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October 1, 2007: Links and a Pertinent Question

First this morning are several links from this past weekend that are interesting to me:

  1. Presbynews is reporting that the General Assembly Council is recommending that the Form of Government Task Force seek an extension for study and feedback. The two year extension is basically a move to postpone the debate until the following General Assembly in 2010. The sub-head is the interesting part of this story: "GAC fears revisions may fail because of lack of understanding, trust."

  2. Jim Berkley of the Institute for Religion and Democracy has a review of the Form of Government Task Force's report to the General Assembly Council which highlights several of the major changes. Jim has a nice way of distilling issues. He also has incredible fortitude in order to be able to sit at these multi-day-long meetings as an observer.

A pertinent question

My friend Bob Dooling sent me the following letter which raises a pertinent question: would the proposed Foundation section be a "super-constitution"?

Bob:

Last week at lunch, a friend asked a question about the proposed FOG that I think is pretty significant. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t have a ready answer.

He asked if I thought that the Task Force will have unintentionally planted what amounts to a ticking “time bomb” into the Constitution by placing a “Foundations” document in front of Chapter one of the FOG.   

His question went something like this – given the sequence of the two documents isn’t it likely that someone will eventually argue that the “Foundations” section is a kind of “super constitution” that controls everything that follows.  And, won’t others inevitably construe its very title – “Foundations” – to mean precisely the same thing?  And, if such a theory were to be upheld, wouldn’t it be logical to argue that if certain parts of the FOG were to be found to be inconsistent with the “Foundations,” the inconsistencies would have to be declared to be unconstitutional? 

Let me be more specific.  Many of us think that “fidelity and chastity” should remain a standard for ordination to church office.  That standard, of course, is currently codified in G-6.0106b. Further, our courts have found that while sections of our current Constitution (i.e. G-4.0402 and G-40403) properly call for openness to and inclusiveness of the rich diversity within our membership, those sections do not override the more restrictive provisions of G-6.  That is to say, the inevitable tensions in our Constitution do not invalidate each other, but must be held in some kind of creative tension.

This understanding was confirmed in Londonderry v. Presbytery of Northern New England in 2001.  The case was brought because the Presbytery accepted the argument of Christ Church, Burlington (VT) that it was proper to ordain “self-affirming, practicing, homosexuals” because the prohibition in G-6.0106b was irreconcilably in conflict with the requirement of inclusivity found elsewhere in the Constitution. In its decision, the GAPJC said:

It is not unusual for a document such as our Constitution, written at different periods of time and under different circumstances, to exhibit tensions and ambiguities in its provisions. Nevertheless, it is the task of governing bodies and judicial commissions to resolve them in such a way as to give effect to all provisions (emphasis mine).  It is not within the power of any governing body or judicial commission to declare a properly adopted provision of the Constitution to be invalid. The only appropriate avenue to change or remove a provision of the Constitution is through the process for amendment provided within the Constitution itself.

But, if the “Foundations” paper were ever to be found to be controlling of the FOG, several sections of F- 3.03, for example, could theoretically be used to invalidate “fidelity and chastity” without any input from the Presbyteries.

I may be borrowing trouble by asking these questions, and I am neither implying, nor do I think, that there is some kind of grand conspiracy going on.  But, wouldn’t it be wise for us to request that the Task Force resolve any potential problems by stating clearly and precisely, and in the documents themselves, what the exact relationship between the “Foundations” paper and the FOG is?  And, doesn’t the fact that G-6.051 will prevent any amendment of the “Foundations” section for six years following its adoption make this request even more pressing? 

Your brother in Christ,

Bob Dooling

Tomorrow: Back to the section review.