LOUISVILLE — In a bluntly-worded memorandum to synod and presbytery executives and stated clerks this week, General Assembly stated clerk the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick insisted "there is no constitutional crisis" in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Responding to what he called "misunderstandings circulating in the media," Kirkpatrick said the 190 judicial commissions in the denomination — one for each of the 173 presbyteries, 16 synods and the General Assembly — are "faithful commissions in their careful and important work" and that "further action by a General Assembly — regular or special session — to intervene directly in a judicial process would create just such a crisis."
Two Presbyterians have launched campaigns to force Kirkpatrick and the General Assembly to intervene in a number of cases around alleged "defiance" of the constitution by churches and individuals who oppose G-6.0106b — the commonly called "fidelity and chastity" provision of the PC(USA)'s Book of Order.
Paul Rolf Jensen, an attorney in suburban Washington, DC, has filed more than 20 G-6.0106b-related complaints in presbyteries around the country. In a letter to Kirkpatrick he also sent to various media, Jensen demanded that Kirkpatrick force judicial commissions in some of those presbyteries to bring his complaints to trial.
Alex Metherell, an attorney in Laguna Beach, CA, who was a commissioner from Los Ranchos Presbytery to last summer's 214th General Assembly, says he has garnered requests from 44 commissioners to force a special session of that Assembly to address the "constitutional crisis." The Book of Order stipulates that a special meeting "shall" be called "at the request of 25 elders and 25 ministers, representing at least 15 presbyteries under the jurisdiction of at least five synods, all of whom must have been commissioners to the last preceding stated meeting of General Assembly." Metherell says his list of petitioners meets those requirements.
Metherell and Jensen are both members of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.
The full text of Kirkpatrick's memo, dated Nov. 6, 2002:
One of the great strengths of our beloved denomination is the Constitution that describes our office and defines our functions as we engage in ministry and mission together. I praise God for your faithful service under it, and I am so very grateful that the vast majority of Presbyterians treasure and abide by it.
My office, like I suspect many of your offices, has received claims of a supposed "constitutional crisis." I believe those claims to be based upon a number of misunderstandings about our Constitution. These misunderstandings are circulating in the media and I am concerned that they are causing confusion in the church. Therefore, let me set the record straight. I commend the following to you and hope that this information will be of help.
Misunderstanding #1: Nothing is being done to uphold our Constitution.
Like you, I know these claims to be patently inaccurate. Many of the governing bodies you serve have undertaken judicial and administrative processes. The Office of the General Assembly has spent countless hours serving as a resource to and for you and to parties on all sides of disputes by training judicial commissions, providing advisory opinions on our Constitution, and staffing the General Assembly's Permanent Judicial Commission and the Advisory Committee on the Constitution. One of the marks of the covenant that binds us together is the careful, thorough, and sometimes-lengthy process our Constitution sets up to address defiance and sin, while providing due process and the opportunity to defend oneself. These are hallmarks of our polity.
Protecting rights, and presuming innocence and good faith, may not be the most efficient ways to arrive at determinations of compliance, or of guilt or innocence. But these components are tangible expressions of the bedrock principles that underlie our covenant.
Misunderstanding #2: The 214th General Assembly failed to take action to uphold the Constitution.
An overwhelming majority of the commissioners to the 214th General Assembly affirmed the regular process described in our Constitution, which empowers the governing bodies you serve to determine that "the proceedings have been regular and in accordance with the Constitution" (G-9.0409a) and to "correct or restrain wrongdoing" (D-1.0101).
This claim about the 214th General Assembly's actions stems from a misunderstanding of the judicial process. Our Constitution assigns the responsibility for judicial process to our judicial commissions at the presbytery, synod, and General Assembly levels; it does not provide for our governing bodies to directly engage in judicial processes. The 214th General Assembly specifically reaffirmed this process and urged all governing bodies and judicial commissions to abide by it.
Misunderstanding #3: Further action by a General Assembly is needed to resolve the supposed "Constitutional crisis."
There is no Constitutional crisis. The powers of the General Assembly in judicial matters are limited by the Constitution; these powers are assigned to the Assembly's judicial commission (G-13.0103o). Further action by a General Assembly-regular or special session-to intervene directly in a judicial process would create just such a crisis. Our Constitution places authority for disciplinary and remedial matters in judicial commissions. Just as a synod cannot reach into congregations, neither can a General Assembly bypass synods. The actions of judicial commissions can only be reviewed by the next higher judicial commission. Neither a General Assembly nor its Stated Clerk can defend the Constitution by defying it.
Misunderstanding #4: Judicial commissions have not been faithful in their work.
One hundred and ninety permanent judicial commissions are in our system and are faithfully served by nearly 2,000 Presbyterian ministers and elders. The Rules of Discipline wisely entrust the most authority over the broadest range of issues to the body most local to the situation, that is, the body most likely to have knowledge and understanding of the particular situation. Please continue to resource and support these faithful commissions in their careful and important work. Most of you do that so well that the church hardly knows about this whole system.
I invite you to continue to consult with staff of the Office of the General Assembly at any time. The Office of the General Assembly has released a number of advisory opinions and resources on these subjects. We have advisory opinions on administrative review (#1) and dissent and defiance (#2). We also have numerous resources on judicial process (Polity Reflections 1-5) and the role of the Clerk in the process (Polity Reflection 46). These resources can be found at PC USA.
I pray that God will strengthen you as you continue to fulfill your responsibilities in this difficult time in the life of the church. I am thankful to be partners in ministry with you in the name of Jesus Christ. I continue to pray that God will bless you in your service to the church.
By Jerry L. Van Marter