Thursday, June 12, 2008

Report on the 36th General Assembly

Stick a fork in it -- it's done.

A few minutes ago the 36th General Assembly of the PCA adjourned after a worship service. This year's assembly went rather smoothly though a couple of issues that came up today took a significant amount of time. More about that in a minute.

Our work reviewing presbytery minutes was completed late yesterday after a very long day of work. Our committee spent all day reviewing the results of the first and second readings of each presbytery. At times the work was painstaking as we debated phrases and sentences in our final report on each presbytery. By 5:30 PM we adjourned as a committee and the clerks worked into the night compiling their 50 page report to be approved on the floor of General Assembly.

When the Assembly convened this morning we worked through a number of reports from various denominational agencies and committees. By mid-morning the moderator advised all agencies and committees scheduled to report this afternoon to be ready to report before noon. Around 11:30 AM the Overtures Committee began its work on the 19 overtures sent to the General Assembly for action. Some of those overtures requested amendments to our Book of Church Order and four addressed the issue of the role of women in the church.

The fireworks began after lunch when overture 9 from The Philadelphia Presbytery came up for a vote. That overture requested that the General Assembly erect a study committee to discuss whether or not churches may 'commission' women to serve as 'deaconnesses.' NOTE: This should not be construed that the request was for women deacons but whether or not churches who 'commissioned' women were in violation of our constitution.

Our Overtures Committee deliberated this question for better than two days and finally voted to recommend to the General Assembly that this overture be answered in the negative. However, a significant minorty of that committee disagreed and drafted a minority report arguing that it was in the denomination's best interest to erect the study committee and have this conversation now.

I won't provide a blow-by-blow account but this is how the debate went. First, the chairman presented the overture and the rationale for denying it (10 minutes). Then a representative from the minority presented their report along with their rationale (15 minutes). The chairman returned for a 5 minute rebuttal and then the floor was opened for debate. Shortly thereafter it was moved that the minority report be adopted as a substitute motion. Debate ensued for the better part of an hour but in the end the minority report was defeated and Overture 9 from Philadelphia Presbytery was answered in the negative. The rest of the overtures were dispatched with rather quickly. Once that was completed the report on The Review of Presbytery Minutes (my committee) was presented. That report took at least an hour as the assembly reviewed our findings and debated a couple of matters related to a couple of presbyteries whose minutes from last year indicated churches 'commissioning' men and women to do the work of deacons. Both presbyteries responded to that citation and their response was found unacceptable, hence they are required to respond to next year's General Assembly.

All told I was pleased with the way that things turned out. Our Book of Church Order speaks rather clearly on who may serve as officers of the church (ie. men). However some churches have chosen not to have a board of deacons (diaconate) in favor of a committee comprised of men and women 'commissioned' to do the work of mercy ministry. Our Book of Church Order allows for the situation that a church may not have qualified men who are available to serve as deacons: in such cases that work is to be picked up by the Session. I don't think that its authors ever envisioned the day when the office of deacon would be eliminated by those who want to expand the role of women through the commissioning process.

Given the wide variety of views and practices I think that the future will be filled with many overtures to amend our Book of Church Order on this topic. The next couple of years ought to be rather interesting.

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