Irony and the Presbyterian Church in America (Part 2): The Urban Turn

The 14th GA met in the elegant Academy of Music (a performing arts center) in the city center of Philadelphia, June 23–27, 1986. In addition to sweltering summer temperatures, a sanitation strike threatened conveniences. Nevertheless, the Assembly met in city center Philadelphia, with many commissioners worshiping at Tenth Presbyterian the Sunday before the Assembly began. Dr. James M. Boice was the host pastor (and officiated at the Table for the opening worship service). He preached to the Assembly on the necessity of reaching cities—a theme new to the PCA but which would be championed in the future by Tim Keller, many PCA leaders, church planters, and RUF. A ‘For the City’ movement was commenced by one of the leading conservative pastors in the PCA. In addition, the first African-American Mayor of Philadelphia, Wilson Goode, extended a warm welcome to the commissioners, most of whom lived in the former Confederacy.

Briarwood Pastor and founding member of the PCA, Frank M. Barker, Jr., was elected as Moderator with an attendance approaching 1,000, almost 72% of which were teaching elders. As a token of continuing strife, the docket was no sooner adopted, but a few commissioners objected to parts of the opening worship service.

In a fairly unusual statement, founding father and Stated Clerk Morton Smith asked to spread on the record that he had been consulting with leaders in South Carolina to begin a regional seminary in Greenville, where he had been asked to teach. His statement noted that his position allowed him to teach (as he had at RTS from 1973–1976) and that such involvement was neither disloyal nor a conflict of interest that required his removal. His statement asserted that the reception of CTS as part of the 1983 J&R did not require seminary attendance at that institution nor call into question other independent seminaries (RTS, WTS, WSC, BTS, etc.). Dr. Smith humbly asked for forgiveness if he offended and said he would be happy to retire from the elected office to teach. He was also willing to serve as the church wished. One indication of the closeness of the vote was that a substitute motion was made from the floor not to receive his resignation and to encourage him to remain as a clerk. A close vote on that substitute was defeated, with 313 in favor to 321 opposed. Subsequently, a motion was passed to provide an orderly succession, with Dr. Smith remaining in office for one more year. The attendant motion also exonerated him of any impropriety. In a later action (Min14GA, 106), the Assembly would reconsider its succession plan, call Dr. Smith to answer questions publicly about how his decision came about, and ultimately reverse its transition plan, simply adopting the normal re-hiring of the clerk for one year, with the statement that “he be highly commended for his excellent and faithful service to the church as a servant of Christ.”

Many issues were coming to the fore.

As the PCA grew, it also recognized the proliferation of study committees; one overture sought to limit the amount of expense charged to the AC for such. Another overture sought to curtail a growing bureaucracy (p. 40) by preventing the same leaders from serving on multiple committees simultaneously. Yet another overture sought to limit the size of GA (p. 41 but not adopted) so that it would not be necessary to meet in expensive hotels, preferring to meet in churches or college campuses. Further evidence of pushback against bureaucratization is seen from an overture (p. 42) calling for the Ad Interim Committee on GA procedure to cease studying the issue of creating a permanent judicial commission. Indeed, several presbyteries called for the Ad Interim Committee to be dismissed, preferring that lower courts generate amendments to the BCO (p. 45–46); however, the committee was continued. Various calls to perpetuate the grassroots representation at GA were made. At the same time, numerous plans for a delegated Assembly or meeting times were considered.1

Eight Judicial cases were before this year’s Assembly and would siphon off attendance throughout the week. Finding all 8 cases in order, with 18 presbyters per case, would take 15% of the attendance off the floor unless called back to the floor. That, along with other regular visitation among members off the floor, could find the beautiful Academy Rehearsal Hall far from filled. Such an effect on attendance was one of the arguments used to create a permanent Judicial Commission. One contested case seesawed, with the judicial commission initially supported by a 205–192 vote. Later, though, upon reconsideration, that judgment was rejected by a 204–152 vote, with a new commission appointed to hear and report the following year. This, note, was over a case that had been contested for several years already; it involved the meaning of subscription. Moreover, the PCA made a sincere effort to practice discipline seriously. Unfortunately, such was also consuming much time, print, and personnel, which would increase frustrations and assist in the calls to reform the judiciary.

