Gallery Packed at PCUSA Polity Panel's Meeting
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From the PCUSA News Service.
June 17, 2002
Gallery Packed at Polity Panel's Meeting
'Supermajority' measures, Christ Church overture stir passions
by John Filiatreau
COLUMBUS, OH - The Assembly Committee on Church Polity got an earful
from advocates and opponents of several controversial measures during
a hearing on Monday, June 17.
A standing-room-only crowd gathered for debates on a set of measures
that would make it harder to amend the Book of Order of the
Presbyterian Church (USA), and an overture by which a presbytery in
Pennsylvania means to force a presbytery in New England to take
action against an allegedly defiant church session.
One overture on constitutional change would require a two-thirds vote
of the General Assembly to forward proposed amendments to the
denomination's 173 presbyteries for approval. Another would require a
two-thirds vote of the presbyteries, rather than a simple majority,
to enact amendments to the Book of Order.
Two other overtures would require two-thirds votes at every stage of
the amendment process, while still another would permit proposals to
amend the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions only every fifth
year. (Amending the Book of Confessions already requires a two-thirds
majority of presbyteries.)
These measures are known collectively as the "supermajority"
The other overture attracting "supermajority" interest, submitted by
Shenango Presbytery in Pennsylvania, would have the GA intervene in a
case in the Presbytery of Northern New England (PNNE) by declaring
"inadequate" a Vermont congregation's compliance with a two-year-old
Permanent Judicial Commission decision.
Shenango wants the GA to require the Synod of the Northeast to order
PNNE to create an administrative commission to "assist" the session
of Christ Church of Burlington, VT, in complying with the
constitutional provision (G-6.0106.b) that forbids the ordination of
sexually active gays and lesbians. The provision has been upheld
three times in votes of PC(USA) presbyteries.
On June 2, the session of Christ Church issued a statement advising
the presbytery that it had "set aside" the resolution of dissent it
adopted four years ago, in an effort to "clarify and strengthen our
statement of present conviction." Conservatives argue that "set
aside" and "rescind" may not be the same.
During Monday's hearing, Mike Becker, a commissioned lay pastor from
Wabash Valley Presbytery, appeared before the committee to speak in
favor of the "supermajority" measures. He pointed out that the U.S.
Constitution has been amended relatively few times, while the
Presbyterian constitution "is amended 200 times every 30 years," with
the result that it's a growing volume that must be republished every
year, while "you can still mail the U.S. Constitution with a single
An opponent of the measures pointed out that "in recent decades
absolutely nothing has been passed (by the presbyteries) by this
supermajority, with the exception of reunion." Among the measures
passed by narrower margins, she said, were those that invited women
and people of color into the full life of the church. "If this rule
had been on the books, you might not be here right now," she said.
Kent Grimes, an elder from the Presbytery of Memphis who favors the
amendments, pointed out that it takes two-thirds votes of both houses
of Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution. However, he said
two-thirds is "too super of a majority" for Presbyterians; he urged
the committee to consider recommending 60 percent.
A Mississippi elder, invoking the memory of literacy tests for voters
in the Deep South ("some asked to spell 'chrysanthemum' and others
asked to spell 'dog'"), said, "Let us not raise the bar when our
denomination is divided, when one side is holding sway."
Jim Colby of Newcastle Presbytery said: "Our votes are always close.
�This is an attempt to lock in a provision added to the Book of Order
by very small majority." He said the denomination "is weary of
dealing with G-6.0106.b, and wants to make it difficult to remove or
even to debate controversial provisions" in the constitution. He
noted that G-6.0106.b "did not itself pass by the suggested
Regarding the Shenango overture, the Rev. Phil Moran from Boise
Presbytery, who opposes it, said: "Our constitution is not based on
the power of coercion; it's a covenant that we share together. The
constitution is not God's law, it's human law, and that covenant
protects all of us."
Earl Arnold, the stated clerk of Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery, argued,
"Our best process is to deal with matters like this � at the lowest
possible level of middle governing bodies." He added, "None of our
churches appreciate it � when they are instructed about what to do or
not to do by someone they don't know."
The Rev. Tim Hart-Anderson of Twin Cities Area Presbytery told the
committee: "The question is whether the presbytery has complied with
that order (from the Permanent Judicial Commission) that it engage in
'pastoral counseling' with Christ Church." If the GA passes
Shenango's overture, he said, it will "come across as a bully, not as
a connectional church, not as a caring church." He pointed out that
"'enforce' is kind of a police kind of word."
One advocate of the measure pointed out, "There are many
churches besides Christ Church that are issuing statements of
defiance� There is an alternative: We do nothing. That might seem
attractive, but I can tell you, that's no solution."
Don Wick, a Boston pastor, said: "I know many members of
Christ Church, and they are people committed to Christ, just like all
of us are. � This is a presbytery that did respond pastorally (as
instructed). � Hours and hours and hours have been spent in trying to
bring about peace and unity. � I appreciate Shenango's concern, but I
have to say it's not their business."
Janet Wilson, the stated clerk of Chicago Presbytery, said:
"This measure would order the synod to order the presbytery to form
an administrative commission to order the congregation to rescind its
statement." She said the Presbyterian way is not "that we order each
other, but that we cooperate."
Richard Wyatt, the general presbyter of Northern New England,
said the overture would be "an injustice to the Presbytery of
Northern New England." He pointed out that the PJC "did not order NNE
to punish Christ Church, but to work pastorally with Christ Church."
And he said the Christ Church congregation's response has been "a
deliberate, careful rethinking � a remarkable process, a process to
be commended, not condemned."
Doug Pratt of Pittsburgh warned that the denomination's
failure to enforce church judicial decisions may make it financially
liable. "Courts and judges and juries are finding that policies on
the books that are not consistently enforced are the same as having
no policies," he said.
John Buchanan, the pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in
Chicago, who was moderator of the 208th Assembly, which approved
G-6.0106.b, pointed out that it was passed "by less than a two-thirds
majority," and said Presbyterian polity must not deprive minorities
of hope that "they may one day change the opinion of the majority."
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