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The Birth of the ‘Joining And Receiving’ Idea (Part I)

In National Presbyterian Church, Third General Assembly of the PCA (1975) on May 15, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Don Clements shares the following, to get us started.  This is Part I of his account:

The Birth of the ‘Joining And Receiving’ Idea

The Seventh General Assembly, held in Charlotte, North Carolina on June 18-22, 1979 had several events that are memorable from my perspective.  One involved the Report of the Interchurch Relations Committee and a motion that eventually led to the idea that resulted in the Joining and Receiving of the RPCES into the PCA.

At the Sixth General Assembly the previous year, the IRC was instructed “discuss the factors involved with and the possibility of working toward a merger of the PCA with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, with the understanding that the discussions do not imply commitment to ultimate merger.”  (Minutes of the 6GA, p 120, Section 6-120).

The IRC, chaired by TE Tom Llewelyn, met twice during the year, the second one being in St. Louis in February where they met with their OPC and RPCES counterparts.  The result of the joint meeting was the following motion:

“It is the opinion of the Joint Committees of the Fraternal Relations Committees of the OPC, the PCA, and the RPCES that as Presbyterian Churches, committed to a common faith as set forth in the Westminster Standards, and to the Presbyterian form of government, and to a common testimony to the purity of the Church, we have a basis for merger of the three Churches.  We, therefore, recommend to the respective Committees that they each recommend to their Churches the continuation of consultations with a plan of merger in view.”  (Minutes of the 7GA, p178, ICR Report)

In presenting their report to the 6th General Assembly, the IRC revealed that their committee was not unified on this issue, saying:

Your Sub-Committee is not uniform in the extent of its commitment toward such a plan.  We are united, however, in desiring to know the mind of the PCA Assembly on this matter.  We believe that we should proceed on this course only if there is a real mandate expressed by the Assembly to do so.  For this reason, we are recommending the continuation in the consultation, but also are requesting that a three-fourths vote of those present and voting be required for passage.  Minutes of the 7GA, p 178, ICR Report)

At the Charlotte Assembly, the Committee of Commissioners was chaired by TE Vaughn Hathaway.  In their ‘Statement of Major Issues Discussed’, the revealed that this item of business was a controversial one which resulted in several questions:

1.  Which denomination should be included in such discussions?

2.  Is the PCA moving too rapidly on the question of merger?

3.  Is it proper to require a ¾ vote for passing this recommendation?

4.  A concern that any failure of this recommendation should adversely affect relationships with the OPC and the RPCES.  (Minutes of 7GA, p93, Section 7-34

In later years the PCA would require a listing of the actual votes by the Committee of Commissioners on each recommendation they brought to the floor, but that policy was not yet in place.  When I contacted Vaughn Hathaway during my time researching material for this book, his recollection was……

When the report of the Committee of Commissioners came to the floor on Tuesday afternoon, they brought it in two parts.  The first was to discuss the merits of and then decide whether a ¾ vote should be required.  The debate on that very issue was both strong and divided and resulted in a less than 60% majority approving the requirement of a ¾ vote (285-204).  I did not view this as a ‘test’ vote on the actual issue, however, since some of those in favor of proceeding with merger talks were in favor of requiring a supermajority.

When the actual recommendation to continue the consultations with a plan of merger was presented, the debate was again sharply divided and strong.  My impression was that there were some who were opposed to the idea of including the OPC rather than the concept in general, and there were others who just plain did not want to have merger discussions with anyone.  Several of the speeches emphasized that the PCA was still too young and searching for her own identity.  An amendment was approved stating that a plan of merger not be submitted to the General Assembly in less than five years.

Since the issue was clearly one of great import, the Moderator , Ruling Elder Bill Joseph of Montgomery, Alabama, who had in fact served as a member of this particular Committee of Commissions, asked TE Bill Hughes of Yazoo City, Mississippi to pray prior to the taking of the vote.  It was clear by the fact that the total count on this recommendation was 72 votes larger than the procedural motion that many commissioners had returned to the sanctuary to participate in this significant decision.  The final vote was 353 for, 208 against – failing the ¾ requirement and even failing a 2/3 requirement with only a 62% majority.  (Minutes of 7GA, p95, Section 7-34.)  It was clear that the Assembly was not ready to move towards a merger.

