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February 6, 2008: The Life of an Overture

Many people remember ABC's "SchoolHouse Rock" and the "I'm Just A Bill" video. This will not be nearly as clever or catchy, but it is the same idea.

Yesterday, I began looking at the business coming to the 218th General Assembly (2008). There are -- as of today -- thirty (30) overtures posted on the official site. More are on the way.

What happens to an overture sent to the Assembly? (I am not going to cover deadlines here. Be aware that there are deadlines for different kinds of actions requested.)

Step 1: To the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. There are a lot of different things that could happen here depending upon what the overture requests, but let's use Overture 004 as our illustration today: requesting the General Assembly approve amended language to D-12.0103.

By the way, get used to seeing -- and recognizing the differences among -- references to things like ACC (the Advisory Committee on the Constitution), GAC (General Assembly Council), OGA (Office of General Assembly), GAPJC (General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission), ACSWP (Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy) and many, many more. There is actually an Acronym Guide.

Because this overture requests an amendment to the Constitution, the Stated Clerk is required to send it to the ACC for review and recommendation.

Step 2: To the Assembly Committee on Business Referral. People who served as Commissioners prior to 2003 will not recognize this; instead, they will remember a "Bills & Overture Committee." (B&O). B&O still exists, but the distribution of business function has been re-routed to a committee comprised of the moderators and vice-moderators of all the commissioner committees. They take a look at everything (except commissioner resolutions) to make an initial recommendation about what committee will get which business.

Our overture, 004, requests a constitutional amendment regarding a section involving the Rules of Discipline. In years past, there has been a committee for "Church Orders and Ministry" or "Church Polity" or "Ecclesiology." I have not seen the designation for this year's committees yet; so let's go with "Church Polity" for our example.

Step 3: The Committee Takes Action. Commissioners and advisory delegates are assigned to different commissioner committees. In past years, these committees would have 40 or 50 people. There are going to be more commissioners this year, so that number is going to go up.

Imagine now that I am serving on the Church Polity Committee that is handling Overture 004. Among the material I will have received by then is the ACC report indicating (I'm making up the substance of their report) that they do not see any constitutional difficulties with the language changes proposed by the overture.

The Assembly convenes on Saturday. Committees begin meeting on Sunday. This item of business will be part of the docket at some point on Sunday, Monday or Tuesday.

In committee meetings, advisory delegates have voice and vote -- which means that they have the right to speak and they have the right to propose and vote on the committee's action.

On Monday morning, when the business comes up on the committee's docket, one of the YADs (youth advisory delegates) serving on the Church Polity Committee has a problem with the language of the amendment. She has done her homework and proposes a substitute motion to go in a completely different direction than the language of the overture. Another YAD, also serving on the Church Polity Committee, agrees and seconds the motion. You are now in Robert's Rules.

The committee will go through a process to perfect the substitute motion; then, to perfect the main motion; then, "Shall the substitute become the main motion?" Debate and then a vote. The YAD's substitute is approved. It is now the main motion and it is as if the original overture had never existed.

Step 4: The Plenary Floor. The completion of the committee's work is a recommendation for how the General Assembly should act on the overture.

When Church Polity makes its report to the plenary (all of the commissioners and advisory delegates), it will recommend that the "218th General Assembly instruct the Stated Clerk to send to the presbyteries for their affirmative or negative vote, the following amendment to D-12.0103 (whatever the YAD's approved language had been)."

On the plenary floor, advisory delegates vote first; however, here, their vote is only advisory. Only the commissioner's votes will be counted toward a decision.

For our purposes, let's imagine that one of the commissioners from Philadelphia Presbytery (which sent the original overture) makes a substitute motion to approve the language Philadelphia Presbytery originally requested.

The plenary will go through a process to perfect the substitute motion; then, to perfect the main motion; then, "Shall the substitute become the main motion?" Debate and then a vote. The Philadelphia commissioner's substitute is approved. It is now the main motion and it is as if the committee's recommendation (the YAD's substitute) had never existed.

For our example, if the Assembly approved either amendment -- Philadelphia's or our hypothetical YAD's -- the proposed amendment would be sent to the 173 presbyteries for their votes. A simple majority is required for it to become the new D-12.0103.

Just so you know: I left a whole lot out and made a whole series of assumptions that I did not detail. Polity wonks (this means you, Jim Tony) are probably having heart attacks finding mis-steps and omissions in that explanation. Yes, there are a bunch of different ways that this process could go in other ways. That said, it gives you the idea: it is a long process.