Why an Authoritative Interpretation Matters

By Brian Ellison

Clergy confidentiality. The uses of church property. Voting by email or on a conference call by presbyteries or sessions.  How candidates for ordination are to be examined. The meaning of marriage.

They’re all more or less important pieces of church life and governance. They’re all matters where contemporary practice outpaced what was anticipated when the church’s constitutional documents were written. And they are all areas where General Assemblies have made statements—known as authoritative interpretations—about how the Book of Order is to be understood in light of new situations and changing realities.

This summer, we at the Covenant Network are encouraging the 221st General Assembly to make decisions that will deepen and enhance the church’s understanding of marriage—clarifying that its blessings are available to all people, including couples of the same gender. One way we hope the assembly does this is through an authoritative interpretation—a binding ruling by the church’s highest council about what the constitution does and doesn’t say. There’s a fair amount of confusion in the church about what an AI is…  but there doesn’t need to be.

An AI is Normal, Common, Appropriate

Some have portrayed an authoritative interpretation as an unusual step, or some sort of abridgement of a full Presbyterian process. Nothing could be more inaccurate. The church’s constitution can be interpreted in two ways, both equally valid and deriving from the same authority: The Permanent Judicial Commission can issue decisions in particular judicial cases, or the Assembly can issue an AI. It is not unusual. The PJC is not a separate branch of government in our system; there is no constitutional crisis when one form of interpretation modifies or updates the other. Both bodies can and do freely speak for the General Assembly.

Every two years, the General Assembly issues authoritative interpretations on matters great and small. (The Annotated Book of Order, which is available online and a frequent tool of stated clerks, provides in its many notes ample evidence of the frequency and normalcy of the practice.) These do not require presbytery ratification votes. They are made with representation of the whole church, as the General Assembly includes commissioners from every presbytery. And the process includes ample opportunity for churchwide participation (including an early deadline for recommendations on constitutional matters and open hearings at the Assembly).  By the time an Assembly issues an AI, it is rightly seen as a true exercise of the discernment of the whole church.

On the subject of marriage, some have objected that the Assembly has no business making such a ruling without the more involved process of an amendment to the Book of Order. While we do support an amendment as a way of ensuring the church’s long-term witness to full participation for all its members, we heartily disagree that an AI is somehow inappropriate on a topic as important as marriage. In fact, the first word the Assembly spoke with regard to same-sex marriage was—you guessed it!—an authoritative interpretation, issued in 1991, before same-sex marriage existed anywhere in the U.S.  No one suggested at the time that the Assembly should be required to put the vote to all the presbyteries in the country. The Assembly had the authority and a worthy process for action, and it still does.

The reality is that the situation before the church with same-sex marriage is exactly the kind of situation an AI is designed to address.  It is a situation that the Book of Order didn’t anticipate, but where its guidance can still be applied, with some interpretation. The Directory for Worship as currently crafted reflects a reality much different from our current context. We as a church can address our practice of marriage without changing our fundamental understanding of it, and an AI allows us to move forward in a faithful way.

An AI is Needed … Right Now

Every month, I hear from more pastors and elders on sessions, calling or emailing with the same problem: Two of their church members—active, wonderful church people, baptized, perhaps ordained as deacons or elders—love each other and want to express their commitment and faithfulness through making vows to one another in the presence of the congregation, invoking God’s blessing and offering themselves in marriage as an act of Christian discipleship. It is a serious problem because the pastor is faced with a crisis: Honor her ordination vow to serve the people, or honor the vow to abide by the church’s discipline as the Book of Order has previously been interpreted. Trying to do both in the present environment could put ministry and churches at risk.

An AI at this summer’s General Assembly would resolve this crisis. It would allow for weddings in states where same-sex marriage is legal; it would also ground that act in the same deep foundation set forth in the Book of Order that is offered for all other marriages: “a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family… a covenant… a lifelong commitment… publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith” (W-4.9001).

What happens if this Assembly does not act? It would be 2016 before the Assembly will convene again. In those two years, how many couples will leave the church or be forced to see something they regard as sacred vows necessarily expressed in a park or courtroom? How many ministers will have to look beloved members of their flock in the eye and tell them they can’t serve them, can’t treat them the same as their sisters and brothers in the next pew? How many pastors will be forced to choose between love and legalism, between the hearts of people and the stability of their ministry? How many of the church’s resources will be squandered in contentious judicial process?  The General Assembly can fix this, and we hope it will do so this summer.

An AI Preserves the Conscience of All

One of the most disheartening conversations I had recently was with a friend who disagrees with me on these issues but who is committed to staying in the PCUSA. She expressed the hope that the AI would be defeated because it would be seen by evangelicals in the church as forcing same-sex marriage on them. Others have frequently expressed a fear—frequently named but never supported by actual threats—that in time churches and ministers would be forced to perform same-sex marriages.

