Guest commentary by Merwyn S. Johnson
The die is cast. The nine Foothills Overtures are now officially before the next General Assembly for action, duly passed by the presbytery, docketed by the Office of the General Assembly and accompanied by the requisite concurrences. With public interactions to them emerging, now is the time to speak for them.
The aim of these overtures is to recover a sense of “the koinonia of our shared participation in Christ,” as Overture 9 puts it. As the PC(USA) Book of Order says, Jesus Christ is the true Head of the Church (F-1.02). Those who participate in Christ share a fellowship not only with Christ but also with those who belong to Christ. Put the other way around: In his own person and ongoing presence, Jesus Christ binds together those whom God calls into fellowship with Christ. Because he is Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus Christ binds us together in fellowship with God. Christ creates that fellowship, Christ defines the ongoing fellowship and Christ governs the fellowship going forward in all its activities. That’s what any Presbyterian Book of Order attempts to mirror, however imperfectly, including that of our own beloved PC(USA).
Needless to say, the image of a fellowship united in Christ has been shattered by developments over the last few generations. From three Presbyterian bodies becoming one in 1958 and 1983, we have created four as of 2011. In a time of major population growth, our membership has declined to less than half of what it was at its peak. The remnant PC(USA) is internally polarized and externally struggling to gain its footing in the rapidly shifting landscape of the contemporary Christian church, nation and world. To move forward, we need real reform —more than new strategies, tactics, programs or fund-raising campaigns. While Presbyterians claim to be good at reform, right now we are faltering. The Foothills overtures are in search of real reform.
Taken as a group, the nine overtures seek to broaden, not narrow, the promotion of social righteousness by refusing to separate this one Great End of the Church from the other five and by engaging the whole church (the koinonia of our shared participation in Christ) with these concerns instead of bottling them up in the General Assembly.
The current Book of Order speaks of “warning and bearing witness against errors in doctrine or immorality in the church and in the world” for all four council levels of the PCUSA (G-3.0501c, G-3.0401c, G-3.0301c, G-3.0201c). This language derives from the 1876 southern “Book of Church Order” and was specifically inserted into our Book of Order at the request of Foothills’ dialogue partners. Similarly derived is the interactive language concerning the unity of councils, to “have such mutual relations that the act of one of them is the act of the whole church” (G-3.0101). That includes sessions, presbyteries and synods as well as the General Assembly — a flexible body image in which all parts go where any one part goes, even the least one.
Driving these overtures is the perception that, for a long time now, the GA has operated in a top-down way that has taken on a life of its own. Perhaps these are unintended consequences of an outdated corporate model, but the effect is the same. Drawing on a series of advisory committees, the GA dispenses rules and policy statements expecting these to be carried out as adopted. As Ray Roberts reminds us, the GA passes most rules and policy statements with a large majority or as part of a consent agenda, that is, without involving the koinonia of our shared participation in Christ either before or after the GA that adopts them. When, as has happened repeatedly over the last 35-plus years, the GA passes controversial rules or policies with a small majority, the outcome divides the community and sends shock waves through the rest of the body. Other councils, officers and members have no preparation, recourse or rejoinder to such actions. The effect is the same even when the actions are right.
The current Book of Order also calls for a manual of operations for every level of the PC(USA) (G-3.0106)! So, beginning with the Book or Order itself, we are subjected to a rules-driven, majority-determined, manual of operations-style of governance for the whole church. By majority rule, the manual of operations works from the bottom up and sets up peer pressure to enforce doing all things uniformly. The combination — top-down corporate model and bottom-up manual of operations — demands uniformity all along the line. The result stifles the church with pressures to conform or to leave. Little wonder that many have left. These dynamics fall short of the biblical notion of a covenant community and the Reformed polity that sets up a shared participation in Christ.
People often say that majority rule is the best way to give the church flexibility to respond quickly to changing needs and events. I would like to challenge that assumption when it comes to the manual of operations-style of governance. Flexibility does not come to mind when you consider that such majorities have to overcome the blanket of rules and policy statements from previous majorities and they are driven — and culture bound — by what current majorities will allow. Coming up with new rules and policy statements to replace the old ones takes a lot of energy, invariably gets into legalistic nitpicking and keeps officers and members in a constant turmoil. Think of a stampede: It is easy to start one, but hard to stop one in its tracks or change its direction. Majority rule offers the illusion of flexibility or change when in fact there is very little, and it shows as much for liberals as for conservatives.
The alternative proposal behind the Foothills overtures is a covenant-enabling Book of Order that builds on the koinonia of our shared participation in Christ. As head of the church, Christ gives us the stability, long-range vision and energy to act with maximum freedom and flexibility at all times. The person of Christ engages us, not the rules. In his active presence, the activities of the church become catalysts to action in every facet of life. As a fellowship of shared participation in him, we discover true freedom, joy and flexibility.
