Midway respondents in the case of Stuart Michaelson vs. Session of Midway Presbyterian Church took actions at the Northwest Georgia Presbytery meeting on January 16, 2021 to prevent a judicial commission’s judgment against themselves from taking effect.
After being supplied with the judicial commission’s judgment that concurred with the complainant that Midway’s Session had violated the constitutional provisions of BCO 20-2, BCO 20-4, BCO 20-5, and BCO 43-2 and called for an apology to be issued to its congregation, respondents from Midway’s Session authored and distributed a motion to the Presbytery.
This motion proposed that instead of voting the judgment up or down, that it be referred to a study committee. From all appearances this action circularized the court (meaning that the respondents from Midway lobbied the court in an attempt to bias them toward their point of view). BCO 43-2 forbids circularization of the court saying “No attempt should be made to circularize the court to which complaint is being made by either party”.
Veteran PCA Stated Clerk L. Roy Taylor, in a document of guidelines titled “Avoiding Procedural Errors in Judicial Cases,” explains it this way: “Circularizing the court is seeking to influence the opinions and decisions of members of the court before the case is considered.”
The Midway respondents wrote: “There are many other things that might need study; we humbly request that the commission report not be considered until these matters are clarified; or else that the report not be approved as written.”
Persuading the court to form a study committee to study the strategically crafted questions posed by the Midway respondents certainly appears to the average person to be an attempt to “influence the opinions and decisions” of court members before they have a chance to consider the case.
The Session’s action was ironic since the the judicial commission’s judgment concurred with the complainant that he was falsely accused of attempting to circularize the court by these same Midway respondents. It is also disheartening that church leaders would refuse an opportunity to provide an apology to its congregation when their fellow Presbyters studied an issue extensively and determined that an apology was in order.
The motion was received by the Presbytery and allowed to proceed on the floor for debate and a vote at the January 16, 2021 presbytery meeting.
This occurred in executive session (which means the complainant was ejected from the proceedings, while seven delegates from Midway’s Session remained). In summary, these delegates authored a motion, distributed that motion, then sat and apparently deliberated and voted on that same motion.
Despite the inherent dishonesty in circularizing a court, in so doing, Midway’s respondents also appeared to violate BCO 39-2 which states “When the proceedings of a lower court are before a higher court, the members of the lower court shall not lose the right to sit, deliberate, and vote in the higher court, except in cases of appeal or complaint.”
Midway’s motion ultimately passed. Consequently, the judicial commission’s judgment against Midway was not accepted this month and is unclear when or if this will occur. One could surmise from the content of the motion that Midway’s respondents desire to see the study committee clarify or even overturn the judicial commission’s judgment.
The motion, which directly references the complaint in question, can be seen in its full form below so that you may study the details and judge for yourself.
January 15, 2021 Dear David Gilbert, Stated Clerk, and Presbyters of Northwest Georgia, We, the undersigned commissioners from Midway PCA wish to move pursuant to BCO 15-3 to refer to a study committee the following strictly constitutional questions to be studied and reported prior to Presbytery acting on the report of the Judicial Commission in the case of S. Michelson v. the Midway Session. Rationale: For the good of others (throughout the denomination and churches which have acted similarly in this Pby) and so as not to disturb any present ministries, we request that Pby take a bit more time and clearly address these queries below before acting on the Commission’s report. (1) Once a Presbytery has installed a minister, who has acted in such capacity for months as duly elected by the congregation (BCO 22-2), with or without a search committee, other than by judicial process against the installed presbyter, by what authority could his installation by a previous commission and presbytery be voided? (2) What is the authority for a court to alter a congregational action simply to change the pastoral relationshipsfor existing pastors (certainly not the same as an election de novo as in BCO 20-2) by imposing other BCO sections onto Chapter 22? Also, why would presbytery approve the commission's report if it has already approved a GA overture asking that BCO 22 be amended to acknowledge that pulpit committees are not needed when merely changing the status of pastoral relations? (3) Why, if congregations have previously been allowed to use a range of methods of voting on calling a pastor de novo, may a congregation not also use its discretion in voting to change an existing pastoral relationship? (4) By what authority can a court rule over aspects of a lawful congregational meeting, instead of limiting itself to correcting an act of a court of the church, which is the proper object of a complaint (BCO 43-1; 10-2)? By what authority, thus, can the Commission find “acts” of the Session as unconstitutional when the Session did not act as a court in these matters? (5) Where is the authority for a court arbitrarily or by opinion to assign a numerical percentage that should be met to an undefined term (after the fact) and thus alter the right of a congregation to make its own informed decision? (6) By what authority does a commission conclude that the BCO language of “considering” a complaint precludes a court from “hearing” the complaint only a week later, allowing adequate time to read the materials. Is BCO 43-2 unequivocal in saying CONSIDER is the same as HEAR? These strictly constitutional questions should be of concern to every single one of us—these are neither abstract nor is this referral out of order or self-interested only. While the commission has worked long and hard—we humbly ask Presbytery not to rush to judgment (with a mere 3 days to consider the constitutional ramifications of this case) and ratify a judgment by our commission that could either come back to hurt many churches or make a hasty decision that could reflect poorly on our Presbytery. We don’t think we’re alone, but until these clear queries are addressed and answered consistently with other parts of the BCO, we think Presbytery would be only prudent to refer these matters to a study committee and/or dismiss some of the tangential or discretionary areas. We urge this court for the good of all our churches to take its time and refer these queries to an independent study committee (note: 15-3 calls for a committee, not a commission], prior to asking Presbytery to approve. In sum, we do not wish unintentionally to divest a congregation of its rights to make its own valid decisions, nor do we wish to remove presbyters who have been duly elected and installed. Further, matters of opinion and pastoral advice, while well-intended, are not properly constitutional issues. All our churches have an interest in this; and while the commission has sought to resolve this based on certain interpretations of the BCO, its recommendation has broad implications that are more troubling than a hurried approval warrants. Before adopting a precedent that could trouble a number of churches, there seems little to lose by studying these issues thoroughly first, rather than by adopting the report as written. This situation is exactly why we have BCO 15-3. With no disrespect for the long work of the commission, we simply believe that there are large issues of order at stake. There are many other things that might need study; we humbly request that the commission report not be considered until these matters are clarified; or else that the report not be approved as written. RE Bob Whitaker TE David Hall RE Wes Richardson TE Marc Harrington RE Ernie Hawley TE David Barry TE Mic Knox **************************************** Note: there are five comments made in the commission report that directly interpret the Book of Church Order; such constitutional conclusions should be accomplished by overtures for the good of the whole of the denomination rather than through the judicial action which may not necessarily reflect the will of the whole. These are at: (1) lines 112-113; (2) line 133; (3) line 148 (which requires a voter’s name); (4) lines 153-154; and (5) lines 159-160. These, we believe, are not decisions that need rulings from any court but the General Assembly.