But, at the very last moment, his keen instincts tell him that something is wrong — the mayfly has a hook in it. He responds instinctually, rolls on his side; dives; and lives to hunt another day.
That, I think, is an apt metaphor for a situation in which we Presbyterians currently find ourselves as a church. A new Form of Government (nFOG) has been proposed, and at first glance it looks attractive. But, if we are wise, we will take a second and third look before we “bite” because it just may have something pointed and potentially painful hidden deep inside.
At present, the Book of Order is composed of three parts – the Form of Government, the Directory for Worship, and the Rules of Discipline. The General Assembly’s mandate to its Form of Government Task Force (FOGTF) was to “revise” the first section of the Book of Order — the Form of Government.
Whether the Task Force exceeded its mandate by completely rewriting the Form of Government is debatable. But, what is clear is the FOGTF surprised everyone when it proposed a fourth and entirely new section to the Book of Order that it dubbed “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity.”
Admittedly, there is not much new in the Foundations section. Mainly, it contains what is currently found in chapters I – IV of the existing Form of Government. For example, we meet “old friends” in it such as “The Great Ends of the Church,” “Jesus Christ is Head of the Church,” “The Historic Principles of Church Order,” and “The Historic Principles of Church Government.” The Task force did, however, begin the Foundations section with a new statement concerning the “missional” work of the Triune God in the world. It also added what I consider to be imprecise and unfocused language about what it means to follow Christ and to be led by the Holy Spirit, as well as a paragraph or two on inclusivity and openness in the church. All in all, however, the Foundations section is fairly benign — at least to the degree that a document reminding us of the Headship of Christ and the Great Ends of the Church can be considered to be benign.
So where is the danger? Where is the hook?
The danger lies in the fact that the relationship between the proposed Foundations section and the three other sections of the Book of Order has not yet been clarified. For instance, is the new Foundations section equal in weight, effect, and authority to the other three sections? Or, does its very name and position in the new Book of Order imply that it enjoys a kind of super-constitutional status? Think about it.
Given its title and its location in the nFOG, would it not be reasonable for a rational person to conclude that the Foundations section is intended to be a kind of internal hermeneutic or lens through which the remaining three sections of the Book of Order are to be viewed and interpreted? After all, what is a foundation if not the supporting sub-structure upon which everything else is built? In its initial introduction to the nFOG, the Task Force itself indicated that “the new Foundations is clearly set apart as foundational to our entire polity,” and that “separating and re-titling this material makes clear that the church regards the content of these chapters as the underlying principles on which the structure of our polity rests” (emphases mine).
My question is very simple — what, precisely, is meant by “foundational to our entire polity,” and that it contains the “underlying” principles on which our polity rests?
Right about now, you may be thinking that by raising this issue I’m picking nits or borrowing trouble. After all, the Task Force neither suggests nor claims that its new Foundations section should play any such role relative to the other three documents. On the other hand, however, the Task Force does not say anything to disallow such a hierarchical relationship, either — which means that, like it or not, the connection between the Foundations section and the rest of the proposed Book of Order is currently unclear. Therefore, I am convinced that it (i.e. the connection or relationship between the Foundations section and the rest of the Book of Order) should itself become the subject of a full-scale, church-wide conversation before any other action is taken on the nFOG.
At present, the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly operates on the hermeneutical principle that all of the provisions of the Book of Order are of equal weight or effect, and that none of its constituent parts is any more or less binding than any of the others.
This was the primary issue raised in Londonderry v. Presbytery of Northern New England in 2001. The case was filed in response to the Presbytery of Northern New England’s concurrence with Christ Church (Burlington, Vt.) that it was valid to ignore the provisions of G-6.0106b when ordaining officers because G-6.0106b conflicts irreconcilably with the church’s obligation to be inclusive (G-4.0403).
In its decision, the GAPJC said this:
It is not unusual for a document such as our Constitution, written at different periods of time and under different circumstances, to exhibit tensions and ambiguities in its provisions. Nevertheless, it is the task of governing bodies and judicial commissions to resolve them in such a way as to give effect to all provisions. It is not within the power of any governing body or judicial commission to declare a properly adopted provision of the Constitution to be invalid. The only appropriate avenue to change or remove a provision of the Constitution is through the process for amendment provided within the Constitution itself.
So, as things currently stand, a governing body cannot claim exemption from one constitutional provision because it seems to be inconsistent with another constitutional provision. Following the logic of that hermeneutic, the GAPJC properly instructed Christ Church to find a way to be faithful both to the Constitution’s requirements and to its prohibitions.
However, by creating a separate Foundations section, the nFOGTF has put that interpretive principle at risk. In fact, it has brought together everything necessary for a perfect constitutional storm in which the will of the whole church (as set forth, perhaps, in a constitutional amendment) could possibly be ruled to be unconstitutional on the basis of a real or imagined conflict with a more “weighty” provision found in or implied by the Foundations document.
Is there a hook in the nFOG? I don’t know for sure. If there is, I don’t believe that it was intentionally set. I do believe that it would not only be irresponsible for the General Assembly to adopt the nFOG as currently written before this issue is openly acknowledged, debated and resolved, but it could potentially be disastrous to a denomination already in conflict.
Robert D. Dooling is pastor of Mountain View United Presbyterian Church in Loveland, Colo.