New Horizons

2016 General Assembly: Nothing out of the Ordinary

D. G. Hart

Roman Catholics may have extraordinary synods like the last two called by Pope Francis to consider marriage and the family, but Presbyterians have ordinary assemblies. And for good reason. During the fifteenth-century crisis of the papacy, when rival popes in Avignon and Rome vied for supremacy, bishops and theologians called for church reform by council. Instead of locating church authority in one bishop (the pope), conciliarists advocated gatherings of bishops to oversee the work and ministry of the church.

Not until the sixteenth century did that call for church government by committee blossom with John Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances, the original proposal for Presbyterian polity. Ever since 1541, Reformed Protestants have made committee meetings an ordinary part of church life, from the monthly assembly of sessions to the seasonal meetings of presbyteries and the annual gatherings for general assemblies.

The routine nature of Presbyterian meetings sometimes leaves onlookers wondering where all the drama went. Orthodox Presbyterians who know the origins of their church remember pivotal general assemblies that were turning points in American Presbyterianism. (This year’s commissioners may be less familiar with that history, since their average age was fifty-five and a majority were ordained in the 1990s and 2000s.) Orthodox Presbyterians know about the PCUSA General Assembly of 1925 that established a committee to investigate Princeton Seminary. They also remember the Assembly of 1929 that ratified the reorganization of Princeton and led J. Gresham Machen to found Westminster Seminary as the true successor to Old Princeton. They especially note the significance of the 1936 General Assembly, when commissioners voted to uphold guilty verdicts against Machen and other members of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. What we forget is that these decisive moments took place among the clutter of committee reports, budget reviews, missionary news, motions, substitute motions, points of order, and ballots. Only in hindsight do specific general assemblies stand out. For most commissioners and observers, the duties are singularly ordinary.

Not even anniversaries or scenery can distract presbyters from their appointed rounds of conducting the work of ecclesiastical oversight decently and in order. (Having a Committee on Arrangements that makes the comings and goings, and care and feeding of commissioners, run like clockwork is also imperative for an assembly to complete its work.) This year witnessed the eightieth anniversary of the OPC, and the Committee for the Historian produced handsome mugs to commemorate the occasion. But the Eighty-third General Assembly gathered less to remember than to conduct the important work of oversight. Although the setting was attractive, commissioners did not let the beauty of the North East River (at the northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay) or the comforts of the Sandy Cove conference center prevent them from working most days (except Sunday) from 8:30 in the morning until 8:30 at night.

A Small Communion with International Connections

The Assembly is a representative body with rules governing how many pastors and elders attend. The maximum number each year is 150 commissioners. That number varies little, even when the church grows or declines in membership. This year, the statistician, Luke Brown, reported that the OPC made modest gains. Total church membership rose by sixty-seven to 31,191, a record high for the OPC. The total number of congregations and mission works increased by two to 325. On average, morning worship attendance rose by 548 to 24,648 (in the month of November, one of the statistician’s reference points). Sunday school attendance dipped by 120 to 12,218. Total offerings rose to $56.9 million, an increase of 4.4 percent per communicant member. The total number of ministers remained virtually the same as last year, up one to 535 (The OPC received eighteen new ministers, while seeing seventeen leave for various reasons.)

Those numbers certainly will not turn the heads of religion journalists who cover the Vatican (which boasts a membership of 1.2 billion), but if they observed the OPC’s General Assembly, they would learn that this small communion has an international footprint that justifies the OPC’s own claims to catholicity. In fact, one of the first orders of business, once commissioners completed their work in advisory committees (groups of commissioners selected to pay attention to specified reports or business) on Thursday afternoon, was a fraternal greeting from the Presbyterian Church in America’s delegate, Marvin Padgett.

This was the first of eleven communications (ten in person) from churches in fellowship with the OPC. Of those delegates, six were from denominations outside the United States—for instance, one from South Africa, one from Australia, one from New Zealand, and one from Switzerland. At present, the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations conducts “foreign relations” with forty-one different Reformed and Presbyterian communions around the world. Although fraternal delegates are almost always polite and say flattering things about their hosts, the presence of fraternal delegates, many of whom stay the entire week, confirms what many of them say in their addresses, namely, that Reformed churches around the world look to the OPC for edification and support as one of the older communions that has resisted the compromises that have so often afflicted churches in North America, Europe, and around the world. Even if reporters have never heard of the OPC, in Reformed circles the OPC has an international reputation, thanks both to its ecumenical endeavors and to the presence of OPC missionaries (who are sometimes at the forefront of maintaining fraternal relations with other communions). As Swiss pastor Kurt Vetterli, from the Evangelical Reformed Church—Westminster Confession, said, “Little sister is watching you.”

