[The following has been placed on the minutes (January
19, 1998) of the Session of Affirmation Presbyterian Church in
America, Somers, New York, as the response of the Pastor to the
letter of November 12, 1997 from Heartland Presbytery.]
The first matter of concern mentioned in the letter
has to do with my attempted appearance before the Committee on
the Review of Presbytery Records, and the letter which I had sent
to that Committee prior to the General Assembly. Heartland contends
that my action in this regard was "unethical." I categorically
reject this characterization. First of all, even in a judicial
case, when the matter is notorious, the Book of Church Order
does not require that a private notification first take place.
Second, the matter in view was not judicial, but was rather a
matter of review and control. Third, since the court (that is,
the General Assembly) already had the matter before it (in that
those particular Heartland minutes were being reviewed), and since
any member of the court may make any apropos motion (such as to
take exception to a presbytery's minutes), my contending in writing
to the review committee that Heartland's actions may have violated
the Constitution is not unethical. Indeed, it is merely an example
of playing by the rules.
The next matter mentioned by the Heartland Commission
has to do with the judicial case out of that presbytery in 1995.
In the premier issue of our publication, we had Vaughn Hathaway,
who had served as Chairman of the Judicial Business Committee,
to comment in an open forum piece on the rulings of the Standing
Judicial Commission that year. The article was clearly marked
as "open forum"-the essential equivalent of an editorial.
I do not recall exactly what was said to me at the 1995 General
Assembly by a member of Heartland Presbytery. Whatever it was,
it was apparently not in an official capacity that he approached
me. Also, there is apparently no written account at that time
as to what may or may not have been said. However, I do not think
it likely that my reaction would properly be characterized as
a refusal to publish a retraction. I believe that I would have
pointed out that the article was an opinion piece and that we
would be happy to publish a rebuttal. I am glad that the Heartland
Commission believes that we technically told the truth in the
next issue of our paper. Because we did so, it makes it hard
to understand how our account could be construed as a distortion
to the extent of violating the ninth commandment-an allegation
which the letter makes.
The next issue has to do with our reporting on the November 1995 meeting of Heartland Presbytery, including the motion which denied our request for a copy of the minutes. First, please note that the motion, as adopted by the court, is technically only an instruction to the Clerk. Aside from the question of whether or not it is a legal motion, it had no bearing on distribution of minutes by others who may receive the minutes. It is for this very reason that Heartland later adopted the Standing Rule on the distribution of minutes. Second, the appearance of the Stated Clerk's name at the end of the article did not and does not imply that he was the direct source for the information upon which the article was based. Third, please note that Heartland's objection was not simply to the source of the information, but to any reporting on the meeting. As noted above, Heartland objected to alleged inaccuracies in our reporting of its action. At this point, it objects because the motions were accurately cited! Fourth, it is not accurate to say that I refused to publish a "correction" in this matter. In a telephone conversation, Mr. Lunceford indicated, I believe, that he was going to be sending me a letter for publication. I was waiting for that letter to arrive, so that I could appropriately respond. When no letter came, I assumed that he no longer thought the matter significant enough to bother with. Fifth, the Heartland Commission acknowledges that we did begin specifically to mention that the publication of the Clerk's name at the end of an article does not imply that he was the direct source of the material.
The next paragraph reads as follows: "When we
observe the way actions of our presbytery and its clerk have been
misrepresented in this publication, it causes us to wonder about
the accuracy of other articles that have been published; articles
that we believe to have blemished the reputations of MTW missionaries,
the leadership of Covenant College, the Interchurch Relations
Committee, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, the Standing
Judicial Commission, and, most recently, the Stated Clerk of the
General Assembly. Even if it were proper for us to investigate
all the innuendoes scattered throughout these articles and thus,
perhaps, learn the whole story, we lack the time and the resources
to do so. We are confident that the same is true of others who
receive this publication, and we are concerned that they may accept
these innuendoes at face value."
Or, in other words, what Heartland is really trying
to say is, We're sure they're guilty, we just don't have the evidence.
However, since we have been publicly attacked in
the way in which we cover stories, perhaps this is a good time
to detail just how we go about doing so. In the first place,
we always verify our facts. Second, we try very hard to have
all perspectives brought to bear on a matter. Third, we have
bent over backwards to try to be fair and even gracious to people
with whom we disagree. On numerous occasions, we have declined
to report facts that might prove to be embarrassing. Fourth,
it is our customary practice to e-mail or fax to people whom we
have interviewed a copy of what we intend to print, to make sure
that we are accurate. We also allow people to change their remarks,
if they so choose. We are not out to "trap" people
who may have made a slip of the tongue. If, upon reflection,
they think better of what they said, we allow them to modify their
comments. Fifth, I am gratified that a number of people, who
do not share our particular beliefs, have commented about how
fairly and graciously we have treated them in our stories about
The next paragraph deals with how we obtain information.
