Reaction from the PC(USA) Regarding the Heartland Matter

[As the second largest Presbyterian denomination in the country, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has long struggled to distance itself from the "mainline" Presbyterian Church (United States of America) [PC(USA)], from which many of the PCA churches originally came. PCA leadership, often chagrined that the public identifies the two denominations as being the same, has many times sought to distinguish the practices and beliefs of the two bodies. For that reason, we decided to see how open the PC(USA) is with regard to church meetings and minutes.-Ed.]

Presbyterian News Service (PNS), the official news agency of the PC(USA), apparently believes in openness in church courts and committees. Jerry Van Marter of PNS stated that the meetings of governing bodies are open, with several codified exceptions: property negotiations, personnel matters, civil or criminal litigation, or security (this having special reference to foreign nationals who might fear for their lives or safety if their meeting with church officials was publicly known). Mr. Van Marter said: "If the meetings are open, then the minutes would automatically be a matter of public record. I cannot imagine what would be gained in trying to keep the minutes private if the meeting is open. . . . I've certainly had no qualms of quoting from minutes of open meetings." Upon hearing of the position taken by Heartland Presbytery with regard to its minutes, he commented: "Even for the PCA, it blows me away. . . . It's lunacy." To the P&R News reporter interviewing him, he said: "It sounds like someone's out to get you."

The official answer-man at PC(USA) headquarters in Louisville for constitutional questions is Fred Jenkins. He said that "the minutes of presbyteries and the reports that are included in them are considered most of the time to be public. Presbytery may decide to keep minutes private [if it is a private meeting]." He stated that for a short time, the United Presbyterian Church's Book of Order made explicit that all court meetings are open. However, a number of sessions complained about that; and, upon the re-union with the Southern branch in 1983, the PC(USA) Book of Order was amended so that it now reads: "The Session may invite members of the congregation to attend and observe its meetings if it desires, without restricting its right to meet in executive session." The Associate Stated Clerk pointed out the strange wording of this provision: the first part assumes that the meeting is closed unless open, while the second part assumes that it is open unless closed. Coming to the PC(USA) Assembly this year is a proposal to require that the meetings be open.

Mr. Jenkins observed: "The main difference between a presbytery's minutes and a session's minutes is that presbytery has such a large number of members. The question of whether or not [the minutes] are public is not a meaningful question." Not by rule, but by long-standing practice, Presbytery meetings are assumed to be open.

Robert Mills, Associate Editor for the Presbyterian Layman, said that, as he reflected upon the situation with regard to Heartland, what kept on going through his mind was: "Why hide your light under a bushel? If we're children of the light, why would you hide what you're doing?" He stated that such a closed policy makes no sense in terms of polity, or ecclesiastically, or theologically. "It's kind of staggering to me that a church body would try to keep its minutes private, other than for the reasons Jerry [Van Marter] cited." For Mr. Mills, "It's an issue of light and darkness."

"It very much surprises me that the PCA is having this discussion when the PC(USA) has this issue settled," said the staff member of the conservative activist magazine. He contended that there is "value to an independent press. A denomination that doesn't trust the existence of an independent press . . . -I'd have to ask, Why? . . . Why aren't you trusted to have a copy of Heartland Presbytery's minutes? That lack of trust does not speak well of the body of Christ."