Category Archives: polity

Brief Comment On The Central (now Alps Road) Presbyterian Church Decision, Athens, Georgia – The Exception That Proves The Rule

I began my previous property post on the Bethlehem Presbyterian Church court arguments with the reference to the cliché “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” This is a very apt phrase to keep in mind when dealing with church property cases because the law varies significantly between states and each case has its own particular circumstances. Earlier this month we got a very good example of this in a court decision from Athens, Georgia.

Being in Georgia the hierarchical church gets strong support as laid out in the 2011 state supreme court decision of Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, Inc. v. Timberridge Presbyterian Church, Inc. (Timberridge decision). The court wrote in the conclusion:

Like the trial court, we conclude that neutral principles of law demonstrate that an implied trust in favor of the PCUSA exists on the local church’s property to which TPC Inc. holds legal title. See Barber, 274 Ga. at 359; Crumbley, 243 Ga. at 345. The Court of Appeals erred in concluding to the contrary.

The critical word in that block is “implied,” sort of like “if you are a PC(USA) church than the trust clause applies to you – end of story.” Very few states have given this level of deference to hierarchical churches. But the latest decision shows that it is not necessarily that simple and it is probably best to wait on analysis until you have the data.

In the case of Central Presbyterian Church, now Alps Road Presbyterian Church, a decision was handed down earlier this month that made a preliminary award of the property to the congregation. [And our thanks to The Layman for posting a copy of the decision.] The difference in this case is the strong documentary evidence that from the highest levels of the PCUS and then PC(USA) the understanding was that the trust clause was a theological understanding. The section begins with this:

Testimony showed that CPC believed that its property rights were not going to be affected by the reunion (or by any amendments to the PCUS constitution pre-dating the 1983 merger containing similar trust language). This belief was informed by a 1981 letter written by Rev. James Andrews, the Stated Clerk of the PCUS at that time, regarding a similar trust clause proposed by PCUS. The letter stated that the new trust clause in the PCUS constitution would not change the Presbyterian Church’s historical position on property. He writes, “These amendments do not in any way change the fact that the congregation, in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., owns its own property.” (Aff. Parker Williamson, Ex. I). In 1982, Rev. Andrews affirmed the denomination’s position in a report to all of the PCUS commissioners. The report reads, “The language dealing with trust does not in any way establish any kind of an encumbrance on church property as that term is understood in connection with real estate.” (Aff. Parker Williamson, Ex. K)

These communications, while not speaking directly to the PCUSA trust clause but
rather to the PCUS trust clause, are very important because in the Articles of Agreement
between PCUS and UPCUSA, PCUSA stated its intention to be bound by the representations
of its predecessor denominations. (Aff. Parker Williamson, Ex. G)

And that is just the start of that section.

The court clearly needed to address the Timberridge decision and how it relates to this one. The flavor of that finding is evident in the opening lines and since you know the bottom line of the case you can probably figure where the section goes from here:

In this case, there is a sharp conflict in the evidence as to the PCUSA mode of government (unlike in Timberridge where the parties agreed that the PCUSA was hierarchical). Petitioners presented evidence suggesting that the PCUSA structure of government is a hybrid congregational-hierarchical structure. Respondent’s witness testified that the PCUSA is hierarchical with a representational form of government.

Bottom line – take these property cases one at a time based on their own merits. Corollary – who knows what interesting material from American Presbyterian history may come to light in doing so. It will be interesting if we see more of those James Andrews quotes in the future.

I will leave it at that for today. From what I have been tracking there is a lot more property stuff in the pipeline and we will see where all this leads.

Stay tuned…

142nd General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church In Canada

Presbyterian_Church_in_Canada_(logo)And the action is beginning again and we are in for an extended stretch of Assemblies and Synods the next few weeks. So to start us off…

In just a couple of hours the 142nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada will be getting under way. The Assembly will run from today ( 3 June ) through Monday 6 June, 2016. It is being hosted by the Presbytery of East Toronto at the Tait McKenzie Centre of York University.

A few things to know to help follow along:

  • There will live streaming of the Assembly meetings
  • From the GA 2016 page you can download the full and final Book of Reports. The daily schedule is found on page A-1 (the 5th page) of the packet and a more detailed docket begins on page C-1 (the 11th page in the packet). There is also a good Summary of Reports piece that gives a good overview of the meeting.
  • Official news updates are available on the news feed. There may be additional news items from the Presbyterian Record.
  • I anticipate there will be daily GA Briefings and probably video recordings of the sederunts posted regularly. The Briefings will probably be are available on the GA 2016 page and the videos archived on the Live Stream Page.
  • The General Assembly Resources page is where you will find the important doctrine and governance documents including the Book of Forms and a link to the Acts and Proceedings page.
  • And watch for pictures of the Assembly to be posted on the Presbyterian Record Flickr feed.

The theme for the meeting is “stewards of the mysteries of God”, taken from the phrase in 1 Corinthians 4:1.

GA2016-Web-Banner-serifThe Assembly can be followed on social media through the PCConnect Facebook page and through their official Twitter feed @PCConnect. The hastag for the meeting is #pccga2016. The official publication, the Presbyterian Record, will probably be posting updates on their Facebook page.

I am still sort of scanning to see if any of my regulars look like they will be active on Twitter for this meeting. Not sure yet, but at this point let me suggest keeping an eye on John Borthwick (@jborthwik), Jeff Loach (@passionatelyhis) (but who may be too busy at the front table) and Ross Lockhart (@rossalockhart). Coming in early with good Presbyterian cynicism are Blair Bertrand (@Bertrand_Blair) and Roland De Vries (@Roland_DeVries). Will update here as things get rolling later today.

For the Presbynerds and polity wonks, one of the items coming to this Assembly from the Committee on Church Doctrine is the paper Presbyterian Polity: Its Distinctives and Directions for the 21st Century. This is a starting point that invites reflection and feedback over the next two years on how the church does its business in a changing world. And I am encouraged that it is tied to doctrine and not a pure polity working group. The committee report begins on the 165th page of the Business packet. The committee will be the first briefing on Saturday morning and the business will come the Assembly on Monday morning.

A closely watched item on both the Church Doctrine docket as well as the Life and Mission report is the ongoing study related to human sexuality. While there are numerous overtures submitted to the Assembly this year reflecting a range of new actions and theological positions, both committees will recommend that any action be deferred until the 143rd General Assembly next year when the human sexuality report, reflecting the denomination’s two-year conversation, will be presented to the Assembly.

One other item I will highlight, among several interesting ones, is that the previous Assembly approved legislation that would permit a synod to dissolve. This year the Clerks of Assembly will be bringing a recommended process to be added as an Appendix to the Book of Forms to make that happen. It can be found starting on the 204th page of the Business packet.

