Along the way, all efforts to stop or postpone the Constitutional proposal, and to amend it, failed.
The proposed change to BCO 21-4 now goes to the presbyteries for advice and consent.
The debate began after the Rev. Steve Smallman of Philadelphia Presbytery presented an eleven-man minority report, which called for a committee to be established in order to study the issue with a view toward gaining consensus. Mr. Smallman stated that he had been prepared to vote in favor of the proposal to amend the Constitution when he came to the Assembly, but that he had become convinced that studying the matter was the appropriate action to take at this time.
The Rev. Ray Cortese, a member of the Presbyterian Pastoral Leadership Network (PPLN) Steering Committee which has been advocating passage of the amendment, stated that he doubted that it is possible to attain greater consensus on the issue of subscription. "There just comes a time for a denomination to call the question," he said.
Arguing in favor of the minority recommendation was the Rev. Skip Dusenbury, who said: "I heartily desire that there be peace in the church." However, "I think the ambiguity is going to surface when we debate this in the presbyteries."
The Rev. George Robertson, PPLN spokesman, argued that a study committee would not take the church any farther.
The Rev. Chris Hutchinson argued in favor of studying the matter. Identifying himself as "not a strict subscriptionist," he said, "I agree with where Overture 10 wants to go; I disagree with the means. We need to go very patiently." He urged that the commissioners "slow the train down, so that more men can get on board."
Dr. Bryan Chapell counseled, "Let's be pastoral, let's be caring. . . . If it's better for the church to slow down, vote your conscience. . . . It is a prudential judgment call. . . . My sense is most of us came because it was time."
Ruling Elder Howard "Q" Davis expressed his great fear that the denomination was in danger of being ripped apart, especially because of the politics. He urged the erection of a committee, saying that in the past, "things I didn't think would get settled by committee, were settled."
Dr. Frank Barker averred, "We're not going to change much in our view of this," adding, "There's not going to be any easy solution to this."
Dr. Don Clements argued for the minority report, saying, "I think we are close to a consensus, but don't force it now." He also expressed the concern of many small churches at the politicization of the process by large churches.
The minority report was then voted on, and turned down by about a two-to-one margin.
Dr. Joseph Pipa then proposed adding a sentence to the proposal, viz., "All exceptions are to be reviewed by the Committee on Review and reported to the General Assembly." The President of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary argued that without this review by General Assembly, subjectivism will result.
George Robertson countered that such a procedure "would make the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records almost a kind of supreme court." He stated that the Committee on Constitutional Business "has already ruled such a thing to be un-Constitutional."
Bryan Chapell also argued the same point, stating that it would be improper and un-Constitutional to allow for that type of review "because we have other Constitutional methods" available, including the assumption of original jurisdiction (BCO 34-1) and complaint (BCO 43).
Dave Coffin noted that without a written record of what a person's exceptions are, "It'd be impossible to invoke [BCO] 34-1 since there'd be no record of it."
Dr. Pipa's amendment failed.
The Rev. Benjamin Inman presented an amendment which would require a two-thirds vote of a presbytery in order to approve an exception. That amendment, too, failed.
The Rev. Scot Sherman, at whose church the PPLN meeting was held in April, urged that the organization's proposal "represents . . . the best of Presbyterianism. . . . Since 1729, . . . people have worked hard to preserve that system of trust we hold for the catholic church." He argued that "those who want to be theologically monolithic" want to use the subscription issue to force conformity across the board, in contrast to adherence to a generic Calvinism.
The Rev. Lee Ferguson presented an amendment, which would have added that a candidate had to state his exceptions "in writing" and that "All such instances of differences shall be recorded in the minutes of the presbytery." Mr. Ferguson presented three reasons for his amendment: one, it helps to clarify that the exception(s) must be in writing; two, men in the Assembly are uncomfortable with the present wording; three, he had been told to wait until the Assembly to present such language, and had been assured that it would be readily acceptable.
Arguing against that amendment was Dr. Chapell, who stated that "once you're required to put this in the minutes, then it will get reviewed"; and that CCB had advised that this procedure was un-Constitutional. President Chapell had earlier tried to get Mr. Ferguson's proposal ruled out of order under parliamentary procedure. After the vote on the amendment was taken, he apologized for having mischaracterized the role and functioning of the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records.
