Presbyterian International News Service
News Bulletin 29-3 June 22, 2001
Westminster’s Request Turned Down
Assembly Offers Pastoral Counsel Instead
Dallas, Texas (June 21, 2001)—The 29th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America this morning voted down the request of Westminster Presbytery to establish a new presbytery in the same geographic bounds. By a significant margin, the court voted instead to offer pastoral counsel in an effort to urge that the judicatory in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee reconsider its stated intention to withdraw from the denomination.
The action came after a long floor discussion, which had lasted for an hour the previous evening and continued this morning.
The recommendation from the Mission to North America Committee of Commissioners raised questions about the integrity of the process by which Westminster Presbytery had achieved a majority in favor of withdrawal. Because of those concerns, the Committee recommended to advise the lower court that the General Assembly cannot countenance the basis upon which the request for a new presbytery arose.
A substitute to answer the overture in the affirmative was also on the floor. Dr. Don Clements, Stated Clerk of the adjacent New River Presbytery, posited that the substitute was superior to the main motion for three reasons: 1. it acknowledges the absolute right of Westminster Presbytery to leave; 2. it acknowledges the real reasons behind the contemplated withdrawal, unlike the so-called pastoral letter which, in his view, reads more like a prosecutorial indictment; and 3. “it just makes good sanctified common sense.” Also arguing in favor of the substitute were Dr. Rob Stuart, and the Rev. Henry Johnson. Mr. Johnson, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Tazewell, Virginia, said: “My fellow brothers in Westminster Presbytery are men who love Jesus.” However, “for the sake of the gospel,” the brethren had to be in separate ecclesiastical fellowships in order to get on with the work of planting churches.
In favor of the Committee proposal was the Rev. Scott Reiber. The Mississippi pastor appealed to the Westminster Larger Catechism regarding the fifth commandment, as he declared: “I believe we are bound as ministers of the gospel to do all that we can to put down scandalous division in the church.”
The Rev. David Coffin, who presented the Committee recommendation, closed the debate by noting that: 1. the Committee’s recommendation honors absolutely the commitments made to the Presbytery; 2. the motion attempts to speak pastorally; and 3. the motion does not attempt to question the integrity of the conscience. Mr. Coffin also argued that the present era of the church—that of the church militant—“is full of pain and suffering.” However, there is the confidence that out of all that turmoil, the Lord is working His purposes.
The substitute failed, 411-484. The main motion then carried by a hefty margin.
But that did not end the matter. A commissioner posed a question regarding whether churches and ministers not desiring to leave, would automatically constitute a continuing Westminster Presbytery within the denomination. Stated Clerk Roy Taylor seemed to answer affirmatively as he responded: “I have great sympathy for rights of secession. However, I am bound by the Constitution, and I believe the original resolution [adopted by Westminster Presbytery in 1974 when she formally joined the denomination—Ed.] is contrary to the Constitution.”
Mr. Coffin, by means of a point of order, objected to the line of questioning, because to offer different interpretations of the Constitution is to continue the debate.
Dr. Clements raised another point of order, and asked that a Constitutional inquiry be directed to the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) as to whether the action just taken is in accord with the Constitution. But Mr. Coffin objected, urging that CCB had already made its ruling, which ruling the court had when it made its decision. The Assembly voted not to refer the Constitution inquiry.
After a few minutes, the Rev. Brent Bradley, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Kingsport, Tennessee, rose to thank the MNA Committee of Commissioners and to express appreciation “for the care and for taking the time” to deal with the request from Westminster Presbytery.
The onus now rests with the lower court, which may still withdraw, but which must now contemplate its action in light of the General Assembly decision.
BCO Amendment Affirming Men-only Preaching Sent Down to the Presbyteries
Dallas, Texas (June 21, 2001)—By a large margin, the Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly decided to try again to amend her Book of Church Order so as to make explicit that only men may preach. The Assembly voted to send down to the presbyteries an amendment which would add to the duties of Sessions the following language: “to ensure that the Word of God is preached only by such men as are sufficiently qualified (cf. BCO 4-4; 53-2; 1 Tim. 2:11-12).”
Adoption of the motion approving the amendment was not totally expected, as the Bills & Overtures (B&O) Committee had voted, 22-9-2, to answer Philadelphia Presbytery’s Overture 27 in the negative. Presenting the minority report, to answer the overture in the affirmative, was Philadelphia’s representative on the B&O Committee, Ruling Elder Andrew Webb. Aiding the passage of the proposal was perfecting language offered by Dr. Robert Ferguson, which took out “negative” language that would have specified that women are prohibited from preaching the Word, and couched the matter in more positive terms.
A similar BCO amendment sent down to the presbyteries last year was defeated, when 23 presbyteries, or 3 more than the one-third necessary to defeat the measure, voted against it. A total of 31 presbyteries had approved that proposal. Several of the 23 presbyteries that had opposed the amendment did so apparently because of objections to the way in which it had been worded.
Assembly Declines to Revisit John Wood Matter
Dallas, Texas (June 21, 2001)—By decisive margins, the General Assembly declined to revisit the John Wood matter. The action came as opponents to that decision by the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) made several efforts to have the Assembly express its disapproval of the outcome and the process.
However, the controversy regarding the Wood matter did result in other action. The Assembly did “direct the SJC to draft and present to the 30th General Assembly procedures to be placed in the SJC Manual for examining concurring and dissenting opinions to be sure such opinions are in temperate language before they are added to SJC reports.” Adoption of this provision came in the context of the Bills & Overtures Committee finding “intemperate language in the first concurring opinion to SJC Case 99-1.”
The court also heard from the Honorable Jack Williamson, author of that concurring opinion. In consultation with the other five signers of the opinion, he offered, for the sake of unity and peace, to remove from the document a statement that Presbyterian & Reformed News had “fanned the flames with misinformation and without thorough investigation.” He stated that “there was no intention of any language being intemperate.” However, one of the members of the B&O Committee had come to him and asked him to remove the offending language.
Ruling Elder Andrew Webb responded that “it was not simply that remark that we found intemperate,” as he also referred to statements regarding Dr. Joseph Pipa, Dr. Morton H. Smith, and the 28th Assembly.
After some points of order and parliamentary wrangling, Mr. Williamson finally withdrew his request for a personal privilege and simply asked the forgiveness of the Assembly for any intemperate language he may have used. His asking for forgiveness was spread on the minutes of the court.
Mr. Williamson then challenged a motion from the B&O Committee, which recommended “that the first concurring opinion . . . be removed on the basis of justice and fairness (Micah 6:8; Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Timothy 5:19; and James 3:5-6).” This recommendation, which had been approved by a vote of 23-9-2, was ruled un-Constitutional by Moderator pro tem Wilson Benton, who was sustained, overwhelmingly, upon challenge of his ruling.
Recommendations Re: Women in Combat Recommitted to Committee
Dallas, Texas (June 21, 2001)—The 29th General Assembly recommited several key recommendations to the Ad Interim Study Committee on Women in the Military. The action postpones for at least a year a decisive vote on issues such as women in combat and women being subject to the draft.