So prayers and best wishes for the members of the 142nd General Assembly and as you address issues so important to the future witness of the church my you indeed by guided by the Holy Spirit.

Top Ten Presbyterian News Topics Of 2015

Once again, as I think back on the year and review what has happened I decided to make a list of the different themes that stood out to me from different Presbyterian branches. Here, in no particular order, is my list. Your list may vary.

Racial Reconciliation

One of the more dramatic moments in a Presbyterian General Assembly this year occurred at the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. A good narration of the action comes from Travis Hutchinson’s blog. He begins his post with this description of the personal resolution offered from the floor of the Assembly:

Mississippi Teaching Elders, Drs Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan entered a personal resolution at the beginning of the Assembly which acknowledged the involvement of our denomination (and our predecessor denomination) in promoting racism and failing to act to support the goals of the Civil Rights movement. It encouraged us to seek repentance and carry this message to our local churches. The resolution was referred to our Overtures Committee for a recommendation.

The Overtures Committee recommended referring it to the next GA to allow for it to be perfected but when it returned to the floor it was clear that many commissioners felt making the statement at the current Assembly was a more important action than waiting for refinement. But in that parallel universe that is Standing Rules and Parliamentary Procedure the choice before the Assembly was not to adopt the original motion but to refer it back to the Overtures Committee or refer it to the next GA. After much debate, a couple of votes and not a small amount of prayer the Assembly voted to send it to the next Assembly. Then a protest was filed “expressing [personal] confession of sin and hope for repentance.” Over 200 of the commissioners signed onto the protest according to the official news item. Another detailed description of the Assembly action on this item can be found on TE Timothy R. LeCroy’s blog.

Other news in this topic includes the continued work of the Reformed African American Network, the formation of the African American Presbyterian Fellowship within the PCA’s Mission to North America ministries, and the PC(USA) has launched an anti-racism campaign.

In the PC(USA) the presbyteries approved the addition of the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions leaving only the final approval of the 222nd General Assembly in 2016.

Finally, in Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been working with the indigenous peoples and at the release of their final report the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada made a statement that acknowledged the pain of the past while expressing hope for the future.

 

Mass Shootings and Gun Violence

With several high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. this year it may be impossible to chronicle every Presbyterian connection. But two in particular caught my attention. The first was the shootings at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church in June. Among many connections, the church has had a long and close connection to Second Presbyterian next door. I chronicled some of the many connections in a headlines piece at the time. The other tragedy was the recent San Bernardino shootings close to where I live and several friends were mentioned in local news stories about responses and pastoral care. The PC(USA) issued both a pastoral letter as well as an initial and then a follow-up news article.

In addition, the Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly, Larissa Kwong Abazia, issued her own personal statement about the situation and asking the denomination to seek ways to respond to gun violence in general. In addition, in light of all the shootings it was a year in which the PC(USA) film about gun violence, “Trigger“, was highlighted.

As I said above, there were multiple incidents world-wide and that same June Headlines piece also contained links to several stories about a terrorist attack in Tunisia that killed adherents from the Church of Scotland.

 

Presbyterian denominations and same-gender relationships

This was an issue across many Presbyterian branches this year with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada beginning a study process to consider making their standards more inclusive and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland debating and sending to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act the proposed changes to their governing documents. For the Canadian church the study documents have been released. In the case of the Kirk the indication is the changes to the Acts and Proceedings have been approved by a majority of the presbyteries but the results will not be certified until next year.

In the American Presbyterian church, the PC(USA) presbyteries approved a change in the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship in the Book of Order. That change went into effect at the end of June and in early September the chapel at the PC(USA) national offices hosted its first same-gender wedding ceremony.

 

Reaction within the Presbyterian family to same-sex marriage decisions

The reaction to these decisions is worthy of its own item in the list with the reaction to the PC(USA) decision being swift and wide-spread. Within two weeks of the vote total being reached the National Black Church Initiative cut ties with the PC(USA) over the vote. A couple of months later the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) and the Evangelical Presbyterian and Reformed Church of Peru (IEPRP) ended mission partnerships on the national level. The PC(USA) has issued a news article acknowledging these breaks but also saying that other mission partners have decided to continue the partnerships.

Elsewhere, the decision by the Church of Scotland was a concern in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland which initially expressed “deep sorrow” at the decision and during their General Assembly decided that they would not send a representative to the Kirk’s 2016 General Assembly. Outside the Presbyterian family the Russian Orthodox Church has broken off ecumenical discussions with the Church of Scotland over this.

 

Shifting between Reformed branches

The movement of churches between different Presbyterian and Reformed branches continues unabated. ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians announced that their membership had grown to over 240 churches, most are congregations that have departed the PC(USA). In Scotland the Free Church continues to see a few congregations and ministers wishing to move from the Church of Scotland. In addition, a few churches completed the process of transferring from the Reformed Church in America to the PCA.

 

Property

With shifts in Reformed branches comes the question of taking or leaving property. Those moving from the Church of Scotland to the Free Church typically do not get to take it. University Reformed Church was assessed about $300,000 to take their campus to the PCA.

But bigger and more plentiful property disputes came from churches departing the PC(USA) including congregations that walked away, were graciously dismissed with a payment, kept their property in civil suits, lost their property in civil suits, and one of the more unusual cases where the court awarded the property to the PC(USA) faction of the congregation but not on behalf of the presbytery.

Other interesting property cases include a very convoluted property case in California with the KAPC and a case in Malawi where the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) “sued itself” over property.

 

Presbyterian branches working together

Particularly in light of very recent developments this might qualify as the most interesting topic of the year.

Let me begin with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America whose Unification Task Force is on track to bring a proposed set of bylaws to the 2016 General Assembly. This would put the two denominations on track to make final approvals in 2017 and unite in a single general assembly in 2018.

While not a move with unification in sight, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church held their General Synods jointly in a move to strengthen the ties between these two streams of American Presbyterianism. For those not aware, each of these branches traces their heritage back to Scotland separately and apart from the mainstream branch of American Presbyterianism.

Finally, in a move that is not between two Presbyterian branches but between two national churches, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England just formally announced their intent to be more intentional in their joint work in what they are calling the Columba Declaration. This was followed by the Church of England’s Anglican partner in Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church, issuing something of a “what about us” statement.

 

Refugees

In putting this list together it seemed at times that I could have filled it with humanitarian crises. But if there is one that that Presbyterians world-wide seemed not just outspoken about but responsive to it would be the Middle East refugee crisis.

Regarding statements, these came from all quarters including the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Free Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, and the PC(USA), and many others.

