Missing Mandate and Better Metrics: Understanding the 2017 PCA General Assembly

If broad churchmen were looking for a mandate to increase female ordination in the PCA, based on a concessive study, it didn’t happen at this PCA General Assembly.

To be encouraged: after 8-9 years of sustained badgering, virtue signaling, and nagging, the vaunted study of women’s roles has now been completed, and barely anything is settled. There’s nothing left but to amend the constitution—which in its present form is clear and offers little consolation to those who’ve given so much of themselves to broaden the church.

 

If broad churchmen were looking for a mandate to increase female ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), based on a concessive study, that didn’t happen on this issue at this PCA General Assembly. The Mandate Moment was missed. Sure, all the recommendations of the study committee passed. However, even before the voting began, the following comments—tokens of some concession—were prefaced by various committee members:

  • Harry Reeder stressed that ordination was what was key and that any actions must be confined to the parameters of Scripture and confession.
  • Kathy Keller stated that in no way, shape, or form was this about ordaining women to the eldership; and if one held that position, he should just leave now.
  • Bruce O’Neill affirmed that no one wished to ordain women to existing offices of the PCA but simply to allow women to fully use their gifts.
  • Chairman Irwin Ince (surely next year’s Moderator, to be followed by RE John Bice the following year—wow!) repeatedly stressed that none of the recommendations were directives, only suggestions to be considered.

Later, Stated Clerk Roy Taylor would vocalize that this report could never be used as grounds for discipline or accusation; of course, it is not part of the constitution, in other words. It really is nothing more than the in thesi statement by one particular democratic meeting.

There actually seemed to be a lot of concessions made by this discussion. Moreover, the level of persistent resistance was surprising, which may bring considerable relief to some. Dying the death of a thousand qualifications, with advocates having to promise that they never wanted to ordain women as elders or deacons, momentum for broadening was hard to detect. Despite the best hopes of a committee, which tried its best to cultivate some inevitability, this may become known as the assembly where a hoped-for mandate vanished. Why, maybe even politicizing is partly to blame. Who knows, but:

  • Joseph Pipa’s motion to punt the whole committee report nearly prevailed (651-614)—hardly a vote of confidence for broadening.
  • An astute ruling elder pointed out that this committee had no single ruling elder, although several unordained members were appointed.
  • David Coffin effectively amended item #4 (but later it was reversed).
  • Item #5 almost was replaced by a floor substitute (eventually prevailing by about a 60-40 vote, which we’ve now seen as a DOA threshold—if proponents cannot obtain 60% at assembly, they seldom succeed in garnering the 2/3 to amend the BCO, sometimes failing even to receive a majority in constitutional voting.

The proponents of broadening seemed to fight for every yard—leading spokesmen often being needed at the mics. Our friends can tell themselves that they have a mandate all they want, but few outside their guild would agree. That was clear from the resistance of this assembly. Then again, if friends are right in thinking that they constitute such a supermajority, then surely they’ll man up and bring BCO amends quickly. Let’s watch and see how confident they are in that. Or perhaps they will realize that ‘Mo was lost.

If you’re looking for a wave to mandate female ordination, that mandate is missing, except among the self-congratulations of only the most triumphalistic of caucus partisans. The wave election/mandate is missing.

Meaningful metrics are becoming clearer—which leads me to my second point that I’ve been saying for a few years now. Let me phrase it analogously: Just as all important governing does not occur in Washington, so all ecclesiastical import does not occur at GA. General Assembly only represents 1% of our annual time—so keep it in perspective. Next year, thankfully, that will shrink a bit more (even though there never seems to be a cost reduction on registration fees). And of the attendance at GA, I wonder what percentage of the 1100 TEs are actively on a session? With less than half of churches represented anyway, does anyone really wish to argue that General Assembly is MOST representative of the PCA? Or has it not become the favored venue of a sub-set of the PCA, whose main stage is the 1% of our calendar called GA?

As to metrics, rather than churches being discouraged by another unrepresentative assembly, maybe there are two other far more reliable indicators than the 1% General Assembly: (1) the Overtures Committee (with 2 reps from any presbytery) and (2) presbytery voting on BCO amendments.  The common thing to both of those is (dare I as a minister say it?): Ruling elders. And partisans who want to broaden ordination can surely bring overtures to the next Overtures Committee, seeking votes at presbytery if they want expansion.

In sum, out of 7 recommendations of substance (item one was a defense of legitimacy and item 9 was to dismiss the committee with thanks):

  • several were quite abstract and achieved little more than symbolic statement of sentiments;
  • at least two were only passed by fairly slim majorities (certainly not close to the 2/3 that would be needed to approve BCO amendments);
  • item #6 was significantly modified for good;
  • and the previous day, item #4 was approved by amendment.

In short, even though the committee valiantly attempted to find middle grounds at nearly every station, and even with heavy political lobbying and caucus organization, at best, this in thesi deliverance had mediocre support and gained little discernible momentum. Indeed, of the invitations to implement any of this report’s idea in the BCO, it could be years before any of these are heard of again—much less approved by 2/3 of the presbyteries.

So maybe those are far more accurate metrics of the PCA. Will the most visible faction risk proving or disproving that by offering actual overtures on any of the invited points from the committee, which admittedly settled nothing? With such a great study, if you can win every vote, how soon will we see overtures that go beyond in thesi lines in the sand?

To be encouraged: after 8-9 years of sustained badgering, virtue signaling, and nagging, the vaunted study of women’s roles has now been completed, and barely anything is settled. There’s nothing left but to amend the constitution—which in its present form is clear and offers little consolation to those who’ve given so much of themselves to broaden the church.

And in the process, the Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC), which started all this, had its sail trimmed a bit and will be watched more, the Overtures Committee had its hand strengthened, and more ruling elders are standing up.

No mandate for broadening . . . new metrics for reality . . . and money will probably be more wisely allocated. Those are outcomes that many didn’t predict this time last year.

That may be winning almost every vote.

David W. Hall is a minister in the Presbyterian Church and is pastor of Midway PCA in Powder Springs, Georgia.