Declaratory Acts: A question of trust

There are various reasons why some within The Presbyterian Church in Canada are suggesting that a Declaratory Act is just what the church needs in the present moment. Given the contested questions of human sexuality and identity that are presently before the church, some think that a Declaratory Act by General Assembly will provide a great way out of the debate. The idea could be expressed like this:

A declaratory act will be quick and easy.
A declaratory act will avoid theological wrangling.
A declaratory act will help us do the right thing, without delay.
A declaratory act will let us get on with other things as a church.

As convenient as a declaratory act might be, it is not a legitimate path for the General Assembly to follow on these questions of sexuality and identity. In fact, the deployment of a declaratory act in these circumstances would raise questions as to whether the denomination can be trusted to follow its own rules and traditions – and such trust is basic to our shared life within the church.

What is a declaratory act? Essentially, a declaratory act is a way that the General Assembly can provide clarification concerning the church’s teaching on some particular point. The Book of Forms provides for declaratory acts in Paragraph 293, where it states that the General Assembly may “pass a Declaratory Act affirming what it understands the law of the church to be.”

Notice what this paragraph says and, equally important, what it does not say. A declaratory act is a means by which the General Assembly may affirm what the church already teaches on some particular point. Which is to say that a declaratory act is not a means by which the General Assembly can change the church’s teaching on any given subject.

If there is some element of the church’s theology or polity that is somehow unclear, or if there is some element of the church’s teaching that needs fresh affirmation in the present cultural moment, the General Assembly has the right to affirm what the church’s present teaching is, by way of a declaratory act.

The fact that the General Assembly may not change doctrine or discipline by way of a declaratory act becomes clear further along in paragraph 293 of The Book of Forms. This paragraph provides a framework by which the theology, discipline, government, and worship of the church may be changed – namely, by way of the Barrier Act. According to the Barrier Act, if any one General Assembly approves some change in theology, discipline, government, or worship, this change must also be approved by a majority of Presbyteries and by a subsequent General Assembly, in order to become a prepared law or rule of the church.

“No prepared law or rule relative to matters of doctrine, discipline, government or worship, shall become a permanent enactment until the same has been submitted to presbyteries for consideration.” (The Book of Forms, 293.1)

The Barrier Act reflects a deeply democratic impulse at the heart of the Presbyterian system of church government, and is intended to prevent a minority within the church (for example, a majority of commissioners at just one General Assembly) from changing the church’s law or theology in any substantial way. This process is also intended to ensure ‘sober second thought’ when it comes to any significant change in the life of the church.

Just imagine if a majority of commissioners to any one General Assembly had the right to make changes to the doctrine, discipline, government, or worship of the church. That would mean that each year in June significant questions about the church’s life and thought could be up for grabs. Indeed, we could conceivably descend into farce, as one General Assembly makes a change in church teaching by way of a declaratory act, and the next General Assembly potentially moves to reverse that change by a further declaratory act. Needless to say, this is not the kind of situation that declaratory acts were intended to create.

Now some might argue that a General Assembly has previously changed church doctrine and discipline by way of declaratory act. They might point out, for example, that the 127th General Assembly (in the year 2001) passed a declaratory act rejecting the Westminster Confession’s identification of the Pope as the antichrist. The problem with this argument however, is that it simply isn’t possible to demonstrate a meaningful parallel between these two situation (human sexuality in 2016 and the Pope as antichrist in 2001). The comparisons don’t hold.

The Westminster Confession’s identification of the Pope as the antichrist reflected common anti-Roman Catholic sentiment in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – yes, that’s 300-400 years ago. Further, the Committee on Church Doctrine pointed out that this sentiment simply isn’t considered appropriate by the church in the year 2001. (In fact this question was first raised by the Presbytery of Paris, more than 30 years earlier, in 1968.) All of which is to say that there was nothing controversial or contested about a General Assembly declaration that the Presbyterian Church in Canada, in 2001, no longer accepted a 1646 declaration that the Pope is the antichrist.

Further, this declaration in 2001 entailed absolutely no change in the theology or discipline of the church, particularly with reference to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, as the Committee on Church Doctrine also made clear in its reports to the General Assembly. Which is to say, again, that the 2001 declaration did not entail any kind of change in the theology or discipline of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. Rather, this declaratory act did exactly what a declaratory act is supposed to do – it affirmed what the church believed (very nearly unanimously) in the year 2001.

Does this circumstance from 2001 mirror, in any way, the situation in 2016? No, and this is so for two reasons.

The first is that the call for full inclusion (as this is defined by those advocating for a change) clearly entails a change in both theology and discipline. Notice, for example, that even the open letter that launched the present discussion within the church, invites the Presbyterian church to “reconsider” and “revisit” and “follow a new path”. In other words, those advocating for a change understand that full inclusion entails a significant change to the teaching and practice of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. And of course they are right, since the church’s longstanding teaching on human sexuality, as captured (in nuce) within paragraph 8.2.2. of Living Faith (adopted in 1998) and as described within the 1994 report on human sexuality, is that sexual intimacy is blessed only within the marriage bond between a man and woman.

The second reason that the present situation cannot be compared to the 2001 declaratory act is apparent from the very clear division on the questions of sexuality and identity presently before the church. This is obviously very different from the 2001 declaration, which was uncontroversial and nearly unanimously supported.

In this vein, consider that the Presbytery of Hamilton recently held a forum for discussion and conversation in which 5 different speakers articulated quite different points of view on these questions of human sexuality and identity. And consider that of the many overtures forwarded by sessions and presbyteries to the General Assembly in 2015, several called for careful ongoing conversation around such questions, 6 called for a change in teaching and practice, and 13 asked the denomination to uphold present church teaching and practice. And consider that a study guide published by the Life and Mission Agency and the Committee on Church Doctrine makes clear that there are quite different points of view on these theological, exegetical, hermeneutical, and deeply personal questions.

All of which is to say that there is no similarity between the declaratory act of 2001 and the types of declaratory acts that are being imagined in 2016.

Back, then, to the question of convenience. Some who wish to see a change in church doctrine and practice, and some who think the church just needs to move on, might believe that a declaratory act by the General Assembly (“We hereby change our mind…”) would be a good and simple way forward. It would save time and it would avoid all the theological wrangling.

As I suggested at the outset, however, the deployment of a declaratory act in this situation would raise questions about whether the denomination can be trusted to follow its own basic rules and traditions – a trust that is basic to our shard life within the church. The deployment of a declaratory act would be contrary to the intent of the church’s polity as embodied in the Barrier Act – namely, that a minority within the church (or a majority of commissioners at just one General Assembly) doesn’t have the right to bring about such a significant change in the life of the church.

An important question arises: If we can’t trust the church to follow its own basic rules and traditions when it comes to a major change in its theology and disciplinary practices, then how can we trust that the church will adhere to its own rules at any other point?

There is a very clear process for changing the theology and practice of the church, if the church decides it wishes to do so. And if we are to be faithful to our own tradition and rules we must follow that process. It’s called the Barrier Act. And following it really is matter of trust.

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About Roland De Vries

Rev. Roland De Vries is director of pastoral studies at Presbyterian College, Montreal. He blogs at Encrusted Words. Subscribe to this blog.