In terms of action, there are accounts of relief and resettlement efforts all over the news. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is partnering with the Hungarian Reformed Church. Presbyterian churches are among those across Canada ready to help resettle refugees. Similar things can be said for the U.S. where, among many towns and churches, Trinity Presbyterian in Atlanta is ready to sponsor two families. And in Princeton, NJ, Nassau Presbyterian Church and the Seminary are working together to help resettle a family.

And we also have the account of a PC(USA) group traveling to Turkey and seeing relief efforts first hand as they worked in a local soup kitchen and food pantry to help feed Syrian refugees.

In another refugee story, the final Central American individual who found sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson was able to go home after 15 months under a confidential agreement. However, with an announced round of deportations coming up the church, with others, has responded that they are ready to offer sanctuary to more refugees who fear for their lives if they are deported.

 

Membership trends continue

Not much new to say here. As with all the mainstream churches in the U.S., the PC(USA) membership decline continues with a loss of 2.1% in the number of congregations and a 5.3% decline in the total membership. What is interesting, at least to me, is that when normalized and compared the membership decline in the PC(USA) over the last decade is very similar to the decline in the Church of Scotland.

 

Publications and Media

Not sure what it was this year but publications and media, particularly those recognized with awards and honors, seemed to catch my attention more than most years.

Let me begin with the Learn resources from the Church of Scotland, particularly the Learn Eldership book that I reviewed last spring. It has been joined by two additional pieces – hard to call the relatively short How Will Our Children Have Faith? a book – that I might get time to review in the future.

But the series in general, and the Learn Eldership in particular, have been recognized by different organizations. In addition to being a best seller, Eldership was a finalist in the Publications category of the Scottish Creative Awards. It was also recognized in the Innovation category as being among the crème-de-la crème of Scottish magazines in the Scottish Magazine Awards.

From Westminster John Knox Press we have a winner of the 2015 Christianity Today Book Awards in the Theology/Ethics category. It is Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. (Yes, technically announced in 2014 but awarded in 2015)

I would also include in this topic the just-released book by Dr. Sean Michael Lucas, For A Continuing Church: The roots of the Presbyterian Church in America. It is described as the “first full scholarly account of the theological and social forces that brought about [the PCA’s] creation.”

Finally, two films directed by PC(USA) Presbyterian Disaster Assistance agency photojournalist David Barnhart have been invited to the Beaufort International Film Festival in February. The films are “Kepulihan: When the Waters Recede” about the aftermath of the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami and “Locked in a Box” about immigration detention facilities.

 

So there you have my list of what caught my attention.

Some of you may be wondering where all the issues that were happening in Louisville are? In my list above I tried to capture more broad themes and those are more denomination specific. But, to add them here the news out of Louisville included: an outside audit of cost overruns at the last Presbyterian Youth Triennium; continued investigation, dismissals and lawsuits related to the New Church Initiative fiscal management; the departure of Linda Valentine and hiring of Tony de la Rosa in the Executive Director position; the search for a new Stated Clerk and Gradye Parsons announcing he would not apply again; and the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s own budget crisis.

For more information specific to the PC(USA) you can check out the Presbyterian Outlook’s list of top stories. For that matter, the Free Church of Scotland has their own year in review, and the Church of Scotland Mission and Discipleship agency has one as well.

And so I hope that 2015 was a good year for you and my prayers for all of you for a good 2016. My year will start out on a very high note, so stay tuned for that. Until then

Happy New Year and a Joyful Hogmanay

The Discussion of PC(USA) Identity And Musings On An “Ecclesiastical Hackathon”

About a month ago the Moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Heath Rada, issued a “Call to the Church” to rethink what the PC(USA) should look like and in doing so build trust within the church.  This started the wheels in motion for a discussion in the denomination about what the identity of the PC(USA) is now and what it should be. Specifically he said in his remarks:

It became apparent [within a small task force on mission funding] that we all believed a painful situation existed [in the PC(USA)] and for anything significant to be accomplished we must find ways for that trust to be restored. It was felt that our denomination needed to explore these matters in depth and that I should announce a CALL TO THE CHURCH to help in addressing them.

The statement goes on to list five areas of importance, from the church’s changing place in the wider culture to the theological institutions to the urgent need for action. And with that the statement outlines five steps to take but at multiple points emphasizing the need to involve all levels of the church.

In a follow-up article in the Presbyterian Outlook he updates us on the response he has gotten and what next steps might be. While some are a bit further off – specifically part of the preparation for the 222nd General Assembly – other steps were being implemented quickly. This past week we saw the first of those and that is a survey opened up by Research Services to gather input from the full breadth of the PC(USA). You are encouraged to “Join the Conversation” and you have until November 13 to respond on that survey.

Another step is the announcement of two Twitter chats with the Vice-Moderator of the 221st General Assembly, Larissa Kwong Abazia (@LarissaLKA). The first chat begins this afternoon at 6 PM EDT (3 PM PDT) and will use the hashtag #pcusaidentity. The second chat is on Thursday November 12 at 9 PM EST (7 PM MST).

In reading that follow-up article a few things jump out at me. One is that the responses include “groups…wanting to be part of the conversation.” So must a group come forward to be included? Another is that Office of the General Assembly and Research Services will be the ones surveying the church and figuring out how to initiate discussions. It struck me that groups and offices in the national church seem to be headlining what looks like an institutional response. This is no surprise since at one point in the initial Call Moderator Rada wrote:

Again let me state the obvious. Someone has to take a lead. I am asking that the denomination affirm and actively participate in the COGA process which is getting ready to be unveiled and which will undertake the massive task of assessing the church’s will (in accordance with God’s will) concerning who and what we need to be as a denomination.

An interesting article three weeks ago takes a very different approach…

The Presbyterian Outlook published an op-ed piece by Deborah Wright and Jim Kitchens titled “An Open Letter to Moderator Heath Rada: What if . . . we held an ecclesiastical hackathon?

As Presbyterians you have to love the idea, but more on that in a moment.

Their idea is an open call and competition where people form teams of six individuals and come up with their ideas about what the PC(USA) should look like or be doing. As they say:

Game theorists radically believe that the solutions to tough social problems reside in the players. Adaptive Change theorists believe deep challenges of uncharted territories must find solutions in unknown corners. Positive Deviance theorists act on the notion that the village has the answers, if one only looks to the fringes. What if this once – instead of committees and task forces and hired expert consultants – what if . . . we bucked up our Reformed theology and went looking for our unheralded prophets out there, trusting God to provide!

The idea is that a set of “rules and tools” would be issued by the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) and any group of six members of the PC(USA) would have a few months to assemble a team and present a plan, solution, strategy, what ever was being asked for.

