“Authoritative interpretation” was the phrase of the day Monday in deliberations by the 219th General Assembly Church Polity Committee, which dispensed with a dozen recommendations before bogging down because of the most troublesome word of the day: trust.
Item 05-21 is the Advisory Committee on the Constitution’s (ACC) answer to questions posed by the Presbytery of St. Augustine seeking an authoritative interpretation about authoritative interpretations by General Assembly sessions as opposed to those by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC). The committee decided to strike part of the ACC’s authoritative interpretation for presentation to the full assembly.
“This interpretation does not limit the GAPJC’s authority or right to make an authoritative interpretation,” Alyson Janke, member of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, told the committee.
Earlier in open hearings, several speakers said they thought the GAPJC was no longer being clear in its authoritative interpretations or where changing the intent of the actions of previous assemblies. One of the goals was to stop the potential “ping-pong” effect of referring interpretations back and forth.
“I think at the end of the day, we want to leave GA as the final interpretive body,” said elder Chris Burger of Susquehanna Valley Presbytery.
Another committee member countered that concern.
“A commission has the full power of General Assembly until the assembly meets again,” said elder David McFarlan of the Upper Ohio Valley Presbytery. “That’s important checks and balances for both of those bodies.”
Later in the evening session, ACC member Paul Hooker said the two are not really competing bodies, and their interpretations are not valued differently.
“They are equally binding,” Hooker said. “The GAPJC is not a separate tribunal; it is an extension of the General Assembly.”
Despite the seemingly clear answers, commissioners walked a bumpy path to settling on a final interpretation. The prolonged debate repeatedly kicked over rocks of trust, exposing the distrust many Presbyterians seem to feel about the GAPJC’s work. One commission said that the authoritative interpretations sometimes fee like a hammer and sometimes look like a back door to constitutional change.
The final vote in favor of the amended document was 32-12-0.