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September 20, 2007: Revising Language Changes Substance

I realize that writing an exhaustive point-by-point review of the changes in the proposed revision to the Form of Government, along with an analysis of their impact, would be unreadable. The side-by-side comparision produced by the Task Force is more than 150 pages long.

The problem is that substantive changes -- unintentional or hidden -- are one of the dangers of doing a wholesale revision.

Here is an example of a non-essential change regarding congregational meetings that has substantive consequences:

The congregation shall hold an annual meeting and may hold other special meetings as necessary. The annual meeting shall review the adequacy of the compensation of the pastor or pastors and shall elect officers, and it may transact other business as appropriate.

The emphasized portion is a big change from what currently exists in G-7.0302:

The congregation shall hold an annual meeting and may hold other meetings as necessary. The annual meeting may consider such business as electing officers, hearing reports of the session along with plans for the coming year, hearing reports from the board of deacons and other organizations of the church, and transacting other business as is appropriate. It shall review the adequacy of the compensation of the pastor or pastors upon report of the prior review by the session.

The congregation I serve elects officers in the Fall, to be installed at the beginning of the year, prior to the Annual Meeting. The Annual Meeting is a time for the required business, a "State of the Church" kind of address, and a potluck lunch. It is a celebration.

If the revision is adopted, we would be required ("shall" still means "shall" as far as I know) to change the timing of our election. It may not be a big deal in the larger schemes of things, but it begs the question, "Why?" I suppose we could scruple this one (if "shall" does not mean the same thing anymore), but I am unaware of any reason why elections MUST be held at the Annual Meeting.

How many other examples like this will I find?

Rewriting the Form of Government to simplify things seems like a good idea; but in reality, it means we have decided that the choices made by those who have gone before us are unimportant. It is disrespectful and dishonoring to our history. Bill Chapman wrote a book years ago entitled, Blood on Every Page, about the formation and development of the Book of Order.

I taught a Polity class last fall at Bethel Seminary in San Diego for Presbyterian students. We went through the Form of Government chapter by chapter. Chapman's title is appropriate. I could tell them a story or cite an example of an issue that led to the development of each chapter.

I feel for the members of the Task Force. I have no doubt they have given their best, that they have worked with honorable and noble intentions, and that criticism is going to hurt. Unfortunately, when looking at Forms of Government, the interpretive standard is "does this say what we think it says" AND "what problems will be created if we make these changes?"

The problem is that there are many problems created.