The big thing today was the approval of two measures intended to allow teaching elders serving in States where it is legal to celebrate same-sex marriages. The first was an Authoritative Interpretation (AI). Some close friends of mine whom I deeply respect and admire worked on this, and I understand the reasoning. However, I do get a little nervous when an “interpretation” seems to go so far beyond the thing it is interpreting. Now, when the current Directory for Worship was framed, the notion of same-sex marriage was nowhere near being on the radar. And some earlier versions of the Directory simply referred to the two “parties” in marriage. It is therefore not so far afield to imagine this interpretive language clarifying the actual words in the Directory. In any case, the Assembly thought so, and it is their call.
The other frustration some expressed with this approach was that it changed the practice of the church without the consultation with the local presbyteries that an actual Constitutional Amendment would require. I get this as well… however, it was made moot when the Assembly proceeded to approve just such an amendment. So the AI makes room for teaching elders to perform same-sex marriages now, and the amendment, if it passes the next hurdle, will take effect in 2015.
While many are worried that this will accelerate the exodus of conservative congregations from the denomination, others are hopeful that it will aid us in welcoming new groups of people who were previously excluded. Certainly any move away from the anti-Gay stance that characterizes so many churches will enhance the church’s credibility with most younger people, for whom this is all simply not an issue.
Personally, I was pretty sure these initiatives would pass. Not only has the culture shifted tectonically in favor of same-sex marriage – which is now permitted in many States – but with the departure of many conservative churches the center of gravity in the church has shifted to the left. This is evident in the fact that votes on controversial issues that were once pretty even, now come down around 70/30.
After the vote, some suggested that the AI would certainly be “appealed”. I understand the sentiment behind this view, however, there is no body to whom an appeal might go. This is a General Assembly. Appeals always go from a lower council to a higher; there is no higher council than a GA. The Assembly therefore has awesome and nearly absolute power to interpret the Constitutions. In principle, an Assembly could issue an AI saying that “even though the Book of Order says green, we interpret that to mean orange.”
I know a lot of people are not comfortable with this. It was controversial last time in Pittsburgh, over an issue regarding the Book of Confessions, which is, after all, part of, not higher than, the Constitution. Due to decisions made then, some bitterly concluded that the confessions were no longer authoritative for us, and thus we are not a “confessional” church.
Some erroneously believe that the Permanent Judicial Commission functions like some kind of “Supreme Court,” and may overrule a General Assembly. But the PJC is a commission of the General Assembly, not above it. We have no “separation of powers” as in the secular government. The General Assembly itself has all ecclesiastical legislative, judicial, and executive powers.
Guns in Church.
The Assembly decided it was necessary to recommend to churches that they declare themselves “Gun Free Zones.” For a person like me, who is uncomfortable with even water-pistols in church, it glaringly obvious that if anything doesn’t belong in a gathering of disciples of Jesus Christ it is firearms. I realize that this initiative is intended to make a statement, especially against these “open carry” idiots, but also commenting on the plague of gun violence now throttling our society. I pray that all our churches have always been gun free zones; now we are simply finding a reason to say so publicly.