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The Presbyterian Fellowship
Men and Women -
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The Peter Cameron Heresy Case

    On the 2nd March 1992, the Rev. Dr Peter Cameron, Principal of St Andrew's College at the University of Sydney, preached a sermon at a Dorcas Society Rally in the Ashfield Presbyterian Church entitled "The Place of Women in the Church". As well as supporting the principle that women should be ordained to the ministry, it argued a case that the Bible had to be understood within the context of the times in which they were written.

It was an address that was bound to be controversial and it would appear that a small number of people who attended or heard about it were sufficiently disturbed to complain to their ministers. The result was that the Presbytery of Sydney, the court which held jurisdiction in this case, decided to pursue a charge of heresy.

The Process
The Rules of the Presbyterian Church require a long process for such a charge to be sustained. “Brotherly conferences” with the alleged offender needed to be held. The advice of the Procurator, the church’s barrister, needed to be obtained. A libel or charge needed to be framed and agreed to by the Presbytery.
It was a slow process made more difficult by the fact that the Westminster Confession of Faith, the subordinate doctrinal standard of the church, says little about how the Scriptures are to be interpreted. In addition there were a number of questionable legalities about the formulation of the libel.

In spite of the fact that these problems were not settled, Dr Cameron was tried on a charge of “… preaching a sermon which contained statements inconsistent with Chapter I of the Westminster Confession of Faith …”

When the Presbytery of Sydney met in March 1993, it found Dr Cameron guilty of what, in effect, was heresy. It did this in the face of the Procurator’s advice questioning whether Dr Cameron had any case to answer. Further the Procurator warned the church against the danger of a majority imposing its beliefs on a minority.

The case went on appeal before the General Assembly of New South Wales and after a long hearing the appeal was dismissed with voting figures following factional lines.

An appeal was lodged with the final court of appeal in the Presbyterian Church, the Judicial Commission of the General Assembly of Australia. There was arguably a better likelihood of the appeal being sustained because the judicial commission was less factionally weighted.

The Significance
Sadly, before the  matter came to hearing, Dr Cameron resigned from the Presbyterian Church of Australia, eventually returning to Scotland. In doing so, in the opinion of the Presbyterian Fellowship, he performed no good service for the church or his supporters, who were left with a legal fait accompli. His appeal lapsed and the original decision was sustained.

This was the second time that the Presbyterian Church was rocked by a case of this kind.
In the 1930s, because of the influence of Liberal Theology, Professor Samuel Angus, who taught New Testament at the Theological Hall in Sydney, came under intense scrutiny and criticism. The heresy issue was pursued, but never acted upon, over a period of twelve years. The Church at the time was unable to determine exactly what beliefs were essential to the faith.

The same Church and the same procedure dealt differently with both the Angus and Cameron cases. The difference was the theological climate in which the matters were considered.

It illustrates the fallacy of trying to determine theological truth by the votes of the majority.

The Cameron Case remains highly significant to the affairs of the Presbyterian Church in the approaches to a new millennium. It strikes an anachronistic chord in Australia’s tolerant society, putting up barriers between the church and the people to whom it is trying to speak. It superimposed the rule of the majority over the rule of the constitution and law in church affairs. It left practising ministers open to attack because of the shades of difference in their beliefs from those of the “orthodox” majority. It left the church divided into factions, with one faction convinced of its dominance over the others. The right to liberty of opinion on matters not essential to the Christian faith, guaranteed in the constitution of the church, remains under threat.

It is an unhealthy and destructive climate that exists today.