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September 24, 2007: A few words about the study guide

Welcome to all of you who are coming from Presbyweb or the Layman. Thanks for the links. You are joining me midstream as I walk through the experience of evaluating the newly proposed Form of Government (the G- sections of the Book of Order).

Previous posts have highlighted some of the difficulties posed by doing a wholesale substitution to a constitutional document. (By the way, I am going to stop calling it a "revision" because it does more than revise; it is a re-write. The vote will be to replace the existing Form of Government with the new one.)

Today, just a few comments about the Study Outline For Sessions. The Task Force sent a letter to all sessions seeking thoughts and reviews of the proposed substitution.They provided an explanation and some questions to help sessions evaluate their work.

A Tough Task

First, it is difficult to imagine many sessions taking on the task. In some ways I feel sorry for my session here because I am going to make them work on this as a homework assignment for the next month.

In my experience Presbyterian elders have a limited understanding of the Book of Order. For most it functions like the Encyclopedia Brittanica -- you go there when you need to know how to do something particular or if you want to know if you can do something you want to do. You read the sections you need (and perhaps one or two in the neighborhood) but you do not spend a whole lot of time trying to know all of it. So, asking for a wholesale, big-picture review requires a commitment to learn what already is in place in order to understand what impact the changes would have.

Additionally, this version of the substitution is not the final draft. Changes will be made after this round. Because it requires technical reading, it will require this effort twice.

Let me explain it this way: it is like buying a new DVD player. You wrestled with your VCR and finally figured out some tricks to make it work. Now, none of those tricks work and you are back looking at the schematic diagram to figure out how it plugs into your television. But here's the twist: the manufacturer is going to recall your new DVD and send you a better one later. It will look different than the one you have now.

Look at my last post that I had to update and correct: after reading and re-reading it, I ended up reading something that was not there.

It's a tough task.

A Better Question

Second, the questions in the Study Outline pre-suppose a "yes" vote on the substitution. I understand that -- if I had been working hard on something of this magnitude, I would want people to like it and begin using it. However, it is an incomplete standard for evaluating a substitute constitution.

In an earlier post I mentioned that the function of a Form of Government is to define authority and explain how it is exercised. The current Book of Order does that. It has been amended (over and over) to make things more precise, to add things that were missing, and to delete things that were not helpful. Yes, it has grown in size, but that's inevitable as life is lived together.

The questions the Task Force asks involve how the substitute constitution would be "inspiring," "challenging," "useful," and "helpful." In short, can you see why this substitution would be good?

That's fine. It is important to evaulate whether the substitution would fulfill the purpose for which it is intended.

However, it is incomplete. The substitution is not being proposed for a newly-forming society. We have a multi-hundred year history that is reflected in the current Book of Order.

The better question is, "What could go wrong?"

Any time you look at legislation, any time you look at rules, any time you evaluate policies, this question must be raised.

Is that negative? Yes, but when you are looking at substituting a constitution, it is important to see the potential problems in addition to any benefit. Ambiguity and lack of clarity will create tension and dischord. The truth is this: if you can read a section to allow a result you will not want, you can be sure you will get the result you do not want.

 

A Couple Final Notes

I want to repeat a couple of things:

a. The Task Force is acting under a mandate from the previous General Assembly. They were commissioned to create this substitution. Their hard work is evident. The questions raised about the substitute constitution are entirely about whether it is a good idea. Will it enhance trust in an environment where trust is lacking? Will it bring about clarity and renewed purpose? Sometimes those questions need to be expressed in the negative; but that is a tool for evaluating the work, not the people who invested time and energy into creating the proposal.

b. This blog series is a walk through my experience of studying it. I cannot say that I have a comprehensive view of things right now; in fact, I can specifically state that I do not. I am writing because I believe that sharing my walk may help other people engage in the process.

c. I do not believe that the current Book of Order is perfect or perfected. I do believe it reflects who we are -- imperfect and imperfected. My initial impression is that the substitution would make the reflection fuzzier and less identifiable; it is more a statement of who we would hope we could be rather than who we are.

More tomorrow.