Are PCA Courts 'Private'?

According to the notes taken at the Presbytery Stated Clerks' Meeting, held December 3-4, 1999, near the Atlanta airport, one or more church leaders maintained that the meetings of church courts are closed to the public. These notes, which were distributed by the General Assembly Stated Clerk's Office to all of the presbytery clerks, state that "Sessions and presbytery meetings are defined as 'restricted membership organizations' per Roberts Rules. Therefore, they are not open to general public and it would be a bad policy to state they are open to the general public. Their documents should not be considered as open, public information. The minutes are for members of that local church or local presbytery only, should not even be available to someone outside that church or presbytery even if that person is a PCA member. At least one presbytery puts on every page of their minutes 'All rights reserved by _________ Presbytery.'"

The question was asked "whether or not one set of presbytery minutes following review at General Assembly is (or should be) sent on to the PCA Historical Center." The answer given was that "the BCO does not require each presbytery to send a copy of their approved minutes to the PCA Historical Center."

Further enforcing the notion that the church is a private affair were at least two points made during a discussion led by the Rev. Robert Fiol, Assistant to the Stated Clerk of the Assembly. Point 6 was "List of Presbytery Clerks: The current list was distributed. Should all or part of this information be made available on the web page? The consensus was that it should not be on an open website. It would be okay if it was protected with a user name and password so there would be some control over who has access to it." Point 7 was "Church listings on website: It seemed to generally be acceptable to print church name, address and phone but some did not want their name attached as pastor and others did so [if] it would be listed only as permission was granted."

The annual meeting of the Presbytery Stated Clerks has no authority to make or enforce decisions. Nevertheless, the discussion recorded in the minutes reflects the current thinking of many of the church's leaders.

[Editor's note: the notes of the meeting from which this report was written were apparently not copyrighted, nor was any mention made in them that they were to be treated as confidential.]

Comments on the Notion that Church Courts are 'Private' Meetings

The following are comments from various people regarding the notions of privacy set forth in the meeting of the PCA Presbytery Stated Clerks:

"I don't know about Roberts' Rules of Order-I'm not a parliamentarian. However, in terms of church history, it strikes me as being unduly restricted. I can't remember either in Scotland or America where that much restriction would apply either to the meetings or the information regarding church courts.

"It's not in line with our tradition. It doesn't represent our tradition, and I certainly wouldn't want to support that type of restriction."-Dr. David C. Calhoun, church history professor, Covenant Theological Seminary.

"I am not sure the meetings of the sessions and presbyteries are closed to the public. On the other hand I would not state they are open. I think generally speaking it is best if persons other than the session do not attend session meetings unless they have business there. We do have visitors to the Presbytery meetings and to our GA. GA Minutes are printed and available in libraries etc. Generally Presbytery minutes are distributed to ministers and sessions. I do not think there is a hard and fast rule that others could not see them but I would not publish them widely.

"I do think we need to think some about what goes on the web. We do have clerks of Presbyteries on the web. We publish an OPC Directory, which has ministers and churches in it. We do not put the whole thing on the web but only churches, locations and times of services.

"We have been very careful not to put on the web some matters such as the report of the Committee on Foreign Missions to the GA because of missionaries in sensitive areas of the world."-Donald Duff, Stated Clerk of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

"A mailing list cannot be copyrighted. It seems strange to me that a pastor would not want to put himself in a position that would be accessible to as many people as possible, especially in our mobile society today. It would seem to me that that would be an outreach tool, to have the pastor's name identified with the congregation.

"It doesn't look good, any way you slice it, for that level of secrecy to be maintained. The damage of secrecy is the loss of trust."-The Rev. Robert P. Mills, Associate Editor, Presbyterian Layman (independent magazine which covers the Presbyterian Church (USA)).