All referred amendments to the BCO were approved by the requisite presbyteries, except the proposed preface to the Directory for Worship.

Assembly reorganization was proceeding around the edges and at the heart of the church. A matter carried over from previous assemblies was to clarify how the two former RPCES educational institutions would relate to the courts of the PCA (Min14GA, 63–64). The process to amend the RAO had been debated several times in recent years.

To forge consensus, the Ad Interim Committee on GA structure requested several hours on the opening afternoon for free debate on the topics they were studying. The GA approved to set aside “with no motion to amend or vote in order, and with time allotted to each issue as follows: 35 minutes, Philosophical and Theological Basis of PCA Structure; 25 minutes, Representative Assembly; 25 minutes, Judicial Business Procedure.”

The long debate revealed considerable differences of opinion on various recommendations from the Ad Interim Committee. When individual recommendations arose, several close votes were cast on important issues. The divides were beginning to show more and more. The first recommendation of the Ad Interim Committee on the GA was to approve a somewhat abstract paper on the philosophical and theological basis for the PCA’s structure. When a substitute motion was presented, even dissenting with a revered study committee, a 372–372 tie approved the substitute (Min14GA, 102). The pro tem Moderator (Cortez Cooper) voted to defeat the substitute, and by the slimmest margin, the first theoretical part of the Ad Interim Committee’s recommendations was approved. The focus of this exhibit was an attempt to clarify the relationship between the higher courts and local churches. Attorney Jack Williamson intended to establish that higher courts had only “spiritual authority” and no civil force. His distinction (p. 104) was that a higher court could act “on” a matter decided by a lower court but could not act “for” a lower court, lest the PCA be considered hierarchical.2 The previous decades’ attempts to secure property were still in many minds, but some were concerned about a possible diminution of power for organic Presbyterianism.

The second recommendation by the Ad Interim Committee also failed to receive the desired support.3 The second recommendation by this committee (to have a triennial Assembly with a delegated representation) barely survived another challenge—this time with a substitute for it narrowly losing by a 318–321 vote (Min14GA, 106). Then, that matter was recommitted to the study committee for recommendation the following year.

The Ad Interim Committee’s third recommendation (p. 106, i. e., to appoint regional judicial commissions and initially the PJC) was delayed to another session.4

The minority (which was not, based on votes at this Assembly, a smaller one) was concerned that the majority proposal “urges the General Assembly to take another step toward bureaucratizing the church and divesting itself of real control over the affairs of” the church (Min14GA, 446).

The earlier vote on retaining Morton Smith as the clerk had been 51%–49% to accept his resignation initially. That, after more deliberation, was rejected. Several other votes were very close, and tallies were challenged. The Moderator even cast a tie vote in one case. A study committee, thinking that these issues could reach a consensus, failed to persuade any super majority of the Assembly.

The invitation to the OPC to J&R with the PCA did not achieve the requisite support from the OPC Assembly (failing at the 50th OPC Assembly by a 78–68 vote). Notwithstanding, a very courteous OPC communication was sent to the PCA Assembly, reiterating a desire for unity, offering to continue the dialogue, and commending the PCA for its strong stands. Another attempt by the PCA, however, would be made by this Assembly to invite the OPC to join with the PCA, along with permission to discuss the relationship with the RPCNA.

In 1986, the PCA voted to join the NAE, a relationship that would be disputed several times before severing ties with that umbrella group in 2022. The debate on this matter showed more opposition than perhaps anticipated (352–274 in favor, p. 110). But, again, consensus was elusive, and the recommending committee was small. One lengthy overture sought to curtail the cooperative agreements with several nondenominational missions agencies that did not allow infant baptism (p. 62; another came from Philadelphia Presbytery, p. 63) but was returned to the Presbytery for further study.

