The Book of Order is a compendium of Presbyterian experience based on nearly three hundred years of practice, prayer and study of Scripture. Occasionally church officers get the mistaken opinion that it is a static document, forever fixed by someone in the presbytery or General Assembly.
In fact, the Book of Order is designed to be very fluid, constantly open to amendment, change and reform. As the Book of Order itself says (G-18.0100): The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) would be faithful to the Lordship of Christ and to its historic tradition of the Church reformed always reforming, by the Spirit of God. In this faith, amendment procedures are understood as a means to faithfulness as God breaks forth yet more light from God’s Word.
What if an individual, a session, a presbytery, or commissioner to General Assembly does not like part of the Book of Order? Several options make it possible for us to change the way we govern ourselves. We can do nothing and hope for the best. We can complain and grumble, wondering why nothing changes. Or we can work through the constitutional process at a session and/or presbytery level to send an overture to the General Assembly with the hope that it will eventually govern the whole church.
First of all, however, it is always wise to make sure that we have understood the exact intent of the provision we think should be altered. A good place to start is by referring to the Book of Order, Annotated Edition that is available online at the PC(USA) web site (www.pcusa.org). It provides information about all the changes, attempted changes, and interpretations that have been made to the Book of Order since 1983 and gives necessary historical perspective.
Further questions may be answered most easily by the stated clerk of the presbytery or the synod’s stated clerk. Before sending in an overture, the presbytery will consult with the Office of the General Assembly (Standing Rules of the General Assembly B.5.b).
Information is also available at the denominational homepage (submitovt.html). Particularly difficult inquiries may be directed to the Office of the General Assembly, Department of Constitutional Services by calling 1-888-728-7228 toll-free) or by writing or e-mailing (see the 2005-2006 Presbyterian Planning Calendar for extension numbers or addresses).
Individual members or elders on the session who think that a provision of the Book of Order needs to be changed may write an “overture” that suggests the altered wording or addition. If the session passes the overture, it may be sent to the presbytery (G-10.0102p.(6). The presbytery may reject, accept or change it; it may also be referred to an appropriate presbytery committee for further study and change. Individual commissioners and committees of presbytery may also submit overtures for presbytery consideration, following whatever process a presbytery has established (G-11.0103t.(3).
If it is approved by presbytery in some form it is sent to the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly at least 120 days prior to the convening of the next session of General Assembly (G-18.0300; the meetings are now held biennially). The Clerk will then refer the proposed amendment to the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (G-13.0112) and this committee will report it to the General Assembly with recommendations or proposed emendations. It is then assigned to a General Assembly committee for recommendation to the full Assembly. If the overture to amend is approved by the General Assembly it is sent to the presbyteries for their affirmative or negative vote along with other proposed amendments. These votes must be sent back to the Stated Clerk within twelve months following the transmission of the amendment. If a majority of the presbyteries approve the changes, the amendment takes effect.
Recommendations may also be initiated by a synod (G-12.0102o.(2) ) or special committees of the General Assembly (Standing Rules B. 5. b of the General Assembly.)
Proposed amendments or additions to The Book of Confessions follow a somewhat similar process except that two-thirds of all presbyteries (not a majority) must approve them in writing before they can be approved and enacted by the General Assembly (see G-18.0000).
Each year commissioners to presbytery receive a booklet of proposed amendments to the Constitution that reflect a spirit of change, improvement and reform in a vital church. Although the process seems a little cumbersome and takes considerable time to accomplish now that the General Assembly only meets every other year, it still is an exciting thing to see how the Spirit works afresh to help the church of Christ adjust to changing times and needs, a church reformed, always being reformed by God (G-2.0200).*
*Thanks need to be expressed to Chandlee S. Gill, Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Albany and Mark Tammen, Director, Department of Constitutional Services, Louisville, for their suggestions and corrections. Parts of this essay originally appeared in my book, “Selected to Serve, A Guide for Church Officers” (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2000) and are used here by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
Earl S. Johnson Jr. is the pastor of First Church, Johnstown, N.Y., and is adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.