The cycle of General Assemblies bring with them a certain rhythm. And as we reach the midway point between the last GA and the next, we mark the completion of the presbyteries’ amendment voting process and the publication of a new Book of Order with the approved changes.
All 16 constitutional amendments proposed by the 222nd assembly in 2016 were approved by the presbyteries by large margins. The new provisions will take effect on June 25, 2017 – one year from the adjournment of the assembly.
And so, we have new constitutional documents – some with small and subtle modifications, others with large and sweeping changes.
Directory for Worship
The most extensive change is the revision of a whole section of the Book of Order with the approval of a revised Directory for Worship (DFW). The rewriting of the DFW was a decade-long process, so it also reflects the philosophy behind the earlier complete revision of the Form of Government section and creation of the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity section. Specifically, the revision provides for a “shorter, better organized, more accessible, and thoroughly Reformed” document, as the rationale associated with the General Assembly action puts it. It goes on to say that the new DFW “seeks to foster freedom and flexibility, with openness to a broader range of worship styles and cultural expressions.”
The new DFW is roughly one-third shorter than the previous version, though it remains mostly parallel in structure. However, the concluding three chapters (which discuss personal worship; worship and the community of faith; and worship and the ministry of the church in the world) have been combined into one chapter that is more narrative in nature than the previous version. The new DFW is intended to emphasize guidance rather than be viewed as a rulebook. For example, the previous sequential formulation of W-3.3603 (which included four baptismal vows, the affirmation of faith and two promises of the congregation) has been replaced by a narrative section:
“W-3.0405: Candidates for Baptism or their parents shall renounce evil and profess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Those who are being baptized upon profession of faith declare their intent to participate actively and responsibly in the church’s worship and mission. Together with the congregation they profess their faith using the Apostles’ Creed, the baptismal affirmation of the early Church.”
Along with the revised DFW is a proposed change to the section in the current version that discusses the theology of the Lord’s Supper. However, since the new wording has already been incorporated into the newly adopted DFW, this amendment is redundant. But since this is a significant change in wording and theology, it is worth noting that it addresses who may receive the Lord’s Supper. The rationale for the amendment also discussed our theology of the table versus the usual practice when the sacrament is administered. The previous wording explicitly stated that the invitation “is extended to all who have been baptized” and to baptized children according to their level of maturity. The new wording opens up the invitation saying:
“All who come to the table are offered the bread and cup, regardless of their age or understanding. If some of those who come have not yet been baptized, an invitation to baptismal preparation and Baptism should be graciously extended.”
Teaching elder vs. Minister of Word and Sacrament
An amendment with the name “Ordered Ministry Titles” may seem like a bit of wordsmithing to some, but to others it is a discussion at the heart of our Presbyterian polity.
This amendment passed in the assembly with a vote of 320 to 218, and returns some ordered ministry titles used in the Book of Order to those used before the Form of Government revision. Specifically, the title “teaching elder” is returned to “Minister of Word and Sacrament,” while “ruling elders” return to simply “elders” and “commissioned ruling elders” now become “commissioned pastors” (also known as commissioned ruling elders).
On a practical level, these old titles, now new again, are more descriptive of the positions and more familiar to those not steeped in Presbyterian tradition and polity. To others, the use of teaching elder and ruling elder better reflected the parity and balance in our councils and commissioned ruling elder was more specific about the nature of that position.
Parity in councils
Speaking of parity and balance in councils, another amendment modifies G-3.0109 to give more flexibility for committee membership in councils higher than the session. It has been a hallmark of our polity that pastors and members serve in equal numbers on these committees, a feature that has challenged some nominating committees. This amendment provides a bit of leeway by changing the language from requiring parity between ministers and members of congregations to being “in numbers as nearly equal as possible.”
Certified Service Requirements
Maybe the simplest amendment, and the one that has garnered the least resistance through the amendment process, is one that changes G-2.1101 regarding Certified Service Requirements. A number of PC(USA)-affiliated organizations, such as the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators (APCE) and the Association of Presbyterian Musicians (APM), provide certification of church workers who meet their requirements. This change simply removes the specification that certifying requirements appear in their handbook making it so they can be specified in whatever form the organization wishes. It was passed by the assembly committee without objection and by the full assembly by consensus, and as of this writing only one presbytery has voted not to concur.
Another change that is almost as simple is an addition to the list of areas of member involvement in G-1.0304. Added to the 11 areas previously listed is now “caring for God’s creation.” While a small addition (and bringing the number to a nice, biblically significant 12), it speaks to the role of members in the ministry of Christ’s church in the context of current issues.
Child and youth protection policy
And the last simple change is an amendment to G-3.0106 that now requires all councils to have among their policies not just a “child protection policy,” but a “child and youth protection policy.” While seemingly not a particularly complicated change, it is interesting to note that the Advisory Committee on the Constitution did advise against adopting it because the spirit of the Book of Order is intended to be a guide and not a collection of prescribed lists. Whether for this reason or for others, three presbyteries did not concur.
The last amendment discussed here may be the most complicated and certainly arrives with some previous history. It goes by the extended title of “Relationship to the PC(USA) of a Person Who Has Renounced Jurisdiction of the Church,” and would partly undo a provision added to G-2.0509 by the previous GA. As amended in the last cycle, when a teaching elder (now Minister of Word and Sacrament) renounces jurisdiction in the midst of a disciplinary proceeding, it is implicitly a permanent ban and the individual is excluded from any future work, paid or volunteer, for the PC(USA). The now-amended section adds the provision for rehabilitation and restoration with the qualification “unless and until the person rejoins the church, comes forward and resubmits to the disciplinary process.”
But in order for this to happen many years later, beyond the statute of limitations, a new section is added to D-10-0401 to specify that there is now no time limit on charges in these instances. As the Advisory Committee on the Constitution urged that amendment not be approved and pointed out that there was no time limit on cases involving “sexual abuse on another person” and this change removes the time limit for all alleged offenses.
This was one of the few amendments that garnered a notable number of negative votes from the presbyteries, with about one-fifth of them not concurring with this amendment.
In a year that saw changes to not just the Book of Order but also added the Belhar Confession to the Book of Confessions, there are a substantial number of visible changes to our polity. And of course, as this amending cycle draws to a close we look ahead to watch for what might be in store for the 223rd General Assembly in 2018.
STEVE SALYARDS is a ruling elder living in La Verne, California. He is an IT manager and geologist at UCLA, writes the GA Junkie blog and has been active with his presbytery and synod.