Completing Friday's docket one minute before midnight, commissioners to the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) took on a handful of hot-button issues, including constitutionally requiring criminal background checks for teaching elders and how to deal with teaching elders who renounce the church’s jurisdiction.
On the first item, commissioners voted 475-92 to concur with the Church Polity and Ordered Ministry Committee’s recommendation to disapprove, with a comment urging presbyteries to require criminal background checks. However, many commissioners said they believed that under the new form of government such a requirement belongs in churches’ and presbyteries’ operating manuals, not the constitution.
But not all commissioners agreed.
“Sociopathic individuals have and will continue to find entry into our church,” said Ruling Elder Commissioner Eric Muller-Girard of the Presbytery of Western Reserve, urging the Assembly to "provide better language in our constitution."
Commissioners also voted 309-207 to reject the committee’s recommendation to disapprove the overture prohibiting former teaching elders from performing any work, paid or volunteer, for a congregation or other PC(USA) entity after renouncing jurisdiction in the midst of a disciplinary proceeding as the accused.
Teaching Elder Commissioner Jeff Hayes of the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley, who identified himself as a rape survivor, supported the overture. “These attacks are always about power,” he said. “Putting it down to a local level means that predators are free to work the system. Unless we have a standardized requirement for identifying and restricting sexual predators, this is going to continue to happen.”
The Assembly also adopted a measure permitting there to be fewer than 10 sessions and teaching elders in a presbytery, with approval by its synod and the General Assembly. It concurred with committee recommendations to disapprove three other items: one dealing with referrals to investigating committees, another clarifying what is meant by “essentials of the reformed faith” and one allowing churches to realign with other established presbyteries.
Finally, in what Committee Moderator Judy Ferguson, a ruling elder commissioner for the Presbytery of Mission, called “an item of business we can rejoice in,” the Assembly, by voice vote, approved a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism in the Book of Confessions, which has already been approved by two-thirds of the presbyteries.
Commissioners then sang the Doxology before Teaching Elder Commissioner Mary Katherine Robinson of the Presbytery of Providence drew the evening to a close with a prayer asking God to “continually call us from complacency to action – even in times we do not want to follow.”