07 May 2008


Note: The posts in this series are the opinion of the author.They do not reflect, nor should they be construed to reflect, the opinions or positions of Cozen O'Connor, Forks of the Brandywine Presbyterian Church, the New Wineskins Association of Churches, or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

The Book of Order recognizes a separate and distinct set of powers that belong, not to the “governing bodies,” but to the individual congregations. These powers are referred to as the “permissive powers of the congregation.” Book of Order, §G-7.0304a(5).

At least one chapter of the Book of Order begins with a section entitled “definitions,” (see, § G-9.0101. See, also, § G-9.0401). However, nowhere in the Book of Order can one find a definition of the elusive and ambiguous phrase “permissive powers of the congregation.” It is this very ambiguity that presents the greatest obstacle to those who argue that the power to depart must reside only in an all-powerful presbytery.

The doctrine contra proferentum stands for the proposition that an ambiguity in a document shall be construed against he who wrote the document. In this case, the Book of Order was written and adopted by bodies other than the congregations against whom it is being used. In fact, it was written by the very bodies who seek to benefit from their own interpretation of their ambiguity. The Book of Order is suspiciously akin to a contract of adhesion.

The General Assembly has long been aware of the ambiguity, see, e.g., Presbytery of Beaver-Butler v. Middlesex, 489 A.2d 1317, 1323 (Pa. 1985); Presbytery of Donegal v. Calhoun, 99 Pa. Cmwlth 300, 513 A. 2d 531, 538 (1986); Presbytery of Donegal v. Wheatley, 99 Pa. Cmwlth 312, 513 A. 2d 538,540 (1986).

It has always had the power to cure the ambiguity, but, for over 20 years, has failed to do so. Therefore, the ambiguity must be construed against the General Assembly (as sponsor and beneficiary of the Book of Order) and in favor of the congregations which had no say in the drafting and adoption thereof.

The conspicuous absence of a definition of the permissive powers of the congregation, coupled with the vague descriptive list in subparagraphs (1) through (4), leads to the necessity of a contextual definition. Studying the theme of §G-7.0304a, one comes to the conclusion that those powers include any that are central to the life and ministry of the congregation and that are not specifically granted to one of the governing bodies. It is reasonable to assume that such powers are those that are of greatest concern to, and which have the greatest impact on, the core identity of the individual congregation.

Note the limitation of this assertion: it claims for the congregation only those undefined powers that impinge upon its own ministry. By way of example, it makes no claim to the right to take under care inquirers or candidates or to examine candidates for ordination as Ministers of Word and Sacrament, or to exert judicial power beyond the four walls of its church.

More to come.

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