From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Polity panel recommends pastoral letter

Date 28 May 2003 20:05:26 -0400

Note #7742 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Polity panel recommends pastoral letter

Polity panel recommends pastoral letter

Would urge synods to develop procedures for dealing with defiance

by Alexa Smith

DENVER, May 27 - The 215th Committee on Church Polity is recommending that
General Assembly commissioners send a pastoral letter to synods and
presbyteries to remind them of available resources for addressing defiance of
the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The measure was prompted by some congregations' defiance of a provision in
the Book of Order that forbids the ordination of sexually active gays and

	The committee approved the pastoral-letter idea by a vote of 45-11
after rejecting several other courses of action, including: directing the
Office of the General Assembly (OGA) to develop procedural models to address
such situations, and encouraging synods to create procedures for reviews of

	The committee action came in response to Overture 03-8, from the
Presbytery of Redstone, which asked the Assembly to remind synods of their
responsibility to oversee presbyteries and to urge them to adopt guidelines
for appointing committees to respond to congregational defiance.

	The proposed letter would urge synods and presbyteries to "establish
procedures to review the work under their charge" and to "intervene in a
pastoral spirit that reflects the trust and love on which the community is

	It also would remind the PC(USA) that a range of constitutional
courses are available, ranging from administrative review to judicial action.

		Mirroring the conflict in the wider church, the committee's
56 members argued about how specific a course of action to recommend, wanting
to be direct but not dictatorial. Some members, arguing that pastoral letters
have been ineffective in the past, wanted to go farther; they were
contemplating the drafting of a minority report.

	Youth Advisory Delegate Nikki Daane summed up the latter perspective,
saying, "If my parent wanted me to be home at a certain time, and urged me to
be home at a certain time, I'd probably come home late." Daane said less
specific approaches often lead to more strife.

	But the majority held that a pastoral response is less heavy-handed,
delicately preserving the right to dissent while acting against open

	"We're trying to make a pastoral response to a very divisive issue,"
said the Rev. Sharon Taylor, of Greater Atlanta Presbytery, "and this is not
just about the constitution, but about the wholeness of the Body of Christ."

	Katherine Cunningham, a member of the Committee on the Office of the
General Assembly (COGA), told the committee that acting with only "some
specificity" would give the synods a starting point while allowing them to
develop their own procedures. She said pastoral letters tend to be received
with a "vague understanding in the life of governing bodies." Without clear
direction, she said, middle governing bodies find it easier to opt for the
judicial process.

	The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA) stated clerk, agreed with
Cunningham that pastoral administrative approaches to difficult issues have
served the PC(USA) well in the past.

	How to support synods dealing with defiant churches has been a sticky
issue, according to resource persons who spoke to the committee. The General
Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission has no authority to enforce its
decisions, and the Assembly's recourse is largely administrative, relying on
corrective reviews or commissions.

	Earlier, the committee voted to delete from the standing rules a
provision that the Assembly may review judicial decisions. Members said a
group of more than 500 commissioners have no appropriate means of studying
trial documents, calling witnesses or evaluating testimony.

	Last year's Assembly was pressured to implement that provision to
deal with a case of defiance in Northern New England Presbytery.

	With reference to that case, the Rev. Michael Herrin, of Mississippi
Presbytery, said he wants to know how a General Assembly can make an
administrative review happen. His statement came while the committee was
reviewing statements of compliance with PJC decisions, most notably the
controversial case of Christ Church Presbyterian in the Presbytery of
Northern New England.

	He attached a comment to the committee's report that would direct
COGA to clarify how the administrative-review process begins, and also
suggests changes to the standing rules to clear up the confusion.


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