Changes to the Rules of Discipline

Page McRight, who chaired the Rules of Discipline Revision Task Force, previews what edits will be suggested to General Assembly.

The Rules of Discipline in the Book of Order last had a major revision in 1996. Since that time, there have been major advances both in alternative sentencing in the secular legal system and in communication technology. In 2016, the General Assembly responded to an overture to revise the Rules of Discipline — to make them more accessible to the whole church, to preserve the accountability of councils and individuals to the church, to expand the role of mediation and dispute resolution and to provide flexibility in censures and remedies. The moderators appointed a task force to begin work on the revision in 2017. Members of the task force are Barbara Bundick, former stated clerk of Chicago Presbytery; Donna Wells, stated clerk of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta; Doska Ross, former stated clerk of the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii; Greg Goodwiller, stated clerk and executive presbyter of St. Andrew Presbytery and Executive of the Synod of Living Waters; Therese Howell, stated clerk of the presbyteries of Middle Tennessee and North Alabama and Paige McRight, former executive presbyter of Central Florida Presbytery.

The task force has provided a major revision. The name of the section has been changed to Church Discipline to signify that it applies only to the internal discipline of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). The language has been simplified and the section has been organized so that it flows smoothly. Standards from previous GA decisions that are often cited have been brought into the text. These prior decisions are currently only available in the annotated Book of Order available on the General Assembly website; including them in the new revision will assist the people of the PC(USA) to reflect more accurately on internal discipline.

The first three chapters of Church Discipline have been revised to clarify the purpose of church discipline and the structure of the judicial process. “The Preamble” is ordered to emphasize that church discipline is a gift of Christ to the church to build up and restore, not to tear down and punish. The purposes of discipline, currently contained in a long paragraph, are highlighted to call attention to each of them. The chapter on judicial commissions clearly defines quorum as well as the use of former members in judicial process. It stipulates that the membership of judicial commissions is to be nominated in the same manner as the membership of council nominating committees, with attention given to mirroring the diversity in race and gender of the council that elects them. In all judicial matters, those involved – including counsel – must be Presbyterian to increase the chance that all those participating know the processes of church discipline, which are based on Scripture and the Constitution of the PC(USA), not secular law.

A major change in the structure of the revised Church Discipline is that the remedial process by which councils are held accountable and the disciplinary process by which individuals are held accountable are each spelled out separately from start to finish. This makes it easier for everyone in the church to see what is involved in each process. Another change has been supported by our experiences in the current pandemic. It has taught us that technology allows for, and in some instances requires, doing business at a distance. In this proposed revision, provision is made for judicial process, including trials, to be done using technology rather than in person as long as all persons can be seen and heard.

Perhaps the most significant individual changes in remedial process have to do with testimony. Hearsay testimony is no longer accepted; neither are depositions. Instead, witnesses can testify remotely using technology that allows them to be seen, heard, examined and cross-examined.

In the disciplinary process, more changes have been made — as called for by the overture. All alternative resolutions must include an admission of guilt. Alternative resolution options have been expanded to include a process of restorative justice. Restorative justice processes are appropriate where the person who committed the offense is willing to work to restore the body of Christ, and can do so without causing further pain to those who have been harmed. In another change, the revision clarifies that when a person has been found guilty and is publicly being censured, only a summary statement of the offense is required. Censure should not be given with malice and vindictiveness but with Christian love. Therefore, it is not necessary nor is it appropriate to publicly shame the guilty person by sharing details. In a third change, mediators need not be certified, since certified mediators may not be available in all presbyteries, but they must be persons known for calm, wise counsel.

The task force offers four recommendations regarding these changes. The first is that Church Discipline replace the current Rules of Discipline. The second is that time limits be removed for filing an allegation in any disciplinary matter. Currently there are no time limits only for allegations of sexual misconduct and for failure to report suspicion of sexual misconduct. The third recommendation suggests three places in the Form of Government to be amended. These provide for electronic meetings of congregations and for reporting results of a trial by session to the congregation in the same way that permanent judicial commissions report their results to the councils that elect them. Finally, there is a recommendation that the office of the General Assembly provide a resource for sessions and presbyteries to use in dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, to reflect the need for sensitivity to the rights for safety, dignity and privacy of all involved in such cases.

The task force consulted with the membership of the PC(USA) early in the process through a survey to the church, which received more than two hundred responses. Additional counsel came from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, the GA Permanent Judicial Commission, the GA Committee on Women’s Concerns, the GA Racial Equity Advocacy Committee, the Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Task Force and the Presbyterian Church (USA), A Corporation. The revision offered to the church has been strengthened by those consultations. Commissioners to GA and interested others will find a side-by-side comparison of Church Discipline and the Rules of Discipline where specific changes are laid out. In addition, commissioners will be provided a video introduction to the revision.