This is not the goal, it is not the language proposed in any AI before the assembly, and it is not something the Covenant Network would ever support—in fact, the proposed AIs explicitly preserve conscience for those who do not approve of same-sex marriage. What we stand for is pastoral discretion and freedom—the ability of ministers to do what they always do with marriages, discerning the appropriateness of a marriage, offering counseling and prayer, and officiating at those weddings they feel are God-honoring and wise. No church would ever be required to host any wedding. No minister would be forced to perform one. On the contrary, this authoritative interpretation would best preserve our traditional affirmation that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” trusting the Spirit to lead our ministers and councils, on a case-by-case basis, to know what is best.

Since the approval of changes to the church’s ordination standards in 2011, no one has—to my knowledge—tried to force a session or presbytery to ordain anyone. They simply have had the freedom to ordain or install whomever they discern to be called, following examination on their gifts and lives of faith. In a similar way, this authoritative interpretation would free pastors and sessions to do what they have always done, exercise discretion in leading God’s people. Those who are opposed to same-sex marriage are free to remain opposed, living out their leadership and faithfulness in a different way.

Looking ForwardBrian Ellison

The Covenant Network remains committed to both inclusion and unity. Our prayer for the PCUSA is that these necessary changes in how we live out our understanding of marriage will provide a way forward for us to be church together—preserving the conscience of all and living out our ministry in faithfulness and justice and grace.


  1. http://Rev.%20Lawrence%20V.%20W.%20Black says

    Some thirty years ago, when I was an Executive Presbyter, the Presbytery was requested by a young man to be taken under care. He was seminary student, and openly acknowledged that he was gay. This was the first time I had to ask myself how I was going to deal with had, until then, not been a part of my thinking or my experience. In many ways it challenged my understanding of God’s will for me and for the church I loved and had served for almost 30 years. As I struggled with this, I became more and more aware of my life and sense of calling. For me, the issue became one of worthiness. If God, in his love and mercy could call me to service, how could I deny another the opportunity also responding to a similar call from God and from the church? I believe the same criterion applies to those whose life style is different from mine and yet love another even as I loved another.
    Therefore, I urge the General Assembly to continue to open itself to the work of the Spirit and issue an Authoritative Interpretation authorizing the marriage of homosexual couples under the blessing of God and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. May the Holy Spirit continue to guide our beloved church. Yours in Christ’s love for all.

  2. http://Thomas%20L.%20Fultz,%20Ruling%20Elder says

    After reading the many resources on the Covenant Network’s website in the light of this new article on Authoritative Interpretation, I find it odd that an organization committed to changing the PC(USA)’s understanding and practices toward same-gendered marriage as a matter of justice in God’s Kingdom, would advocate the Authoritative Interpretation approach to allow pastoral discretion. While the article mentions the measured practicality of an AI until the denomination changes the language of its Constitution, I do not see how the advocated call for justice and equality in marriage (as explained in the many resources of the Covenant Network) can be less important than pastoral discretion? How beyond a half-measure does the AI bring the PC(USA) to be a church as “generous and just as God’s grace”? I appreciate the ways which advocates of same-gendered marriage think “an AI allows us [PCUSA) to move forward in a faithful way”, and Rev Ellison states his case well; but I doubt it is persuasive to those who understand the issue from the alternative perspective; nor to those who view the current situation as unjust. I find the article does not answer the question of how the PC(USA) “can address our practice of marriage without changing our fundamental understanding of it”? It is unclear whether the Covenant Network will determine if an AI is sufficient a measure to address same-gendered marriage over a long period of time, or if the approach is seen as only a way-stop toward a comprehensive revision to the denomination’s understanding documented in our Constitution? I do appreciate the continued efforts of the Covenant Network to explain its positions.

  3. http://Tricia%20Dykers%20Koenig says

    The current injustice is that ministers whose consciences lead them to serve lesbian and gay couples by officiating at worship services solemnizing their marriages are forced to choose between their ordination vows – and worse, that couples are made to feel less than fully welcomed in their own congregations. The AI would correct this injustice by allowing pastoral discretion.

    However, pastoral discretion always includes the option to say “no.” And that option will remain no matter what the Book of Order says in the future.

    The church will be “as generous and just as God’s grace” when all its members are generous, just, and gracious – that is why we can only work “toward” that goal. Changing policies is an important step along that road; while we yearn for the day when LGBTQ persons never face discrimination in any situation, no legislative action can fully accomplish that goal.

    We have no doubt that at some point the Book of Order will be amended to reflect the realities of the church’s current context – increasingly, in many places the assertion that “marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man” is simply inaccurate, and it is clear that more and more people are recognizing that denying same gender couples the opportunity to live out their discipleship in the covenant of marriage is not the will of God. But insofar as our current rules create injustice, an AI will address the problem.

