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June 14, 2008: Does the nFoG match our needs?

Yesterday, I began looking at the new proposed Form of Government (nFoG), to figure out how to evaluate whether it is a good idea.

It is important to remember that commissioners are not being asked to grade a paper or evaluate how much effort other people have put into a project. The only question is whether adopting the nFoG would make things better or worse. That is why this endeavor is like buying a house -- it only makes sense to move in if it will make our situation better. It is a head-to-head comparison; not just a piece of this or a piece of that.

How can we tell if the situation will be better? (Not "might", not "could", but beyond a reasonable doubt "will") Three questions will help discern whether the nFoG would be good for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):

Does the design of the nFoG match our needs?

What do we lose if we move out of the current Form of Government?

Are there any unintended consequences we can forsee?

Today, we take up the first. Does the design match our needs?

1. The goal is to become more missional by being more flexible.

"One size does not fit all" is the operating assumption, thus the objective was to open up the possibility of experimentation and different choices based upon context. We would move from "governing bodies" to "councils." Each council is responsible for creating and maintaining its own system for "administration of mission."

3.0107 Each council shall develop a manual of administrative operations that will specify the form and guide the work of mission in that body.

The language is deliberately broad to allow for presbyteries to resume their primary role as mission agencies. All 173 presbyteries, 16 synods and the General Assembly will have to produce their own manual of administrative operations. A quick addition reveals 190 separate, distinct manuals of administrative operations.

This does not match our needs. There are at least three major problems -- easily identified and not easily remedied -- that illustrate why this would be a catastrophic step for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to take:

  1. One major problem is that the nFoG presumes trust in a context where trust has been sorely lacking. Our PJC cases arise because we do not act in a trustworthy manner with each other. Decisions by governing bodies are insufficient, everything has to be tested "in court" (in the permanent judicial commissions). The tensions and controversies are real. It is likely and forseeable that councils will produce processes that yield conflicting results.

    Seriously, you do not have to look any farther than GA PJC decision in Spahr to see this illustrated. Even the GA PJC was anything but unanimous. The decision was anything but clear, and it was anything but mission-inspiring. Clarity and certainty allow us to move forward together. Ambiguity and confusion cause us to distrust and separate us from each other. There is no trust without accountability. There is no accountability without clarity. Spahr was deliberately violating Authoritative Interpretations prohibiting the performance of ceremonies called marriages between same gender persons -- and it did not matter! If words are meaningless, trust is not found. If trust is not found, it would be folly to approve the nFoG which presumes it.

  2. A second major problem is that the nFoG seeks a polity solution to a covenantal issue. If you read the nFoG with your friends and trusted colleagues in mind, the nFoG is really quite nice. That is, read in the best possible light, (where everyone agrees what should be done) it is good. However, the history of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) suggests that things are otherwise. You cannot read the nFoG as if there will be some other people living under it, or that we will somehow change our character because the Form of Government has changed. It does not work that way. The Form of Government is regulatory because we are regulatory. Changing to the nFoG would not make us less regulatory people. Instead, it would heighten the need for regulatory clarification because test cases and controversies would arise immediately.

  3. A third major problem is the false presumption that the current Form of Government is preventing us from being missional. Again, the issue is not the Form of Government, the issue is us. It is a cop-out to suggest otherwise. There are instances where things could be improved, but it is not the case that our current Book of Order is preventing us from proclaiming the gospel, from going out making disciples, or from pursuing righteousness and justice. Those things are not happening because we are not doing them -- the failure is ours, not the Form of Government. Nothing would change under the nFoG unless we change -- at which point the change is due to US changing, not the Form of Government.

2. The goal is to create a shorter Form of Government.

The objective was to create a slimmer, more efficient Form of Government that would be more easily understood by Presbyterians who were overwhelmed by the length and complexity of the current Form of Government.

Comparing side-by-side -- the current Form of Government and the nFoG -- it does appear that the nFoG is shorter. By. A. Few. Pages. Not much.

And not for long. Look at the number of corrective amendments already proposed. Very rarely do clarifications use fewer words. The problems posed by the ambiguity and the efforts to correct/test what are the limits allowable will quickly fill this version up beyond the size of our current Form of Government.

The nFoG does not match our needs. Study, review, and amendment will not make it match.

So, why would you spend money and time fixing up a house you will not buy?