A number of theological and polity positives jump out at me here. As the authors emphasize, we are a priesthood of all believers. Why should we let the brains at OGA and PMAB have all the fun with this. The Reformed community should be the specialists at crowd sourcing as we believe decision making and the corresponding mission are to be done at the lowest applicable level and our structure is supposed to allow the most people and those with particular gifts for the situation to be involved.

It is arguable whether groups of six are theologically supported here – seven is a more spiritual number or we could just think of two groups of six making twelve. But in our church history it was the group of the “Six Johns“, led by John Knox, that over four days wrote the Scottish Confession of Faith of 1560. Not exactly a hackathon since they were the only group working on it but still a model of a group of six that worked quickly to produce a product that changed history.

Now looking at this proposal I do cringe a little bit to see that the process is directed by the agencies at the top. They are the existing coordinating bodies after all and in a position to be able to do this so there is a solid rational for this. But let’s think a bit outside the box here.

What if we thought about this a bit more as a crowd sourced or grassroots project and tried to find another point to run this from. What if the responsibility were devolved to someplace in the church that is actively doing something like this, such as the 1001 New Worshiping Communities group? Or maybe an existing recognized affiliated body like the NEXT Church group or the Presbyterian Outlook board. Or maybe something completely different like a joint steering group made up of members of the Covenant Network and the Fellowship Community? Or a really radical thought: Just go for it!

The idea would be for groups that wanted to get involved to brainstorm changes and then send it to the next General Assembly from the bottom up. Get your group together and then take the idea to your two or three nearest presbyteries for endorsement as ascending overtures so they will be considered as business in Portland. If this hackathon concept is taken seriously maybe one of the commissioner committees at GA could have the responsibility for reviewing these and helping the Assembly to think in new ways. And remember, the deadline for proposed Book of Order changes is February 19, 2016, and for overtures with financial implications it is April 19, 2016.

So there you have my riff on the hackathon idea. I don’t think this is too far off from the ideas Landon Whitsitt discussed in his book Open Source Church. And remember, the hackathon – or whatever you want to call it – concept has two purposes: One is discussed above as a model for drawing more fully from the wisdom and knowledge of the whole group. The other is to involve more people in seriously visioning and thinking about the problem and empowering them to do something about it so they have ownership of situation. This is not answer a survey or participate in a guided discussion sort of thing. The idea is to empower any interested member to dive into the details, inner working and think about the problem at the deepest levels. Where it may go we don’t know so this certainly could be a “stay tuned” moment for the PC(USA).

You Keep Using That Word…

[Prefatory note: Yes, it has indeed been almost two months since I last posted here, a full month beyond my planned quiet period. While I have several articles in draft form that I want to complete I have been busy on a couple of other fronts that has taken time away from my writing. I am hoping to be a bit more regular for the next few months. In addition, I have a large data acquisition and analysis project related to my Big Tent series that has been where I have dedicated my blogging hours. We will see where that goes.]

Today was one of those days where I ran across something that hit one of my sensitive nerves, raised my blood pressure and sent me to the keyboard to vent. It was an online article from the Presbyterian Outlook titled “Distance education: Seminary comes to you.” It is overall an interesting article from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary – and not from the Outlook staff – that talks about distance learning, particularly for those that don’t traditionally attend seminary. The lede begins with a quote from back in May from the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), RE Heath Rada:

Recently Heath Rada, moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), asked, “How might the denomination use the seminaries more effectively? . . . Could the training of commissioned ruling elders be moved under the seminaries’ oversight? Might a renewed emphasis on education of the laity be incorporated into the curricula of these schools in ways that could incite enthusiasm throughout our denomination in new ways?” The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary (UDTS) has been asking just these sorts of questions for the last 15 years and has answered with the development of a wide variety of online educational options for the theological education of laity and clergy.

Did you catch the wording? I did a quick check on the PC(USA) Book of Order and the words “clergy” and “laity” are not to be found. Even worse, this quote, and in places in the rest of the article, seem to use “laity” interchangeably with “ruling elder.” (The term is also used in places where they talk about other educational tracks that could include students from non-Reformed traditions so it may be awkward for the Presbyterians but technically acceptable.)

To be fair, this is not the only place in discussions of Presbyterian polity that you will find these terms used. But in a strict sense as I understand it Presbyterians know nothing of the laity in its traditional sense. To quote that bastion of knowledge, the Wikipedia article for laity,

Presbyterianism

Presbyterians do not use the term “lay”. Thus the Church of Scotland has “Readers”, men and women set apart by presbyteries to conduct public worship. This arises out of the belief in the priesthood of all believers. Ministers are officially ‘teaching elders’ alongside the ‘ruling elders’ of the Kirk Session and have equivalent status, regardless of any other office. In the Church of Scotland, as the Established church in Scotland, this gives ruling elders in congregations the same status as Queen’s chaplains, professors of theology and other highly qualified ministers. All are humble servants of the people in the congregation and parish. Ministers are simply men and women whose gift is for their role in teaching and possibly pastoral work. They are thus selected for advanced theological education. All elders (teaching and ruling) in meetings of Session, Presbytery, or Assembly are subject to the Moderator, who may or may not be a minister but is always an elder.

OK, Wikipedia is not my first choice for a credible argument, and in this case I disagree with a couple other details in the article and the emphasis is on the Church of Scotland, but I think it correctly makes the point that there is a priesthood of all believers and some are set aside for ordered ministry. Furthermore, teaching and ruling elders rule jointly and in the administration of the church generally either flavor of elder may hold any given leadership position.

Now, if you want the argument from a credible Presbyterian source, you can do no better than Teaching Elder Joe Small, the previous head of the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship. In a talk he gave in 2010 before he retired he is quoted as saying “Clergy and laity are two words that should never escape the lips of Presbyterians.” He expands more fully on the historical development of the ordered ministry in the Reformed tradition in a chapter he contributed to a book on church governance.

If you want corroboration of this thought, two other giants of Presbyterian polity, John Bolt and Jan Edmiston have also spoken or written about the distinction and its importance. And yes, I have ranted about this before – as I said it touched a sensitive nerve with me.

So as I close this discussion, or a sequel rant if you will, I want to be clear that this is not just a semantic distinction. In my thinking about Reformed theology this is at the heart of how we view ourselves as the Body of Christ. Traditionally the use of the terms clergy and laity imply a difference in function and standing between the two groups. If we accept the concept of the priesthood of all believers this distinction does not exist. Yes, there is an ordered ministry for proclamation, one for spiritual guides and a third for mercy ministry. But these are always exercised within the context of the covenant community. It is everyone working together with some set aside (not elevated) for particular tasks.

OK, rant over. We now return you to your regular programming.

[And it is nice to be back. More about my summer later.]

