GA News: Form of Government Revision Committee dialogues about effects of status quo and change

A 114-page report was examined by 68 committee members and critiqued by 20 overture advocates -- and 25 additional speakers -- in an open meeting of the Form of Government Revision Committee Monday (June 23).

The committee’s afternoon meeting was standing room only with more than 60 observers in attendance as overture advocate after overture advocate articulated his — and rarely, her — arguments. Others spoke against the revisions in open hearings after the overture advocates. Many arguments against the proposed revisions centered on the notion that good mission work is already happening under the current Form of Government.

“Is this missional or omissional” asked the overture advocate from the Presbytery of Santa Barbara as he concurred with an overture from Mississippi to refer the document for a two-year period of study.

The arguments the committee heard centered around fears: fears that neither the committee nor the assembly has the time or the knowledge base to understand the document; fears that it omits essential protections for women, minorities, and historical documents; fears that churches do not trust the assembly enough to receive the Report of the Task Force.

Many speakers had issues with specific aspects of the documents. Some struggled with the very idea of revising a Form of Government that they see as sufficient.

“Why are we so ready to rewrite what we have been given already?” one speaker asked. “What’s next —- a rewrite of the Directory for Worship? The Book of Discipline?”

The tone of the meeting changed when the task force was invited to respond to concerns the committee brought up in small group discussions in an earlier session. Task Force Member Paul Hooker responded to the issue of how the task force shaped which theological concerns went into the document.

He told those present to read the first few lines of the report, that spoke to the mission of the one, triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- as being who gives “substance and form” to the church’s activity in the world. Reading aloud, he quoted: “The life of the church starts by the mission of God in the world not by a decision on our part to do things this way instead of that way. … That understanding is mediated by Scripture, the Confessions, and the ongoing work of the Spirit in our midst. God shapes anything and everything we do. We believe we have enhanced the theological foundations of the Book of Order.”

Committee moderator James Petersen had begun the committee’s work by carefully instructing them on the decency and order with which they would proceed under Robert’s Rules of Order. “I caution you to listen to each other and listen for the Holy Spirit in all we do,” he said.

Energy waned after the dinner recess, as commissioners and delegates requested an opportunity to hear examples of ways that the revised Form of Government might enhance current ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The committee suspended the rules so they might engage one another in conversation as a whole committee rather than in small groups.

“The motion passes,” said Vice Moderator Daniel Williams. “We are now going to talk to each other.”

Commissioners and delegates discussed their feelings about the revisions as well as instances when they felt encumbered by the current Book of Order. David McKirachan, a pastor in Monmouth Presbytery, became impassioned as he told of a new racial/ethnic ministry in his congregation that was flourishing, and yet, was fettered by the paperwork required to validate it and to employ the person who was already leading the ministry.

“We have a coalition of people trying to dance around the Book of Order,” he said. “[This] ministry is staffed and funded, and we can’t get the person who is practically doing the job to do the job.”

Clara Sanders, Youth Advisory Delegate from Indian Nations Presbytery, addressed earlier arguments about current mission work under the present Form of Government and the missional theology that was emphasized in the Task Force’s Report.
“The question is not is mission going on,? Sanders said. “The fact that certain presbyteries are having to maneuver around the Book of Order tells us we need a new Form of Government and missional language that provides a broad base for what we are doing. All of our churches are very different. I think we need to be extremely careful in thinking about why we are considering a new Form of Government. Just because we are able to get around something doesn’t mean we don’t want to create a more symbiotic relationship between our Form of Government and what we are doing on the ground.”