This past summer the 219th General Assembly considered an overture that sought a General Assembly Authoritative Interpretation of the constitution that said the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission could not make Authoritative Interpretations of the Constitution. Only the General Assembly could do so. The General Assembly voted it down.
There is a certain irony about the General Assembly seeking to make an Authoritative Interpretation about Authoritative Interpretations but that isn’t the intent of this blog. I’m wondering how much the General Assembly knew about the history of disciplinary decisions that reached the top governing body or its Permanent Judicial Commission. Just so I don’t have to type as many letters, General Assembly will be GA, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission will be the GAPJC and Authoritative Interpretations will be AIs. And before anyone jumps up and down saying I don’t know everything:
1. I didn’t research this so I’m going from memory; and
2. This will be a history that follows the Northern branch of the Church.
It looks like there was a time when there weren’t PJCs. Back in the day the GA at the very least became a court when it made judicial decisions. We can hear this in old references to governing bodies as courts of the church. Then of course they became judicatories (hear the word judicial in there?) then governing bodies and if the new Form of Government passes they will be councils. I hope I can remember the change if it passes. I still have trouble calling the Committee on Preparation for Ministry by its name instead of Candidates Committee and I’ve had since 1983 to make the change.
ANYWAY you can read in the Session minutes of any congregation that was established before 1875 records of trials held by the Session. And in fact the Book of Order still says the Session tries cases related to members of the congregation, elders and deacons. Those found guilty of offenses could always appeal the decisions to the presbytery. And here is where things change.
For a long time presbyteries, synods and GAs would become courts and hear judicial matters when necessary. There were no PJCs. You can find an example back in the mid 1830s when a case from Philadelphia Presbytery came before the GA. The Presbytery had refused membership to a pastor from New Jersey because the members didn’t like his theology. The GA became a court for the time it spent considering the matter and then overturned the Presbytery’s decision. This, by the way, was one of the factors in the Old School/New School split back in 1938. (And did you know that the two sides went to civil court both claiming the name “Presbyterian Church in the USA?”)
I’m not sure when PJCs were established. My guess is that at some point courts of the church got too busy and decided to turn over judicial cases over to PJCs. But for a long time the GAPJC’s decisions weren’t permanent until the GA approved them.
I’m not sure when the GA stopped making decisions on the GAPJC’s decisions. My guess is it was back in 1983 when a new Book of Order joined the polity of the Northern and Southern branches of the church. Whether it was a southern tradition is beyond my knowledge.
So what I find curious about the AI that would have said that GAPJC AIs were not AIs is that was we always did things before 1983. It would have been less confusing.
Anyone who knows more about the history of the Book of Order is invited to write a more complete blog on the subject with quotes from past Books or Order and footnotes.