November 18, 1998
Presbyteries will soon be electing commissioners to the 1999 General Assembly. There commissioners will decide how to handle a request from Milwaukee Presbytery, which for the second straight year has approved an overture asking presbyteries to delete the “fidelity and chastity” provision (G-6.0106b) from the Book of Order (see story p. 11). A brief review of recent history may help all Presbyterians learn from their past rather than repeat it.
In 1997, after placing the “fidelity and chastity” clause in the Book of Order, presbyteries elected as commissioners to the Syracuse Assembly individuals who not only did not support the constitutional provision, but who also approved Amendment A, which sought to eviscerate it. Not surprisingly, the presbyteries voted down the Syracuse proposal by a nearly two-to-one margin. But the debate consumed enormous energy and resources, time and money that could have been spent on mission.
Now presbyteries are preparing to elect commissioners to the Fort Worth Assembly. Let us not be naïve; the decision on Milwaukee’s attempt to have our presbyteries reopen debates convincingly settled by Amendments B and A will not be made in Fort Worth. By the time commissioners gather in Texas next June, the fate of Milwaukee’s overture will have been decided, one presbytery at a time, as each presbytery decides who will come to Fort Worth with a vote.
A trite and true saying is that presbyteries cannot tell commissioners how to vote. Also true, but less often said aloud in public places, is that presbyteries are not required to elect commissioners whose declared personal preferences run counter to Scripture and the PCUSA constitution. Indeed, electing such commissioners would produce another Syracuse, and another year of divisive debates just as our denomination is beginning to heal long-open wounds and move forward together with a fragile sense of common mission.
To prevent such damage to the PCUSA, commissioners to presbytery must be proactive in their search for General Assembly commissioners who will put faithfulness to Scripture and denominational standards ahead of personal political agendas. This search may include questioning prospective nominees on the floor of presbytery, or even making nominations from the floor.
The necessary steps may not be easy or comfortable, especially in presbyteries where liberal leadership controls the nominating process. But if presbytery commissioners do not learn from history, those they elect may condemn us all to repeat it.