Musings On How Big Is The PC(USA) Big Tent – Part 2: He’s In My Church?

I found it an interesting exercise over the last week or so to see the reaction to a particular political candidate declaring he was a Presbyterian and, with some corroborating evidence, he could specifically be affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). An interesting set of reactions ensued, most seeming to have the implicit or explicit expectation of “How could he be one of us?” I will return to that at the end, but my reaction to the reaction is “If the PC(USA) is a big, inclusive tent why can it not include him?”

In case you have missed it, the political candidate in question is Donald Trump. His Presbyterian affiliation was not a mystery if you caught the early religion media coverage like the Religion News Service’s article 5 Facts About Donald Trump: A Presbyterian who collects Bibles, or World Religion News’ article Donald Trump is a proud Presbyterian. It really seemed to catch people’s attention when he Tweeted last weekend “I am now in Iowa getting ready to speak. People are always amazed to find out that I am Protestant (Presbyterian). GREAT.” For the record the current retweet count is 1002 and the favorite count is 2812. There are far too many replies to spend time counting those. And for good measure he also posted on Instagram a picture of him with his confirmation class at First Presbyterian Church, Jamaica, Queens, New York.

Let me drill down in this a little bit, but this is probably a good time for me to add the clarification that this is mostly a thought exercise and that where I am going with this is far from an endorsement of his – or any – political candidacy. This is intended to be a case study aimed at considering the question of membership in the PC(USA) and the church as a big tent that includes a diverse group of people. So based on the confirmation photo we can confirm that he joined the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1959. I have not asked the church if he is still carried on the rolls and a direct inquiry on the Facebook page has not been answered. And while First Pres seems to be the first answer to his affiliation, Marble Collegiate Church , a congregation in the Reformed Church In America, seems to be regularly mentioned as a more current choice and one source says that is where he is a member. An old Faith and Reason article does a good job of listing his various church associations.

But let’s consider his self-identification at face value – make it a hypothetical situation if that makes you feel better. He says he is a Presbyterian, can we work with that? A lot of people have trouble with that including a response on twitter that says “He have better luck convincing ppl he’s Rasta.” and a Washington Times column by W. Scott Lamb titled “Donald Trump is a Presbyterian? Who knew? – When it comes to Presbyterian theology and social witness, Trump is an equal opportunity offender.” Taking it one step further, I am sure dozens of Reformed theologians, at best, cringed when he was interviewed last week and when asked if he had asked God for forgiveness:

“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Yes, it sends chills down my spine just doing the cut-and-paste. (And his other comments in the article about the Lord’s Supper are equally cringe-worthy.) But now let us turn to the PC(USA) Book of Order. Specifically, what does it take to be a member? G-1.0302 says:

A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ
and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church (F-1.0403). No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The
Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so
constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.

So in the PC(USA) membership requires a profession of faith – which he would have done as part of his documented confirmation class. It does not require an understanding of the Reformed doctrines of Original Sin, Pervasive/Total Depravity and the need for confession and pardon for sin. But I will acknowledge that his comments do point to a problem with the “trust in God’s grace” part.

Now, one would expect a member once they have joined to continue growing in their faith, something we don’t have documented in this case. But to be a member, following the period of instruction, requires professing your faith in Jesus Christ and God’s grace, renouncing evil and saying that you intend to participate. Further agreement with church doctrine as guided by the confessions or policy statements of the General Assembly are not in there.

And yes, to be clear, the standards are much higher for the ordained offices of the church. We have an example from another denomination this week where a pastor/theologian was removed over his doctrinal views and the Presbyterian Church in America is in the continuing process of deciding the extent to which those officers that hold tenets of what is known as the Federal Vision theology deviate from the Westminster Standards.

It is also worth noting that he would also probably have problems in those Presbyterian branches that “fence the table.” Even in the PC(USA), if his attendance has been low – although he does say he attends regularly and especially Christmas and Easter – he could easily be removed from the active rolls. And even if he were an active attender one would hope that through the word preached, the sacraments administered and church discipline his understanding of Reformed theology would be developed. You could even go so far as to argue that regular attendance might moderate or change views that you don’t agree with.

But returning to the thought experiment, my question is not really about the specific individual here except to the extent that based on his history we know that he has been confirmed in a predecessor denomination and he self-identifies as a Presbyterian. But we also know that he is outspoken and has views not in line with pronouncements of the General Assembly, remembering that the GA speaks only for itself. So here is the question for the PC(USA): “Is the tent big enough to include an individual that publicly expresses views that some (many?) would strongly disagree with but who has the characteristics for membership and who seeks to be considered a member of the denomination?”

The answer is left as an exercise for the reader…

[Editor’s note: For those of you going to Big Tent – enjoy. I am hoping to read lots about it. I am about to begin my August quiet period and will probably have more to say about Big Tent and the big tent a few weeks from now.]

43rd General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church In America

01645A81-A5D8-4EB1-9E4C30D14028D307The 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America will convene their plenary sessions tomorrow evening, 9 June, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Committees of Commissioners began meeting today. The Assembly will continue through noon on Friday. The theme of the Assembly is “Anchored in Christ. Active in Culture.” The meeting will be live streamed and they have their GA app available for several platforms to follow along. There is also a ShareFile! app there for registered commissioners to download reports and other documents.

While the full volume of reports is available only to commissioners, the docket and overtures are available on line. [Tech note to the GA organizers – you might want to change the title in the GA docket PDF properties so it no longer says 40th General Assembly.] To track the polity of the PCA you can access the Book of Church Order online.

News updates will be posted through the official news website and online publication byFaith.

Turning to social media, you will probably want to keep an eye on the byFaith Magazine Facebook page. There are numerous opportunities to follow the meeting on Twitter including the official feed from byFaith (@PCAbyFaith). There is also a feed for the Reasoning_Together (@PCA_Elders) program. The hashtag for the Assembly is #pcaga.

Other related Twitter accounts include Reformed University Fellowship (@RUFnational) and the Mission to North America (@pcamna) (There is also PCA Christian Ed (@pcacep) but it appears pretty inactive.) I would also include in this group Covenant College (@CovenantCollege) which is hosting an event during the Assembly.

