Because there’s so much complexity to the business, and because presbyteries want time not only to vote, but also for prayer and discernment, some presbyteries plan to consider the amendments in a series of meetings over a period of months.
That approach — of considering the proposals over time rather than discussing and voting on them in one big meeting — is being tried in many places “so that commissioners can really understand what they’re voting on,” said Paige McRight, executive presbyter of Central Florida Presbytery.
Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, for example, plans to study the proposed new Form of Government in November and vote on it in January, along with the proposal on ordination standards. It will study the Belhar Confession from South Africa in February and vote on it in April.
The presbytery is spreading the work out over four meetings “to assure that people have an opportunity to read, discuss, ask questions,” said General Presbyter Betty Meadows. “We want to give lots of air time because there’s so much, and we don’t want to rush.”
Charlotte Presbytery doesn’t plan to vote on any of the proposed amendments until May, but its members already have spent time learning about the Belhar Confession and considering ways to talk about racial reconciliation.
Belhar. An August 2009 survey conducted by Presbyterian Research Services — just under a year before the General Assembly voted in Minneapolis to recommend that the Belhar Confession be added to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions — found that more that 95 percent of elders and other church members surveyed either weren’t familiar with Belhar at all or were only slightly familiar with it. The same was true for more than 7 in 10 Presbyterian pastors surveyed.
To be added as a PC(USA) confession, Belhar would need to be ratified by at least two-thirds of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries and approved again by the next General Assembly, in 2012.
“What we’re finding is a remarkable lack of information about Belhar,” said Sam Roberson, general presbyter and stated clerk of Charlotte Presbytery.
“People know about South Africa and apartheid. But people don’t really know the history” of the Belhar Confession, how the history of apartheid is entwined with the history of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. The black church there appealed to the white church for reconciliation on the basis of unity in Christ.
In the presbytery discussion on Belhar, “the relevance of that message to racism that continues in this country is very real,” Roberson said. “If you think racism isn’t still rampant, then you’ve got your head under a big blanket.”
At the annual Polity Conference in October, which brought together presbytery and synod stated clerks and executives from around the country, Charles Wiley, coordinator of the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship, spoke about Belhar, said Tom Hay, director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly.
He kept reminding people that the question isn’t “What does this confession really have to do with today, and the issues of today,” according to Hay. “The question is `Will this be a meaningful confession in 20 years? Will this have something to speak to the church about who God is and who is God calling us to be in 20 years?’ ”
Form of Government. The presbyteries also will consider a proposed new Form of Government. McRight, who also served on two task forces that drafted the proposal, presented it at the Polity Conference, addressing a few basic questions.
How do stated clerks help their presbyteries get ready for the vote? And if the new Form of Government passes, how do the presbyteries live into it? How could they help sessions figure out the impact for local congregations?
Most presbytery stated clerks do seem familiar with the proposal, and with the idea that it would provide presbyteries and sessions more flexibility to structure ministry in ways that’s appropriate for the local context, McRight said. “I heard repeatedly that the new Form of Government really does highlight what are the standards for the whole church. How you go about meeting those standards in a way that’s appropriate in your context, you have the flexibility to decide.”
Some task force members — including Cynthia Bolbach, moderator of the 219th General Assembly — have accepted invitations to speak about the proposal at presbytery meetings in the coming months, McRight said.
To take effect, the new Form of Government proposal would need to be approved by a majority of the denomination’s presbyteries.
Ordination standards. The presbyteries also will vote on a proposal to remove from the Book of Order the current requirement that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single. The proposal would substitute this language:
“Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.” The governing body responsible “shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office,” and determine the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill the requirements presented in the constitutional questions for those being ordained and installed.
To take effect, a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries would have to approve that proposed change.
This would be the fourth time since the “fidelity and chastity” language was ratified in 1997 that the denomination’s presbyteries have been asked to remove it. Three times they have said “No” – but the margin has been narrowing.