By Jacob Gerber | August 16, 2022
In my last article, I detailed the parliamentary rules which require minority reports from the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) the right to be presented to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) for consideration. Further, I showed how our parliamentary rules for handling such minority reports establish a process for the Assembly to substitute the minority report from CCB’s (majority) committee report.
This process is important, because it gives the Assembly its full freedom to oversee the procedural accuracy of the Standing Judicial Commission’s (SJC) business. If the final CCB report — whether the original committee report, or a substituted minority report — discovers procedural errors in the operations of the SJC, our Book of Church Order (BCO) enables the Assembly to redress any errors by directing the SJC to retry a case if the Assembly judges such a step to be necessary for justice to be realized in the proceedings of church courts.
In this article, I lay out three reasons for why it is important for the PCA’s General Assembly to protect this procedure within the Church’s polity.
1. The General Assembly has Retained Oversight over the SJC by the Review of the SJC’s Minutes
We must remember that the General Assembly has delegated to the SJC nearly absolute authority to conclude judicial appeals and complaints that arise from the Presbyteries. Unlike judicial commissions designated at the presbytery level, the General Assembly has not reserved to itself the right of approving or disapproving the decisions of the SJC (BCO 15-3, 5).
Nevertheless, the Assembly has retained one crucial aspect of direct control over the SJC: the annual review of SJC’s minutes through CCB (BCO 15-5.a; RAO 17-1). As some noted during floor debate at the 49th General Assembly, the review of the SJC’s minutes is very different from the work of the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR). Our polity tasks RPR with reviewing the minutes of the PCA’s 88 presbyteries as one feature of the Assembly’s proactive work of “General Review and Control” of the lower courts of the presbyteries (BCO 40; RAO 16-1). Thus, RPR brings recommendations that the Assembly must approve.
The annual review of the SJC’s minutes, however, is not the proactive review of the proceedings of a lower court. Instead, it is a reactive identification of any issues (within a very limited scope) that the General Assembly then may cite as grounds for directing the SJC to retry a case (RAO 14-11.d.(2); 17-1). The report of CCB is non-binding, advisory, and for information only; however, without a report from CCB identifying possible exceptions in the SJC minutes (whether in the committee report, or in a substituted minority report), no motion is in order for the General Assembly to direct the SJC to retry a case. The identification of possible exceptions in a CCB report is the necessary prerequisite for a motion to retry a case.
Since this review of the SJC’s minutes is the only line of defense against an error in the SJC, it is a crucial check that the Assembly must not abdicate.
2. The General Assembly has Authority over its Committees and their Reports
Retaining the Assembly’s constitutional check on the SJC necessarily includes the right to substitute a minority report from CCB for the committee’s (majority) report. Therefore, minority reports differ from dissenting opinions by providing a procedural mechanism to give the full Assembly the final say in the case of differing opinions within the committee. The PCA’s committees operate under the authority of the Assembly, and not the other way around.
The authority of the Assembly over its committees rests on a fundamental principle of parliamentary law articulated in Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised, that a deliberative assembly may “establish and empower an effective leadership as it wishes, and at the same time to retain exactly the degree of direct control over its affairs that it chooses to reserve to itself” (RONR [12th ed.], “Principles Underlying Parliamentary Law,” emphasis added).
Thus, our question is not, “Does the General Assembly have the power to consider a minority report of CCB?” but rather, “Has the General Assembly precluded itself from considering a minority report of CCB?” The burden of proof is on those who argue that the Assembly has specifically chosen not to reserve to itself the right to hear a minority report from one of its committees, and, as we saw in the previous article, our rules do not reflect such a choice.
Finally, if exceptions are discovered by CCB’s report (whether the original committee report, or the substituted minority report), the Assembly alone has the authority to direct the SJC to retry the case (BCO 15-5; RAO 17-1). Both the decision whether to substitute a minority report and the decision whether to direct the SJC to retry a case (if exceptions are discovered) rest solely with the Assembly — not CCB or the SJC.
3. Listening to Minority Views is Essential for the Peace, Purity, and Unity of the PCA
Listening to our fellow elders — including those who hold minority viewpoints — is one of the core values of our polity. Before PCAGA49, I had written twice on this site about the theme of listening to one another in the courts of the church. First, I argued that parliamentary procedure prioritizes our listening to one another, as demonstrated in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. Second, I urged presbyters to read dissenting opinions in the SJC, since dissenting opinions balance the opportunity to express disagreement while simultaneously upholding church unity.
A majority on CCB may err when they either find or fail to find procedural errors in the proceedings of the SJC. By the same token, a minority on CCB may err in differing from the committee’s position. In the case of disagreement within CCB, both Robert’s Rules and the RAO provide a process for the Assembly to listen to both perspectives, and to decide which perspective shall stand as the official report of the committee.
To suppress a procedure that is clearly laid out in our constitution and parliamentary authorities not only violates the rights of the minority, but it also widens the harmful divisions that are growing within the Church. RE Matt Fender has recently made this point well in his article, “Deliberating by the Book”:
Strict adherence to a textual approach promotes the kind of impartiality, both in practice and in perception, the PCA needs. If the chair of a meeting can make ready reference to our blue BCO binder and rule accordingly, then every man present can have confidence that we are all subject to the same rules. When rulings are instead based on a supposed original intent deduced from disputable history and tradition notwithstanding the text, then there will naturally arise the temptation to harbor bad feeling and suspicion that a ruling has been made to drive a particular outcome. That is very damaging to the purity and peace of the church, and to risk such damage is, in my view, more significant than the outcome of most issues.
To allow the minority full and free opportunity to make its case promotes unity in the church, even when the minority loses the vote. On the other hand, to silence the minority from making its case and moving to substitute its report for the committee’s report creates far greater problems than the inconvenience and expense of potentially retrying a case.
Given the size of the PCA and the number of judicial cases arising from lower courts, the SJC is a necessity. Nevertheless, the General Assembly retained one critical aspect of control over its judicial affairs by appointing CCB to review SJC’s minutes and report any possible exceptions, so that the General Assembly may direct SJC to retry cases where exceptions may arise. Within our procedural rules, the Assembly also retains the right to hear a minority report from CCB, and to substitute that minority report for the committee’s report.
This feature of the CCB is critically important. The General Assembly has delegated tremendous power to the SJC, and absent the ability of CCB to conduct a robust review of the SJC’s minutes — including the presentation of minority views to the Assembly — the SJC could violate its rules, leaving the parties to a case with no recourse.
For this reason, I believe that the ruling against hearing a minority report from the CCB establishes a dangerous precedent that threatens to usurp the constitutional authority of the General Assembly. Again, I am not writing this to revisit the case that has already been considered; I am writing this so that we understand what to do if and when a minority report from CCB arises again.
Click here to read Part One: The Parliamentary Rules
 That is, the parliamentary rules governing the deliberations of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), namely those procedures outlined in Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (RONR) and the PCA’s Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO).
 I am thankful to RE Matt Fender for suggesting this paragraph.