If our documents do not accurately reflect the way we want to conduct the business of Christ’s church, then we should amend them to conform to our desired practice. If the text as written and adopted does not accomplish that which we know to be the original intent of the Assembly, then we need to bring our text in conformity to our original intent. We have a robust and well-understood process for doing so. But what we must not do is set aside the plain reading of the text in favor of uncertain and disputable understandings of original intent. Put another way, we must not disregard our documents in order to accommodate counter-textual practices.
During the proceedings of the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), we saw two examples of historical precedent being invoked to support a decision of the moderator that appeared to be contrary to the plain language of the Book of Church Order (“BCO”) or Rules of Assembly Operation (“RAO”). In this article, it is not my intention to reargue those points or to cast aspersions against the presbyters who argued on either side. I take it for granted that all involved were acting in good faith and seeking to serve the Church to the best of their abilities. Rather, it is my intention to argue that such a historicist approach to constitutional interpretation is flawed, and that instead the PCA should follow a strict textualist approach — resorting to historical and extrinsic evidence only where the text of the BCO or RAO is ambiguous.
Twice at the 49th Assembly, we saw the following scenario play out: A commissioner seeks to assert his rights or the rights of another to speak or take an action, based on the text of the BCO or RAO, and is then told he may not, based on what appears to be a counter-textual interpretation of the rule. The counter-textual interpretation is supported by reference to some historical precedent or other, perhaps from many years ago. Sometimes these precedents are based on prior language that has since been amended.
First Instance: Filing an Objection to a Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) Case
First, during the morning session of the Assembly on Thursday, June 23, 2022, TE Jerid Krulish of the Pacific Northwest Presbytery came to a microphone and asked to lodge a protest or objection against the decision of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) in the Herron case 2021-06.
Moderator RE John Bise interrupted TE Krulish’s speech and conferred with Stated Clerk Emeritus TE L. Roy Taylor. TE Bise then ruled that only those individuals entitled to vote on a matter may lodge a protest, so TE Krulish, who was not a member of the SJC, could not do so. TE Krulish then asked to raise it as an objection: “It is my understanding than an objection may be raised by any member of the court who did not have the right to vote.” RE Bise again conferred with TE Taylor. RE Bise then reported, “The parliamentarians advise me that at the 41st General Assembly this matter was considered and it was adjudicated that an objection is not allowable sir. I appreciate your concern but there is no path for that.”
TE Jared Nelson then rose and challenged the ruling of the chair.
RE Bise then yielded to TE Taylor for some additional historical information that could be useful to the Assembly. TE Taylor stated that only the members of the SJC who were disqualified from voting could raise and objection. TE Taylor cited the minutes of the 41st General Assembly, page 39, for the proposition that only members of the SJC could register an objection to a decision in a case adjudicated by the SJC. He stated that after that ruling was made at the 41st Assembly, the moderator’s ruling was challenged and sustained.
In the ensuing debate, TE Jacob Gerber cited BCO 45-4 where “objection” is defined. In full, that provision reads:
45-4. An objection is a declaration by one or more members of a court who did not have the right to vote on an appeal or complaint, expressing a different opinion from the decision of the court and may be accompanied with the reasons on which it is founded.
TE Gerber then argued that the SJC is a commission of the GA, not a court. The GA is the court, so members of the GA have the right to raise an objection to a decision rendered by the SJC. TE Gerber noted that this understanding is based on what BCO 45-4 actually says. He made a textual argument.
Second Instance: Presenting a Minority Report
The second example of a counter-textual ruling was when Moderator RE John Bise ruled against my attempt to bring the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) minority report to the floor. TE David Coffin, after being accorded the privilege of speaking first, made an argument based on historical practice that appeared to be contrary to the plain language of RAO 19-2. In fact, he did not directly address BCO 19-2. The opening sentences of TE Coffin’s speech were as follows:
For context, it is important to recall that in the past, the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB), under a different name, did report its advice on Constitutional issues as recommendations for ratification by the General Assembly (GA). The process had become highly controversial, enormously time-consuming, and the outcome was not binding upon anyone. The process was revised by the work of an ad interim committee and the proposed CCB was created by the Assembly as an exclusively advisory committee presenting no recommendations for action by the Assembly.“
In fairness, TE Coffin indicated that had he had the opportunity to speak to the issue again, he would have addressed the application of RAO 19-2, but the topic clock ran out before he could do so. The relevant portion of RAO 19-2 reads as follows:
When a minority of a committee wishes to present a minority report, the member reporting for the minority shall have the privilege of presenting the minority report and moving it as a substitute for the portion of the majority report affected.
