"Turning the World Upside Down"
It used to be a tactic of the liberals to use the rules of a denomination to their own ends, even if it meant turning the rules upside down. Today, however, it seems that professedly conservative men in
denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America are beginning to resort to similar practices.
The 1998 General assembly of the PCA is to be held in just a few days. While the liberal PC(USA) will be debating such things as homosexuality and the exclusivity of the gospel, the PCA will apparently be debating, among other things, a controversy that has developed regarding access to the minutes of the presbyteries (and, to a certain extent, all of the courts) of the PCA. The question is: May someone who is not a member of a court have access to the minutes of that court and may that person or persons use those minutes to report on the proceedings of the court in question?
An answer to that question was given to the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly by the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB). Essentially, the Committee said that minutes of a court belong to the court. From this answer may be drawn the inference that no one may have access to the minutes of a court unless the court grants permission (excepting those provisions required by BCO 10-4).
It is not the intention of the author nor within the scope of this article to analyze the arguments offered by the Committee. It is his intention, however, to contend that the advice of the CCB is not only without historical precedent but that it is also wrong.
It has been long recognized that the minutes of the courts of the church, although being the property of the particular courts, are public documents accessible to any member of the church. "The records of our
church courts are public and not private documents..." [J. Aspinwall Hodge, What is Presbyterian Law?, p. 222, Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1882.] Indeed, there has been no action of a General Assembly forbidding such access.
Public access to the records (minutes) of a court is grounded in the fact that the meetings of church courts are generally public meetings from which others than members of the court may not be barred. Surely, each court has the right and authority when required to hold portions of meetings in executive session, but even then the decisions of these private sessions are to be considered public actions. Only the speeches and the discussions of the membership receive protection from rules of executive privilege. The Presbyterian Church used to expect the secular press to report extensively on their meetings.
There is, however, still another reason why the members of the church should have free access to the records of a court. The current controversy is focused at the presbytery level and so this portion of the
discussion will be limited to the presbytery. BCO 43-1 reads: "...It is the right of any communing member of the church in good standing to make complaint against any action of a court to whose jurisdiction he is subject...." If the CCB advice is allowed to stand unamended, the minutes of a presbytery will be accessible through general dissemination only to the members of the court. This means that only those ruling elders who have been commissioners and those ministers who have been in attendance may have access to the minutes of the court. Since a complaint is to be filed with the court alleged to be in error within thirty days following the meeting at which the court is alleged to have erred, how may any who are subject to the jurisdiction of that court know what actions have been taken and whether any complaint should be filed (see BCO 43-2)?
Finally, there is one other point that needs to be addressed. What are minutes of a court? Suppose that a member of the court has the ability of taking shorthand. If his shorthand notes are transcribed, is the transcription to be considered minutes of the court? Suppose some one should use that transcription to report upon the actions of the court. Would that person be guilty of accessing the minutes of the presbytery
improperly even if the advice of the CCB should stand unchallenged? The author believes the answer to this question is obvious.
It should be noted that the author does not consider any who are propagating the views of the CCB to be liberals. However, it is his opinion that this ruling is indicative of a troubling tendency in the PCA
toward secrecy and causes him to wonder why.
Vaughn Hathaway, former Chairman of the Judicial
Business Committee, is now a minister of the Associate Reformed
Presbyterian Church. He writes from Charlotte, NC.