GA Declines to Divide Westminster Presbytery

Tampa, Florida (June 22, 2000)-The 28th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) this morning declined to accede to the request of Westminster Presbytery to divide into two presbyteries. The motion to approve the presbytery's overture failed, 381-599.

Debate on the matter was spirited and respectful, and revolved around several issues, including: the nature of the church, the notion of dividing a presbytery largely because of theological reasons, and the authority of the Assembly to act in a way contrary to the express consent of a presbytery with regard to its division.

The overture candidly admitted that there are theological tensions within Westminster Presbytery. Further, a unique provision would have allowed churches from either side of the Virginia-Tennessee border to choose with which presbytery they wished to affiliate. In essence, although there was a geographical component, the proposed division was motivated by doctrinal considerations.

That the matter was highly conflicted can be seen by virtue of the fact that the Mission to North America (MNA) Committee of Commissioners recommended adoption of the overture by a vote of 14-11-1; and that there were two minority reports, each going in a different direction. The first minority report asked the Assembly to appoint a special commission to visit the Presbytery with a view toward reconciliation. The second minority report, which was also concerned for the unity of the church, proposed amending the overture so as to eliminate the provision of allowing churches in the geographical bounds of one presbytery to belong to the other.

Upon challenge from the floor, the second minority report was called out of order, in that it changed the proposal from the Presbytery without its consent. (The PCA Book of Church Order specifies that the General Assembly may unite or divide presbyteries only with their consent-a provision written into the PCA Constitution in order to prevent the type of gerrymandering which had been seen in the Southern Presbyterian Church in the 1970s.) The first minority report was also called out of order, in that it was deemed improper to employ the general powers of the Assembly to "visit" a presbytery. However, the Moderator's ruling was overturned. The Assembly eventually voted down this minority report.

After the Committee's report was moved, a modified version of the second minority report-one which would have recognized the necessity of the Presbytery giving its consent-was introduced. That substitute, too, failed.

Westminster's Stated Clerk, Steve Meyerhoff, who was also serving as Chairman of the MNA Committee of Commissioners, argued strongly in favor of the overture. He recognized the difficulty of the situation; but pleaded that after much talk, the men of Westminster Presbytery had not been able to find a way to live together peaceably. He stated that, although it was far from unanimous, the majority in the Presbytery had voted for division; he added, "Believe me, 27-16-1 in Westminster Presbytery is a landslide." Also speaking in favor of the overture was the Rev. Cortez Cooper, former MNA Coordinator. Dr. Cooper urged that the cause of the gospel could best be served through having the two sides go their separate ways.

Opposing the overture were others from Westminster Presbytery, including Brent Bradley and Henry Johnson. Mr. Bradley stated that the Biblical way of dealing with the matter was for men to engage in the oft painful process of searching the Scriptures. Mr. Johnson appealed to the Word and its instructions in preserving the unity of the church-"a true Biblical unity is always unity in truth," he said.

A Montana pastor, Craig Rowe, stated that, if the overture passed, "we're going to have a very hard time [doing] marriage counseling." From Eastern Carolina Presbytery, the Rev. David Bowen said that he had not heard a Biblical reason given for why the division should take place. He also suggested that even for pragmatic reasons, approving the overture was not wise; and he gave an illustration that the two presbyteries might be competing as rivals for a budding mission group in the twin border cities of Bristol.

The failure of the motion to adopt the overture technically left the overture unanswered. But the net effect is that there will not be formal division of Westminster Presbytery.

Assembly Refers Presbytery Petitions to B&O

Tampa, Florida (June 22, 2000)-In a surprise move, the 28th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) adopted the majority report of its Bills & Overtures (B&O) Committee, to refer petitions from four presbyteries to the B&O Committee for recommendation. The four overtures-from Western Carolina, Calvary, Ascension, and James River-were all petitioning for original jurisdiction to be exercised over the Rev. John Wood in the matter of women preaching.

The B&O Committee recommendation came in response to an overture from yet another presbytery, Louisiana, that the 28th General Assembly condemn the opinion of the 27th General Assembly in re the John Wood matter. The Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), acting on behalf of last year's Assembly, had ruled that the requests for the assumption of original jurisdiction were "out of order."

Presenting the B&O motion was Mr. Dan Carrell, a ruling elder from Richmond, Virginia. He began his argument by saying that the "SJC lacked what we lawyers call 'subject matter jurisdiction.'" Mr. Carrell explained that there are only three avenues to the SJC: complaints, appeals, or references. This is a matter which does not fall under one of those categories. However, the "key to the procedural puzzle," according to the barrister, is, What is to be done with an overture? According to the Rules for Assembly Operations (RAO), the petitions constituted overtures (at least two were specifically called such), which should be referred to the appropriate committee of commissioners. But "not one of them has yet to find its way to the appropriate committee of commissioners."

Another attorney, Jack Williamson, immediately challenged the B&O majority position by setting forth a petition for a Constitutional inquiry. Opposing Mr. Williamson's motion to refer these questions to the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) was the Rev. David Coffin. In his remarks, Mr. Coffin urged that interpreting the word "act" as the SJC had done in the John Wood matter would "evacuate" of all meaning the Constitutional provision which allows for petitions for original jurisdiction.

The Constitutional inquiry was referred to the CCB, which reported late this afternoon. The CCB opined that the B&O recommendation was in violation of the Book of Church Order, including the provision that all judicial cases shall be given by the General Assembly to the SJC.

After evening worship, the Rev. Charles McGowan spoke on behalf of a minority report that would have answered the Louisiana overture in the negative. He pleaded for the necessity for the church to follow the Constitution, as he made reference to the CCB opinion.

Mr. Carrell responded by saying that "our Constitution embraces procedure, and the issue before us is one of procedure, and whether we are going to follow the procedure that has been set forth. . . . It's a matter of jurisdiction." He noted that a substantial majority of his Committee was supportive of the recommendation, and that the approval, by a vote of 23-8, came after intense and lengthy debate. He, too, asked that the Assembly "sustain our rule of law."

After approving the B&O recommendation, the Committee was dismissed from the meeting in order to deal with the referral.

Assembly Accepts College's Answer to Protest

Tampa, Florida (June 22, 2000)-The 28th PCA General Assembly accepted the Covenant College Board's answer to the protest with regard to a college choir singing in a Roman Catholic mass. In the same motion, the Assembly also answered in the negative an overture from Westminster Presbytery which asked that the college's answer be rejected.

An amendment, which would have specified that this participation was inappropriate and should not be engaged in again, failed.