of the repeated insistence of Robert’s Rules of Order that motions that conflict with an organization’s constitution (in our case, this includes The Book of Confessions) are out of order and even null and void. So, the actions of the assembly, by breaking all semblance of following procedures decently and in order, raise the prospect that that we are now non-confessional, post-constitutional, and governed sheerly by the majority vote of the party in ascendancy.

    • Thank you for this excellently focused and instructive response.

    • Hammer, meet Nail. Wonderfully stated Dr. Goodloe.

    • proceduralismand contradictions? This has been going on since the 1880’s with defrocking Chrales A. Briggs which Union Seminary(cemetery) withdrew from the PCUSA. Other dates for the pcusa being a law unto itself, 1929, and the big one before GA2014, 1967, the Confession of 1967, all of which has weakened the pcusa now an organization, and the worst is yet to come. The pcusa believes in calling evil good and good evil especially Genesis 12:3, which the organization called pcusa threw Israel under the bus, the pcusa signing its own death warrant.

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