At its October 7-8, 1999, meeting, the Board of Covenant College voted to defend the action by the college choir which twice sang in a Roman Catholic mass. The incidents took place in May as the choir was on an Eastern European tour.
Covenant College, located near Lookout Mountain, Georgia, is the denominational school of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Prompting the response by the Board was a protest which was lodged at the very end of the 1999 PCA General Assembly. The protest took note of the fact that "our Confession of Faith specifically teaches that the mass 'is most abominably injurious to Christ's one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for the sins of His elect' and that the doctrine of transusbtantiation 'overthroweth the nature of the sacrament and hath been, and is, the cause of manifold superstititons, yea, of gross idolatries'. Furthermore, Roman Catholicism, with its beguiling nature, still represents a threat to the true Church and the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." Those signing the document protested "the failure of the General Assembly to receive a personal resolution which brought to the attention of the court the fact that a choir from Covenant College sang in a Roman Catholic mass: "We are especially concerned since the President of the college admitted during his presentation that this incident did occur. The presenter has been vindicated through this admission that the incident did occur." The protest concluded: "We believe the Assembly was under obligation as a court of the church to investigate such a report in order either to maintain the good name of the parties involved, or to take appropriate action should the report be true."
After receiving the protest, the Assembly voted to respond to it by appointing the Covenant College Board to prepare a response to be submitted to the 28th PCA Assembly, scheduled for June 2000.
The response was proposed by the Executive Committee, which is chaired by the Chairman of the Board, Joel Belz. The motion reads:
On behalf of Covenant College, its Board of Trustees respectfully responds to the 28th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America:
At least three distinct issues are raised by the protest received by the 27th General Assembly taking note of "the fact that a choir from Covenant College sang in a Roman Catholic mass."
1) The inflammatory manner in which the information was first made available to the assembly. However factually correct the initial resolution may have been, not all salient facts were included with the initial report, nor had either administrators of the college or officers of the board been asked about such details. The college board respectfully requests that the Assembly take care in receiving all reports, from all kinds of parties, to insure that, in terms of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, "our own and our neighbor's good name" is duly protected.
2) Exploiting every opportunity and context to speak God's truth. The context of the incident in question was reported by President Frank Brock to the 27th Assembly in Louisville. While on tour in Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, the Chamber Choir sang ten different services/programs in various venues. Arrangements in Prague were made by PCA missionary, Sid Anderson, in Hungary by former missionary, Jim Doep, and in Slovakia by a Slovakian, Liba Radkova, who was recommended by PCA missionary, John Lesondak. (Liba helps recruit students for Covenant's biblically based management program for executives.) In Slovakia the choir sang in two concerts in Evangelical churches (in the Lutheran tradition) and two concerts in Catholic churches. In the Catholic churches the choir sang a few selections during the mass that preceded the concerts. The second of the two was particularly significant in that the priest dispensed with the sermon and instead invited someone from the congregation and one of our singers to testify to the work of God in their lives. The young adult Slovakian spoke at length (through a translator for our benefit) about her personal faith in Christ and it was an inspiring testimony. One of our students then spoke (again through a translator for the benefit of the congregation) of her commitment to Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in her life. It was a 5:00 o'clock service on a Friday and the beautiful baroque church was filled to near capacity. Afterward the choir met with a large group of their young people. To the extent that the engagement was more in the nature of an opportunity to witness and a concert than of a worship service, the board of Covenant College endorses the decision of the Madrigals' director to accept the singing assignment, and would encourage judicious exploitation of all such opportunities in the future.
3) Compromise of confessional standards of worship. The fact that a Roman Catholic Eucharist was celebrated while the Madrigal group sang could complicate the whole issue if the choir participated in the Eucharist but under the direction of the choir director, the Chamber Choir intentionally did not partake of the Eucharist. The board and administration of the college believe it is wrong for any group representing the college knowingly to participate in worship practices which our Confession of Faith precludes; we are further agreed that the Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist clearly falls into this category. The board and administration have counseled the college family to take care that such cautions are observed in the future.
In a story written by Miss Jesica Swartz for the Covenant College Bagpipe (29 October 1999), Mr. Belz was quoted as saying: "Specifically in this case, we made a distinction between the mass (the erroneous celebration of the sacrament) and the broader service or concert. As a board, we suggested that participation in the erroneous sacrament would be wrong. But participation in the broader service, we think, was defensible." The article stated: "Giving them the benefit of the doubt, Belz said, 'I believe those who protested the action of the college's musical group did so out of a sincere desire to protect the practices of the college with respect to worship.'
"Belz recognizes that some may not agree with the Board's interpretation of the Confession. 'There are often ambiguities in the practical application of our standards and we want to be cautious not to be more restrictive than the Bible or the Confession of Faith might be.'"
The same article referred to Frank Brock, college president, as saying that the Board's action regarding compromise of confessional standards of worship "would be an issue if it were the habit of Covenant College to take part in Catholic services, but it is still important 'to acknowledge that we don't agree with the Catholic doctrine.'" Dr. Brock was quoted by Miss Swartz as saying that the Board's response "is a fine response. It hit all the points that needed to be hit."