Nary An Unpublished Thought







February 7, 2008: Three GA PJC Cases

Tomorrow (February 8) there will be three cases heard by the GA PJC (General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission). All three of the cases will be significant for commissioners to the 218th General Assembly (2008) -- the cases involve issues related to the Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108 approved at the last Assembly.

The first case (218-09 Buescher, et al v. Presbytery of Olympia) involves against Olympia Presbytery, which approved a resolution stating, "“We hereby declare that in our discernment of the movement of the Holy Spirit, every mandate of the Book of Order (2005-2007) is an essential of reformed polity. Therefore, any violation of a mandate of the Book of Order (2005-2007) constitutes a failure to adhere to the essentials of reformed polity and thus presents a bar to ordination and instillation.” The Synod of the Northwest PJC did not sustain the challenge; in other words, decided Olympia Presbytery's action was not irregular.

The second case (218-10 Bush et al v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh) involves a similar situation with a different outcome. Pittsburgh Presbytery approved a resolution that "called compliance with the PC(USA)’s ordination standards from The Book of Order, which require chastity in singleness or fidelity in heterosexual marriage, an “essential of Reformed polity.” It stated that no exceptions would be permitted within the jurisdiction of Pittsburgh Presbytery." The Synod of the Trinity PJC decided that such an action was irregular. By an 8-3 vote, the Synod PJC ruled that the presbytery could not pre-determine that ordination standards are an "essential" part of Reformed polity. (Link is to Presbyterian News Service article, I could not find the text of the decision posted on-line.)

The third case also is from the Synod of the Trinity (218-15 Washington Presbytery v. Session of First Presbyterian Church of Washington, 1793, et al.). The Synod PJC set aside the resolution that had been approved by Washington Presbytery that read,

"It is an essential of Reformed polity that the Presbytery of Washington comply with and adhere to the standards for ordination adopted by the whole church and expressed in the Book of Order. Therefore, any departure from ordination standards mandated* in the Book of Order, unless repented of, shall bar a candidate from ordination and/or installation by the Presbytery of Washington.
[*ordination standards mandated in the Book of Order include those instructions designated by the terms “shall”, “is/are to be”, “requirement” or “equivalent expression”.]

The upshot of these cases is there is a split in the Synods about whether a Presbytery can declare that ordination standards are essential outside of an encounter between a governing body and a specific individual -- the Synod of the Northwest ruled yes; the Synod of the Trinity ruled no.

The GA PJC's determination of these three cases is likely to center around an interpretation of G-6.0108 and the Authoritative Interpretation (PUP #5) from the 217th General Assembly (2006). In short, the question is whether the "shall not" of G-6.0106b is an essential part of Reformed polity such that a presbytery can affirmatively declare it will not accept any "scruples" from it.

No matter what decision is made, however, there already is business before the 218th General Assembly (2008) to re-consider the Authoritative Interpretation. Specifically, three overtures will bring the isse before the Assembly:

Overture 005 and Overture 028 seek to rescind the Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108 (PUP#5);

Overture 009 which would basically adopt the Olympia Presbytery approach as the Authoritative Interpretation (yes, it is a little different in wording, but it would have that effect); and,

Overture 017 which would amend G-6.0108 to prohibit ordaining bodies to enroll as a candidate or ordain/install anyone who is unwilling to abide by the mandatory ("shall") provisions of the Book of Order.

The "Authoritative Interpretation" is the front line in the ordination standard debates. This will be one of the hot button issues in San Jose in June. It is interesting to contemplate whether the GA PJC will delay its decision on this case, defering to the General Assembly to answer the requests for a clarified Authoritative Interpretation. I suspect they will not, but it is not out of the question.