Update on Overtures to the 51st General Assembly
By Larry Hoop

In the PCA, an overture is a proposal from a lower church body to a higher body requesting the higher body to take some particular action. To date, eight new overtures have been sent to the 51st General Assembly.

Two of these overtures revise proposals made to the 50th GA but not approved by that body.

Overture 1 from Piedmont Triad Presbytery would amend Book of Church Order 35-1 and 35-8 regarding witness eligibility by allowing testimony by those who “do not believe in the existence of God or a future state of rewards and punishments,” The BCO currently prohibits such testimony. Overture 1 strikes this prohibition and proposes an oath to be taken by those who are unable “to take a lawful oath invoking God.”

This overture is similar in intent, but not identical in detail, to an overture Northern California Presbytery proposed to last year’s GA. Last year’s Overtures Committee recommended that Northern California’s proposal be denied. A minority report advocating approval of Northern California’s proposal was presented to the GA, but the Assembly voted in favor of the OC recommendation. This year’s Overture 1 reflects and expands on the rationale set forth by the 2023 minority report, reasoning that the current prohibition is a product of a cultural moment when theism was so widespread that denial of existence of God “signaled an unusually significant philosophical and moral deviation from societal norms,” which is no longer the case.

Piedmont Triad argues that many outside the church whose testimony in a case might be valuable “are increasingly likely to formally profess no belief in God” and notes that its proposal does not mandate the court receive every witnesses testimony as equally credible. The overture would permit those of no faith to testify and their testimony be judged “by the wisdom and discretion of the court.”

Overture 6 from Susquehanna Valley Presbytery is also an overture that revises a proposal made to the 50th GA. Last year South Texas Presbytery proposed amendments to BCO 13-6, 21-4b, and 24-1 to require criminal background checks for all ministers and officers. GA approved the OC recommendation to refer that overture back to South Texas without prejudice. 

Susquehanna Valley’s proposal is more extensive than what came to the Assembly last year. It calls for background checks for ministers transferring into presbytery (BCO 13-6), candidates for ordination as ministers (BCO 21-4c) and candidates for elder and deacon (BCO 24-1); it also requires checks for those applying to come under care of presbytery as candidates (BCO 18-3) and those examined for licensure (BCO 19-2). It also goes beyond the South Texas proposal to specify the agencies from which the background checks are to be obtained (an “Identity History Summary” from the FBI and a state/local background check or a “Vulnerable Sector Check” from the Canadian Government), and to require the court to review the background check with the candidate/applicant. 

Susquehanna Valley’s overture is more restrictive than the South Texas proposal in not mandating distribution of the background check beyond the court in question. Both proposals were prompted by recommendations made in the Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, and both opened their rationale with reference to the character requirements of church officers found in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1, though the rationales varied from that point on. 

Another overture also originated with a debate at the 50th GA regarding whether an overture proposing a change to the Rules of Assembly Operation that would impact permanent committees and agencies should be referred by the Stated Clerk to the Overtures Committee or to the relevant permanent committees and agencies. This debate was fueled by an apparent internal inconsistency in RAO 11-5 which addresses where overtures are to be referred. 

Overture 7 from Ascension Presbytery would resolve this inconsistency by rewriting RAO 11-5 to include the following provisions:

  • All overtures proposing amendment to the RAO having to do with the nature or responsibilities of a permanent committee or agency shall be referred to the OC and to the permanent committee(s) or agency(ies) that would be impacted by the proposed change.
  • The permanent committee(s) or agency(ies) and the relevant Committee(s) of Commissioners shall be given the opportunity to meet with the OC to share their proposed response(s).
  • The GA shall act on the overture on the basis of the recommendation of the OC, recognizing that the members of the permanent committee(s) or agency(ies) and the relevant Committee(s) of Commissioners will be able to enter into floor debate on that recommendation.