A member of the host church, Dr. C. Everett Koop, was introduced and allowed to address the Assembly. His close association with Francis Schaeffer (see the 1978 film Whatever Happened to the Human Race? which was a collaborative production between Schaeffer and Koop) and James Boice’s support of his church member was well known. Dr. Koop, a strong pro-life voice, had served as Surgeon General in the Reagan administration since 1982.5 The 1986 Assembly reaffirmed its pro-life view in these words: “14th General Assembly of the Presby­terian Church in America, reaffirms our church’s pro-life and anti-abortion stand, and that we communicate our position to the President of the United States, the Supreme Court, and the United States Congress; further, that we encourage our pastors and sessions to emphasize this position of our church in the congregations and communities in which they serve.” (Min14GA, 187)

The amount of time, energy, and records related to judicial complaints and Review and Control indicated that the church was very concerned with process matters, likely more than the average founder of the PCA wished.

New leaders were being elected. It was suspected that the clerk would not serve much longer. New Coordinators (Paul Kooistra, CTS; Terry Gyger, MNA; Earl Witmer, AC) had been elected in the past few years. Some changes in the guard in the 15th year were noticeable. The 1986 Assembly marked the end of Southern dominance in the PCA, also possibly its expansion into cities beyond the South. With the addition of some bright minds and logical voices, the PCA would enter a new era. No longer would the impulses from 1969–1973 that led to its founding or the towering charismatic figures of the earlier day sway the Assembly. Thus, in good Southern political fashion, caucus groups and organizational efforts would begin to control the Assembly.

Editor’s Note: This material is from Irony and the Presbyterian Church in America by David W. Hall (Covenant Foundation, 2023), reproduced here with permission from the author. Single copies can be obtained from Amazon.com. Discount available on bulk orders from the author. Stay tuned for the next installment!

Notes

1. See, e. g., the creative, lengthy plan from Northern Illinois Presbytery (Min14GA, 48–49) to have a GA every third year, bringing back Synods in some years. Worth noting, the Minority Report on GA restructuring (p. 443) sought to provide context, namely, that the number of calls for a delegated assembly were not nearly a numerous as some might think. The argumentation from this minority seems to have persuaded the Assembly, since (a) the Ad Interim Committee never convinced the church to change its BCO, and (b) 35 years later, the PCA still did not have a delegated Assembly.
2. An illustration from the committee was printed (Min14GA, 105): Can a Presbytery appoint a commission with authority to act as the session of a local church? Answer: If the local congregation properly requests the Presbytery to do so, a Presbytery can appoint a commission with authority to act as the session of the local congregation. Without a proper request from the local congregation, the Presbytery cannot remove a session of a local church and act for such a session. Why? Because such would violate the BCO concept of the basis of the relationship between the local church and the higher courts. For the Presbytery, by taking over the local session, would be taking effective control of the use and possession of the local church’s property. For the Presbytery, by taking over the local session, could “act for” it in such matters as control of worship, use of buildings, control of membership, spending of its money, etc. In so doing, Presbytery has violated the “solemn covenant” in BCO 25–10: “whereby the church as a whole promises never to attempt to secure possession of the property of any congregation against its will.” In addition, the Presbytery has violated ecclesiastical rights of the local church to choose its own officers, a right which presbyterians base on Scriptural authority and the civil rights of the local church to own and control its own local properties.
3. The full majority and minority reports are included in Min14GA, pp. 425–448.
4. Arguing against the creation of a PJC, the minority cited a precedent, which may have become forgotten: “A commission is an extraordinary committee of a Church Court, appointed either for some special business, or to take cognizance of such as may arise during the vacations of the Court. It differs from an ordinary committee in that it is empowered not only to inquire and prepare business for the action of the court, but also provisionally to come to any such determinations, and enforce any such decisions, as would be within the competence of the court itself. It differs from a court, as its decisions and determinations are merely provisional, and of force Ad Interim; and must be subjected to the revision and ultimate determination of the court, by which they may be set aside and annulled, and which alone can by its sanction give them permanent authority.” (Baird’s Digest at 213; emphasis added.)
5. His address is posted at: https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/digest/studies/koop1986.pdf.

 


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