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May 6, 2008: ACC recommends Authoritative Interpretation regarding transitional presbyteries

Just posted on PC-Biz is a recommendation from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) to approve a new Authoritative Interpretation. The Presbytery of Charlotte presented the following questions to the ACC:

1. Can a presbytery dismiss a congregation to a transitional presbytery in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church?

2. Can a presbytery dismiss a minister of the Word and Sacrament to a transitional presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church?

Nothing too heavy there, eh? This particular item probably had not appeared on many radar screens before it showed up on PC-Biz yesterday. It took me a while to figure out what was going on:

First, who is the ACC and what is the ACC doing making a recommendation of an Authoritative Interpretation to the General Assembly? G-13.0112 c and d -- the sections of the Book of Order that deals with the General Assembly -- require the creation of the ACC and establish its responsibilities.

c . All questions requiring an interpretation by the General Assembly of the Book of Order arising from governing bodies of the church or from individuals shall be communicated in writing to the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly no later than 120 days prior to the convening of the next session of the General Assembly.

d . The Stated Clerk shall refer all such questions of interpretation to the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, except those pertaining to matters pending before a judicial commission. The Advisory Committee shall report its findings to the General Assembly along with its recommendations. Such recommendations may include proposals for constitutional change. The General Assembly shall vote on the recommendations, and may amend or decline to approve them.(emphasis mine)

Here, the ACC received from the Clerk a letter with two questions requiring constitutional interpretation. The ACC considered and is reporting its findings to the General Assembly along with the recommendation to approve an Authoritative Interpretation. This process -- where an individual or governing body writes a question requiring Constitutional interpretation -- has become more popular in recent years.

Second, what did the ACC recommend? I am not quoting it all here, but after re-stating the presbytery's responsibilities as trustee for real property provided in G-8.000 the relevant paragraphs are:

The provisions of G-15.0203 a and b do, however, require that the General Assembly, as the highest governing body of this denomination, advise its presbyteries in this matter. The 218th General Assembly (2008) therefore advises the presbyteries that they must satisfy themselves concerning the conformity with this denomination of a transitional presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in matters of doctrines and order. Presbyteries may facilitate the exploration of conformity by means of an administrative commission, although such commissions may not be empowered to approve the dismissal of the congregation. In exploring this matter, presbyteries should consider such questions as whether the receiving EPC presbytery is

  • doctrinally consistent with the essentials of Reformed theology as understood by the presbytery;
  • governed by a polity that is consistent in form and structure with that of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A);
  • of sufficient permanence to offer reasonable assurance that the congregation is not being dismissed to de facto independence.

Failure on the part of the presbytery thoroughly to explore and adequately to document its satisfaction in these matters may thus violate, however unintentionally, the spirit of the polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Third, what does it mean? It means that the ACC is recommending GA approve an Authoritative Interpretation. This AI would be a three part test for the review of any presbytery approving release of a congregation with property to a New Wineskins transitional presbytery. The test will be the sufficiency -- the thoroughness -- of the presbytery's evaluation of each of the three categories as they relate to the EPC. If, in the judgment of a reviewing higher governing body, the presbytery has not been sufficiently thorough in its evaluation (with no definition as to what is necessary to be sufficiently thorough) it seems the decision could be reversed on appeal.

Further, in the rationale there are cues that the ACC is not impressed with the EPC transitional presbyteries. The comments signal that the answer ought to be "no" on all three questions. It begs the question whether any presbytery decision in favor of releasing a congregation with property to the EPC transitional presbytery could survive review -- because the ACC's thoroughness already provides the answer. Along with the broad scope of the Administrative Commission approved in the Synod of the Sun regarding property questions in South Louisiana Presbytery, it does seem that there is a move to restrain or limit the discretion of presbyteries regarding their G-8.000 responsibilities.

This is another example of how the Form of Government follows our regulatory conduct; and not the other way around. (Think in terms of handling this issue in the context of the nFoG). This is a pure regulatory move. It is not missional in design. It would take away authority from the presbyteries and establish greater authority in the higher "governing" bodies. It would have a chilling effect on congregations trying to discern where God is calling -- heightening the sense of distrust. How different it would have been if it had only suggested the criteria for a presbytery to use in its considerations without adding the sentence that presumes a failure by the presbytery to do its job.