Next week marks the meeting of one of the most misunderstood, important, and challenging bodies in the PCA – the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (RPR).
A disclaimer is in order – I have served on that Committee, many years ago, so I may have a certain prejudice concerning the importance and difficulty of its work, as well as a heightened desire that its work be properly understood. But allow me to elaborate.
I believe RPR is misunderstood because many think of it as a Committee charged with combing presbytery minutes for minutiae: mistakes in procedure, misspelled words, misplaced commas, grammatical mistakes etc. While it is true that the Committee is on the lookout for those things (labeled “exceptions of form” and “notations” in the Rules of Assembly Operation), that is not the heart of their work.
And it is the heart of their work that makes them so important. For their primary charge is to review the minutes of our Presbyteries to make certain that their actions conform to Scripture and the Constitution of the Church. So central is this function to their mandate that I have personally wondered if the Committee’s name should be Review of Presbytery Actions (to correct the misunderstanding cited above). The idea is this: typically, if a presbytery does something of questionable constitutionality, someone within the presbytery will file a complaint and if the complaint is denied, may file complaint to the General Assembly. If properly filed, said complaint will be forwarded to the Standing Judicial Commission for action. But suppose a presbytery does something unconstitutional but no one in the presbytery complains? How will the error be detected? RPR, as it reviews presbytery minutes, is charged to find it.
Now, we shouldn’t get the wrong idea. The attitude of an RPR member should not be to read the Minutes seeking errors (that could produce an unhealthy “gotcha” mentality). Rather, the Committee should flag actions to report to General Assembly only when there is a clear violation of Scripture or the Constitution, and then only after careful consultation with Presbytery representatives. Like all the committees of our denomination, their first priority is to serve pastorally, even when they are also called upon to render judgment.
By now you are probably beginning to understand why I have called this one of the most challenging committees in the PCA on which to serve, but there are many other reasons to do so. Consider the work load: (1) There are currently 80 presbyteries in the PCA, and all are supposed to submit their minutes annually. (2) Each presbytery is supposed to appoint a member to the Committee; last year 49 members attended the Committee meeting (meaning that the remaining presbyteries either were unable to recruit a representative, or their representative was unable to serve). Such a “shortfall” is not unusual. (3) Prior to the meeting, all the minutes of all the presbyteries must be read by a Committee member and that member must take notes on the exceptions and notations he finds. Given the number of presbyteries and active Committee members, many members must read and report on the minutes of two presbyteries. (4) At the Committee meeting itself, it is typical for a subcommittee of approximately one quarter of the Committee membership will be appointed solely to read and prepare a recommendation about presbytery responses to exceptions taken in the previous year; the rest of the Committee will read sets of minutes other than the minutes they read before the meeting. Thus, in these second readings, members will typically read two to three set of minutes and the first reader’s reports on them. Please note that it is entirely possible that the first and second readers may disagree on possible exceptions to those minutes. (5) All this work is preliminary to a presbytery by presbytery report to the entire Committee, along with the report of the aforementioned subcommittee on responses; the entire Committee then debates these reports and adopts its recommendations to the General Assembly about the minutes of each presbytery (a minority report on any set of minutes is possible). Needless to say, all of this adds up to a lot of work!
But in addition to the work load, there is also the challenge of maintaining continuity: (a) It is difficult to maintain continuity in the way identical actions taken by presbyteries are viewed from one year to the next. As members serve a three year term, there is complete turnover in the Committee every three years. (b) But it is also difficult to maintain continuity in the way the actions of different presbyteries are treated in the same year. Two presbyteries might take an identical action; both readers for one of those presbytery’s minutes might view that action as being unconstitutional and report it as such; but the readers of the other presbytery’s minutes might not consider it an exception and thus might not even mention it when reporting; so the identical action of two presbyteries might be treated differently by the Committee. (c) There is a special challenge to continuity due to our Korean presbyteries, as their minutes are written in a language and their actions reflect a cultural setting different from the majority of Committee members.
Finally, there is what I believe to be the greatest challenge of all: the challenge of setting aside my personal convictions. “Set aside my convictions? Are you kidding?” No. Allow me to explain.
One of the areas of greatest potential disagreement over the actions of presbyteries has to do with the exceptions a presbytery allows candidates to take to our doctrinal standards during their ordination exams (as outlined in BCO 24-1e and f). When I, as a member of the RPR Committee, review the action of a presbytery in granting or not granting an exception to the confession, I must apply the standard of “responsible freedom” rather than my own personal convictions (see my Commentary post “Responsible Freedom in the PCA” for an explanation of what I mean by this phrase). This is in recognition of the fact that “ reformed orthodoxy” is not as narrow as my particular brand of it. Unless a granted exception clearly violates a universally accepted tenet of Reformed theology as reflected in our Standards, I should defer to the presbytery’s judgment, because the presbytery is the body that has “the right and responsibility . . . to determine if the candidate is out of accord with any of the fundamentals” of our doctrinal Standards (BCO 21-4e). My personal convictions on the matter are irrelevant to my charge as a member of this Committee. While it is hard to set them aside, that is what, in this instance, I am called to do.
Serving on RPR is challenging, important, self-sacrificing work. Please pray for its members as they meet next week.