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February 5, 2008: Where To Begin

Sometimes it is difficult to know where to begin on a project. There is so much to learn, so many different things to know, it is tough to figure out the first step.

A General Assembly is no different. For commissioners and advisory delegates who will be attending their first GA, the thousand-plus pieces of business can be overwhelming. The process can be overwhelming. Trying to find their way around San Jose -- places to eat, quiet places to pray, read, or reflect -- can be overwhelming. Meeting thousands of people is overwhelming.

So, where to begin? Let us start with the business.

Business comes to a General Assembly in four ways:

    • overture,
    • report,
    • commissioner resolution,
    • and referral.

There, that was not so bad, was it?

Overtures

Overtures are generally the first things to be published and draw a lot of attention. If you look to the business listed on the official 218th General Assembly website, you will see the overtures that already have been submitted. An overture is a request from a presbytery (or synod) to the General Assembly, asking the Assembly to do something.

The way to read an overture is to read the action request first. Using the first overture posted as an example, let me walk through this:

Overture 001
(this is the overture's number for now. The reference number will change when it is referred to a commissioner's committee early in the Assembly. It is best to not get tied to this number when tracking things through the process.)

On Establishing the Star Valley United Church in Thayne, Wyoming, as a Union Church — From the Presbytery of Wyoming.
(this is the summary/title. It is a shorthand way to know what is being asked, and who is asking.)

The Presbytery of Wyoming overtures the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the PC(USA) to approve the action taken by the Presbytery of Wyoming and the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Church in America (ELCA) to establish the Star Valley United Church in Thayne, Wyoming, to form a union church. The Star Valley United Church will be responsible and accountable to both denominations.
(this is the important part. This overture is asking the General Assembly "to approve the action taken by the Presbytery of Wyoming..." Once you know what is the action, then you can look at the detail: Should the GA approve the action to establish the Star Valley United Church as a union church?)

Rationale
(the rest of this is explanation and persuasive argument. None of it has any binding authority even if the action requested is approved. This is the "here is why we are asking and why you should say 'yes'" explanation.)

The Presbytery of Wyoming and the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seek to manifest more visibly the unity of the church of Jesus Christ and strengthen the witness of our Lord and Savior in the Star Valley area, by this action (Book of Order, G-15.0101).

The Presbytery of Wyoming approved this action at its September 16, 2006, meeting.

The Regional Office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s approval was received on February 17, 2006.

Because overtures are the first things posted/published, they get an inordinate amount of attention before the Assembly. I find it helpful to try to categorize them in terms of subject and priority:

  1. Housekeeping. These are things like the overture cited above, where the General Assembly is asked to perform its constitutional obligation to oversee specific things like forming union churches, transfering a congregation from one presbytery to another -- things like that. It is unlikely that there will be much -- if any -- discussion about this. Most likely, these requests will be included on the "consent" docket that will be approved as one of the first items of business on the first day of the Assembly. Overtures that fall in this category: 001 and 013. Honoring retiring Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick is 023. One that may get a little (just a little) discussion is 002 - reinstating the annual Mission Season Offering. Another is to move some items from the per capita budget to the mission budget - 020.

  2. Proposed amendments to the Constitution. These are overtures requesting a change in either the Book of Confessions or Book of Order. Also included in this category are requests to change an "Authoritative Interpretation" of a part of the Constitution. I have not seen any requests to change the Book of Confessions. Changes to the Book of Order require General Assembly approval and affirmative votes of a majority of the presbyteries. Authoritative interpretations require only General Assembly approval (simple majority).

    Overtures seeking to amend the Book of Order (not including the Form of Government Task Force report that I have been reviewing for months): 004 - regarding Rules of Discipline; 010 - to allow congregations to determine presbytery membership based on factors other than simply geography; 011 - to delete ordination standards in G-6.0106b; 017 - to amend language in G-6.0106b and G-6.0108 to make mandatory; 018 - amending Rules of Discipline regarding written judicial commission decisions; 021 - changing the language in the description of deacons from "sympathy" to "empathy"; 029 - adding vows for membership to G-5; and, 030 - amending various sections regarding financial accountability and corporate officers.

    Overtures regarding "Authoritative Interpretation" issues -- 009 and 028 - regarding the PUP report #5, the Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108.

  3. Social Witness/Proclamations. These are overtures where the denomination makes a statement regarding an issue or something external to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 006 and 026 - regarding peace and justice in Israel and Palestine; 012 - peaceful relations between Christians and Muslims; 022 and 025 - Iraq related overtures;

    Some of these overtures have internal ramifications: ACSWP seeking to be funded for another study - 014; 027 - directing the Board of Pensions to expand coverage; 024 reinstating (adding to the denomination's budget) an Office of Environmental Justice.

I may have missed one or two, but that gives you the general idea of how to categorize them. At this point the best thing to do is read through them, make a mental note of the issues that are involved, and move on to something else. Now is not the time to debate and get worked up about these things.