Comparing the PCA to the Lodge

In 1985, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly answered in the affirmative an overture from Westminster Presbytery, asking for a study of Freemasonry. Included in the overture was a resolution which stated that "it has been noted that Masonry's secrecy and destructive oaths are contrary to Scripture." Two years later, the Assembly adopted the recommendations from its Ad Interim Committee on Free Masonry. Among the recommendations adopted was that "the 15th General Assembly exhort all members of Freemasonry and those considering membership in Freemasonry, who are also members of the PCA, to reconsider their relationship with that organization in the light of the evidence given in this report . . . and particularly in light of such passages as I Thessalonians 5:21, 22 and Matthew 6:22-24." Point 11 in the report stated: "Secrecy in segments of society is not prohibited by Scripture; secrecy in the church and its message is. Perhaps a better word for secrecy in some situations is the term 'confidential.' Our committee sees no problem with organizations who choose not to divulge some information under certain circumstances. This is often done by the practice of executive session. Some information, because of its sensitive nature, should be kept confidential. Matthew 18 would indicate that in dealing with sin situations, information should be restricted to the parties involved and to those needed to help rectify the problem to God's glory.

"The use of secrecy in the military for national defense and material in the area of crime prevention can be legitimately classified as confidential.

"But the pertinent issue for our purposes is whether 'secrecy' is legitimate in dealing with truth about God and man's spiritual need. Truth is never to be hidden (Matt. 5:14-16). The Gospel of Christ is the good news to be preached to all persons. Jesus insisted that his teaching was not in secret, but it was open for all to see (John 18:19-21).

"Freemasonry, while claiming that its secrets contain truth good for all men, are to be in secret so that the profane not be privileged to it. The stationing of the Tyler outside the door of the lodge symbolizes the restriction of Masonry's mysteries to its initiates only. Pike has declared: 'Secrecy is indispensable in a Mason of whatever Degree. It is the first and almost the only lesson taught to the Entered Apprentice.' (Morals and Dogma, p. 109).

"If Freemasonry is the basis of all true religion, as some of its spokesmen affirm, if it is in constant search for the truth, and if those who are not initiated into its mysteries are considered profane and have walked in darkness (including non-Masonic Christians!) prior to being enlightened with Masonic truth, then why should Freemasonry conceal such important truth from the world? Is such a message to be hid from the world?"

On February 2, 2000, P&R News interviewed Grand Master Thomas L. Reese, II, Milledgeville, Georgia, of the Grand Lodge of Georgia. He stated that the lodge's records "are open for an historical search. If there was a specific purpose for going through the records, that could be done on an individual basis." He added that those records are "not a matter of public record," in that "the Masonic organization is not a 'sunshine organization.'" He stated that he did not know, off-hand, of any request for an historical searching of the records that had been turned down.

Mr. Reese insisted that Freemasonry is "not a secret organization; it is an organization that has secrets." He also said that "there's a difference between our lodge list of members, and the historical record of the lodge. If we released that list publicly, we might be sued for reasons of confidentiality." However, "as far as what the organization is, who we are and what we do, we are very open."

The Grand Lodge of Georgia has its own website (www.glofga.org). A perusal of its webpages reveals an open listing of various officials, photos of them and their wives, and their addresses and email addresses. Among the officials listed are the Grand Master, Deputy Grand Master, Senior Grand Warden, Junior Grand Warden, Grand Treasurer, Grand Secretary, Grand Chaplain, Grand Marshal, Grand Orator, Senior Grand Deacon, Junior Grand Deacon, First Grand Steward, Second Grand Steward, Third Grand Steward, and Tyler.

The website declares the principles of Freemasonry, including the following: "Its principles are proclaimed as widely as men will hear. Its only secrets are in its methods of recognition and of symbolic instruction." The webmasters invite "comments, opinions, suggestions and questions."

Grand Master Thomas L. Reese, II

Grand Lodge of Georgia, Free and Accepted Masons

PO Box 864

Milledgeville, Georgia 31061

(912)452-5044

email: webmaster@glofga.org