Coventry, CT (September 18-19, 1998)-Presbytery structure, debates over the meaning of the Westminster Standards, reception of ministers and theological examinations, and the receiving of judicial charges: such was the work of Northeast Presbytery at its September stated meeting. Presiding over the meeting was TE Brad Evans, pastor of the host congregation, Presbyterian Church of Coventry. The meeting began with the singing of the Old Hundredth, a capella.

Restructuring Presbytery

The first permanent committee to report was Mission to North America, presented by its Chairman, Preston Graham. He spoke enthusiastically of the phenomenon of churches spawning and producing other congregations: "We're encouraged that [the growing of new churches] is not all centralized."

The MNA Committee brought in a proposal regarding the anticipated division of Presbytery into either two or three new presbyteries. According to Mr. Graham, this would help foster "authentic churchness." Since not everyone in the Presbytery was ready for the division into smaller courts, the Committee proposed that the Presbytery be reorganized into three sub-region committees to handle all business related to that area (New York State, Northern New England, and Southern New England); together with one central team consisting of the Stated Clerk, the Moderator, the Treasurer, and one sub-region committee representative. Each committee would be required to submit in writing a report to the Stated Clerk one month prior to the next stated meeting of Presbytery, said report to consist of a recommendation, a rationale, the votes, and historical background (if need be). Presbytery would continue to meet three times a year: one of those meetings would be a Friday/Saturday meeting, and two of them would one day affairs.

The debate was strong and intense. Leading off the opposition was RE Jim Whalen of West Springfield (MA) Covenant Community Church, who rhetorically asked: "Is it wise to regionalize?" He made the point that once the sub-regional committees are in place, it will be hard to stop the movement toward division of the Presbytery: "There's a tendency toward entrenchment. Eventually, that split will be mandated." He objected to what he called a backdoor method of achieving the goal of dividing into two or three presbyteries.

Administration Committee Chairman Chris Baker argued that with the MNA proposal, "we run the risk of complicating some of our work." He would prefer a clean break, instead of a creation of hybrids.

Stated Clerk Steve Magee stated that he did not see a problem with this proposal from his perspective. Moreover, the present system of having committees meet on the morning of Presbytery was itself problematic: "We're in 'rush mode'. . . . Often we never really find out what the business was. . . . I think it's a good proposal, even though we may be uncomfortable."

Dr. Rick Lints, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Concord, MA, said: "There is a growing sense that the business of Presbytery has too often been conceived in a judicial way [rather] than in a pastoral way. . . . It's not that we mistrust, we just don't know each other enough." Referring to the way Metropolitan New York Presbytery has been operating, he stated: "we are a church together, not just a court together."

Rev. Steve Gonzales, Chairman of the Candidates, Credentials and Internship Committee, was against the motion, but in favor of its spirit. He wanted the Presbytery to divide the work between two sub-regions (i.e., New York and New England) rather than among three.

Rev. Rodney Collins of Grace Presbyterian Church, Laconia, NH, argued in favor. "David Gordon [former Moderator of Presbytery-Ed.] has been saying for years and years, 'As goes the work of the committees, so goes the work of presbytery.'"

Rev. Tom Corey of Hope Church, Ballston Spa, NY, spoke against the motion. During his time in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia Presbytery, of which he was a member, was a very large presbytery, encompassing both cities and rural areas. That court had tried a similar system as the current proposal. According to Pastor Corey, "The splitting always did result in duplication." What eventually worked, he said, were two measures: (1) requiring the committees to meet a week ahead of the Presbytery meeting; (2) having a Presbytery retreat, where people could get to know each other. He concluded: "I don't personally feel closer to [New York] churches than to others I have to drive all day to. . . . We're divided by other realities than geography, which we have to address."

Rev. Jim Morton also spoke against the motion. "It's going to create a less-efficient system."

Rev. Samuel Viera spoke in favor. He urged the brothers to look five or six years ahead, when there would be presbyteries covering even smaller geographical areas.

Ruling Elder Jack Merry argued that people are going to have be on more than one committee, if the proposal were approved. "Look at our numbers [today]-you're going to have seven teaching elders, maybe five ruling elders," at the meetings of each of the sub-regional committees.

But Steve Magee countered that each of the committees would operate "much more as a committee of the whole."

Preston Graham added: "We're talking about a less-bureaucratized structure" with "a lot more involvement" of people.

Rev. Darcy Caires of Metro New York Presbytery was granted the privilege of the floor. Arguing in favor of the motion, he stated: "If you want to see the PCA growing in our region, we've got to get more people involved."

Ruling Elder David Ehle of the West Springfield Church spoke of his experiences with the Mississippi Valley Presbytery, which had licensed him to preach when he was a seminarian in Jackson. In his opinion, the fact that Mississippi Valley had had a long history had led to efficiency. Secondly, he was skeptical that having in effect six meetings rather than three meetings per year would increase ruling participation. Third, he urged that this was "not something we have to vote on today."

Rev. Chris Robinson, the Recording Clerk of Presbytery, argued that there is an efficiency to be gained by "functional compartmentalization." But, "there's also an efficiency to be gained from consistency."

After a few more moments of debate, a motion to table the motion was defeated, 13-19. Presbytery finally voted to approve the new system, and also suspended the Standing Rules in an effort to put it into effect for the January meeting.

A close reading of the Standing Rules later revealed that those rules can be suspended only for the meeting at which that motion is made; and that there is no provision for suspending the Rules between meetings. Moreover, amending the Standing Rules would require approval at two consecutive meetings. Accordingly, at the close of this meeting, a motion was made that the action of several years ago to adopt the Standing Rules be rescinded. That motion carried by a greater than two-thirds vote.

