Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday, 9 July

It was a polity wonk’s heaven in the GA plenary on Friday afternoon.

Some of you will remember that at our October 2009 presbytery meeting, we sent a request to the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly asking for an interpretation of G-13.0103r, the provision of the Book of Order concerning the power of the General Assembly to interpret the church’s Constitution in a binding and authoritative manner. We asked that the General Assembly reflect on the nature and limits of the Assembly’s responsibility for authoritative interpretation.

The General Assembly’s Advisory Committee on the Constitution received our request, and in response drafted a statement that I believe will be very helpful to the church in the future. It’s an authoritative interpretation on authoritative interpretations, if you can believe that.

  • It clarifies that an “AI” is a statement that interprets the Constitution in a manner binding on the whole church;
  • It affirms that the General Assembly interprets the Constitution in two ways: by action of the General Assembly when it meets in plenary session, and through a judicial decision rendered by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission.
  • It offers some guidelines to both the GA plenary and the GA PJC to consider as it drafts AIs in the future.

There was a challenge to the “authoritative interpretation on authoritative interpretations,” however. It came from persons who have been unhappy with recent decisions of the GA PJC that have been in some tension with interpretations of ordination standards by the General Assembly plenary. They proposed to add to the statement a requirement that a Constitutional interpretation rendered as part of a GA PJC decision cannot differ from a statement adopted by the General Assembly plenary. They argued that, since the plenary of the GA represents the whole church, it is a more authoritative body than the GA PJC and should therefore have the final word.

At first blush, this would seem an obvious position. But beneath the surface is a serious constitutional problem.

The Book of Order language makes clear that the General Assembly has two “voices” through which it interprets the Constitution. The GA plenary interprets the Constitution in general terms. The GA PJC interprets the Constitution in light of the specific fact pattern of a particular judicial case. But whether it does so through the plenary or the PJC, it is the same General Assembly that does the interpreting. There is no distinction between the voice of the Assembly speaking through plenary or PJC. To suggest, as the challenge did, that one “voice” speaks more loudly or with greater authority than the other is to unbalance our Constitutional system.

In the end, the Assembly retained the statement proposed by the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, and that statement is now an official part of the Constitutional lore of the church. I’ll report the statement to you at the October meeting of the presbytery as a reply to our request, but if you’d like to see the full text, it’s available on, under Committee 5, item 05-21.

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