As I stated briefly in this post, I had the honor and privilege to sit on the Overtures Committee at this year’s 38th Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly. This committee was formed in the previous round of the strategic planning in order to expedite the business of the Assembly. The Overture Committee has been instrumental in the General Assembly finishing on Thursday afternoon – a day early – over the last several years. As I’ll discuss in another post, the wisdom of this committee’s creation became evident during the seven hour handling of the current phase of the strategic plan.
As a side note, I believe that we hit a record level of participation in the Overtures Committee this year. No doubt, the overtures concerning the role of women in the church had something to do with that.
We elected TE John MacRae as our chairman this year. TE Rick Phillips won the position of vice-chairman. John performed magnificently, ensuring that all who had something to say were heard. He also facilitated the important participation of our Korean Church brothers. RE Sam Duncan was delegated the parliamentarian duties for the committee by the Stated Clerk of the Assembly. He did an outstanding job of trying to keep us from tying ourselves in parliamentary knots.
The Overtures Committee handled several significant issues this year. Because of that, by acclimation we started with the easier overtures so as to get to know each other a bit. Our presbytery (Potomac) put forth probably the longest overture in history to reorder and clarify Chapter 5 of the Book of Church Order (BCO) concerning church planting and particularization procedures. We ended up going through the overture paragraph-by-paragraph attempting to perfect the language. Although not particularly controversial, this procedure did become tedious. After the committee had tackled the largest section several hours later, I moved to call all questions before the body to end the bleeding. My motion succeeded and we went on to approve the overture as amended. Later, the General Assembly would pass our recommendation on Friday morning.
Blue Ridge Presbytery submitted an overture to amend one paragraph in Chapter 5. The committee discussed this at some length and eventually approved the overture as we amended it. This change did not conflict with the massive rewrite already approved. The Assembly passed our recommendation on Friday morning.
The stickiest point proved to be how to keep these two overtures from stepping on each other. The parliamentary procedure really took a beating at this point as we tried several approaches to pass direction on to the Stated Clerk should both overtures be accepted by 2/3 of the presbyteries as required and pass again next year. We very eventually produced an additional, separate recommendation to cover this eventuality, but it was later voted down by the Assembly on Friday morning.
The issue of “deaconesses” and the role of women in the church drew seven overtures this year covering both sides of the issue. Rather than debate them all, we chose to tackle one and later to answer the rest with reference to that one. As you might imagine, choosing one did not turn out to be particularly easy, but eventually settled on the overture from Evangel Presbytery to specify that those who assist the deacons per BCO 9-7 may not be ordained.
To be honest, I was shocked when a brother introduced an amendment to codify deaconesses into the BCO. We debated and further amended that proposal for quite some time. I spoke against it a number of times during the discussion, amongst other things pointing out the in English, a female lion is a lioness, a female actor is an actress, etc. The common use of the language infers that a deaconess is the female equivalent of an ordained male deacon. We finally reached a point when a comfort break could no longer be resisted. About that time, the subject of the Korean Church’s kwonsa position for women arose with questions on how that position would relate to “deaconesses”. We took a break at that point while someone went to try to find some Korean Church officers to help us.
During the break I had a chat with a supporter of the concept of deaconesses (don’t ask, it was a private conversation). Although we did not agree on that core issue, we both shared a concern about churches that do not ordain deacons but rather elected and commissioned coed boards as substitutes for an ordained diaconate. I tucked that common ground into my memory cells.
After the break, two Korean Church brothers shared about the history and role of kwonsa in both Korea and the PCA. There really is no equivalent to either the word in English or the position in the PCA. Contrary to what I’ve read in blog comments, kwonsa are not officers and are not ordained in the Korean presbyteries of the PCA. They are not deaconesses, neither are they assistants to the deacons strictly speaking. In Korean, the word for “deacon” has no gender, so there’s no easy linguistic way to distinguish between ordained deacons and unordained deaconesses. Of course, I made that same argument for the English language earlier.
This discussion influenced the committee to decisively vote down the proposed incorporation of deaconesses in the BCO. Another amendment (of which I was rather fond) was moved to call the people envisioned in BCO 9-7 simply “diaconal assistants”. It turns out that the Korean for “diaconal assistant” is different than kwonsa, which suggested yet another complication. This amendment was then voted down after much discussion.
In the end, the committee settled on adding a sentence to BCO 9-7 that said simply:
These assistants to the deacons are not officers of the church (BCO 7-2) and, as such, are not subjects for ordination (BCO 17).
In the end, I personally spoke strongly in favor of this amendment hearkening back to our country’s founding. More on that below. We approved this amendment by almost 2:1 (60-36-0). Although a small group announced their intention to file a minority report, they later withdrew that intention after seeing the grounds. The Assembly later approved the committee’s recommendation without further discussion.
Three concluding comments. First, some have speculated that the pro-deaconess group made a tactical blunder in bringing in the Korean Church brothers to explain the kwonsa position to the committee. Although I do believe that it was a deaconess supporter that brought up the Korean’s use of kwonsa, it was the will of the entire committee to hear from our Korean Church brothers. I am personally very pleased that we explicitly involved our Korean Church brothers in a discussion that could have negatively impacted their churches. They try very hard to conform to the PCA polity and should be part of any discussion that could affect them. So, I don’t know what anyone’s motive may have been (and neither do you, gentle reader), but we certainly glorified God by our inclusion of Korean Church issues in our deliberations.
Second, many feel that the committee didn’t make any substantive progress in the deaconess issue on either side. I respectfully disagree. I believe that this amendment further clarifies and sharpens the distinction between deacons and those godly men and women selected and appointed by the session to assist them, although in retrospect I would have added a few words. I believe that it can be used to correct those who eschew ordained deacons all-together in favor of a substitute coed body. I will probably post on this in more detail later.
Lastly, I left blessed by the fellowship with all of my brothers on the committee. I don’t think that anyone really got what they really wanted on the deaconess issue. I sometimes define a compromise as successful when everyone is equally unhappy. I believe that’s the case here.
But there’s much more to it than that. Neither side had the votes to carry the day. I could clearly see that before a brother proposed the final amendment which passed. In fact, in my last speech on the successful amendment, I compared the result to our U.S. Constitution. The conflicts and disagreements then were great, especially between the more and less populous states. In a final attempt to bring the group together in supporting the proposed Constitution, Ben Franklin addressed the president of the convention:
I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others….
In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such….I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?
What impressive wisdom! And after the Constitution passed:
As the representatives signed the Constitution, Franklin watched. The president’s chair was at the front of the hall, and a sun was painted on the back of the chair. Franklin told some of the members near him that it was always difficult for painters to show the difference between the rising sun and the setting sun. He said that during the convention he had often looked at the painted sun and wondered “…whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
So I see it with this proposed BCO 9-7 change. It isn’t perfect, but I’m not convinced that we could, or perhaps even should, do better. To go much further in any direction would perhaps cause more harm than good to the PCA. I have not changed my views on the subject, but have a renewed appreciation for my brothers in Christ in the PCA. It’s easy to be a single-issue voter or delegate. It’s much harder to glorify God in our conduct towards and respect for brothers with whom we disagree, and to accept our God-ordained limitations gracefully.
Soli Deo Gloria!