Church Business Deliberated

One way to find drama at the General Assembly is to notice the time devoted to specific business. Truth be told, the agenda may overwhelm first-time and even veteran commissioners. This year’s agenda included nineteen separate reports, along with communications, appeals, and complaints. Two reports came from special (temporary) committees of the Assembly, with tasks to study specific topics of concern to the wider church. The agenda this year included forty-three items, which is almost four times the number this correspondent usually sees during monthly session meetings. It ran to almost two hundred pages, which is about forty times the length of documents a clerk normally processes for a normal session meeting. Part of the reason for the length of the agenda is that this is the one time when each standing committee can present the full scope of its work to the whole church.

In many cases, reports are informational. In some cases, committees attach recommendations that require deliberation. Every time the reports of standing committees are considered, there is a time for the elections of members, who generally serve terms of three years. Owing to this procedure of presentations, discussions, and elections, assemblies are rarely suspenseful. Even if a longtime member of a standing committee fails to be elected for another term (which happened this year, to some surprise), the demand of the agenda rarely allows commissioners or observers to notice the significance of what happened.

Even the election of a moderator—the first item of business after the Wednesday-evening worship service—comes without fanfare, and this year all the more so. Unlike the President of the United States or the Pope, a moderator has no real power other than to facilitate discussion and hold commissioners responsible for a proper use of time. Also unlike the election of a pope in the Sistine Chapel, when smoke (either white or black) issues from its chimney as a signal of the cardinals’ vote, the selection of a General Assembly moderator involves nominations and a few speeches, followed by votes. This year commissioners did not experience any of the intrigue that sometimes comes when more than three men receive nominations and when elections can take several ballots. They nominated only one man, Mr. Paul Tavares, an elder from Covenant OPC in Grove City, Pennsylvania. With no competition, Mr. Tavares became moderator by acclamation.

With gavel in hand, Mr. Tavares had the unenviable task of supervising what is in effect a committee of roughly 150 members. One of the appeals of episcopacy is that rule by bishops cuts through the time and clutter of large groups conducting the business of the church. Indeed, anyone who has been present at a congregational meeting knows how easily a couple of comments can sidetrack church members from their assigned business.

What helps elders, pastors, and moderators, especially with the unwieldy nature of an Assembly, is Robert’s Rules of Order, a remarkable set of guidelines for engaging and managing debate. Longtime commissioners are generally familiar with the rules, but younger or new commissioners may not always understand the guidelines for motions, substitutions, debate, and voting. Even so, the rules provide the best mechanism for so large a number of officers to have a voice in the Assembly’s work. Every commissioner has an opportunity to speak, not only because of Robert’s Rules, but also because of the OPC’s tradition of encouraging debate to avoid the tyranny of the majority.

The Assembly’s Many Moods

Commissioners and observers learn fairly quickly that the General Assembly is not just one thing. It is not just a business meeting, nor exclusively the highest court of appeal within the OPC, or a body charged to oversee the denomination’s financial resources, or a time for praise and thanksgiving for God’s blessings. It is all of these and requires commissioners to bring several hats to the meeting.

Many Orthodox Presbyterians, especially the theologically inclined, looked forward to the 2016 Assembly because of the report of the Committee to Study Republication. This special committee’s work was intimately connected to the assignment of the Special Committee to Visit the Presbytery of the Northwest (PNW), since the doctrine of republication was at least partially responsible for tensions in that presbytery. Both of those reports came on the last day of the Assembly (Monday), with the visitation committee reporting first. Although the committee that visited the PNW acknowledged that the doctrine of republication was the “presenting cause” of conflict, their report also indicated that the “more fundamental cause” was the failure of the PNW to use the pastoral and ecclesiastical means available for addressing differences. In so many words, the visitation committee discovered a failure among presbyters to communicate adequately either the nature of concerns or answers to objections.

Some of the reason for a failure of communication, as the Report on Republication indicated, was the challenge of understanding this doctrine’s particular way of understanding the relationship between the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, the covenant of redemption, the Mosaic covenant, and the work of Christ. In particular, the doctrine of republication attempts to explain the legal aspects of the Mosaic law (which resonate with the commands and sanctions of God’s original covenant with Adam), while also understanding God’s relationship with the Israelites as gracious. The committee’s report took its bearings from the Confession of Faith’s teaching about the covenants and the distinction between substance and administration. The substance of the covenant of grace is Christ (WCF 7.6). But God administered that covenant “under various dispensations” (7.6). This distinction provided room for the committee to categorize the variety of interpretations of the Mosaic covenant, from the Puritans down to Meredith Kline and John Murray, as falling on a spectrum of interpretations of the covenant of grace and the differences and continuities between the Old and New Testaments.

