The Need for Constitutional Reform

Among those efforts that can be undertaken by the denomination to address our current malaise and drift toward fragmentation, none is as important -- or as elusive -- as the need for a major overhaul of the Book of Order.

The Book of Order has become a great millstone around our neck. It is the source of much of the dysfunctionality we are experiencing as a denomination.

At a time when most other corporate structures in our society are decentralizing and simplifying procedures so as to unleash human creativity and productivity, year by year the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lays down layer upon layer of new church law which attempts to regulate every aspect of our corporate behavior at all levels.

There are two kinds of constitutions. One provides basic principles and general guidelines for the operations of an organization. The other attempts to anticipate every issue that will arise in the life of an organization and to prescribe an appropriate rule. The first assumes that individuals charged with operating an organization can work out their own way if given a sensible framework within which to work. The second assumes that there must be detailed directives governing every aspect of the organizational life.

That’s what we have in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It would be interesting to calculate the amount of energy expended by the PC(USA) in all its parts in matters relating to amending the Book of Order each year. The answer surely would be: an enormous amount, including the work of governing bodies and all the groups that have an interest in particular provisions. And the reality is that most ministers and church officers, supposedly charged with following the Book of Order, know less about it now than any previous generation.

Imagine if all that energy expended on tinkering with the Book of Order could be redirected to the mission of the church? But it cannot, because we are trapped in a mindset and a constitutional system that is mindless and well-nigh impervious to change.

Suggestions to simplify over the years have largely gone unheeded. An effort by a task force of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution to develop a model for simplification was rejected. The 2001 GA approved a new Ch. 14 of the Book of Order which could become a model for further reform, if approved by a majority of the presbyteries, but it is only a modest start.

What is needed is a kind of constitutional commission that could study the history of the development of our Book of Order and recover the basic structural framework of earlier editions in our history. All else could then be put in manuals for the guidance of governing bodies and officers. If in the ordination vows of ministers and church officers we require guidance by the confessions of the church, why could we not use most of what is now in the Book of Order as guidance? When differences of opinion emerge at any level, then the judicial process could be used to address matters of interpretation as in the secular arena. In extraordinary situations, the Constitution could be amended.

The obstacles to constitutional reform, however, are truly formidable. Every provision will have a constituency that will fight to the death for its preservation, and unless the church through its governing bodies dema-nds simplification it will not happen. And therefore it is not likely to happen.

As a start, we could amend the Book of Order to require super majorities for any further changes. If that occurred, then perhaps a movement for simplification could emerge because of the need to untangle the tangled web which now exists.


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