The plain language of this provision contradicts RE Bise’s ruling. The chair was narrowly sustained on this point by a vote of 970 to 856. The debate can be found in the video of the Wednesday afternoon session between 1:40:28 and 2:02:47 here.
Ruled by Text or by Discerning Intent?
Both of these examples illustrate an approach to interpreting and applying our rules that requires special knowledge of the history of the PCA. It is an approach that treats the text of the BCO and RAO as secondary to supposed original intent deduced from a loose body of history and tradition. It is my argument in this article that such an approach is in error, and that the Assembly should adopt a textual approach to interpreting and applying our accepted rules.
In interpreting statutes and contracts, civil courts look first to the text. If the text of the statute or contract is clear and unambiguous, then the inquiry ends there and the text is given effect via its natural reading. Only if the text is ambiguous does a court then consider extrinsic evidence such as the negotiating history of a contract, the courts of dealing between the parties, or the legislative history of a statute.
 For a record of the cited actions of the 41st General Assembly, see the following:
41-39 Report of the Standing Judicial Commission: RE John White led the Assembly in prayer and presented the Report of the SJC (Appendix T, p. 551). TE Andrew Barnes sought to register an objection to the decision of the Standing Judicial Commission on Case 2012-05, Hedman v. Pacific Northwest Presbytery. A point of order was raised by TE David Coffin that a General Assembly commissioner’s registering an objection to an SJC decision on a case is out of order because only a member of the Standing Judicial Commission who did not have a right to vote on a case may register an objection (BCO 15-4; 39-2; 45-4). The Moderator ruled the point of order was well taken because the only person who could file an objection to the SJC’s judgment on Case 2012-05, Hedman v. Pacific Northwest Presbytery, was an SJC member who was disqualified under BCO 39-2.4 The ruling was appealed, and the Chair was sustained (Minutes of the 41st Stated Meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 39).
41-40 Report of Committee on Constitutional Business: TE Mark A. Rowden, Chairman, led the Assembly in prayer. TE David Coffin raised a point of order that the exception of substance to the March 6, 2013, minutes of the SJC (2012-06 Bethel vs. SE Alabama), (Appendix O, p. 364), is out of order because in them the CCB takes exception to an SJC case and to its decision and therefore violates the prohibitions in RAO 17-1, final paragraph. The Moderator declared the point well taken, and ruled that the lines be struck. TE Art Sartorious made a parliamentary inquiry as to whether point of order was premature since the report had not yet come before the Assembly. The Stated Clerk reviewed the proper order of procedure, explaining that if an exception is ruled out of order, it is taken “off the table.” TE Sartorius inquired as to whether the ruling to strike would apply also to the exceptions of substance to the September 6, 2012, and November 29, 2012 minutes. The Moderator said that the question was out of order because the Assembly was dealing only with the removal of specific lines. The Moderator’s previous ruling was appealed, and the Chair was sustained. Chairman Rowden proceeded to presentation of the report (Appendix O, p. 361) as information. TE Art Sartorius made a parliamentary inquiry regarding the other exceptions of substance to the SJC minutes (Appendix O, p. 365), “one of which,” he thought, had been “covered by the previous ruling.” He asked how these would be handled. The Stated Clerk replied that it would go to the SJC officers for a response. TE David Coffin suggested that the exceptions to the SJC minutes for September 6, 2012, and November 29, 2012, should be included in the Moderator’s ruling on the March 6, 2013 ruling. The Moderator responded that his previous ruling should cover all three exceptions. TE Coffin commented that he had not addressed the minority report because, as the minority report is not the report of the CCB, it could never, regardless of its opinion, become the occasion for someone to move that a case be reconsidered (Minutes of the 41st Stated Meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 40).
 N.B. After the ruling, in private conversation others noted that the Herron case was still in process and an action (i.e., decision) had not yet been made in total that would allow for the objection. This would have been a clearer reason for ruling TE Krulish’s attempted objection out of order, but that reason (i.e., the absence of an action against which a commissioner could lodge an objection) was not discussed during the Assembly’s deliberations.