Individuals who will be at the meeting and are, or will probably be tweeting include Fred Greco (@fredgreco), Ligon Duncan (@LigonDuncan), Sean Michael Lucas (@SeanMLucas) and Jemar Tisby (@JemarTisby) and his Reformed African American Network (@RAANetwork). Having included one organization there I will also mention Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing (@prpbooks) and Reformed Theological Seminary (@ReformTheoSem). Let me also include Allan Edwards (@edwardsae1) who, after last year’s success with the Bingo Card, has offered the Selfie Scavenger Hunt this year using the hashtag #PCAGAselfie. And finally, I have previously been advised by @PCAPresbyter himself that all you really need to do is follow him. He will certainly enlighten your tracking of PCA GA in his own inimitable way. 🙂

Concerning the overtures to this GA, byFaith Online has an article that covers the “most substantive” of the ten overtures before the Assembly. In addition, Benjamin Shaw, who blogs as the gptsrabbi, has done good rundowns of these overtures as well:

  • Overture 1 – At the present time the decisions of judicial commissions must be affirmed by the governing body it is a commission of. This overture provides the option for a judicial commission to have the final decision on a case as is the case in some other Presbyterian branches.
  • Overtures 2 and 9 – One of the overtures that caught my attention as they ask for a study committee to consider the meaning and scriptural precedent for the Westminster Standards’ prohibition of “recreations” on the Sabbath.
  • Overture 3 – Proposes changes to the parental promises in the baptismal vows. There is another thoughtful discussion of this overture at Green Baggins.
  • Overtures 4, 5, and 6 – Changes to presbytery boundaries and creating two new presbyteries
  • Overture 7 – Would change the rules of ecclesiastical trials so that the defendant could be forced to testify. That is, they could not “take the fifth.”
  • Overture 8 – Would change the BCO regarding giving up ordained office if an officer does not have a call. Currently, for teaching elders, they may be removed from the office by a 2/3 vote of presbytery if they have been without a call for an extended period. The overture would make it automatic if they have been without a call for three years although the presbytery may continue them in the office for a year by a majority vote. Similar terms would apply to ruling elders and deacons.
  • Overture 10 – Memorial to Teaching Elder John Wayne King

pca_new_2014And we also wait to see the recommendation from the referral of the new logo that was proposed in an overture last year.

So our best wishes to the commissioners and leaders of the PCA General Assembly and prayers for your discernment the next few days. I will be interested to see how several of these business items are decided.

 

In a programming note – This will be the busiest week of the year for Assemblies with six that I know of convening in the next few days. Please bear with me as I try to get summaries of each of them posted.

141st General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church In Canada

Presbyterian_Church_in_Canada_(logo)In the midst of other GA’s going on the 141st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada is getting under way. The Assembly will run from today ( 4 June ) through Monday 8 June, 2015 on the west coast of The Dominion in Vancouver. The meeting is being held at the University of British Columbia.

A few things to know to help follow along:

The theme for the meeting is “Imagining the Kingdom. …the Kingdom of God is like…”GA2015_web_banner-600x350

The Assembly can be followed on social media through the PCConnect Facebook page and through their official Twitter feed @PCConnect. The hastag for the meeting is #ga141. UPDATE: Friday morning it was announced that the hashtag would be #pccga2015. The official publication, the Presbyterian Record, will probably be posting updates on their Facebook page.

Looking at who is active on Twitter as the meeting approaches I would suggest following John Borthwick (@jborthwik), Fred Stewart (@PastorFred) and Ross Lockhart (@rossalockhart). Always, I will update as I am able once things get into full swing.

UPDATE: I would add at this point that Scott McAndless (@A_noble_theme) is actively blogging about his time at the Assembly.

Regarding the business of the Assembly, I have already highlighted the flood of overtures (24 of 37) that have been received related to human sexuality and ordination standards. The amount of interest and business was so high that a special process is being proposed for this work. In short, the process proposes that this Assembly begin a process of listening, discussion and prayer throughout the wider church and any definitive action on changing the Report on Human Sexuality or the ordination standards would be brought to a future Assembly. However, an Assembly does not have to take the advice and is free to act as it, in its wisdom, may deem best. So we will see if they make a decision, decide a trajectory or start a discussion.

Another item that will be of interest are changes to the Policy for Dissolution of Pastoral Relationships.  This is coming in the Life and Mission Agency report in the Ministry and Church Vocations area beginning on the 279th page of the reports. It is important enough that a supplemental background document is also being distributed. Specifically, there are revisions for accepted practice and clarity regarding the transition payments when a pastor leaves a call. Another item from the Life and Mission Agency from their Justice area includes working to help people with fair lending practices and working against payday loans. This has been a common theme across several Assemblies this year and one I hope to summarize later in the summer.

So there is a brief introduction to this meeting. I would note that the first appearance of the human sexuality business items is set for Friday afternoon and at that point I would expect discussion and possible adoption of the process for dealing with this business.

So prayers and best wishes for the members of the 141st General Assembly and we look forward to looking over your shoulder as you discuss and discern the church’s future on many important issues.

[Programming note: The busiest week in the GA season is next week and I have some family business coming up this weekend so I will undoubtedly fall behind on writing. I will do my best and will probably favour more shorter notes than a few selected long one.]

Overtures To The 141st General Assembly About Changing Ordination Standards In The Presbyterian Church In Canada

Coming up later this week the 141st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada will convene in Vancouver. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this Assembly meeting will be dominated by overtures and discussion directly focusing on ordination standards related to those in active same-sex relationships. While I will do a broader preview of the meeting in a couple days, here is a more detailed look at the background and business before the Assembly on this particular issue.

It is useful to realize that while ordination standards, and specifically those standards related to individuals in same-sex relationships, have been a hot topic for a while in a couple of Presbyterian branches, for the last couple decades it has been much more of a background issue for the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC). That has been changing quickly over the last few months.

The current discussion has its roots in the 1984 General Assembly when the Assembly asked for a Statement on Homosexuality which was presented to, and adopted by, the 1985 General Assembly. But to go along with that a study was requested and approved by the 1985 Assembly. It was presented to the 1992 Assembly which approved it and sent it down to the presbyteries. The final version was accepted by the 1994 General Assembly (page 251). The first two parts are available within a study guide prepared later.

The report deals with a number of issues regarding human sexuality but as regards homosexual relationships it follows the church’s doctrine and comes out against them:

6.20 Is homosexual practice a Christian option? Our brief, exegetical review of biblical texts set within the broader biblical perspective on our vocation as sexual beings leads us to say `No’. Committed heterosexual union is so connected with creation in both its unitive and procreative dimensions that we must consider this as central to God’s intention for human sexuality. Accordingly, Scripture treats all other contexts for sexual intercourse, as departures from God’s created order.

One individual resigned from the committee that drafted the study and four more recorded their dissent.

