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June 17, 2008: Are There Any Unintended Consequences?

As I take my final look at the nFoG before going to San Jose, we look at the last question of the three questions I posed to evaluate whether the nFoG is better than our current Form of Government. The first two questions were: does the nFoG match our needs, and what would we lose if we approved the nFoG. The final question is whether approving the nFoG would result in any unintended consequences that we can already identify. The answer is: yes.

1. TRUST. The nFoG is based on the presumption of trust. The unintended consequence that we can already identify is related to trust -- approving the nFoG will actually diminish whatever trust exists within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). How can I conclude that? Simple. Most people will not read or use the nFoG until there is a problem or they are unhappy with a result. That is already true with the current Form of Government. However, if the nFoG is approved, they will be gravely disappointed when they try to resolve a problem and encounter only "flexibility" and "ambiguity." Instead of providing clear guidance, people will get frustrated, throw up their hands, and disconnect or surrender. "It's not worth it," will be a common refrain.

2. THEOLOGY. The nFoG was supposed to provide a new form, not a new theology. The first four chapters of the current Form of Government were the sections praised and lifted up by Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick as the inspirational parts. The unintended consequence is the nFoG's re-write of those sections into the "Foundations" piece would represent a change in theology. This is particularly problematic because it would create a situation where the Book of Order would be in conflict with the Book of Confessions. The Foundations section is not a cut and paste of the first four chapters. The Presbyterian Coalition's "Altering the Covenant" spells this out in greater detail, but the pertinent part goes like this:

F-1.0302b says that congregations "listen for God's Word in Scripture [emphasis added], giving constitutional status to the problematic wording that separates the Word from Scripture. This language is contrary to our confessions -- the Confession of 1967, as well as the Westminster -- that declare Scripture to be the Word of God written. This would take the issue beyond the realm of differing interpretations of Scripture and into our convictions about the authority of Scripture.

Other places in the "Foundations" also diminish Scriptural authority. References to Jesus and the Holy Spirit are disconnected from Scripture. Under the heading "Opennes to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit," F-3.0301 says that though we are "grounded in Scripture...nonetheless the presbyterian form of government is always subject to the Lord of the Church." Does the "nonetheless" suggest that what is found in Scripture can be distinguished from what is intended by the Lord of the Church? (p. 3)

(In the interest of full disclosure, I had a hand in the preparation of Altering the Covenant.) Other problems with the Foundations section include an inadequate Christology and an expanded meaning of inclusiveness.

3. TAXES. The nFoG was supposed to provide more freedom and flexibility for presbyteries. The unintended consequence is that approving the nFoG would actually take resources away from congregations and presbyteries. The nFoG gives General Asembly and synods the authority to tax presbyteries; and presbyteries would become the collections agencies for the higher "councils."

I have mentioned this several times because it is so very important that commissioners and advisory delegates understand what would be the impact of approving the nFoG with 3.0107. It bears repeating (from January 30, 2008)

Money is apparently an uncomfortable topic for the new Form of Government committee, too. In the previous draft [released in September, 2007], I expressed great objection to the taxation authority granted to synods and the General Assembly in G-3.0107,

Presbyteries shall be responsible for raising their own funds and for raising and timely transmission of requested funds to their respective synods and the General Assembly. (emphasis mine)

In the proposal coming to the 218th General Assembly (2008), the objectional language has been amended. It now reads:

Presbyteries are responsible for raising their own funds and for raising and timely transmission of requested funds to their respective synods and the General Assembly. (again, emphasis mine)

I will wait a moment while you shake your head. ...

Remember the catchwords of the new Form of Government: trust, flexibility, missional-not-regulatory. This fails on all three.

First, trust: does "are" mean "shall" or does it mean "may"? Certainly it has the ring of meaning "shall," which means that the committee was trying to say the same thing -- without saying the same thing. Double-speak is not trust enhancing. The picture I get is a polyester-suited-used-car-salesman trying to convince me that gray primer-paint is the "new moonlight black." Umm...no, I don't think so.

Second, flexibility: Assume that "are" actually means "shall." It would actually decrease flexibility. Why? Sessions currently have authority to determine the disposition of the gifts of the people. Under this new provision, if presbyteries are responsible for raising the requested funds, presbyteries unwittingly become the collection agency for the synods and General Assembly. Really? Yep. The next sentence in G-3.0107 says, "Presbyteries may apportion requested funds to sessions within their bounds." They ARE responsible, they MAY apportion among the sessions. So, a presbytery is "requested" (read: assessed) to remit $75,000 to the synod and GA. The presbytery "apportions" (read: must collect) that from the session and failure of the congregations to ante up means that they could be subject to an administrative commission (creditor phone calls, liens, or litigation in remedial case). The upshot is that sessions would now control only that portion of the gifts of the people left after paying their "church" taxes. How is flexibility enhanced by that result?

Third, missional-not-regulatory: Ok, the language sounds missional, but the practical outworking will be COMPLETELY regulatory. What happens if San Diego Presbytery decides against raising and timely transmission of "requested funds" to the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, and remits nothing requested by the General Assembly? Think about it: the distinction between per capita and mission giving has been eliminated; thus, what does "are" mean in that context? How quickly will that be litigated (via a remedial case in which the regulatory authority of the higher "councils" is re-established?)

The issue of money, by itself, it sufficient reason to put an end to this new Form of Government. Clarifying these provisions is not a simple "amendment" fix, and the relationship of governing bodies to each other needs to be highly regulatory (read: clearly delineated). It has to be spelled out or it will paralyze an effort to go forward. The proposal will not yield trust, flexibility or a missional character for the denomination. It will throw things from confusion into anarchy.

To Recap:

The nFoG does not match our needs. It presumes trust where trust and accountability are lacking. It seeks a polity solution to a covenantal problem. It wrongly identifies polity as the reason we are not acting missionally.

Adopting the nFoG would cause us to lose some things we value. We lose clarity in constitutional authority, order, and interpretation. We lose clarity of our history gained through previously handled controversies. We lose confidence and certainty of defined responsibilities for resolving new controversies.

Approving the nFoG would have major unintended consequences: trust, theology and taxes. It would dissolve trust in the system because it would frustrate rather than facility resolutions. It would change the theology of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); or, at the very least, create conflicts between the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. Finally, it would give taxation authority to the higher councils -- ultimately reducing resources available for mission at the local level.

For all these reasons, I would respectfully request the 218th General Assembly (2008) to disapprove the nFoG and dismiss the Task Force with thanks.