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October 11, 2007: Renunciation of Jurisdiction

As we continue looking at the proposed substitute Form of Government, we are take a look at one of the lesser known -- but highly important -- features: renunciation of jurisdiction. 

Renunciation of jurisdiction is an something that no one wants to happen. It is an action by an individual to separate himself/herself from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It says, "I am not a part of you, I no longer recognize your authority over me."

Most times the individual is the one making the affirmative statement. However, both the current and the proposed Forms of Government anticipate the situation where governing bodies (or now councils) could discern san individual (whether Minister of the Word and Sacrament, Elder, or Deacon) by his/her conduct makes clear that they have, in fact, renounced jurisdiction.

For example: persistent, active, open defiance of "shall" or "shall not" provisions of the Constitution are an indication that someone is not intending to play by the rules. The ability and authority of the governing body to make this determination is a crucial element of exercising ecclesiastical discipline (nourishing virtue and discouraging vice).

Root of distrust

It has been the inability and unwillingness of governing bodies to declare that someone's persistent defiant conduct is a renunciation of jursidiction that has caused the distrust of the system to take root.

Let me give you one very specific example: trust was lost when Steven Van Kuiken won the appeal at the Synod level overturning the finding and rebuke for his intentional defiance performing ceremonies he called same-sex marriages (after specific instruction by Cincinnati Presbytery to cease performing them). His behavior was the very definition of a renunciation of jurisdiction; yet, he used the procedural protections afforded by the Constitution to continue his defiance.

Now, instead of strengthening the authority of governing bodies (or councils), the proposed substitute Form of Government imposes additional hoops for councils to jump through in order to come to a decision that -- if precedent is any indicator -- may or may not be upheld.

Ok, here are the specifics:

Current:

G-6.0702 When a church officer, after consultation and notice, persists in a work disapproved by the governing body having jurisdiction, the governing body may presume that the officer has renounced the jurisdiction of this church.

Proposed:

G-2.0210 When a ruling elder or deacon persists in work disapproved by the session, the session shall consult with him or her and shall give notice of its disapproval. If, after having been provided opportunity for consultation and upon written notice of its disapproval, the ruling elder or deacon persists in the work, the session may then conclude that the ruling elder or deacon has renounced the jurisdiction of this church.

and:

G-2.0308b When a minister of the Word and Sacrament persists in work disapproved by the presbytery having jurisdiction, the presbytery shall consult with the minister and shall give notice of its disapproval. If after having been provided opportunity for consultation and upon written notice of its disapproval, the minister of the Word and Sacrament persists in the work, the presbytery may then conclude that he or she has renounced the jurisdiction of this church.

Why add protections for the one in defiance? The disapproval notice must now be written; on appeal, no doubt, there additionally will have to be a "proof of service" of the written notice indicating that the individual personally received it.

Although it is probably a good idea to have the notice written, why add the requirement? Imagine the presbytery meeting where the action item regarding a minister of Word and Sacrament's persisting in a work disapproved by the presbytery comes to the floor. Discussion is held during which the individual explains (or is offered the opportunity to explain) the reasons for persisting in the work. A vote is taken. The presbytery disapproves of the work and instructs the Moderator to order the person to stop.

Does the Moderator's verbal order take effect at that point? Does it take effect only if the Moderator writes the order and hands it to the person? Or, does it take effect when the Minutes of the meeting are approved (in some cases, months later)? Again, why add procedural burdens to accountability -- it is not as if there are not already sufficient protections in place. If there is a question about the process, a remedial case challenging the action of the governing body is always possible.

And, if we are actually going to re-write the Form of Government to enhance trust, why couldn't it be written that "if after having been provided opportunity for consultation and upon notice of its disapproval, the (ruling elder or deacon [in G-2.0210] or minister of the Word and Sacrament [in G-2.0308]) persists in the work, the [jurisdiction] shall then declare that he or she has renounced the jurisdiction of the church." What possible reason could there be for harboring someone who continually persists in overtly defying the jurisdiction's authority? How does that build trust?