The news from Foothills Presbytery is that they convened a vibrant and energetic group of teaching and ruling elders to consider potential reforms in the operations of the General Assembly. From where I sit this is welcome news, though maybe not for exactly the reasons they might expect. The Foothills study documents and eight proposed overtures have been sent out across the church to every presbytery inviting conversations for reform. Much of what is suggested has been a part of the public discourse around the assembly for many years but their work gives focus to the conversations.
While this attention to the assembly is welcome – its focus may be too small. I believe the real conversation we are called to have is about the very nature of being a national church.
- One proposed overture brings greater voice to presbytery staff at the assembly. I hope we can use this proposal as an excuse to talk about the role of staff at every level of the church. Who speaks for a church or a presbytery? What is the balance between elected committees and officers and staff? How do our corporate models for staffing and organization shape us?
- Several proposed overtures speak to the fluidity and flexibility of the constitution by making it more concrete. One overture raises the number of concurring presbyteries required for changes to the Book of Order and another limits how often the Assembly can consider making changes. Where do we consider what all our institutions, councils and agencies need in order to be vitally alive in a changing world? How do we structure flexibility and allow the movement of the Spirit on every level? We need to talk about what it looks like for a national church to be vibrant and responsive.
- Several proposed overtures ask the assembly to carefully consider the process for making social pronouncements. This is an issue not just for assemblies, but every pulpit and council. I hope we can talk about what it means for the whole church to engage in our foundational great ends of preserving the truth, promoting social righteousness and exhibiting the Kingdom of Heaven to the world (Book of Order 1.0304). How does a geographically, ethnically and politically diverse national church hold each other and our nation accountable for falsehoods and sin?
There is a broader conversation ahead for us than the shape of the assembly. Our mission structure and every council up and down the church should be constructed around whatever vision of a national church we come to in consultation.
In West Virginia there is a congregation whose session keeps three books stacked on the table as they meet: the Bible, the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. This session may be just one small council, but they understand something very important about being a national church – whenever one council meets, every other council is present.
When a session meets, the presbytery, synod, General Assembly are there as partners at the table. The same is true when presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly convenes – each council meets as a part of a larger fabric.
But what does it mean to be sitting at the same table? Are we there as partners or protagonists? Do we bring counsel or commands? Do we indeed bring each other the “hope to which God has called you” (Eph. 1:19) ?
Maybe it is time for such a discussion. Is it time for a council of councils, listening to each other and formulating a vision for how each relates locally and nationally. Perhaps the time is right for a conference to seek out a vision for the church we want to be.
Foothills Presbytery has cast a vision for how we do an assembly, but I fervently believe that first we need a vision for how we do church as a national body. It goes not only to the question of who gets an advisory vote, but how do we organize our mission? How do we fund our ministries? How do we speak God’s truth to one another and to the world around us?
Many people know that I have a program on my computer that is constantly counting down the number of days until the next assembly. I look forward to the day when the clock is reversed, counting up the days of a vibrant new church.
Thomas D. Hay is the director of operations and associate stated clerk for OGA.