Disciplinary policies amended as General Assembly grinds through revisions

Plenaries 10 and 11 wrap up as GA falls further behind schedule, slowly working through changes to the Book of Order’s Rules of Discipline.

The Rules of Discipline Committee meeting on June 21. On the left, Forrest Claassen (ACC). On the right, Flor Velez-Diaz (Committee Resource). Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

Louisville, Kentucky – The 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) met for plenaries 10 and 11 with commissioners and resource personnel attending remotely via Zoom and continuing to use PC-Biz to do their work. The Committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Engagement completed its report with the assembly approving 367-9 item ECU-06 to distribute to all churches ad mid councils for study a document entitled “Statement Denouncing Antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

Paige McRight, ACL member of the Rules of Discipline Task Force, speaks at General Assembly 225. Screenshot by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

The Committee on Rules of Discipline began its report of items of business already approved in the consent agenda and six items yet to be decided, beginning with ROD-06 to add to items appropriate for a congregational meeting in G-1.0503 in the Book of Order: “receiving a disciplinary decision against a member of the congregation as required by D-9.0102.” The amendment was more a clarifying and synchronizing action than a substantive one. There was no debate, and the assembly approved the addition 378-1.

Item ROD-05 garnered some discussion about the retention of jurisdiction even when a member of the PC(USA) renounces the jurisdiction of the church, and thereby ends their membership. The assembly voted 334-9 to amend D-3.0106 in the Rules of Discipline of the Book of Order to replace language that states, “Jurisdiction in the judicial process ends when a person in an ordered ministry or a member renounces the jurisdiction of the church.” If ratified by the presbyteries, the Book of Order would state: “The judicial process does not end when a person in an ordered ministry renounces the jurisdiction of the church” (emphasis added).

Donald Hammond, teaching elder from San Francisco Presbytery and pastor at Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, spoke in favor of the motion in response to a case that involved the sexual abuse of children over three decades at the Donaldina Cameron House, a nearly 150-year-old Presbyterian mission to the Chinese community in San Francisco. Dick Wickman, a presbyterian minister, was accused in the late 1980s of sexually abusing dozens of young boys during his tenure as executive director of Cameron House and co-pastor at the nearby Presbyterian Church in Chinatown. He denied the charges, renounced his ordination in the PC(USA), and eventually moved to Medford, Oregon.

“Don’t let predators escape,” Hammond told the assembly. The hurt caused by Wickman is still fresh in the minds of many parishioners at Presbyterian Church in Chinatown.

Kristopher Schondelmeyer, speaks on a motion to perfect a Rules of Discipline overture at General Assembly 225. Screenshot by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

The assembly then moved to ROD-07 and ROD-03. ROD-07 more specifically seeks to clarify language in the Book of Order in G-4.0301 regarding the tension between confidentiality and reporting abuse. The overture came from the Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Task Force, formed by the 223rd GA in 2018. While the Committee on the Rules of Discipline recommended to the assembly “disapproval” of the original overture, an amendment was made on the floor of the assembly to simplify the language and still it make it clear that “confidentiality should not be an excuse to hold secret the knowledge or risk of harm especially when related to the physical abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse of a minor or an adult who lacks mental capacity.” The assembly ultimately voted 325-65 to approve ROD-07 as amended.

ROD-03 deals with more comprehensive, though not necessarily substantive, changes to the Rules of Discipline in the Book of Order. The Rules of Discipline Task Force, also formed by the 223rd GA in 2018, brought the overture based on its charge to “make the Rules of Discipline more accessible to the church, to preserve and enhance the accountability of councils and individuals to the church, to expand the role of mediation and dispute resolution, and to provide flexibility in crafting censures and remedies, particularly in light of recent learnings in ethical and social development and experiments by the secular legal system with alternative sentencing” (from the rationale for the overture provided by the task force).

The work on ROD-03 proved tedious for both the committee and the assembly. Taking the Rules of Discipline and the proposed amendments chapter by chapter, co-Moderators Shavon Starling-Louis and Ruth Santana Grace walked the assembly through the proposed changes gingerly and aware of the sensitive nature of the subject matter, especially as it relates to victims of sexual abuse within the church. Late in the afternoon and deep into the work, Starling-Louis led the assembly in a prayerful breathing exercise.

Diane Curtis (TEC-Southern New Jersey) speaks on a motion to perfect a Rules of Discipline overture at General Assembly 225. Screenshot by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

As each chapter was announced by the co-moderators, including those for whom there were no proposed amendments, much of the assembly remained quiet. Little to no discussion and only one additional amendment was offered. That is, until chapter 7 and the disciplinary process.

Several amendments were proposed by commissioners in addition to those by the task force. The pace of work slowed dramatically, though some commissioners felt the process was moving too fast. The co-moderators sought to be thoughtful and intentional in their approach of guiding the assembly through the tedious process. The phrase lifted during several committee meetings over the past two weeks echoed through the virtual assembly and on social media: “Words matter.”

A lingering question before this assembly is the place of New Worshiping Communities (NWCs) within the denominational structures. Participants and some leadership in these communities are not officially members of the PC(USA). An effort was made to bring them into the Rules of Discipline, approved overwhelmingly by the assembly.

Forrest Claassen, moderator of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC), offered a simple statement to help the assembly understand what they had just done. As a result of adding NWCs to the Rule of Discipline, the assembly has “brought certain people under the church’s jurisdiction who did not choose to be under the church’s jurisdiction.”

As co-Moderator Santana Grace was about to move on to discuss chapter 8 of the Rules of Discipline, co-Moderator Starling-Louis suggested the assembly return to chapter 7 as questions from commissioners came through on PC-Biz. Jeff Ott, teaching elder from Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, moved to reconsider the question of adding NWCs to D-7.0102 as part of ROD-03. The motion was approved by commissioners 310-60.

However, with the Hands and Feet panel being the order of the day and fast approaching, the assembly had a hard stop at 5:00 p.m. With ten items of business remaining on the schedule for the day, from the Committee on the Rules of Discipline and the Committee on International Engagement, the assembly had to end its discussion as another motion to reconsider item VIOL-07 came from Jason Cashing, teaching elder from Utica Presbytery. Per one of the parliamentarians, Cashing’s motion to reconsider will be voted upon later.

Cristi Ligon, ruling elder commissioner from Middle Tennessee presbytery and moderator of the Committee on Bills and Overtures, moved to postpone the remainder of the report and to change Friday’s schedule to move worship up to 10:00 a.m. EDT, the beginning of plenary 12 to 11:00 a.m. EDT, and a 30-minute meal break at 2:00 p.m. EDT. The motions to reconsider will be addressed tomorrow.