Presbyterian Transparency

reflective building

For those who would like to paint the OPC as litigious, there was great disappointment at the 2013 General Assembly.  The presbyters spoke of missions, crisis relief efforts, the collaborative effort (with the URCNA) on a psalter/hymnal, and proper financial care for ministers.  There was just one judicial appeal, and that appeal could be best described as a rogue appeal expressed in intemperate language.

That appeal was pretty much dead on arrival but it did foster a discussion that was so OPC.  It was, on the surface, a mundane discussion of what should be included in the minutes of the General Assembly.  But, as it turned out, there was a lively, principled, and well-argued exchange on what might be characterized as a Presbyterian drive for decorum and order over against transparency.

The General Assembly upheld a presbytery’s decision to censure the appellant for the charges he brought against his session.  Fine, but how should the minutes of the General Assembly reflect that decision? Should it include the false charges along with the intemperate language or should it simply set forth the conclusion of the General Assembly?

Those who were opposed to including the verbiage of the appellant had several reasons for their position.  To include that language, they said, would be to virtually publish a slander and language that was out of order.  A less convincing argument was that it might encourage such actions if litigious members think their accusations will be published in the minutes – essentially, it’s an argument against rewarding that kind of behavior.

Those who were in favor of including the language of the appellant wanted to preserve an intelligible historical record; if we don’t say what was censured, readers won’t really know what happened.  One might further say that there is pedagogical value in showing what is not acceptable. Finally, if the Assembly sets forth the objectionable charges it counteracts accusations that the Assembly might have been self-serving by omitting that information or that perhaps it was just too nit-picky.

This conversation could also be applied to audio-recording the deliberations of Presbyterian bodies.  I can’t speak for all the presbyteries, but there is at least one that prohibits audio recording; I wouldn’t be surprised if this is true of all presbyteries.  To support that prohibition, it is said that sound clips could be extracted out of context and published on the internet.  There are also concerns about men showboating or otherwise acting in a detrimental way because of the audio recording.

But, it might be argued, there is a procedural mechanism for matters that should be kept close to the vest, and it’s called an executive session.  That is, a body is free to entertain a motion that, on any particular issues, the content is sufficiently sensitive and unedifying to outsiders that conversation will essentially be kept confidential.  Then, if matters are handled with integrity there should be little fear of outsiders having access to deliberations, and perhaps an audio-recording might actually encourage high-quality communication and deliberation.  And, again, there could be pedagogical value for anyone who wants to hear what happened in any particular gathering of presbyters.

So there you have it.  The first approach likely has the pedigree of historic Presbyterianism on its side, and that should not be quickly dismissed. Having said that, for this presbyter in 2013 the arguments for transparency seem more compelling.

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2 Comments

Filed under Presbyterianism

2 responses to “Presbyterian Transparency

  1. What did the GA decide to do?

    • They went with the minimal description, not quoting from the Appellants. As I understand it, that’s the way such things have been handled historically.

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