The nFOG proposal would strengthen our missional focus for ministry. Yea. The nFOG proposal would set aside the lingo of “governing bodies” to be replaced by “councils.” Yea. The nFOG proposal would shrink the size of church government. Yea. … and … Nay.
Let’s get brutally honest. Our love-hate relationship with secular government has less to do with the actual size of government than with whether or not we have the votes. When we lack the votes, when our party finds itself in the minority, we argue – on principle – that government should not inject itself into people’s personal lives. When we have the votes, when our party enjoys majority rule, we argue – on principle – that government has a moral obligation to promote the common good.
As it is in the nation, so it is in the church. We like the church to be proactive on matters we value. We prefer the church to keep silence on matters we detest.
Consider the situation in the U.S. Episcopal Church. Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected presiding bishop for the ECUSA in recognition of her faith, competence and consistency of convictions with her fellow bishops. However, the convictions of the rising power block in the world Anglican Communion are more conservative and traditional than those of their American counterparts. They’ve been criticizing and disempowering the ECUSA (see p. 7). So Schori has lashed back (see p. 6), declaring, “Unitary control does not characterize Anglicanism; rather, diversity in fellowship and communion does.”
She wants smaller government within the Anglican Communion.
But, dissidents within the ECUSA might find her disdain for overlording to ring hollow. Conservatives who have criticized progressive policies in the denomination have not been encouraged by the hierarchy to follow their own consciences, to proclaim the message as they see fit.
Perspectives on the size of government do boil down to our perspective … and whether or not we have the votes.
So what about us Presbyterians? Do we want more or less government? How should we be exercising our authority, freedom, autonomy and accountability?
Do we Presbyterians subscribe to a governmental model that encourages freedom and diversity? Yes. With most Protestants, we jettisoned the notion of a single, titular leader of the church. But we also subscribe to a governmental model that requires accountability. With the Reformed Protestants, we repudiate congregational autonomy. We live in submission to one another, with ministers and elders (teaching elders and ruling elders) exercising mutual accountability in church leadership.
Which brings us back to the New Form of Government proposal. This document prods us to jettison a polity of command-and-control in favor of an ecclesiology of mission and diversity. But how far will it go? How long will it last? What happens when popular opinion shifts, as well it will, on hot button issues? Will those lacking the votes today affirm the rights of others lacking the votes then?
Certainly we have developed too many rules, too many regulations and standards to follow. We can trust many decisions to local councils without predetermining what’s best for all. But, if we’re going to loosen the controls, then let’s make it difficult for us to change our minds. Let’s prevent ourselves from reviving a command-and-control polity.
What the nFOG proposal lacks, and can be added by the commissioners, is a high bar for amending it. We require 2/3’s majority votes for changes to The Book of Confessions. Why not require the same for the Book of Order? Sure, the Advisory Committee on the Constitution will tell us we’ve never done that before. The ACC is supposed inform us of how we’ve always done things. But if the nFOG isn’t allowed to set some new precedents, what’s the point? How new is that? With eyes wide open, let’s rewrite the book! Let’s simplify the rules – on principle – and, at the same time, make it really difficult to complicate the rules all over again.