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GA News: Form of Government committee recommends referral for study

The 218th General Assembly Committee on the Revision of the Form of Government, charged to address the Report of the Form of Government Task Force, voted Tuesday (June 24) to refer the report to churches and presbyteries for a 19-month study process. 

The committee’s motion also recommended the formation of an expanded task force that would revise the document with feedback from churches presbyteries after the period of study and produce a revised document for consideration by the 219th General Assembly.

The Form of Government Task Force that crafted the Report was mandated by the 217th General Assembly to create a new Form of Government to reflect missional polity. That assembly directed that this task force would be appointed by moderators of the 215th, 216th, and 217th General Assemblies, and would include a member of a committee on ministry, a member of a committee on preparation for ministry, the advisory committee of the constitution, a stated clerk, an executive presbyter, and an immigrant pastor.

The recommended new task force would be chosen from the 218th General Assembly Committee on the Revision of the Form of Government by the Moderator of the 218th General Assembly in consultation with the moderator and vice moderator of the 218th General Assembly Committee on the Revision of the Form of Government.

This new task force would revise the previous task force’s report, taking into account the concerns and suggestions gleaned from the consultation and study process with the guidance of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution. Overtures and testimony received by the 218th General Assembly Committee on the Revision of the Form of Government and its comment would be referred to the task force for serious and studied consideration.

When Tuesday’s deliberations began, it appeared the committee could choose from one of four options for dealing with the report of the original task force:

 

(1) Approve the recommendations of the Form of Government Task Force and instruct the stated clerk to send them to the presbyteries for their positive or negative vote; (2) Disapprove the Recommendations of the Form of Government Task Force; (3) Approve the recommendations of the Form of Government Task Force with amendment, and instruct the stated clerk to send them to the presbyteries for their positive or negative vote. (4) Refer the report and recommendations for further study.

 

 

But then Moderator James Peterson advised them of another possible path to

consider. “Whatever we agree on is the right way to proceed,” he said. “We could decide first if we are going to refer it to presbyteries for study. Rather than amending the document, we should consider first an amendment to refer to presbyteries with your comments.”

The committee conducted a straw poll. The leanings of the committee quickly became apparent, with 33 voting for the fourth option, to refer the report and recommendations to presbyteries for further study, and 23 voting for the third option, to approve the recommendations of the Form of Government Task Force with amendment, and instruct the stated clerk to send them to the presbyteries for their positive or negative vote. Just one committee member voted for the first option, to approve the recommendations of the Form of Government Task Force and instruct the stated clerk to send them to the presbyteries for their positive or negative vote. Two committee members voted to disapprove the Recommendations of the Form of Government Task Force with comment.

In the morning, it appeared that the committee would simply vote to recommend that the Report would be referred without amendment to the presbyteries, and spend the rest of the day adding comments that it thought should be considered. However, a motion for referral would not be perfected until nearly 3:30 p.m.  And the adoption of this motion was followed by two and a half hours of deliberations over subsequent substitute motions, despite the fact that the motion that had been adopted was itself a substitute motion. The decision to hear the additional substitute motions required a consultation with the office of the stated clerk.

As committee members hammered out a resolution that would articulate the fourth option, the process they had adopted had them voting on the Report of the Form of Government Task Force without any real debate on its content.

Commissioner Ellen Roberds of Mid-South Presbytery expressed disappointment that the committee did not delve into the Report itself. “I regret that we are referring this on without ever opening the document,” Roberds said. “We are missing a great opportunity.”

Several motions for referral with various plans for carrying it out were considered. Proposals to designate the Internet; perhaps with an open-source or wiki model as the means of dispersal of these documents for discussion in churches and presbyteries met with colorful responses.

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“Seeing that the average age of a member in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is 67 and we can’t get PC-biz to work,” one Youth Advisory Delegate observed, “I don’t think this is a process for revising our Form of Government that the whole church would trust.  I think the Web can be one way we examine this.”

Theological Student Advisory Delegate Emily McGinley advocated for multiple means of soliciting feedback from presbyteries and churches, referring to the model by which “A Brief Statement of Faith” was created in 1983, when formers of that document visited each presbytery to solicit feedback throughout the process.

“Anyone who’s had a miscommunication over e-mail might recognize a little of the dangers of communicating only electronically,” McGinley said. “A lot is lost in translation and (I) think it’s important to recognize the value of having a face-to-face conversation.”

The committee spent the next several hours perfecting its motion, adding details about how this year of study would be carried out. Language of the motion was generalized to allow for multiple means of communication with churches and presbyteries on the Report. This motion was passed by a margin of 45 to 20, with three abstentions. But though the motion passed in time for the dinner recess, the committee had yet to address the 16 overtures sent to it by presbyteries, and it had not yet dealt with the 67 amendments to the text of the Report of the Form of Government Task Force brought forth by committee members.

Overtures were dealt with one by one, most of them disapproved by the committee’s action on the first overture, the Report of the Form of Government Task Force.

The Report itself would finally be opened after the dinner recess, as the committee broke into sub-committees to consider amendments it would list in its comments to the General Assembly.

After a time of deliberation, the committee became comparatively permissive, electing to send all amendments suggested by committee members to the assembly with notes about concurrence or disagreement based on assessments by the sub-committees. In including these notes, the committee incorporated many concerns mentioned in the overtures it had voted against into its recommendation to the General Assembly.

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