  4. http://Jim%20Caraher says

    Mr. Ellison’s advocacy on behalf of the Covenant Network’s AI at this June’s General Assembly is thoughtful and compelling. But his analysis has two glaring omissions:

    1. He glosses over the fact that the Covenant Network will also be working with More Light at GA to pass a Book of Order amendment on gay marriage even if the Covenant Network’s AI passes. This means that even if a successful AI achieves immediate justice for gay couples in the PC(USA), Covenant Network will persist in sending an amendment to the presbyteries for two years of rancorous wrangling on the issue of marriage. How does the Covenant Network square its claim to work for the peace and unity of the church when it persists in forcing presbyteries to deal with an issue which would be mooted in the short run by a successful AI? A successful AI will accelerate the departure of Presbyterians from the PC(USA) insuring that a Book of Order amendment will sail through smaller, more liberal presbyteries 2-4 years from now. If the Covenant Network is really working for the peace and unity of the church as it claims, it will rely on a successful AI it correctly believes will resolve the issue in the short run and defer inevitable victory on the Book of Order amendment for 2-4 years.
    2. Mr. Ellison blithely assures PC(USA) Presbyterians that the Covenant Network’s agenda benignly provides “discretion” for Presbyterians and that no PC(USA) pastor or church will ever be forced to violate their conscience on marriage. This is the way progressives always sugar coat their nostrums. Mr. Ellison is either unaware or willingly ignores the fact that his claims are unsupported by the PC(USA)’s history on the issue of women in church leadership. Early advocates of women’s ordination offered the PC(USA) the same hollow assurances but today, of course, a person can’t serve on the Pastor Nominating Committee of many churches without signing the presbytery’s statement that he/she will consider a woman for the position. I wholeheartedly support the full inclusion of women and gays in church leadership and marriage equality for gays in the PC(USA) but I’m not so naïve as to buy into Mr. Ellison’s disingenuous assurances which are wholly unsupported by PC(USA) precedent.

  5. http://Brian says

    I’m grateful for Mr. Caraher’s willingness to be in conversation on these matters.

    If I glossed over our support for both an amendment and an authoritative interpretation, that was not my intent. It’s just that this article focuses on the AI, which we have always deemed of critical and urgent importance to the church. The AI addresses an immediate pastoral crisis and its passage is crucial. But when the time comes to vote on an amendment, we certainly hope that presbyteries will do their best to model healthy conversation around it. I have been heartened at the ways faithful Presbyterians in presbyteries around the country have found ways to avoid rancor and have healthy conversation. Sometimes the votes go one way, sometimes the other. But I simply don’t accept the impossibility of faithful discernment and real unity among good-hearted people earnestly seeking the mind of Christ. Fear of what some folks might do can’t drive us.

    As for Mr. Caraher’s suggestion that my assurances are “disingenuous,” I’ll have to let his assessment of my character speak for itself. The Covenant Network does not seek, and has never sought, to bind the conscience of a council with regard to whom it may ordain, or of a teaching elder with regard to whom she or he may or must marry. To my knowledge, not one case has been brought against a council or individual for failure to ordain a person on the basis of their sexual orientation. And teaching elders have always had discretion about whether to perform marriages.

    These are complicated matters, but important ones. I’m grateful that Mr. Caraher supports the freedom of pastors to marry couples of the same gender, and I hope he’ll join us in supporting an AI and an amendment that will ensure that freedom.

    Brian Ellison
    Executive Director, Covenant Network

  6. http://Jim%20Caraher says

    Mr. Ellison’s rejoinder is a good example of the way Presbyterians in these conversations talk past each other. His response is eloquent and gracious but he completely ignores the points I made:

    1. I fervently hope he is right in his initial piece of March 20 that an Authoritative Interpretation at GA in June is the appropriate and efficacious way to promptly achieve marriage equality for gays in the PC(USA). But he is either unwilling or unable to explain why if the Covenant Network succeeds with its AI that the peace and unity of the PC(USA) should be further disrupted by forcing the presbyteries to deal with a Book of Order amendment. The PC(USA) is a shrinking, fracturing denomination even before the inevitable embrace of gay marriage. Mr. Ellison and the Covenant Network should explain to their church why they will insist on forcing the issue in the presbyteries if a successful AI resolves the issue in the short run. Moreover the incremental approach I’m suggesting might enhance the chances of succeeding with the AI. Moderates could very likely be persuaded to vote in favor of the AI in exchange for progressives agreeing to hold off on forcing the issue for a couple years in the presbyteries.
    2. My point with regard to the history of the women’s ordination issue in the PC(USA) has nothing to do with Mr. Ellison’s character and everything to do with the credibility of progressives’ assurances that all they are seeking is pastoral and church “discretion” on the issue of gay marriage. Women’s ordination in the PC(USA) has evolved from “discretion” to coercion so it’s the reasonable burden of progressives to explain why the same thing won’t happen over time on the issue of gay marriage. Once again, Mr. Ellison declines to address the issue.

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