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March 31, 2008: What's In A Name?

This week may end up being "GAC Week" on Presbyblog. Going through the recommendations to the 218th General Assembly, there are a number of major proposals coming from the General Assembly Council.

The easiest one to tackle is Recommendation #29:

The General Assembly Council recommends that the 218th General Assembly (2008) approve a name change for the General Assembly Council and the enabling changes to the Book of Order, Organization for Mission, and the GAC Manual of Operations, contingent upon approval by the presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), so that the new name will be “General Assembly Mission Council.”

Ummm, ....ok.

Not a whole lot of fireworks here. Ordinarily, a name change is not something to spend a whole lot of time analyzing. A name "amendment" is probably less tantalizing. It is a big deal to those who are intimately involved; however, commissioners and advisory delegates are more likely to say, "You want this change? It does not hurt anyone? Ok, have at it."

That said, this recommendation is worth lingering over for two reasons: one, because it requires a constitutional amendment; and, two, it raises the big picture question of identity for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

1. Why a constitutional amendment? In order to understand why a constitutional amendment is required, you need to know that the Book of Order mandates that the General Assembly establish an "Assembly Council" (G-13.0201); it is identified as the "General Assembly Council" in G-13.0200 and G-13.0202. No one has the authority to unilaterally change the Book of Order, even something as innocuous as a name change. These are the authorizing and creating sections of the Constitution; thus, to make a change -- any change -- requires a majority vote of the Assembly and the affirmative votes of a majority of the presbyteries.

To digress for a moment, note that this change will add a word each time General Assembly Council is used. This is how the Book of Order grows: through clarification and amendment. It is why the slightly shorter length of the proposed new Form of Government (Recommendation #1) would only be temporary. A few amendments and clarifications and -- look at that! -- we would be right back to the same old length.

2. The Big Picture for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The name change is apparently an attempt to shed an institutional mind-set. In the rationale for this particular recommendation, it says,

"The General Assembly Committee on Review of the General Assembly Council, in its report, strongly encourages the General Assembly Council to change its name to clearly identify the role of the GAC in coordinating the mission work of the General Assembly..."

(Now, there's an institutional statement, if ever there was one.)

Missions and "missional" thinking are hot topics these days.

For the GAC -- or the proposed GAMC (how likely will it get mangled into GMAC and start receiving applications for car loans?) -- there has been quite a bit of discussion about how to re-engage in mission action. (See here, here, here, and here).

For what it is worth, this is an important discussion for the General Assembly to have. What is the expectation of denominational agencies? Is the expectation that Presbyterians will provide financial support so that the agencies of the General Assembly can do missions -- or -- are Presbyterians hoping that the General Assembly entities will help coordinate and equip missions by the people of the church?

What does "coordinating the mission work of the General Assembly" mean?

Consider this from Presbyterians Today, which arrived in the office today. "Let's take a look at the numbers of overseas missionaries sponsored by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its predecessor denominations over the last four decades." The report indicates the drop for long-term, compensated mission personnel was from 1,671 (1965) to 252 (2006). Now -- and I write this in pure ignorance, but I have a hunch about the answer -- how many long-term, compensated mission personnel are being supported by Presbyterian congregations? Why don't those count?

In other words, can mission only happen through the denomination -- or -- is the denomination better suited to supporting missionary efforts of the congregations?

I have no problem with the GAC seeking the name change. It may inspire more action towards coordinating and equipping Presbyterians to engage where God has called them to serve. If so, praise God. If it is a conscious or unconscious effort to dress up the newest effort to reinvigorate the current ways we do things, the name change will not make much of a difference.