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[PCUSANEWS] Gallery packed at polity panel's meeting

Date 17 Jun 2002 20:51:33 -0400

Note #7250 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Gallery packed at polity panel's meeting
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" overtures.

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 U.S. stamp."

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 majority."

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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