I have already addressed the issue raised regarding the November
1995 meeting of Heartland Presbytery. The Commission also alleges
that I was "fully cognizant" that the Standing Rule
which we published "was not a public document under [Heartland
Presbytery's] rule." Well, actually, no, I was not aware
that the Standing Rules of Heartland Presbytery also constituted
a secret document. The General Assembly distinguishes between
the minutes and the standing rules of a presbytery, in the same
way it distinguishes between the Assembly minutes and the Rules
for Assembly Operation. If Heartland has also tried to keep its
Standing Rules from the public, I am not aware of that. Heartland's
letter also indicates that I may have injured the person who had
sent me the presbytery minutes. I have been in contact with him,
and he indicated to me that he does not believe that I have injured
The Commission goes on to say that it questions "both how [I obtain] what might otherwise be considered confidential information (such as verbatim quotations on sensitive matters reported to General Assembly Committees of Commissioners) and [my] judgment in broadcasting such information to the whole church." I am at a loss to understand how information shared in open session, in front of the press, can be considered confidential. This is especially the case with regard to, say, the Interchurch Relations Committee (IRC) at the 1997 General Assembly. In this scenario, four presbytery overtures had come to the Assembly, questioning the actions of the IRC. In appearance before the IRC Committee of Commissioners, at least two members of the Permanent Committee were trying to justify their actions. I would have thought that those IRC members would be grateful that we let the entire Assembly and denomination know what they said. I certainly think that the rest of the church was glad to know what transpired in that committee room. I believe that broadcasting such information to the whole church helps the church as a whole to make informed decisions. Again, I am bewildered how anyone could maintain differently.
In the next few paragraphs of the Heartland letter,
we come to the crux of the matter. In Heartland's opinion, it
is illegitimate for a session or a minister to engage in ecclesiastical
investigative journalism, since to do so violates the Constitutional
provisions regarding gradation of courts in the exercise of jurisdiction.
The Commission expresses itself this way: "Please note
that, in our understanding, the issue involved is not the propriety
of an American citizen to act as an investigative journalist under
the provisions of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Rather, the issue involves the propriety of a lower court of
our church or an individual member of Presbytery assuming the
investigative authority which the BCO reserves for the
higher courts. It is our opinion that, in the operation of
PINS and its publication, the Presbyterian and Reformed News,
the Pastor and Session of Affirmation Church have usurped this
authority and are acting as independent investigators in a
manner analogous to the 'vigilantes' and 'lynch mobs' of old."
Well, if an award were given for enthusiastic embrace
of novel notions, the folks in Heartland would almost certainly
win hands down. Indeed, with this view, Heartland is daring to
go where no Presbyterian has gone before.
To the best of our knowledge, no one in two centuries
of American Presbyterian journalism has ever alleged that the
entire enterprise is illegitimate. Even the liberals in the
1930's in the Northern Presbyterian Church did not charge J. Gresham
Machen and company with publishing a church paper.
Nor did the liberals in the Southern Presbyterian
Church in the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's object to the fact that
conservatives were doing investigative journalism. It's not that
they liked what was being published. But they understood that
churchmen like L. Nelson Bell and G. Aiken Taylor had a right
to do so.
It is certainly worth mentioning that there never
would have been a Continuing Church Movement, and hence no Presbyterian
Church in America, apart from publications such as the Presbyterian
Given the long history of church journalism, and
the fact that no one, apparently, has prior to this time maintained
that it constitutes a violation of the Presbyterian standards,
surely the burden of proof in this matter rests with Heartland.
Furthermore, I would suggest that Heartland is confusing
jurisdiction with reporting. Let me assure you that we have not
usurped the appropriate jurisdictional functions of our church.
Heartland is asking for Northeast Presbytery to investigate
in order to ascertain if our actions are in accord with BCO
40. Of course, Northeast already has made a determination. In
January 1996, January 1997, and January 1998, the Presbytery approved
our minutes, which clearly indicated our operation of a news service.
The penultimate paragraph in the Heartland letter
indicates that the Commission members have been talking with people
in other presbyteries who, purportedly, are concerned about the
news service. A few letters have been sent, apparently not intended
for publication, which have expressed unhappiness with this or
that matter. In most of those cases, we have attempted dialogue.
We are always happy to talk with anyone regarding the news agency.
We are especially happy to publish contrarian views as letters-to-the-editor
or even "open forum" pieces. However, no one (other
than Heartland) has publicly expressed these profound disagreements
with our actions.