Pacific Northwest Presbytery Proposes Six Procedural Changes

Every action taken by a presbytery or the General Assembly must follow specific procedures. From the instructions in “Robert’s Rules of Order” to the standards set forth in our “Book of Church Order” (BCO), these procedures ensure that majority rule is followed, that minority rights are protected, and that all things are done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).

Pacific Northwest Presbytery (PNP) has proposed six changes it believes will enable the PCA to better achieve those ends.

Overture 36 deals with the way new business is introduced to the General Assembly (GA). Proposals are typically presented to the Assembly through overtures; these are similar to legislative motions that have been approved by a presbytery. According to the PCA’s “Rules of Assembly Operation” (RAO), overtures must be submitted 31 days prior to the Assembly, 60 days prior if they involve changes to the BCO.

“New business,” however, can be presented as late as the second day of Assembly business; it then requires two-thirds of the Assembly vote to receive it. Occasionally, new business is presented as a personal resolution; such resolutions often take a form similar to that of an overture.

Overture 36 would require that any proposal offered as new business, if not first presented as an overture to a presbytery, include an explanation for why it was not. The Assembly, after hearing the explanation, could still receive it as new business after a two-thirds vote.

PNP believes the change would encourage presbyters to route proposals to the General Assembly through overtures. “That route gives GA Commissioners more time to consider the proposed business,” says PNP Clerk RE Howard Donahoe. He believes it might enable the Assembly to settle new business when it’s presented, rather than postponing it to the next Assembly.

Two PNP proposals relate to procedures in our presbyteries:

Overture 37 would require annual reports from teaching elders (TE) without call. Donahoe notes that the BCO currently calls for such reports from TEs serving out of the ecclesiastical/geographical bounds of their presbytery, but there is no such requirement for teaching elders without call. He points out that such TEs can fall through the cracks of pastoral care. “This could help presbyteries better care for these ministers,” Donahoe believes. Although the proposal does not specify the form such a report would take, Donahoe speculates that it would answer questions such as, “Where have you been worshiping? Have you been able to do any preaching or teaching? What can presbytery do to help you procure a call? Do you need financial assistance?”

Overture 38 refers to the review of the records of mission churches. According to the BCO, the Session of every “particular” (established, self-governing) church must keep an accurate record of its proceedings and submit these records at least once every year for inspection by the Presbytery. Mission churches don’t have their own sessions; they are governed by a temporary structure until they organize as a particular church. This temporary government takes one of three forms: (1) when a “mother” church is planting the mission as a “daughter” congregation, the Session of the mother church can serve as the Session of the daughter; (2) Presbytery can appoint a commission of teaching and ruling elders from several churches to serve as a “Temporary Session”; or (3) Presbytery can “clothe” the church planter with the “powers of an evangelist” and grant him the power to receive and dismiss members (common) or even instruct, examine, ordain, and install ruling elders and deacons (less common). Overture 38 would require the temporary governments of mission churches to submit their minutes for annual review just as is required of particular churches.

When asked how an evangelist would report under this proposal, Donahoe replied, “While an evangelist would not keep ‘minutes’ per se, he would keep records: an annual budget, a record of members received and transferred, a record of baptisms and deaths. If Presbytery commissioned him to ordain and install ruling elders and deacons and organize churches, records would also be kept for those actions.” Donahoe says that the proposal would require those records to be reviewed annually by Presbytery.

Three of PNP’s overtures relate to judicial business.

Overture 2 concerns Concurring and Dissenting Opinions offered in cases decided by the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) and calls for a change in the SJC’s Manual. Unlike proposed amendments to the BCO, such Manual changes are referred to the SJC for their recommendation and require approval of two-thirds of the General Assembly to be adopted.

The proposal from PNP has received the unanimous endorsement of the SJC. Currently, Concurring and Dissenting Opinions related to SJC cases must be approved by the entire SJC before they can be published. This provision ensures that such Opinions conform to the standards set for in the Manual. However, approval of the Opinions must await a meeting of the SJC; this often prevents timely publication. The proposed change still maintains a two-week window during which any four SJC members could either ask that the Opinion be stricken for failure to meet the standards or propose an answer to the Opinion.

“The primary beneficiaries of this proposal would be the parties in the case,” says Donahoe. “They’d be able to read any Concurring or Dissenting Opinions upon their receipt of the SJC’s Decision.” What’s more, he continues, “Any judge who files such an Opinion would also benefit because he’d have the opportunity to explain his vote contemporaneously with the publishing of the Decision.”

Overture 39 calls for a change in the portion of the BCO that deals with “cases without process.”

A “case of process” takes the form of a trial that concludes with a verdict. When the accused is found guilty, a censure (e.g., suspension from the sacraments, suspension from office, removal from office, or excommunication) typically follows. A person who’s been convicted always has the right to appeal to the next higher court. In such a case, the appeals court may affirm the decision of the lower court, in whole or in part. It can reverse the decision, in whole or in part. It can render the decision that should have been made. Or, it can remand the case to the lower court for a new trial. An appeal also suspends any censure until the higher court has ruled.

A “case without process” occurs when a person comes to the court and confesses an offense. The offender and the court agree on a full statement of facts concerning the matter, and the court, without a trial, renders judgment; such judgment often includes a censure.

The current provisions concerning these cases allow the offender to file a complaint concerning the judgment. However, PNP notes that a complaint differs from an appeal in two ways: (1) The higher court does not have the right to render the decision that should have been made; and (2) the censure imposed is not automatically suspended; suspension of the censure requires the approval of one-third of the court that imposed it. Overture 39, by allowing a person to appeal his judgment, would eliminate these differences. Donahoe points out that this revision would allow a higher court to reduce a person’s censure in a case without process. Under the current provisions, it cannot do that.

Overture 40, concerning complaints, is probably the most complicated of PNP’s proposals, Donahoe says. An explanation begins with BCO 43-1, which defines a complaint as “a written representation made against some act or decision of a court of the Church.” The paragraph goes on to state that any communicant member in good standing has a right to complain against any action of a court that has jurisdiction over him. There is, however, an exception: No complaint is allowed in a judicial case in which “an appeal is pending.” Donahoe, also a member of the SJC, argues that the interpretation of the phrase “appeal is pending” causes confusion. The phrase, he says, was a central procedural issue in three recent cases. Therefore, Overture 40 lists conditions that would specify when an appeal is no longer pending and therefore subject to complaint.

It would also, however, permit a higher court, by a two-thirds majority, to allow a particular complaint prior to the lower court judgment. It would be rare, Donahoe believes, for this provision to be invoked. “I suppose there could be an instance, for example, where a Presbytery makes an error of judgment by suspending an accused minister from ‘all his official functions’ as per BCO 31-10,” he says. “If he needed to wait for the completion of his trial before seeking higher court review, his church could be without a preacher, and he could be without work and pay, for several months.”

With the exception of Overture 2 (see above), the Overtures Committee will consider each of these proposals and recommend that the General Assembly either answer in the affirmative or negative. Any the Assembly approves must gain the approval of two-thirds of the presbyteries and also be approved by the following General Assembly before they can be counted among our procedures.

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