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.