At the same Assembly where this study was accepted the Assembly was already dealing with a specific case. Mr. Darryl MacDonald was serving as a supply minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Lachine, Quebec. The church applied to the presbytery to ordain him and the presbytery approved and he was ordained. The decision was appealed to the General Assembly by 13 members of the presbytery and a nine-member investigating committee formed. With a slim five-member majority the committee recommended to the 1996 General Assembly that his ordination call be nullified. By a wide margin the Assembly approved the committee recommendations including that his certification for interim work be revoked as well. Presented with the request to come into compliance with the order of the General Assembly the church chose instead to sever ties with the denomination. There was another appeal to the 1998 General Assembly to at least allow Mr. MacDonald to preach in Presbyterian Churches. The Assembly reaffirmed the 1996 decision and stated that the revocation of the certificate was complete and he could not lead worship in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Ultimatly, St. Andrew’s joined the United Church and Mr. MacDonald was accepted as a minister in that denomination which had not barriers to ordination. In 2012 a petition was sent to the General Assembly pointing out that other United Church ministers could freely preach in Presbyterian pulpits and the force of the earlier Assembly decision meant one United Church minister in good standing in that denomination was singled out for exclusion. A special committee was formed and the Assembly concurred with that committee’s recommendation that the restriction should be lifted. The article in the Presbyterian Record quotes the committee convener:

“Accepting the petition removes an anomaly that only one ordained minister in a sister denomination is prohibited from preaching as a guest in one of our congregation’s pulpits,” said David Kilgour, a commissioner from the Presbytery of Ottawa and convener of the special committee.

  (Three other web sites that have information on this history include a page from Religious Tolerance, an AP news story and the successor church’s history web page.)

So that brings us to the recent developments. Since the 140th General Assembly a number of overtures from presbyteries and church sessions around Canada have been submitted for consideration by this year’s Assembly. The lead overture is #4 from the Presbytery of East Toronto titled “Full inclusion in the church of persons regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.” By my count there are six additional overtures that are concurring or similar in wording and intent. In response there was a flood of overtures that began with #6 from the Session Of Kortright, Guelph, Ontario titled “Affirming the Statement on Human Sexuality (1994).” There are a total of 13 of these or similar overtures. Beyond that there is an overture (#15) to encourage listening within the church on this subject, another (#16) to set up a process for dialogue about the issue and another (#29) to have the Church Doctrine Committee “review how The Presbyterian Church in Canada has formerly addressed the issue of homosexual relationships, and in particular to study the traditional exegesis of the biblical texts that speak to this issue, alongside the various revisionist readings of those texts that have been suggested in recent decades.”

In total, there are 24 overtures out of all 37 submitted to this Assembly that deal with human sexuality. You can find all the overtures at the end of the reports volume beginning on the 471st page of the volume.

One detail that might be a point of major discussion in this work, and which is the point of the one memorial submitted to the Assembly, is whether the act is a declaratory act and takes effect immediately or if it will need to be sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act. The memorial and the overtures affirming the 1994 report request that any changes be sent to the presbyteries. The overtures requesting full inclusion ask for a declaratory act. In a parallel discussion the Church of Scotland just spent some time in a similar discussion and decided to send it to the presbyteries. On the one hand that is always a safe call, and from my sense of polity, if the PCC approves more inclusive language I would argue that it should go down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act just as the Church of Scotland action did last year. However, I do disagree with the Kirk’s action this year as the action it took was more in the line of an adjustment to last year’s act to bring it in line with the new civil environment and not a brand new action so presbytery concurrence is not necessary.

One more interesting overture in here is the very last one, #37. It asks for a gracious dismissal policy for churches to leave the denomination, implicitly suggesting that particular churches might want to break with the PCC if the Assembly decides to change the ordination standards. As a polity note, and since the PC(USA) action is specifically mentioned, I would point out that the PC(USA) General Assembly action was to encourage presbyteries to have gracious dismissal policies resulting in a large number of various local policies and not a uniform national policy.

Now here comes the “hold onto your hat moment.” None of the actions respectfully requested of the Venerable the 141st General Assembly may happen, at least this year. Faced with this groundswell on both sides of the issue a special process is being proposed. Here are a few excepts from a Presbyterian Record article about the background:

Eighteen sessions and six presbyteries have filed overtures for discussion at this year’s General Assembly on the issue of human sexuality. This volume of response is without precedence in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

“I went through the Acts and Proceedings from 1960 to 1966, the years before the ordination of women was approved,” Rev. Stephen Kendall [Principal Clerk of the General Assembly] told the Record. “There were three overtures on that issue.”..

The overwhelming response has prompted Kendall and his team at the Clerk’s office to proceed a little differently from previous years. All of the referred overtures have been sent to Committee on Church Doctrine and to Justice Ministries for review, so they can prepare themselves for the inevitable debate…

Three Presbyterian educators—Dale Woods, Principal of Presbyterian College, Montreal; Patricia Dutcher-Walls, Professor of the Hebrew Bible, Vancouver School of Theology; and, Kevin Livingston, Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto—have been asked to prepare a facilitation process on human sexuality. Time on the assembly agenda has been designated for these discussions. “Assembly should be a safe place for conversation,” said Kendall. Several blocks of time have been allotted to ensure voices are heard and ideas are shared.

“Assemblies are places of discernment and when we’re actually there together we will have the opportunity to do just that.”

In summary, the special facilitation process being proposed would defer decisions on the overtures until the whole church has had a chance to talk about them.  It would begin with discussions among the Assembly commissioners and spread to the wider church in the coming year. The recommendations also come with a reading list. (It will be interesting to see if Kevin DeYoung’s brand new book gets added to that list.) Here are the specific steps (slightly edited) being proposed which the commissioners would have to accept (the Recommendations begin on the 158th page of the Reports Volume):

  1. That the General Assembly move into a committee of the whole for up to two sessions of a facilitated process to discuss the issues addressed in the overtures concerning human sexuality and our church’s response to them. The Saturday session would be “Listening Circles” around the tables and the Sunday session would be “Praying Circles.”
  2. That notes of the conversations during the facilitated process be submitted to the Committee on Church Doctrine and the Life and Mission Agency Committee (Justice Ministries) to assist those committees as they prepare their responses to these overtures for a future General Assembly.
  3. That the Committee on Church Doctrine and the Life and Mission Agency (Justice Ministries) confer throughout the coming year as each continues the work of responding to the overtures referred to them.
  4. That the church (congregations, sessions, presbyteries, synods and standing committees) be encouraged to engage in a year of conversation and discernment on the topics of human sexuality, sexual orientation and other related matters raised in the overtures.
  5. That the Committee on Church Doctrine and the Life and Mission Agency (Justice Ministries) prepare a joint study guide on sexual orientation to be posted on the church’s website by the end of October, 2015.
  6. That the above be received as the interim response from the Committee on Church Doctrine and from the Life and Mission Agency (Justice Ministries) regarding our church’s response to sexual orientation today.

So if the recommendations are accepted there would be the start of significant discussion but limited debate about these issues at this General Assembly and recommendations would be returned from the Committee and the Agency to the 142nd General Assembly.