Mr. Ferguson's amendment failed, but by probably less than a two-to-one margin.
Skip Dusenbury moved another amendment, picking up on language from Westminster Presbytery's overture on subscription. This amendment would have required the Presbytery to vote on whether a man would be allowed to teach or practice his exception. Dr. Will Barker argued against the proposal, asserting that it would work against liberty of conscience. By a large margin, the amendment was defeated.
The next speaker was the Rev. Jim Braden of Fayetteville, North Carolina, who was alarmed at the intrinsic danger evident to him in the proposed change to the Constitution. He expressed amazement that some of the founding fathers of the PCA "could be part of this overture. . . . A loose subscription to the standards has inevitably led to the decline of orthodoxy." He also was concerned that passage of the proposal "would establish a particular view"; and that "part of the overture which supposedly gives guidance, gives no guidance," in that the "terms are nowhere defined."
Will Barker argued for what he called good-faith subscription, as he made reference to a generic Calvinism. He stated that this protects against liberalism, and that there is a danger of a too-strict subscription.
Bruce Ferg of Tucson, Arizona, urged defeat of the proposal. He said that the "unifying theme is that everyone wants to avoid wranglings." However, the proposal, which is badly worded, will invite confusion. "It deserves to be defeated because it's simply bad language."
The Rev. Ron Steel picked up on Will Barker's theme, as he said that strict subscription "tends to the watering down" of confessional commitment. He also argued that the PCA needs to stop being distracted by the debate over subscription. "There's got to be a way to put this issue to bed."
With a flutter of yellow cards, the Assembly expressed its will. Almost immediately, scores of commissioners lined up to record their negative votes.
"We will strive, in a manner consistent with the Gospel imperatives, for the encouragement of racial reconciliation, the establishment of urban and minority congregations, and the enhancement of existing ministries of mercy in our cities, among the poor, and across all social, racial, and economic boundaries, to the glory of God. Amen."
Added to the overture from Nashville Presbytery was a 1977 statement from a North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) conference on race.
The dramatic nature of the debate was highlighted by the unusual procedure adopted for consideration of the matter. The rules were suspended in order to allow representatives of the Bills & Overtures (B&O) Committee to speak for ten minutes, to be followed by thirty minutes of discussion on the main motion "without a motion for the previous question being in order."
B&O Chairman Ligon Duncan began the ten-minutes allotted to his Committee, as he declared: "My heart was changed. My sins were challenged." He also stated that as far as he could tell, no man on the Committee was driven by considerations of political correctness.
Mr. Sam Duncan, who was Moderator of the 1997 Assembly, said, "I come to this discussion with some baggage, that baggage being that he is a "lifetime resident of the state of Mississippi." He spoke of growing up on a farm, and of being sent to an academy when the public schools started to be integrated in the 1960s, often by court order. The Magnolia State attorney revealed that the Session of his church had decided to ban two children from a foster family which had taken them in. The one child is HIV-positive, and the second has full-blown AIDS. He added that "those children were black."
Mr. Duncan said that "black ministers needed ministry tools in order to minister in black communities. . . . We need to do more than wishing them well," and that this overture would give them the needed assistance.
Dr. Charles McGowan, Moderator of the 1996 Assembly, declared: "I've never seen a [Bills & Overtures] Committee so deeply impacted by the power of the Holy Spirit. . . . We sensed strongly that God was impressing upon us that now is the time [to speak out against racism]." He recalled the segregated restrooms and segregated water fountains, and confessed, "I come as a pastor whose hands are not clean." In the old denomination, it was "the liberal faction [that] was embracing the civil rights movement," and as a result he tried to link that movement with liberalism.
Dr. McGowan noted that he has known of white families who stopped coming to church when blacks started to attend, and that he had not confronted the whites about the matter. "I publicly repent of that," he said.
"There yet remains throughout our nation racism in various forms," the Nashville pastor said. "Now is the time to take action, as we move [as a denomination] into our thirtieth year. . . . It's time to own our sin to own our past. . . . The gospel will bring us to repentance."
