Ascension and Western Carolina Respond to SJC Officers' Finding the John Wood Case 'Out of Order'

Ascension and Western Carolina Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) have acted in concert to respond to the finding by the officers of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) that the judicial case against the Rev. John Wood is "out of order." Both presbyteries have appealed to the officers and to the full SJC, in contending that the case which revolves around the issue of women preaching is indeed in proper form.

Under PCA rules, judicial process against a minister is normally entertained by the presbytery of which he is a member. However, if his presbytery fails to act in a case of doctrine or public scandal, two or more presbyteries may petition the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction, at which point the Assembly must assume said jurisdiction and conduct the case.

In July, three PCA presbyteries-Western Carolina (located in North Carolina), Calvary (South Carolina), and Ascension (western New York, western Pennsylvania, and northeastern Ohio)-petitioned the Assembly to assume original jurisdiction over Mr. Wood. The charges have to do with his approval of a woman filling the pulpit at his congregation, Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tennessee, a prominent PCA church.

According to the PCA Constitution, all judicial cases at the Assembly level are given to a 24-man Standing Judicial Commission. The four officers of the SJC have the responsibility to determine if a case is "administratively" in order; usually, such a finding has to do with technical matters such as the timeliness of filing. A further review determines if a case is "judicially" in order. Usually, a three-man judicial panel would make the determination of judicial orderliness. However, in those cases in which the officers decide that the full SJC should hear a case, the officers themselves rule on the judicial orderliness.

Because the SJC officers decided that the full SJC should hear the case, the officers themselves then ruled on whether the case was judicially in order. And they concluded that it was out of order for two reasons.

First, they stated that since the Session of a church has the responsibility for the conduct of worship in a local church, the Session is the body which should have been addressed regarding the matter. Secondly, they stated that Mr. Wood's presbytery, Tennessee Valley, had indeed acted, in that it had cleared the Cedar Springs Session of any wrongdoing when it adopted a resolution to that effect. That "action" by Tennessee Valley came at its October stated meeting, which was more than two months after the petitioning of the Assembly by the three presbyteries.

The SJC officers waited more than three months after the charges were brought to rule on the case. Their ruling, which was sent to the relevant presbyteries in a letter dated November 29, 1999, came about a month after the October meeting of Tennessee Valley.

These three presbyteries which had petitioned had thirty days from receipt of notice that the case was out of order, to correct the defects and to put it in order, if possible. At a called meeting on December 21, 1999, Ascension Presbytery appointed a commission to perfect its response. That commission met on the evening of December 28; at the same time, Western Carolina Presbytery also met, in Asheville, North Carolina.

Ascension and Western Carolina first appealed to the SJC to reconsider the officers' ruling. The presbyteries state: "We do not believe there is a defect and therefore are unable to 'cure the defect.'" They go on to say that the SJC has no authority to rule out of order a case that has come when presbyteries have petitioned for the Assembly to assume original jurisdiction. The presbyteries are asking the SJC to "refer this case back to the Stated Clerk so that the 28th General Assembly can decide how best to deal with it. If the SJC has no 'rules' for how to deal with this type of an issue, then they should not deal with it until such time as it is a 'judicial case' and referred to the SJC."

These two presbyteries further stated that even if the SJC has the authority to declare a case such as this as judicially out of order, "the grounds cited by the officers are grounds which rest on the facts of the case . . . or interpretations of substantive matters from the BCO and the record of the case. . . . However, because this is a situation where the General Assembly is being asked to assume original jurisdiction, the facts of the case have not yet been established. The conclusions reached by the officers . . . are all based on 'facts' which could only come from the record of a case. But, there is no such record because the case has not been heard originally. Indeed, there are currently no 'facts' in this case because no court has met and considered evidence. . . . Until this occurs, there ought not to be any determinations made on anyone's view of the 'facts' of the case, some of which may well be in dispute." The presbyteries "respectfully ask the SJC officers to produce the documentation . . . which will demonstrate either the truth or falsity of their statements."

The two presbyteries noted that "the original filings of the presbyteries all make reference to the allegation of the teaching elder's having 'publicly defended the practice of women preaching, teaching and exhorting.'" Therefore, "the issue does not turn on whether a teaching elder 'has jurisdiction over worship in the local church' . . . . It also turns on TE [Teaching Elder] Wood's stated views and whether those are in conformity with the Standards of the Church. This clearly rises to the level of a 'doctrinal case.'"

