Action & Accountability at PCAGA50

by Zachary Groff | June 13, 2023

Image Use: Creative Commons

The 50th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) formally opens with a worship service, Stated Clerk’s address, and the election of a moderator this evening (Tuesday the 13th). However, the important business of the Committees of Commissioners (CoCs) commenced yesterday and will continue throughout the day today. The work of the CoCs is described in the PCA Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO), Article XIV, Committees of Commissioners for Permanent Committees and Agencies.

This section of the RAO begins with a broad description of the CoCs’ scope of work: “Committees of Commissioners shall review the report and recommendations of their assigned permanent Committees or Agencies or special committee” (RAO 14-1, emphasis added in boldface). As indicated in a subsequent paragraph, the report must include the minutes of the body under review: “Minutes of the permanent Committee or Agency shall be submitted to the committee of commissioners for review(RAO 14-3, emphasis added in boldface).

The review function of the CoCs mirrors that of the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) in relation to presbyteries and that of the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) in relation to the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). Guidelines for the examination and review of Permanent Committee and Agency minutes are outlined in RAO 14-11, including the recording of Notations (RAO 14-11.d.1) and Exceptions (RAO 14-11.d.2). Relevant to the present discussion is the definition of Exceptions under RAO 14-11.d.2: “Violations of the Assembly’s Guidelines of Keeping Minutes of Permanent Committees of the General Assembly, prejudicial misstatements of fact, and actions which in substance appear not to conform to the Standards of the Presbyterian Church in America, or to be out of accord with the deliverances of the General Assembly, should be reported under this category.

What is and is not to be considered an Exception is governed by that section of the RAO which contains the “Assembly’s Guidelines of Keeping Minutes of Permanent Committees of the General Assembly,” namely RAO 4-21.d. This year, Overture 7 from Southern New England Presbytery seeks to address a shortcoming in the present version of this part of the RAO. As it currently stands, RAO 4-21.d requires three things: “1. The names of persons leading in opening and closing prayers at all sessions; 2. In the event of a called meeting, the portion of the call stating the purpose of the meeting should be recorded verbatim in the minutes; 3. A recording of the actions of the Committee or Board, including all motions adopted and business transacted, together with such additional information as the Committee or Board deems desirable for historical purposes.”[1] Overture 7 proposes to add a fourth item under RAO 4-21.d: “A recording of information sufficient to demonstrate the Committee’s or Board’s implementation of instructions received from General Assembly and of policies adopted by the Committee or Board.

The foregoing is certainly “in the weeds” of the polity of the PCA, but the issue which Overture 7 highlights is of critical importance to holding accountable the Permanent Committees and Agencies of the Church to take action as directed by the General Assembly. The significance of the proposed change for strengthening the review function of the CoCs was strongly evident at the Administrative Committee (AC) CoC meeting yesterday, as all Permanent Committee and Agency heads were present to indicate their revocation of support for Overture 7. After lengthy debate, the AC CoC answered Overture 7 in the negative, and the Overtures Committee voted 73-58 to take up Overture 7 upon referral. What this means is that the proposal will come before the Assembly for consideration in the context of the Overtures Committee report.

(UPDATE: The OC voted in the affirmative for Overture 7 [as amended], recommending that the Assembly adopt it. The Assembly then adopted the OC’s recommendation.)

What prior to this week was considered to be a non-controversial proposal to strengthen the review function of the CoCs is now a top-of-mind issue. Commissioners to the 50th General Assembly should familiarize themselves with the proposal and its straightforward rationale by reviewing Overture 7 here. The rationale for Southern New England Presbytery’s proposed addition to RAO 4-21.d is reproduced below for convenience (emphasis added in boldface):

Boards and Committees are creations of General Assembly and are governed by it through the appointment of Board and Committee members, by direct instruction from the Assembly, and by the approval of material policies. Boards and Committees are required to provide their policies to the Assembly annually by RAO 4-21.j and to report changes in these policies to General Assembly (as directed by the adoption of Overture 24 at the 47th General Assembly). However, because no requirement exists to document compliance with policies and Assembly instructions, no mechanism exists for responding if there are lapses in these policies or failures to implement them.

Under the current requirements a Board or Committee does not have a requirement to communicate its compliance with policies. If a deviation from policies were to be communicated in discussions with the Board or Committee’s respective Committee of Commissioners, the Assembly would have no means to address the deviation until the subsequent Assembly. Under this change (i.e. proposed in Overture 7), a Committee of Commissioners could instead identify the deviation from adopted polity as an exception of substance under RAO 14-11.

These requirements broadly reflect those already imposed upon Presbyteries and Sessions by higher courts.
BCO 12 and BCO 13 lay out affirmative requirements for lower courts; when these requirements are not demonstrated (i.e., met) by lower courts, a higher court may issue an exception to the court’s minutes under BCO 40. While it would not be appropriate to record all requirements of each Board and Committee in the church’s constitution, these requirements are recorded in the manuals and bylaws of each Agency and Committee. This amendment provides a mechanism to ensure that General Assembly maintains the ability to review and control the implementation of these requirements.

Zachary Groff is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Antioch Presbyterian Church in Woodruff, SC.

[1] The RAO expands upon the third item to give guidance on how properly to record the actions in-question.