Earlier this year, New Hope Presbyterian Church of Fairfax, Virginia, submitted an overture to Potomac Presbytery to change BCO 35-1 such that accused ministers will be required to testify against themselves. The presbytery rejected the overture, so New Hope has submitted the overture directly to General Assembly. The proposed change to the BCO would add the following language:
In general, the accused party may be allowed, but shall not be compelled to testify. However, because of the relationship of mutual accountability between church officers and the church created in the voluntary affirmation of ordination vows, church officers under accusation shall be required to testify before the court of original jurisdiction. The accuser shall be required to testify, on the demand of the accused.
David Coffin, teaching elder at New Hope, explains the reasoning behind the proposed language: “We’ve had cases [on the Standing Judicial Commission] where, particularly with respect to church officers and their doctrinal views, they have exercised their rights by not testifying. It has very severely hindered the court’s original jurisdiction and because of that has severely hindered the SJC as an appeals court. At the end of the day, the question is ‘What are the man’s views?’ If the man doesn’t testify, we don’t have firsthand evidence of what they are. It means that the trial ends up being a matter of hearsay. If we don’t have any access to his views, it profoundly limits the SJC from being able to function properly. This is all premised on a mistaken understanding on the Fifth Amendment rights not to testify. Those rights were related to the compulsory powers of the government … none of those things apply at all, under our rules.”
Further, “In every instance, with regards to a church officer, he has voluntarily put himself in a place where his views are subject to scrutiny. It’s just shot through the whole of the Book of Church Order. Given the pervasive character, this seems frankly crazy that when you finally come to trial, the person can say nothing at all. I circulated the idea with members of the SJC, and I got uniform agreement that it was a problem and needed to be rectified.”
To read the overture, click here.