10 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.

What are the permissive powers of the congregation?

Any discussion of the powers, both inherent and permissive, of the congregation must start with the understanding that the congregation is not itself a court of the Church. Any suggestion to the contrary is unsupportable by fact or by logic. Unlike the age-old question about the priority of the chicken and the egg, the congregation must precede the session, both temporally and logically. The congregation is the most basic expression of the Church of Jesus Christ. Without the congregation there is no session, and without the congregation, there can be no presbyteries, synods, or a general assembly.

The court of original jurisdiction for the congregation is the session. The presbytery is a court with a wider jurisdiction. It properly has original jurisdiction over the ministers and, to a lesser degree, session, but not the congregation. Presbyteries are not given the power to unilaterally dissolve congregations but can only do so by a process that necessarily involves due process, including conversations with the congregation and other procedural safeguards. Even here, the Book of Order is ambiguous with respect to the issue of dissolution of a congregation. Other than a mere recitation that a presbytery has the power to dissolve a congregation, §G-11.0103i, and the assertion that the property of a dissolved congregation becomes that of the presbytery, §G-8.0601, the Book of Order states no bases upon which a dissolution decision must rest. Thus, a covetous presbytery might consider dissolution for no better reason than to confiscate the property of one of its member churches for the pecuniary gain of the presbytery.

Definition of permissive powers of the congregation is extremely important at this juncture in history. For the first time in over a quarter-century, a significant number of congregations are voicing their desire to terminate their affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In response, the national headquarters of the denomination and various presbyteries are loudly and repeatedly asserting with no support in either fact or law that the only avenue for such departure is by way of “dismissal” by the presbytery in which the congregation is situated. Absent dismissal, says the denomination, a congregation is forced to either stay in the PC(USA) or to disband and forfeit its property to the presbytery. (In so doing, they are following that oldest of propaganda rules: a false statement or interpretation, voiced often enough and loudly enough, will soon take on an aura of truth.)

Section G-11.0103i is the only mention in the Book of Order of dismissal as a means of departure from the PC(USA). (Mere reference to §G-11.0103i in §G-8.0601 is not an independent mention of dismissal. ) Section G-11.0103 makes it clear that the congregation (“members”), not the session, is on the other side of the situational equation from the presbytery. Nowhere in the Book of Order is there any mention of how the dismissal process is to be initiated or executed.

There is a presumption that each word contained in a document such as the Book of Order has a meaning and is not mere surplussage. Londonderry, et al. v. Pby of Northern New England, (Remedial Case 213-2, GAPJC 2001)(it is the task of governing bodies and judicial commissions to resolve tensions and ambiguities in the Constitution’s provisions in such a way as to give effect to all provisions).

Giving a presbytery the right to dismiss a congregation presupposes that the congregation can constitutionally request dismissal. To empower a presbytery to respond to a request that a congregation has no authority to make would be a nullity of the first order.

Therefore, because § G-7.0304 makes no specific mention of request for dismissal, the congregation’s right to do so must be one of the “permissive powers” reserved to the congregation.

More tomorrow.

No comments: