The proposed revision is an improvement over the current Form of Government in the character and quality of its language. The existing text was brought together from multiple sources at the time of Reunion in 1983 and has been amended over 300 times in the last 27 years, sometimes in confusing and conflicting forms. The proposed text attempts to move “back to the basics” of our polity, and to ground our practice in what we believe about the church. The desire of the General Assembly meeting in Birmingham in 2006 was to create a polity focused on providing leadership for local congregations as communities engaged in God’s mission in the world.
The proposed revision uses language that is grounded in our understanding of the nature of the church and its ministry. By reclaiming the terms teaching elder and ruling elder to name the ordered ministry of presbyters, it seeks to lift up and define again their separate but complementary roles. The proposed language emphasizes the need for those ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament to be teachers of the faith and for ruling elders to focus on discerning the faithfulness of the congregation instead of being directors on a corporate board. Similarly, renaming the current “governing bodies” as councils, reminds us that the quality and character of our work together is grounded in the pattern of discernment and deliberations of people gathered to make decisions unique to the Church, not borrowed from corporate practice.
The proposed revision responds to the church’s need for a teaching tool to assist the whole church in understanding the principles upon which our polity is based. While the first four chapters of the current Form of Government has often been cited as describing the base from which the remaining chapters flow, it was not created with that intention. The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity is written to be read and understood as a “whole”. It provides not only an introduction to the Form of Government but the grounding for the Directory for Worship and the Rules of Discipline. Because of the way it is organized, the Foundations is a better teaching tool for those preparing people for ordered ministry and leadership in the church than the current first four chapters. This is especially important for membership and critical for ordination in a time when the majority of members do not come from a Presbyterian background and have not learned polity as a part of their upbringing.
The proposed revision offers the Form of Government in constitutional language. It describes who we are as a people seeking to be the body of Christ. Following the mandate to the Task Force that first shaped it, it eliminates as much regulatory, manual of operations language as possible and allowed, but retains the standards to which each Council and member should be held accountable that are already included in our current Form of Government. At its best, this will move us away from an emphasis on corporate structures and rules and regulations toward an emphasis on relational accountability, community, and faithful responsiveness to Christ’s call in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves.
The proposed revision acknowledges and reflects the reality of our diversity as a church and the contemporary practice among our presbyteries and congregations. We know that every council of the church is trying to discern how to be faithful to Christ’s call in the face of demographic, cultural, and economic challenges. This revision strongly affirms the intention of sessions and presbyteries to act in good faith and faithfulness. I believe that this proposed revision provides the possibility for greater latitude in fulfilling council responsibilities while still being consistent with our Presbyterian standards and foundations. As one commissioner in the Riverside Conversations described it, there are two ways to exercise your dog. One is to walk him on a leash. That’s like our current polity. This revision is like the “invisible fence” we install to keep our dog in the yard. If there was ever a time when one structure or procedure met the missional needs of every council, it is certainly not the case now, at least from what the task force that shaped this revision heard from the church. In just one synod in which faithful and functioning congregations range from a membership of 6 to 4800, and Presbyteries from 21 congregations, 900 members, and fewer than 15 teaching elders to 70 congregations, 25,000 members and 200 teaching elders. The same kind of diversity exists among presbyteries in all of our synods.
The charge that initiated this revision was to provide to the church flexibility in the processes we use to meet the standards to which the whole church is held accountable. We have heard people argue that flexibility will result in a form of “local option” that will destroy the connectional nature of the church and compromise the integrity of faith for all. I would point to the Directory for Worship that establishes the standards for Presbyterian worship and at the same time provides great flexibility to sessions and presbyteries in ordering worship. The great diversity of forms and styles of worship evident across the denomination is proof that flexibility responsive to principles is no danger.
The proposed revision emphasizes the mission of congregations as they seek to be faithful to their calling to be the body of Christ. It envisions presbyteries that support those congregations, and synods and a General Assembly that resource presbyteries as they support congregations. It defines the responsibilities of each council using our Reformed language about the true church: where the Word is truly preached and heard, the sacraments are rightly administered and received, and a covenant community of disciples is nurtured. We claim to be a connectional church, and we have measured that connection by our fidelity to rules and structures. The General Assembly that sent this revision to you affirmed the belief that this revision moves us toward measuring our connectedness by the quality of our relationships. We are connected as we are faithful to the leading of the Holy Spirit and mutually accountable to each other under the standards of the whole church.
This revision does not invalidate our current manuals of operation nor presume that every council must change its current organization or procedures. If, on the other hand, organization and procedures impede mission, they can be adapted. We hope councils will move from asking what are we allowed to do to what will work better. The Advisory Handbook for Councils being commended to the church outlines those places where a council must establish a rule or procedure. In most instances such rules and procedures are already contained in existing bylaws or policies of councils and need not be changed unless a council deems it appropriate. In addition, existing denominational handbooks for committees on ministry and committees on preparation for ministry are still helpful tools for presbyteries.
I know that Charlotte Presbytery has an operations manual. The handbook that is recommended with this revision points out the places where policy is required. I do not know that every session in Charlotte Presbytery is in accordance with our current Book of Order that requires sessions to maintain personnel policies and provide for review of minutes, rolls and financial practices and for the management of church property and liability. Such policies are likely in place in some form, and as some Stated Clerks have observed, if they aren’t in this litigious society, its time they were.
For over twenty years commissioners to meetings of the General Assembly have called for revisions to the Form of Government to produce a document that identifies our foundational principles for governance, allows flexibility to sessions and presbyteries in responding to presented needs, and minimizes regulatory and manual of operations language within the Constitution. I believe the proposed revision fulfills that desire.
Is there enough trust in the church to adopt such a change? It seems to me that trust is most likely to grow when we sit across the table from each other in dialog to develop the processes by which we fulfill the standards of our polity. But neither the proposed revision nor the current Form of Government will make us more trusting. We learn to trust by risking engagement with others. It is something we best learn to do by hearing each other as we work toward a common goal.
Is this revision perfect? Of course not. It is the work of human beings. First, it is the work of a Task Force which heard concerns, second it is the work of a Standing Committee of the General Assembly in Minneapolis last summer that worked through the document offered to them and made their own revisions. In the end, the 219th General Assembly sent this revision to the presbyteries so that you can decide whether, with God’s guidance, this is a Form of Government that can lead us into the future as God’s people engaged in God’s mission in the world.
Paige McRight is executive presbyter for the Central Florida Presbytery.