Two overtures concern presbytery boundaries. Such overtures are referred to the MNA Permanent Committee for recommendation, which ordinarily expects all presbyteries involved to agree to the change:

Overture 5 from Piedmont Triad Presbytery asks the GA to restructure the boundary between Piedmont Triad and Catawba Valley Presbytery so that Catawba Valley will extend North to Hwy 64 in Davidson County and Piedmont Triad will extend South to Hwy 64 in Davidson County. This change would affect only one church, which the overture says has demographic, historic, cultural, and economic affinity with many of the churches in Catawba Valley.

Overture 8 from Covenant Presbytery asks the GA to transfer Choctaw County in Mississippi from the geographic bounds of Covenant to the geographic bounds of Mississippi Valley Presbytery. This is at the request of the session of Old Lebanon Presbyterian Church, the only PCA church in Choctaw County, which is located at the southernmost end of Covenant’s boundary. The meetings of Mississippi Valley are invariably closer to Old Lebanon Church than those of Covenant.

Overture 2 from Northern California Presbytery seeks to clarify ordination transfers by amending BCO 13-6. Northern California argues that the current provision is ambiguous as to how thorough transfer examinations are for ministers transferring from one PCA presbytery to another and for ministers transferring into a PCA presbytery from outside the denomination. Under their proposed changes, ministers from other PCA presbyteries would be examined as to their view in theology, church government and the Sacraments. It would further require that if a presbytery does not accept such a minister, it must record the reason in its minutes and communicate those reasons to the minister’s current presbytery. 

Ministers seeking transfer from outside the denomination would be examined according to the trials for ordination listed in BCO 21-4. 

Whether from another PCA presbytery or from outside the denomination, ministers seeking transfer would be required to state any specific differences with the Confession of Faith and Catechism, and the presbytery would be required to judge the acceptability of those differences. The transferring minister would also be required to answer in the affirmative the questions put to candidates at their ordination.

Overture 3 from Pee Dee Presbytery would grant full constitutional authority to BCO 53, which is part of the Directory for Worship. The Directory of Worship is unique among the three documents that comprise the BCO (the other two being the Form of Government and the Rules of Discipline) in that, while “an approved guide that should be taken seriously as the mind of the Church agreeable with the Standards,” it is “not obligatory in all its parts.” 

Over the years, the denomination has given segments of the Directory of Worship “the force of law”: The entirety of Chapters 56, 57, and 58 which concern the Sacraments and admission to communicant membership, and Chapter 59-3 on marriage. These have been said to have been granted “full Constitutional authority.” Pee Dee’s proposal would extend that same authority to BCO 53, which is on the preaching of the Word, with the addition of the phrase “a qualified man” (or “qualified men”) at five points in the text. These are designed to ensure that only ordained ministers or other “qualified men” are permitted to preach in PCA pulpits. The presbytery also hoped that giving the Directory of Worship full constitutional authority would assist the sessions in ordering their worship services according to the Word and the PCA’s Standards.  

Overture 4 from Central Indiana Presbytery calls for the GA to postpone consideration of all overtures that propose changes to the “Rules of Discipline” (BCO 27-46) and to refer these overtures to an 11-member, self-funded ad interim study committee made up of six ruling elder and five teaching elders and an alternate in each class of elder. The reason Central Indiana gives for this proposal is the expectation that a larger number of proposed changes to the Rules of Discipline will be proposed to this GA, more than could be considered effectively in the time allotted to the OC during GA.  

Members of the proposed committee are named in the overture. The list includes three current Standing Judicial Commission members, two current Committee on Constitutional Business members (and one alternate), five former trial representatives, three legal professionals, and three past GA moderators. Since the RAO limits ad interim committees to seven members, the overture also calls for the RAO to be suspended to allow for a committee of this size. The Committee would report recommendations concerning the overtures referred to it to the OC of the 52nd General Assembly. 

The full text of each of these overtures may be found here. For information about how these overtures originate and are brought to the GA floor, click here.  This article will be updated regularly to reflect new overtures received by the GA.  

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