If readers have difficulty with this summary of the matter, imagine how much more challenging was an almost 100-page report that resurrected views of theologians that even some historical theologians would not recognize. In fact, the Assembly’s discussion of the report included remarks about the novelty of these views. At the same time, the report provided valuable assistance by showing that discussions of the
doctrine of republication, though revealing no consensus, were part and parcel of the development of Reformed theology from the Reformation to the nineteenth century. Part of the controversy surrounding the recent resurrection of republication may have been due to an unfamiliarity with older orthodox voices on the Mosaic covenant and the covenant of grace. Be that as it may, the commissioners received the report, and after mild discussion about disseminating it, concluded their consideration of the doctrine of republication. The PNW has this report in its ongoing efforts to achieve harmony, and the visitation committee was retained by the Assembly in a stand-by capacity if the presbytery should need additional assistance.

If the doctrine of republication and debates over it at the presbytery level tested the Assembly’s theological and pastoral skills, four complaints from Grace OPC in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, against the Presbytery of Ohio sent commissioners scrambling for their judicial hats. The first complaint involved grievances by the session of Grace OPC against presbytery for its handling of their complaint against another session. Because the stated clerk of the Assembly received the other three complaints from the session of Grace OPC after the deadline for filing, commissioners needed to decide whether to make an exception. The Assembly eventually ruled the first complaint “in order,” but then remanded it back to the Presbytery of Ohio. The Assembly then determined that the other complaints had been submitted too late and advised the session of Grace OPC that they could submit their complaints on appeal to the Eighty-fourth General Assembly.

In addition to being responsible for theological, pastoral, and judicial matters, commissioners also oversee the OPC’s finances. Usually this involves reviewing and approving the various committees’ budgets. But this year the Assembly received reports from both the Committee on Pensions and the Committee to Study the Care of Ministers that addressed more than the performance of OPC retirement funds. They also recommended more mechanisms to offer advice and assistance to pastors in preparation for retirement. The upshot of these reports was the creation of a new Committee on Ministerial Care that absorbs the work of the Committee on Pensions and adds a number of other measures for “strengthening the care of ministers.”

Singing with Gusto

For all of the difficult questions commissioners tackled, Reformed Protestant piety was evident at every session. Before reconvening the Assembly after a break, meal, or overnight recess, commissioners opened the revised Trinity Hymnal to sing a hymn or psalm selected by the moderator. Reports on Roman Catholic synods rarely mention whether bishops sing hymns when they gather, but any account of an OPC General Assembly needs to mention not simply the phenomenon of singing but also the gusto with which commissioners sing. Indeed, one of the delights of the Assembly is the opportunity to sing often (at least five times a day) and to hear male voices united in song. If visitors to Muslim countries notice the odd-sounding songs that call Muslims to prayer, observers of the OPC General Assembly might also detect the frequency and vigor of the hymn singing in which Presbyterians engage, even as they review, debate, and vote on church business.

The presence of song at the Assembly made all the more sense of the commissioners’ approval of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal for publication. The Committee on Christian Education indicated that pending the receipt of copyright permissions, the cooperative endeavor with the United Reformed Churches in North America, coedited by Alan Strange and Derrick Vander Meulen, should be ready in the fall of 2017, thus giving commissioners at the 2018 Assembly the opportunity to sing from the new psalter hymnal. The new book of song will also include the doctrinal standards of both communions: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dordt, and the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Milestones

As mentioned above, this Assembly marked the eightieth anniversary of the OPC’s founding. That milestone made less of a dent on the proceedings than several other historical markers. On Friday night in recess, commissioners stayed in the meeting room to hear Cal and Edie Cummings reflect on their years of service as missionaries to Japan and then attended a reception hosted by the Committee on Foreign Missions to honor the Cummingses.

The next day, during the report from the Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel, the members honored Robert Coie, who was leaving the committee, with a resolution of appreciation for his years of service.

Meanwhile, the Committee for the Historian treated commissioners each day to video vignettes about the work and service of women in the OPC: Charlotte Kuschke, Mabel Danzeizen, Dora Duff, Betty Andrews, and Grace Hard. (The vignettes are available on OPC.org). Several of these stalwarts labored with their husbands on the mission field, while others worked in local congregations and Christian day schools in selfless ways.

Even as commissioners watched reminders of faithful servants in the OPC’s past, they also observed a new generation of pastors and elders who are emerging as voices of stability and wisdom in the affairs of the General Assembly. The larger impression left by these videos, along with the selfless labors of commissioners and church staff, was the way that God uses ordinary means to accomplish his extraordinary ends.

The author is a ruling elder at Hillsdale OPC in Hillsdale, Mich. Photos by Tricia Stevenson, Rachel Stevenson, Katharine Olinger, and Danny Olinger. New Horizons, August 2016.

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