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February 22, 2008: How To Move Forward

Most people are not "polity" people. Reading the Book of Order is not happy time. Debating the Book of Order is even less happy time.

Even so, polity will be a big issue at this year's Assembly.

There are three options for major polity change coming to the Assembly. One is the nFoG (new Form of Government) that I have been harping on for a few months now. The second is found in Overture 10 from Beaver-Butler Presbytery and the third is from Detroit Presbytery and has not yet been posted.

1. The nFoG is too comprehensive a change to sum up in one line -- but here goes anyway. It seeks to re-write the whole form of government so that Presbyterians would become more missional and less regulatory. As I have written previously, it is fatally flawed because it is based on the erroneous assumption that Presbyterians will be suddenly anxious to ignore their differences and will pretend that we all want the same things. It is more likely to cause Presbyterians to act more regulatory, not less.

2. Beaver-Butler's overture would change the definitions to allow congregations to choose their presbytery. It would change us from a connectional model based upon geography and property to an affilation model based on a variety of factors. It would change the definition of "presbytery" in G-11.0101 as follows “Presbytery is a corporate expression of the church consisting of all the churches and ministers of the Word and Sacrament within a certain district who have chosen to affiliate based on geographic, theological, missional or other considerations of importance to those congregations.”

(By the way, get used to seeing things written this way: strikethrough language is wording in the current Book of Order that would be removed; italics are words to be added.)

3. Detroit's overture would amend G-18 by adding language to allow the General Assembly to appoint up to six "provisional" presbyteries to experiment with proposed amendments approved by the GA and submitted to the presbyteries for voting. It is a novel idea about creating a "testing ground" to be able to get data for evaluating how amendments might work without subjecting the whole church to every change.

I do not see any of these options carrying the day at the Assembly. The nFoG will get the greatest push, but I think the potential mischief posed by the "we won't know if it will work until we try it" approach will dissuade commissioners from supporting it. "Let's just try it" is not good stewardship in this environment unless the goal is to see how quickly the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can disintegrate. Then, if not the nFoG, I cannot see Beaver-Butler being passed -- yet. I do not believe that the institutional church is ready to embrace an "affiliation" type of relationship; reasonably believing that once congregations began to realign, there would be the greater desire to break relations with those who align differently. If the financial condition of the national church continues to trend towards "designated" versus "undesignated" giving -- that is, where donors continue to exert control over how their gifts will be directed -- the affiliation model may become the de facto reality. Finally, the timing of Detroit's overture is not helpful to it. John Knox Presbytery would like to "provisionally" set aside G-6.0106b. And the idea of "provisional" presbyteries trying out proposed amendments will suffer the stigma of "letting the camel get its nose in the tent."

Now, having discounted all three, I also want to commend all the attempts. It sometimes takes the effort of considering alternatives to appreciate what you already have. It is tough, tough, tough to get it right. Defining relationships is complex business. One person has his/her own way; two can share a partnership; but as soon as you have three people, you have voting. The complexity of defining relationships grows exponentially each time you add someone new. It involves more than slapping a fresh coat of paint on something.

For the 218th General Assembly, it will be important to remember that the issue in a polity question is always, "Will it be better than what already exists?" Anything short of that level of certainty is irresponsible. "It could" or "it might" indicate wishful thinking that denies what really is.

Further, it should be noted that polity follows mission, it does not lead it. Institutions are loathe to reform; even the best designed institution is resistant to change. Consider the organization and staff structure in Louisville -- the General Assembly Council -- and you can see the difficulty in making change. Pull one string and all the others move.

The successful reform will happen when General Assembly responds to what is already happening. Reform is much more likely to occur as a result of congregations' and presbyteries' increasing participation in Presbyterian Global Fellowship than anything initiated in the General Assembly.