But I was.

In fact, I was so disappointed by the loss of this motion that I met to discuss the issue with two good friends who, like me, had come from RPCES backgrounds and were classmates at Covenant Seminary in the early 70’s – TE Fred Marsh, then pastor of the St. Elmo church in Chattanooga, and TE Rick Tyson, then co-pastor of the Hope Church in Ballston Spa, NY.  Rick had even been ordained in the RPCES, but had moved come into the PCA when he took the call to Ballston Spa.  His family was already very ecumenical – he had one brother who was an OPC minister and another that was a member of an RPCES congregation in Blacksburg, VA (who will become part of my story in just a few more years).

During our meeting, our focus was to determine what we could do to just not let this issue drop.  As it stood, the entire concept of merger was dead.  And we were of one mind to find some way to keep it alive.  Ultimately we drafted a motion that read as follows:

Since Item 5b of the Report of the Committee of Commissioners received a majority vote, but less than ¾, the following action is recommended:

1)           That an Ad-Interim Committee be appointed by the General Assembly to meet with representatives of the RPCES, the OPC and the RPCNA with instructions not to develop any plan of union, but merely to determine possible areas of agreement, difference and difficulty that might exist between the three denominations

2)           That the committee be appointed by the General Assembly of three ruling elders and three teaching elders, members to be nominated by the Committee on Nominations

3)           That this Committee be funded in the same manner as the Sub-Committee for Interchurch Relations, and

4)           That this Committee report its findings to the 1980 General Assembly through the Committee of Commissioners on Interchurch Relations.

Our strategy was pretty simple.  Include the Covenanters to make it clear that there were other groups with similar backgrounds and standards.  Make in clear that this was not an attempt to achieve merger (at least not immediately).  Have the membership come by vote of the General Assembly rather than the Moderator so there would be no question in anyone’s mind that his views – which none of us knew at the time – would in any way slant the membership of the committee.

There was one more strategy that was tougher to figure out.  It was going to take a 2/3 majority vote to open up the vote to amend the report of ICR which had already been approved as a whole.  That meant that the person making the motion had to be one who could quickly and easily convince the Assembly that he had a matter worth reopening the issue and who could appeal to people on both sides of the merger issue.  It was clear none of the 3 of us could do that – we were all still relatively youngsters – just 5 years into ministry (and you will recall the ‘wet behind the ears’ criticism I had received previously over my very public efforts to develop a denominational magazine).

After considering many different names, we settled on asking TE Gordon Reed to present the motion to the Assembly.  Gordon was a member of the Permanent Sub-Committee and was one who had spoken against adopting the motion on the floor.  By asking someone who was clearly identified as opposed to proceeding with merger at this time to present our draft motion, we felt we would have the best hope of its being passed.

I was drafted to approach Gordon to ask him to make the motion.  He was then serving as the Director of the Ridge Haven Conference Center and I had gotten to know him through my friendship with Ruling Elder Ken Keyes, the man who donated the property for Ridge Haven.  Ken understood the importance of who made motions on the floor having asked me to make one on behalf of Ridge Haven because he felt I could quickly clarify a complex issue so it could be understood and (as it was) approved.

On Wednesday Gordon agreed to make the motion.  On Thursday morning, just before the pre-luncheon Worship Service, he went to the floor and asked to make a motion to amend the ICR report and was given permission by a 2/3 vote.  The item was then docketed for immediately after lunch.  I had to then go to the podium to participate in leading the worship service (I was serving on the CE/P Committee and we were in charge of that morning’s worship).  I clearly remember being nervous during that service – which was unusual for me and which was most certainly due to my personal anxiety over the coming vote.

After lunch Gordon made the motion that the three of us had composed and with a minimal amount of debate it passed by an overwhelming majority – 418-82.  (Minutes of 7GA, p 134, Section 7-73.  I interpreted this vote as a clear sign that the Assembly wanted to say something to the OPC and RPCES that would not leave the ‘adverse affect’ that the Committee of Commissioners had feared would be left (and I was certain would be left) if the matter ended simply with the defeat of a supermajority-required vote.

In Part II I will discuss the formation of the ‘Committee to Consider” and the results of their work.

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