The six members of the Special Committee on Existing Authoritative Interpretations of the Book of Order held their first meeting here on January 17-18 to begin the detailed work assigned to them by the 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).                                          

The committee was recommended after last year’s assembly adopted a revised Form of Government, which requires approval by a majority of the PC(USA)’s 173 presbyteries to become an official part of the Book of Order within the denomination’s Constitution. Voting is currently underway, with a final tally expected by the end of spring.

The focus of the special committee is on existing authoritative interpretations (AI), which are interpretations of the PC(USA)’s Constitution that carry the authority of the General Assembly and are binding on the governing bodies of the church.

An AI is made by action of a General Assembly upon the advice of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) or through a decision of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) in deciding a remedial or disciplinary case. The most recent interpretation of a provision of the Book of Order is binding.

The ACC and GAPJC have determined that if the revised Form of Government (FOG) is approved, the status of existing AIs would vary depending on the differences in language between the revised FOG and the current version:

  1. If language approved in the Constitution explicitly restates the content of existing authoritative interpretations, it is no longer an authoritative interpretation but is incorporated into the Constitution.
  2. If language is approved that is identical to, or essentially the same as the language of constitutional provisions that have already been interpreted, current authoritative interpretations would continue in force. The ACC believes this would apply, for example, to authoritative interpretations regarding current G-6.0106b, G-6.0108, G-8.0201, and G-9.0404d in the Book of Order.
  3. If language is approved that is substantively different from currently interpreted constitutional language, clarification from the General Assembly would be required as to the status and applicability of existing authoritative interpretations through the provisions of G-13.0103r.
  4. If language is approved that contradicts the substance of an existing authoritative interpretation, the current interpretation would have no effect.
  5. If language is approved that totally removes a constitutional provision that has been authoritatively interpreted, the authoritative interpretations attached to that provision would be removed as well.

At its meeting, the special committee developed a process for their work ahead. In essence, members will compare the plain language in the current and proposed Form of Government. They will study each current General Assembly- or GAPJC-issued authoritative interpretation since the 1983 reunion when the PC(USA) was formed to determine if it applies in the revised Form of Government. They will then organize AIs into those that do or do not apply, as well as those that may apply.

Speaking about the committee’s work, one of its members, the Reverend Fane Downs, said, “In this time of deliberations about the proposed Form of Government, we hope presbyters in particular and the larger church in general will take comfort in knowing that important issues like authoritative interpretations are being addressed.”

Downs continued, “We are working to minimize the uncertainty and anxiety that some folks may have in anticipation of the transition from the current to the new Form of Government, if it is approved.”

The special committee has no authority of its own, but will present its findings and recommendations to the ACC by mid-August of this year. The ACC will then make its own recommendations to the 220th General Assembly (2011) based on the special committee’s work.

The assembly action specified that the six individuals named to the special committee by current GA Moderator Cindy Bolbach come from recommendations by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC), the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC), and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA).

In addition to Downs, who formerly served on the GAPJC, the special committee includes former GAPJC member elder Steve Tabor; former ACC members elder Alyson Janke and the Reverend Neal Lloyd; and elders Laurie Griffith and Doska Ross, both of whom are OGA staff members.

The Reverend Mark Tammen, Office of the General Assembly, is staffing the committee.