The presbyteries further contend that the one-year statute of limitations in the PCA Constitution "would seem to mean that the TE's presbytery needed to have acted within that one year period. Actions taken after that point cannot, then, constitute action" with respect to the necessity of a presbytery having to "act." Moreover, the action referred to with respect to the one-year statute of limitations "is process. In no sense can the adoption of overtures constitute process. Both the teaching elder and the Church have a right to process so that one position may be formally vindicated. Overtures taken after the fact do not accomplish this. Moreover, any overture may be rescinded, thus undoing the very 'action' which stayed process to begin with. This seems an unjust possibility. We would also point out that the overtures adopted by [Tennessee Valley Presbytery] do not explicitly address all the issues raised by the presbyteries, and they appear to be contradictory (Overture 2 states 'it is not proper for women to preach and teach in the church's corporate worship' while overture 1 admits that this happened and states that the session is in submission)."

If the officers and members of the SJC do not agree with the presbyteries' contentions regarding the judicial orderliness of the case, both presbyteries have also directed questions to the denominational Constitutional Business Committee. The questions posed are as follows: "1) When presbyteries act under the provisions of BCO [Book of Church Order] 34-1 [i.e., petitioning for original jurisdiction], may the case be declared out of order without being heard, or does the word 'must' in 34-1 indicate that the General Assembly is obligated to take up the case and hear evidence? 2) Regardless of the answer to question 1, does the reference to the General Assembly in 34-1 mean that it is the Assembly as a whole which must determine to take up such a case, or may the SJC make that determination (implicit in this is the corollary question-is this even a case before it is received by the General Assembly itself)? 3) Given that the SJC Manual states "A case is judicially in order when a Panel or the Commission determine that the relevant portions of BCO 41, 42, and 43 have been followed . . .,' may the SJC (or the General Assembly as a whole) declare as judicially out of order any case which comes to the General Assembly under a provision not covered by one of those chapters (e.g., an action arising on the basis of BCO 34-1), or must the SJC (or the Assembly) hear such a case if it is administratively in order? 4) In a case arising under the provisions of BCO 34-1, may the SJC or its officers determine all or some of the 'facts' of the case as a basis for a determination as to whether a case is judicially in order without hearing evidence and arguments from both parties, or must the case go forward (assuming it is administratively in order) so that such evidence may be presented under the provisions of the BCO . . .?"

In early December, the annual meeting of the stated clerks of all the presbyteries occurred in Atlanta. At that meeting, General Assembly Stated Clerk L. Roy Taylor suggested that one way for the case to be in order was by addressing the responsibility of the Cedar Springs Session for the public worship at that congregation. Ascension Presbytery accordingly submitted an amended overture "to include the Session of Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, both individually and corporately." The presbytery attached a revised petition which was submitted "to cure the 'judicial defects' which the officers of the SJC currently believe exist with our original overture. This does not change our basic contentions that the case as already brought is indeed judicially in order." Western Carolina Presbytery, however, declined to submit a revised petition. The third presbytery which had petitioned in July for original jurisdiction was Calvary. No effort was made in that presbytery to call a meeting in order to address the ruling by the SJC officers.

The ruling by the SJC officers apparently does not directly affect the petition by a fourth presbytery, Eastern Carolina, which in mid-October also asked the Assembly to assume original jurisdiction over Mr. Wood. That petition had not been received by the General Assembly Stated Clerk at the time that the SJC officers made their ruling on the petition by Ascension, Calvary, and Western Carolina Presbyteries.

The PCA was formed in 1973 out of the Southern Presbyterian Church, because of that denomination's increasing liberalism. Among the points of apostasy cited as just ground for ecclesiastical separation was the ordination of women. Many observers believe that the toleration of women preaching is a prelude to an eventual drive for female ordination.

The scandal of having women preach in a PCA pulpit has been rocking the denomination for almost a year. The story with regard to Cedar Springs and John Wood was originally broken in the March 1999 issue of Presbyterian & Reformed News.

According to the newspaper's December 1999 edition, the SJC officers made at least four factual errors in their "Statement of Facts." An ad in the same issue offers a $500 reward for anyone who is able to demonstrate that the SJC officers were factually accurate in their statement of the facts; those wishing to claim the reward money are encouraged to submit the evidence to a post office box in Charlotte, North Carolina. According to the party which placed that ad, no one to date has attempted to claim the prize.