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Calling their bluff – with the hope of keeping the General Assembly from erring

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Committee members vote against spending 20 minutes reading Scripture, before beginning discussion on the various business items dealing with same-sex marriage. The vote failed 22-39.

When the Advisory Committee on the Constitution advised the Moderator of the Committee on Civil Unions and Marriage of the 221 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the ACC erred. The ACC said that a commissioner’s Point of Order was out of order because, they said, the Book of Order trumps Robert’s Rules. I’m calling their bluff.

Following their logic, if the Book of Order trumps Robert’s Rules then

the Book of Confessions trumps the Book of Order and

Scripture trumps them all.

But the Scriptures were not read.

Here’s what happened:

In the Civil Union and Marriage committee of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, a commissioner made a motion to approve an Authoritative Interpretation of the Constitution that “permits teaching elders to participate in any such legal marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform.”  Translated that means same sex weddings.

Knowing that an AI cannot interpret a portion of the Book of Order whose language is clear and unambiguous in a manner that reverses and redefines the plain and ordinary meaning of the words, a commissioner rose to raise a point of order.

He was wondering how the committee could do what it was being asked to do. How could the committee recommend to the GA the approval of an AI that is contrary to the plain meaning of the words contained in the section of the Constitution in question (W-4.900)

The committee moderator turned for advice and the counsel he received was that in this case, the Book of Order trumps Robert’s Rules. But no one asked how or where exactly the Book of Order trumps Robert’s Rules.

So, I’m asking now. ACC, please show your hand.

To play a trump, you must have a trump to play. But when you look closely, you will see their bluff.

Nowhere does the constitution of the PCUSA say that an express contradiction is allowed. And nowhere does the Constitution of the PCUSA permit contradictory interpretations to be “interpretations.”  In fact, the official advice of the ACC posted on pc-biz reads:

This overture proposes an authoritative interpretation which would allow the exercise of pastoral discretion and freedom of conscience in conducting a marriage service for any couple as permitted by the “laws of the place where the couple seeks to be married.” It suggests an interpretation contrary to the clear statement of W-4.9000.

Section W-4.9001 and related citations (W-4.9002a, W-4.9004, W-4.9006) limit marriage to couples who are “a woman and a man.” Because these statements are clear and unambiguous, they can not be interpreted in a manner that is inconsistent with their plain and ordinary meaning.

The Book of Order is not based upon state and civil law, but the church’s understanding of Scripture and Reformed theology. As noted in Southard v Presbytery of Boston (GAPJC 2012, 220-02), “While the PCUSA is free to amend its definition of marriage, a change in state law does not amend the Book of Order.”

Freedom of conscience is a foundational principle of the PC(USA) (G-2.0105) but must be exercised within certain bounds. The exercise of freedom of conscience in and of itself is not necessarily a violation of polity or an obstruction of constitutional governance. Such freedom of conscience, however, is not freedom of action. All persons in ordered ministry have a duty to fulfill constitutionally mandated responsibilities.

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.

The advice offered to the committee seems to rely on the language from G-3.0103 in a way that attempts to dismiss the issue, but that too is a bluff.

Certainly there are places in the Confessions of the church where conflicting statements exist, but there is no conflict on the matter of marriage. In every place that the Book of Confessions speaks about marriage, the voice of the Church is strikingly clear and unambiguous. The Book of Order builds upon the theology expressed in the Confessions. Furthermore, the Book of Order states clearly that we cannot dismiss or ignore the Book of Confessions (F-2.02).

So, what exactly is going on?  If the assembly votes to issue an AI allowing for something the Scriptures, Confessions and Book of Order expressly prohibit, then the Assembly itself needs to be called out of order. But by whom, as the GA is not subject to anyone’s review; save God.  The only recourse would be reversal of the decision by a subsequent Assembly — which could not happen until at least 2016.

This is a moment of constitutional and confessional crisis for the PCUSA. If the Assembly proceeds down the path of allowing consideration and ultimately passing an Authoritative Interpretation of the Constitution that creates an express contradiction, the Assembly will be willfully disregarding its own constitution. How are we functionally a constitutionally formed people if we no longer live within our mutually agreed upon constitution?  The definition of that reality is anarchy which is inherently indecent and out of order.

 

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Carmen Fowler LaBerge