He concluded: "There will be those who will say, 'Let's not do this. It will be too divisive.' . . . Let us deal honestly with our sin."
Ruling Elder Neil Payne moved that the matter be postponed indefinitely, as a way of neither adopting nor voting against the overture. He stated that we have been "tainted by unwholesome contemporary influences"; that adoption of the overture "would also create barriers"; and that there were unfounded assumptions in the overture.
The Rev. Mike Khandjian, who comes from an Armenian background and who experienced prejudice against him in the South because of his relatively-dark complexion, argued against the procedural motion. "This motion offends me," he declared.
The Rev. Gene Case, Stated Clerk of Grace Presbytery, spoke in favor of the motion to postpone indefinitely. "We've heard some very eloquent expressions of personal experiences," said the pastor from Woodville, Mississippi. However, he was opposed to the overture because of the implicit attack on the reputations of godly 19th century churchmen such as James Smylie, Charles Colcott Jones, and John L. Girardeau, who ministered effectively to blacks in antebellum days. Even after the War, the Southern Presbyterian Church had declared its desire that the races worship together. However, the intervention of the federal government, which had engaged in a war of annihilation against the Confederacy, had by its policies after the War caused much bitterness in racial matters.
The Rev. Travis Hutchinson argued that the matter of racism is "something that touches us today." He cited a book owned by the PCA, entitled The Historical Birth of the PCA, which in his estimation had racist sentiments.
The Rev. Steve Wilkins, a scholar on the South, arose to say that "we should condemn sin and racism." However, the overture "goes far beyond that." He counseled that "it's proper to repent of the sins of your fathers, if you hold to the same sins." In his view, adopting the overture "starts us on the road of meaningless repentance."
The Rev. David O'Dowd spoke against the motion to postpone.
Speaking in favor was the Rev. Bob Slimp, who pleaded that this matter of the overture "has come upon us very suddenly. It needs much refinement."
An African-American minister from Philadelphia, the Rev. Lance Lewis, confessed "I am a racist," as he urged defeat of the motion to postpone indefinitely.
The Rev. Bill Smith spoke for the procedural motion. Mr. Smith declared, "I have paid my dues," as he noted that he had disappointed friends in past years because of his refusal to oppose inter-racial dating and marriage.
However, he is fearful of worship and doctrine that are "culturally-distinct."
The recommendation was then put to the court, and it passed overwhelmingly. Many commissioners thereupon applauded and rose for a standing ovation.
The Rev. Dave Coffin, who has been a significant player on the floor of the PCA Assembly because of his parliamentary skill, asked the Moderator to rule the entire B&O report out of order in that the Committee had not followed its own rules in the preparation of the report. Specifically, the Committee had not allowed anything other than minor amendment to the various overtures before the Committee.
The Fairfax, Virginia, pastor argued that the practice of allowing the B&O Committee to modify overtures significantly was not simply a matter of custom that could be overturned on the basis of Roberts' Rules of Order, but that this practice was the settled opinion of the church as to its interpretation of the meaning of the relevant statutes which govern the conduct of the business. He pleaded for the upholding of the principle of stare decisis.
Stated Clerk Roy Taylor gave his opinion that an explicit statement in the Rules of Assembly Operations would be necessary in order for the Committee to make major changes.
Arguing in favor of the ruling of the chair, that Mr. Coffin's request was not well taken, Dr. Wilson Benton said that the proposal from Mr. Coffin "is a very radical and bizarre proposal."
By an overwhelming margin, the court sustained the chair's ruling, and the B&O report was allowed to stand.
"I'd like to speak with a pretty high degree of a lack of passion."-Dave Coffin.
"I hope my wife's not listening to the webcast, but I'll be happy to pledge the first $1,000 [for a study committee on subscription]."-Don Clements.
"I'm sorry, your time has elapsed."-Moderator. "I'm not surprised."-Benjamin Inman.
"Fathers and brothers, I stand to confess to you that I am a lawyer."-Bruce Ferg.
"Microphone 2 was the maker of the motion, and he spoke in favor of the motion, which was a wise thing to do."-Moderator pro tem Wilson Benton.
"I was speaking in favor of the minority report, as the lesser of the two reports."-Rip Darden, speaking of the Women in Combat report.