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Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers

By Joan S. Gray and Joyce C. Tucker

Geneva. 1999. 204 pp. Pb. $17.
ISBN 0-664-50018-8

Reviewed by James E. Andrews


The third edition of Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers by Joan Gray and Joyce Tucker is an improvement of a resource that has been essential for Presbyterian leaders since it first appeared in 1986.

The book has grown in its appreciation for the peculiar approach to problem-solving chosen by Presbyterians, and shows a deep sense of understanding for the changes through which the Presbyterian Church is passing as well as the increasing knowledge and maturity of the two women who first produced it almost 15 years ago.

The third edition of the Gray/Tucker volume is printed in type the same size as its predecessors, but a new type face makes the pages seem more open and readable. The frequent quotations from the Constitution have been enlarged to the same size as the type used in running paragraphs. Even so, the book will take up the same space in a briefcase or a coat pocket as the Second Edition, which was enlarged by the inclusion of the very significant section on the new Directory for Worship approved in 1990. This new (third) edition takes into account the extensive revision of the Rules of Discipline in 1996, which include guidance for alternative means of resolving conflicts.

Presbyterian stodginess requires that matters of polity be discussed by moving from the general to the particular. The Book of Order has always been organized in just that way, beginning with four chapters of profound principles. Then follows groups of chapters dealing with segments of the life of the church, introduced by a general chapter. The second set of four chapters deals primarily with the life of the congregation, and then comes a general description of the way governing bodies work, followed by a separate chapter on each of the four governing bodies in the current Presbyterian Church. Chapter XIV is a wild and turbulent description of how the church controls who preaches what kind of gospel in which places, the core issue of most Presbyterian battles.

Gray and Tucker had been bold enough to organize their book according to the ways in which it will be used in churches. Note, please, Ch. 12 on meetings — all kinds of meetings. As an old Robert’s Rules type, this reviewer found such a description of representative meetings as a key element in Presbyterian life highly refreshing. The chapter moves well and will take a lot of fear out of the process of going to a meeting with a speech to make, or of being asked to preside.

If it startles you that Ch. 3 deals with electing church officers, while you have to wait for the 14th chapter of the Book of Order to discover that material, the secret is in the sequence — Chs. 2 and 3 deal with the calling, election and installation of church officers, and Ch. 3 discusses the development of the office of elder over the centuries. For more than a generation, the election and installation of officers has generated the greatest number of polity questions in letters and phone calls addressed to the Office of the General Assembly. This is a book that grows out of pastoral experience, and it recognizes that these three chapters carry a major burden of expressing the nature of the church as an ecclesial body and also its concept of effectual calling. This is a book that teaches every reader.

Ch. 7 provides a very helpful description of the new ways in which lay pastors may be used, and the designated pastor gets new and more distinct treatment, very helpful to the goal of significant increases in new church development efforts with racial ethnic persons.

The third edition appears soon after a revision of the Rules of Discipline and Ch. 13 (Preserving Peace and Purity), and deserves careful reading by all of us. The third and fourth parts of the chapter have been reversed in this edition, providing a smoother flow of thought, especially in moving from a discussion of the nature of discipline to the description of actual judicial process.

This fresh version of a long-trusted guide is most welcome. Once again, Gray and Tucker have demonstrated both faithfulness and professional skill in bringing it up to date. If you are not one of those Presbyterians who read polity for fun and spiritual uplift, buy the book anyway. The various charts, lists, outlines and especially the index of references to the Book of Order make the book a treasure. Buy it quickly, and read it over and over again. You will learn something with every reading.