We will see what the will of the Assembly is regarding the overtures and the proposed process. As this develops you will probably find discussions on Facebook on the Presbyterian Record page as well as page of Canadian Presbyterians for the Ordination of Gay and Lesbian People.

So there is the background, the overtures and the recommendations for the Assembly to consider later this week. As I said, I will have the broader preview in a couple of days, but right now, Belfast is calling

Brief Note On A California KAPC Civil Appeals Court Decision

About a week ago a California appellate court handed down a decision affirming the trial court decision in the case of Jun Ki Kim et al. (Respondents) v The True Church Members Of The Holy Hill Community Church et al. (Appellants). From here I will use the annotation of Kim v. Church for the parties. The particular church at the center of this is in the Los Angeles area and a member of the Western California Presbytery (WCP) of the Korean American Presbyterian Church (KAPC). The two sides have been involved in a dispute over the church leadership and membership in the WCP since early 2011 which has resulted in a bit of a long and complex ecclesiastical and civil saga.

I am going to keep this relatively brief, or at least not dissect this decision as much as I commonly do, for two reasons. First, the history of the dispute and the presbytery involvement is complicated. In the time frame of the complaint each side has alternately been excommunicated by the presbytery and recognized by the presbytery as the true church. At the present time the Kim group is supported by the presbytery and the Church group is out. In addition, each group when they were in control tried to withdraw from the presbytery and the presbytery did not approve of their actions. Whether a KAPC church can take the action unilaterally I am not sure as I have not found an English language translation of their Book of Church Order (BOCO) to consult.

However, in the end the pivotal event of consequence to the trial was the Church group calling a congregational meeting to vote on whether to secede from the WCP, which they did. The presbytery did not recognize that vote, removed the church leadership, excommunicated the Church side in the dispute and brought the Kim side back into the church and the presbytery. The Church side alleged that the presbytery overstepped their authority and did not follow the process. The trail court said it was an ecclesiastical matter and did not interfere with the steps take by the presbytery.

The second reason that I will only consider part of this decision is that in the specifications of error the first applies to ecclesiastical control while the other two are legal procedural matters regarding admission of evidence and cross-examination.

So the Church group appealed the trial court decision on the three specifications of error including “the court erroneously found in favor of respondents based on appellants’ excommunication from the Holy Hill Community Church (Church) by the Western California Presbytery (WCP).” After reviewing the factual and procedural background, the decision discusses the deference to the presbytery’s excommunication decisions. In the discussion there is a section on the “Overview of law governing judicial deference to ecclesiastical decisions” which is an interesting read about the division of church and state (begins on page 8). The discussion is generally applicable since it focuses almost entirely on the classic U.S. Supreme Court decisions and only at the end brings in the controlling California decision, Episcopal Church Cases (2009).

One of the interesting polity arguments the appellants make is that while there was an internal dispute in 2011 there was no internal dispute in 2013 when the presbytery stepped in and excommunicated them. The court disagreed:

Substantial evidence supports the trial court’s conclusion that there was “an internal church dispute which exists to this day.”… The mere fact that both factions—appellants and respondents—continued to participate in this case demonstrates that the dispute continued for at least as long as the case itself.

The money quote in this decision, at least as far as the ecclesiastical deference is involved, comes right at the very end of this section (pg. 12-13):

Appellants’ last two arguments seek to overturn the trial court’s ruling on the grounds that the WCP lacked authority to excommunicate them either because they validly seceded from the WCP or because no one from the Church had petitioned for any action by the WCP. They argue their secession was valid even though the WCP had previously removed [an] interim moderator, because BOCO rules permitted a “minister from the presbytery” to act as a temporary moderator. However, in arguing the validity of their secession vote, they highlight the entire reason behind the ecclesiastical rule, which is that courts are ill-equipped to interpret ecclesiastical rules, particularly in hierarchical church organizations. No party disputes that the KAPC is a hierarchical organization, consisting of various presbyteries, and that churches are subordinate to both the KAPC and the presbytery to which they belong. (See Concord Christian, supra 132 Cal.App.4th at p. 1409 [explaining distinction between hierarchical and congregational church structures].)

We have already determined that the court correctly deferred to the WCP’s decision as a higher ecclesiastical authority. Similarly, the ecclesiastical rule of judicial deference to the highest authority within a hierarchical church on questions of church governance and church membership requires that we defer to the WCP’s decision that appellants’ vote to secede did not comply with BOCO, and that the WCP had authority to intervene.

Now if this were a property case my usual caveat is that interpretation of church property cases is highly variable from state to state. Not being a property case and primarily a membership case we can see that at least this California court gives the hierarchical church, in this case the presbytery, significant latitude to intervene in this situation.

In reading this decision a detail about KAPC polity jumped out at me. I was interested in a couple lines from a section of the BOCO quoted in the decision concerning church property:

Their argument rests on language in BOCO, which states “[w]hen an internal dispute arises in the local church that is within the jurisdiction of a presbytery, regarding membership in the presbytery and the ownership of church property, the right to manage the church property shall temporarily be placed within the hands of the presbytery until the dispute is resolved and the normal operation of the local church is restored.”

An interesting process in implementing what might be considered a trust clause – in a dispute the property is automatically placed in the hands of the presbytery.

Three legal notes that I probably should mention about the decision. First, not withstanding the property reference I just quoted, this decision stays completely away from property disputes and explicitly says this is not a property dispute so there is no reason for the court to become entangled in the ecclesiastical issues. The ecclesiastical portion of this decision was about process and the power and authority of the presbytery regarding membership and leadership. Second, the WCP was originally a party in this case but following the second schism in 2013 where the Church party was excommunicated they dropped from the case. Finally, this appellate court was very deferential to the findings of the trial court and was primarily judging errors that would have affected the outcome of the trial decision, not just any little errors that might have occurred.

So is this case relevant to other civil litigation over church secessions and responses? Maybe. It is a well written decision that sets out the circumstances for hierarchical deference in this case and could be used as a model for others.

On the other hand, this is a lower appeals court decision in one state and while it might set an example or model, it does not set precedent outside that circuit. Its applicability to the State of California would be more important if further appeals take it to the state supreme court. In addition, most of the other cases I look at include litigation about the property which this decision explicitly says is not in play here. How likely are the circumstances in this one particular situation to be replicated in other disputes? This could be a unique example and other cases may be different enough that its reasoning and model are not applicable.

However, as a polity wonk I found it to be an interesting insight into both the process within the KAPC in situations like this as well as a court dealing with the interface of church and state and the boundaries placed by the U.S. Constitution in the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

An interesting diversion. Your mileage may vary.

Now back to the next round of General Assemblies…