In a covenant-enabling constitution, Christ is the true catalyst to an authentic Christian community, accompanied by a vigorous Christian life, witness and prophetic voice. The image of catalyst contrasts sharply with the images that fit a manual of operations-style of governance: a blanket of rules and policy statements to cover every contingency; a fence of rules to keep us within bounds; or a leash to control our movements. Freedom for a manual of operations entails cutting holes in the blanket, breaking out of the fence or extending the leash. For the covenant-enabling constitution, the key to freedom is to keep our eye on the ball (Jesus Christ) without being blown about by every little wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14) or trying to tame Christ to some presumed instrumentality of our own. This vision of an exciting, fluid, dynamic church comes directly from our Reformed heritage. It belongs not only to John Calvin in the turmoil of Reformation Geneva, but also to the Westminster Divines in the midst of the English Civil Wars of 1642-49 and to Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the war years of Nazi Germany.
Paul is a delightful dialogue partner, as I discovered in the nFoG discussions, and his perspective on the overtures he covers is laser-sharp. In particular:
- He raises important questions as to the role of concurrences for overtures before they go to the GA — though by majority rule that device has already found its way into the Book of Order. We still need a way to filter the volume of business that comes before the GA.
- With his comments on overtures 6-8, Paul also recognizes the kind of dinky constitutional changes that led to the bloating of the 1983 Book of Order, which we can expect again with a rules-driven, majority-passed manual of operations. How can you keep from bloating the Book of Order if we are dealing with dinky constitutional amendments at every GA?
- He is rightly concerned about politicking, especially in blocks (stampeding?), when dealing with GA business. The politicking, of course, is there already as populist (majority rule) peer pressure.
- While Paul identifies the corporate denominational model as an “anachronism,” the Book of Order as it stands continues to reflect the combination of top-down/bottom-up stifling dynamics that now get in the way of a fellowship of shared participation in Christ.
While Paul’s points are well taken, he misses the big picture. As we knew at the time (2010), the nFoG simply didn’t go far enough: It left in place the vestiges of a corporate model combined with a manual of operations style of governance. The nine Foothills overtures perceive that the GA and its behind-the-scenes advisory committees have taken on a life of their own with consequences that are unhealthy for the life of the PC(USA).
Paul says, rightly, that the Reformation notes of the true church (F-1.0303) shape the current Book of Order. The Book of Order as we have it, however, does not fully implement those notes. At the heart of the Reformation notes lies the fellowship of shared participation centered in Jesus Christ. The fellowship aspect bids us change how business comes before the GA and how it is shared with the larger church (and world) afterwards. And, centered in Jesus Christ, the business of the church is surely more than enacting rules or policy statements. At stake here is the fabric of the PC(USA) as an authentic covenant community — how the councils interact together without being merely hierarchical and how the officers and members of the church engage one another in its life and work, actively participating in the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life.
Ray Roberts is, of course, quite right to say that promoting social righteousness cannot be separated from the other five Ends of the Church. That is precisely the point of these overtures as well. The overtures do not want to stop the prophetic voice of the PC(USA), nor mute the ACSWP. They want to expand the valuable work of the ACSWP and engage the whole fellowship of our shared participation in Christ. But that cannot happen solely by adopting policy statements drafted by experts and handed down as a done deal by consensus or majority rule of a council from the top. The process has to engage the hearts and minds of officers and members coming and going, as well as the world at large. Ray, too, misses the extent to which the GA and its internal operations have taken on a life of their own, separating themselves from the larger church.
The reform Foothills seeks, of course, is not finalized in these overtures. The overtures are the beginning of a larger conversation, summed up in Overture 9. The nine overtures reflect a number of long-standing, Reformed polity principles, namely, stable identity as a church, change through building broad consensus, a holistic witness, focus and depth beyond surface agreements, mutual interdependence, adaptability and nimbleness, and more than simple yes and no answers to complex issues. These principles embrace democratic processes — Robert’s rules, the right to elect our own officers, etc. To preserve these principles, however, will at least call for a super-majority vote on constitutional amendments and structural reform of the GA to make it more interactive with the rest of the PC(USA).
Quite clearly, in the PC(USA) we cannot go on as we are. The koinonia of our shared participation in Christ, the true Head of the Church, offers a real possibility for real reform.
MERWYN S. JOHNSON is a long-time member of Foothills Presbytery, emeritus professor of historical and systematic theology at Erskine Theological Seminary, and visiting professor of theology for Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte, North Carolina.