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February 8, 2008: The Impact of the GA PJC Decisions

Yesterday, I began writing about the three GA PJC cases that are being heard today in Louisville. At that point, I did not have a link to the Synod of the Trinity decision regarding Pittsburgh Presbytery case; thanks to a reader, that has now changed.

Though I have no idea what the GA PJC will rule in these three cases, they are likely to want to come up with one standard so that presbyteries are clear. That will be quite a challenge. Their challenge also has two very practical implications for commissioners to the 218th General Assembly (2008):

1. It illustrates the problems caused by ambiguity -- ambiguity requires a GA PJC decision to clarify -- which is why creating wholesale ambiguity via "flexible" language in the proposed Form of Government will actually generate more regulatory behavior and less missional behavior (exactly the opposite of what is intended); and,

2. The GA PJC's decision(s) will be the de facto starting point for the debate on the "Authoritative Interpretation" of G-6.0108. This is a little more complicated to explain, but here's how this is likely to play out:

a. There are overtures asking the 218th General Assembly to rescind and amend the Authoritative Interpretation. Other overtures may have been submitted but not yet reported; still others may be in the works -- though the deadline is rapidly approaching (February 22; scroll down to G. to get the other specific dates). Whatever the GA PJC rules, it will supplement the energy towards those requests -- it will not make them moot.

b. All the business related to ordination standards and the Authoritative Interpretation will be distributed to one commissioner committee for its review and recommendation. Because of the amount of interest and the amount of business, public hearings are likely to be scheduled for Monday morning. At those public hearings, there will be an hour of back and forth speeches -- probably a minute or two each -- during which commissioners and advisory delegates will be the passive audience. Then, beginning in the afternoon, the committee will begin to take up the issues.

If past history is any indication, there will be a move to have the committee go into a "committee of the whole" structure; which suspends Robert's Rules and has this committee function like an ad hoc group putting together a statement. This way, formal procedures like amendments and substitute motions are abandoned. The idea is to create consensus; that is, a document that everyone has had a chance to have their say about, which will be proposed as the "best we could do", and which then will be voted on.

"Committee of the whole" is efficient, it is simple, and it is absolutely the wrong thing to do. Instead of protecting the rights of those who hold a minority view, it intimidates people and makes them "not one of us" if they do not go along to get along. If you have not been a part of this process, it is difficult to imagine the very palpable peer pressure that takes place when the rest of the group is agreed and you are the odd one out.

c. Not every idea will have equal time to be heard. For example, the overture advocate from South Louisiana (005) will not have much of a chance to be heard at all. Why? Because General Assemblies do not like creating empty spaces. Rescinding an authoritative interpretation without adding something else leaves ....emptiness.

Not really, but that is the perception. In most venues in life, "shall not" does not need an Authoritative Interpretation to clarify.

Regardless of the clarity of the G-6.0106b's "shall not", General Assemblies are loathe to create silence where once the GA's voice was heard. Thus, simply rescinding last Assembly's Authoritative Interpretation is not a likely outcome. That overture's advocate is going to have a difficult time gaining a foothold in the committee. The more likely outcomes are either:

  • there will be no change -- it is left "as is" and whatever the GA PJC has ruled will be the standard for application of the existing Authoritative Interpretation; or,

  • there will be some amendment -- which will void or modify or confuse the GA PJC's ruling.

d. One action will answer all the business. After the committee goes through this process regarding one item of business, there will be a motion to have that action answer all the other related business. Why? Time, efficiency, and no one wants to go back through the same thing over again. So, even if there are subtle differences in the requests, whatever is taken up first is likely to be the one that determines the outcome.

e. Committee's tend to be more liberal/progressive. Why? Because YADs (Youth Advisory Delegates) have voice and vote in committee. On the floor of the Assembly, they have voice only. Youth Advisory Delegates have trended towards the more liberal/progressive side of the spectrum, they have tended to see orthodoxy has rigid and not nice, and they are persuaded by "person-ing" the issue (someone has a brother, sister, son, daughter or friend who ...). This is not a blanket statement; certainly there have been YADs who do not fit this profile.

f. Debate on the floor. Most likely Friday afternoon, after the election of the new Stated Clerk. Here, the recommendation of the committee will be presented as the majority report, and there will be a minority report or substitute motion presented. The debate will take place and the Assembly will vote as it will vote.

So, having had the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission rule on the very issue pending before the 218th General Assembly only months ahead of its convening, it will likely be the starting point. Someone's ox will have been gored and it will be the rallying cry to energize the troops at GA to "fix it!"