Exclusive Psalmody

Presbytery licensed Mr. David Milligan to preach. He stated an exception to the Confessional Standards, viz., that he does not believe in exclusive psalmody. Dr. T. David Gordon moved that the reference to "exclusive psalmody" be struck from the records. Dr. Gordon argued: "We did not confess [as American Presbyterians] what the Westminster Assembly confessed. . . . We mean different things [by the terminology, "singing of psalms"]. . . . I concur that in the seventeenth century, they meant canonical psalms." He noted that the updated version of the Trinity Hymnal, which includes uninspired hymns for use in public worship, had at least four PCA teaching elders serve on the review committee. He also argued that having the same words ("singing of psalms") mean different things was "analogous to the language regarding the civil magistrate." The Larger Catechism #191 speaks of the civil magistrate countenancing and maintaining the true religion. Dr. Gordon opined that the historic Presbyterian view, of the church being supported by tax money, was not what was intended by the Americans who adopted that same language in the 1780s. "Excepting the Covenanters," Dr. Gordon maintained, American Presbyterians do not believe in exclusive psalmody. "We acknowledge that we do not construe it [the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith] as the Covenanters do."

Steve Magee opposed the motion to strike. "I think it's important for a man to state his exception. . . . I still think it's important for a man to state it." He later stated: "An individual needs to be able to have it on record, to clear his conscience."

Ruling Elder Mark Schortmann of West Springfield, MA, agreed. "It's still an exception, until the Constitution is changed. . . . If we think it ought to be changed, we ought to go ahead and change it."

Preston Graham argued that the "candidate did the right thing" in laying before the court what he believed to be an exception to the Standards. But Mr. Graham was concerned that, if Presbytery did not strike the exception, it would be implying "that everyone who doesn't believe in only canonical hymns" must also declare an exception on that point. "I can't vote against my own conscience," declared the New Haven pastor.

"I think this is a huge issue," said David Ehle. "I want to speak against the motion for the very reason David Gordon spoke in favor of the motion." He spoke of the necessity of adhering to the "original intent" of the framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith. If we reject the notion of original intent, "we can say the Confession of Faith can mean anything we want it to say. . . . The Confession of Faith is not a changing document."

The Presbytery voted down the motion, so that Mr. Milligan's declared exception was allowed to remain on the record.

[Editor's Note: The 14th General Assembly (1986) took exception to the minutes of Texas/North Texas Presbytery for including in public worship elements of worship not found in the Confession of Faith. Those elements and practices specifically consisted of uninspired hymns and musical instrumentation.

In the early days of Northeast Presbytery, the court noted in the minutes if candidates for ordination or licensure adhered to elements and practices of worship not found in the Westminster Standards-including uninspired hymns, instrumental music, the receiving of offerings, responsive readings, etc.]

Ministerial Matters

Presbytery received three pastors from the Igreja Presbyteriana do Brasil (Presbyterian Church of Brazil), to work with Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, MA. That church already has a Brazilian pastor and a significant Portuguese-speaking congregation.

Presbytery also approved for ordination Mr. Mark Bell, who is accepting a part-time call as Pastor of Redeemer Reformed Presbyterian Church, Glens Falls, NY. The Rev. Mr. Walter Bjorck, who had at one time been a member of the Presbytery, was received on transfer from the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly, to work on a part-time basis with the Rev. Doug Domin, Organizing Pastor for First Presbyterian Church, Concord, NH.

Presbytery honorably retired the Rev. Mr. Gerry Yost, Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, St. Albans, VT, effective December 31, 1998. He has served in St. Albans since 1961, and since 1975 at the congregation he presently pastors.

Judicial Matters

The Presbytery voted to determine that nine charges filed against a minister were out of order, in that they lacked two witnesses. The one bringing those charges, a member of a congregation, was himself now to answer to the Presbytery commission serving as a Session of that church.

A letter of concern had been received regarding the proceedings of another church. The Church Visitation and Sessional Records Committee stated that a sub-committee was going to visit the church in order to try to deal with the matters raised.

Out of the same church two complaints had arisen, both by first lieutenants in the U. S. Air Force, with similar concerns. Both of the complainants had been present at the May meeting of Presbytery, in an effort to be heard. At the May meeting, Presbytery ruled that one complaint was out of order, in that the Session had not had time to deal with the complaint. [The BCO says that a complaint must be dealt with by the "next" stated meeting of the court which is alleged to have erred. The complaint had been filed before the convening of the April stated meeting of the Session, and no action taken. In such an instance, the PCA Constitution provides that the complainant may take his complaint to the next higher court.-Ed.] The Presbytery took no action in May on the other complaint, as it was not reported to the Presbytery at that time that it had been received.

At this meeting, the complaint that had been declared out of order in May was declared to be in order. The complainant (who is now stationed in the Republic of Korea) had not been properly notified that he should appear, and he had not formally waived his right to appear. The Presbytery accordingly authorized the Moderator to appoint a commission to adjudicate the matter. The other complaint was declared to be moot, since the complainant had not re-filed her complaint after the Session had taken it up, and since she did not indicate a willingness, in private conversation with the Administration Committee Chairman in May, that she wanted to pursue the matter. (She is now stationed in Southern California.)

Presbytery also erased a minister from its roll. Using the new language of BCO 38-3, the court warned the Rev. Mr. Robert A. Milliken of his danger in associating with an organization which does not maintain Word and sacrament in their fundamental integrity. [Mr. Milliken was the author of a one-man minority report on nuclear warfare at the 1987 General Assembly. That Assembly adopted the study committee's majority report, which utilized just war theory to justify the use of nuclear weapons. That body also rejected the radical pacifism evident in Mr. Milliken's views. For the last several years, he had sought to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church in America.-Ed.]