The Oct. 8 vote against recommending that
the assembly take that step was 11-8. But then the
commission immediately began discussing ways
to include non-geographic presbyteries among
other possibilities it might present for the church
Other concepts the commission might put forth
include presbyteries with more “porous” boundaries
that are regionally rather than nationally based;
missional orders; and covenant communities rather
than separate presbyteries.
Some evangelicals have said they want an
option that allows like-minded Presbyterians to
work together in mission in presbyteries that would
pledge not to ordain sexually active gays and lesbians,
and they have encouraged the denomination
to make that possible.
The commission’s meeting in Indianapolis Oct.
5-8 showed how conflicted some of its members
feel about the idea of permitting non-geographic
presbyteries that are not language-based.
Warren Cooper, a ruling elder from Philadelphia
Presbytery, described non-geographic presbyteries
as “a practical solution to trying to keep the
denomination in some sort of way together.” But
he also said it was a solution fraught with peril.
“I find it to be antithetical to the principle of
mutual forbearance,” Cooper said. “I find it potentially
to be the first very big step in the disintegration
of the denomination.”
At the same time, he said, “I am very cognizant
that it has a place among other ideas,” adding that
“it would be irresponsible for us as a commission
not to put it forward.” He suggested the commission
provide the General Assembly with arguments
for and against the concept.
The task force voted with a greater sense of
momentum to recommend significant changes in
the role of synods — asking the General Assembly
to discontinue the role of synods as councils and to
create five regional administrative commissions to
take over ecclesiastical tasks.
Any constitutional changes would have to be
approved by the General Assembly and by a majority
of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries. And the
commission won’t actually approve its final report
until its next meeting — scheduled for Feb. 2-4 in
Dallas — which means it could still make changes
Non-geographic presbyteries. The commission’s
debate over non-geographic presbyteries — currently
a very hot topic in the PC(USA) — reflected
both pragmatic concerns and cornerstone beliefs.
Evangelicals who contend the PC(USA) made
a mistake in passing Amendment 10-A, which
removed from the denomination’s constitution language
requiring those being ordained to practice
fidelity if married or chastity if single, have said
that non-geographic presbyteries could give some
people a way to stay in the denomination without
violating their consciences.
James Harper, a teaching elder from Atlanta,
said some evangelicals will see non-geographic
presbyteries as “a theological compromise” in
which they have no interest. But others want to
stay in the PC(USA), “to be able to thrive in mission
and ministry together without the politics,”
Harper said evangelicals like him are asking
this question: “Can I stay in this denomination
with integrity and relief of conscience?”
If a congregation wants to spend the time and
money to fly representatives across the country
for a presbytery meeting, “I think they ought to
be allowed to,” said John Vest, a teaching elder
from Chicago. He said this could be “a new way of
doing Protestant church” and that “what we have
done isn’t working. Our church is slowly dying.”
Some pointed out that evangelicals already are
pursuing other options and may not wait several
years for the PC(USA) to figure things out.
“We are speaking as though we can prevent it
from happening,” said Jane Smith, a ruling elder
from Riverside Presbytery in California. “I don’t
think we can. The train is well down the road.”
Others asked whether forming presbyteries
with only like-minded people actually violates
foundational Presbyterian principles and amounts
to a temporary fix.
“It’s a compromise — that’s not what we
need,” said Miriam Dolin, a ruling elder from San
Francisco Presbytery. “That’s not creative, that’s
not out-of-the-box” thinking, and “it’s going to
change us forever as a denomination … We are not
called to live with people who only think like us.”
Liza Hendricks, general presbyter for Western
Reserve Presbytery, said she was “concerned with
us developing two confessional churches under one
José Olagues, a teaching elder from Grand
Canyon Presbytery, said that “I want to be at the
table with all of my brothers and sisters, all the
children of God. Yet I’m being told that my form of
Christianity is not as good as that of another member.
I need my sisters and brothers who disagree
with me at the table. Yet if they don’t want me, I
don’t know what to do. I wrestle with it.”
Terry Newland, executive of the Synod of
Living Waters, said thatfor him, “it’s not about
forbearance or tolerance or enduring together,” but
a belief “that God has gifted each one of us with
gifts that will help us as a whole and will help me.
It’s more a selfish thing … When we keep segregated,
I am deprived of those spiritual gifts … It’s
a yearning for more wholeness in my spiritual journey.
It’s not about keeping the marriage together.”
Newland also said this of the push to divide into
like-minded groups: “There’s nothing Presbyterian
about that. It’s building a Congregationalist
While the commission voted down a recommendation
to ask the General Assembly to approve
non-geographic presbyteries, it’s also asking the
Advisory Committee on the Constitution to provide
advice on any constitutional issues or concerns
that such a proposal might raise.
Synod restructuring. While the commission
members struggled with whether to approve nongeographic
presbyteries, support for the idea of
changing the role of synods was evident as soon as
they began discussing the idea.
Commission members praised it as a way of
flattening the hierarchy of the PC(USA), potentially
saving money, and reenergizing mission work
at the regional level.
The commission passed a series of recommendations
regarding synods that it plans to include in
its final report.
Many of these provisions would require constitutional
changes, and the approval of both the
assembly and a majority of the presbyteries. While
the commission won’t approve its final report until
February, its moderator, Tod Bolsinger, a teaching
elder from California, explained that approving
recommendations with constitutional implications
now would give the Advisory Committee on the
Constitution and other interested groups a chance
to respond to the recommendations before the
report is complete.
The commission voted to recommend that:
– Synods be discontinued as councils and their
ecclesiastical functions be vested in five regional
administrative commissions of the General
– During a transition time, synods – in consultation
with their constituent presbyteries – would
create and implement a transition plan to
transfer assets, funds, projects and programs,
including those relating to racial ethnic ministries,
to appropriate entities. Those transition
plans would be submitted to the 2016 General
Assembly for its approval.
– The authority and intent of the Mid-Councils
Commission be vested in these regional commissions
“in order to facilitate churches and
presbyteries to build partnerships and realign
where necessary” to fulfill their missional
– Those regional commissions have the power
and authority to “enforce the church’s commitment
to inclusiveness and representation,”
including forming committees on representation.
– The General Assembly be authorized to create
five regional judicial commissions to serve
as courts of appeal of decisions of presbytery
permanent judicial commissions, and as courts
of original jurisdiction in remedial cases against
presbyteries, or upon reference from presbytery
While the recommendations don’t state this, one
possibility might be that the five regional commissions
might be drawn along roughly the same lines
as the districts among which the biennial meetings
of the General Assembly are rotated.
Commission members said they would like
faster action but acknowledged changing synod
structure would take several years, given the need
for the assembly and a majority of presbyteries to
approve and allowing time for transition.