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Polity experts say church governance should take a back seat to core beliefs

ORLANDO, Fla. (Presbyterian News Service) – Institutional questions around polity and governance are secondary to questions around identity and mission, two middle governing body executives who are polity experts told the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Middle Governing Body Commission at its second meeting here Feb. 3-5.

“We have a tendency in the church to ask the question ‘How do we organize ourselves?’ first,” said the Rev. Paul Hooker, executive presbyter for St. Augustine Presbytery and a member of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC). “And it should be last. The first question is, ‘What are we called to do?’ which masks an even prior question: ‘Who are we called to be?’”

Quoting the late James Andrews, a former General Assembly Stated Clerk, the Rev. Daniel Saperstein, executive for Plains and Peaks Presbytery and an ACC member, said: “Polity is the practical expression of our theology.”

The commission, appointed by last summer’s 219th General Assembly, is charged with consulting with the whole PC(USA) on the mission and function of middle governing bodies in the denomination, with several purposes in mind. The commission is expected to: develop models that reflect the roles of middle governing bodies in Presbyterian polity and the changing context of the church’s witness in the world; report its findings and recommend changes it believes are necessary; and supervise the oversight of the middle governing bodies in the Synod of Puerto Rico.

The commission is still in data-gathering mode and spent a great deal of this meeting planning its “consultation” with the whole church.

Working with the denomination’s Research Services office, commission members have developed three survey instruments — one for sessions, one for synods and presbyteries and one that will be available to every Presbyterian via the commission’s Web site.

“We want to talk and listen to everyone,” said commission moderator the Rev. Tod Bolsinger, pastor of San Clemente, Calif., Presbyterian Church in Los Ranchos Presbytery.

Before and after their next meeting in Seattle in late-May, commission members will hold listening sessions in every synod and in a number of presbyteries. The commission will also conduct focus groups with a wide range of Presbyterians at various gatherings and will encourage discussion and feedback on Facebook and Twitter.

“The guiding questions,” Bolsinger said, are, “‘How are governing bodies best organized to be responsive both the Spirit of Jesus Christ and the changing opportunities for discipleship?’ and ‘Are the structures of history the best platforms for carrying out our mission into the future?’”

Saperstein and Hooker led the commission into a thorough exploration of that history.

Going back to Presbyterians’ roots, Saperstein outlined Calvin’s theological underpinnings for church governance:

  • The sovereignty of God;

  • The centrality of the Word of God;

  • Human beings created in the image of God as free beings with dignity and worthy of respect;

  • Universal depravity: that human beings are sinful and self-interested and in need of accountability and discipline;

  • The unity of the church: that there is one church, not many.

Contrary to that expectation of unity, Saperstein said, Presbyterians came to America in two streams: the Scots-Irish, establishment types who were conservative, believed in Scripture interpreted by tradition and were resistant to cultural change; and the English Puritans, who were marginalized, reform-minded, believed in Scripture interpreted by religious experience and were more open to cultural change.

Those two streams have persisted unabated in American Presbyterian history, Saperstein said.

“What we have in the church is a polarity, which is never resolved, only managed,” he said. “Historically, the poles have periodically united and divided, but eventually they come back together. That’s the role of this commission in the current impasse.”

Hooker called the organic unity of the church fundamental.

“The church reflects the God who calls the church into being,” he said. “It’s God’s engagement in the world that calls the church into being as “koinonia” — the church as God’s community.”

That community reflects the nature of God, emphasizes the call to relationship and accords with biblical imagery of the church as the body of Christ, outlined for Presbyterians in the proposed new PC(USA) Form of Government (F-1.0301):

  • The church as community of faith — entrusting itself to God;

  • The church as community of hope — rejoicing in the prospect that God is making a new creation;

  • The church as community of love — exhibiting forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration;

  • The church as community of witness – pointing beyond itself to the transforming work of God.

“We are called to try again and again by God’s redemptive spirit to be in our common life what we are in Christ,” Hooker said. “God has redeemed and transformed our lives — the problem is we don’t know what to do with it.”

What this means for the polity and governance life of the PC(USA) is the challenge facing the commission and the church.

One implication of Presbyterians’ theological history, Saperstein said, is that the “organic unity of the church as the body of Christ means an essential organic unity to the governing body structure.

“What are the requirements of unity and the limits of diversity in a post-Christendom church? Does unity revolve around common confession or common polity or common mission or combination of all three?”

Another implication of Presbyterians’ theological and political history, Hooker said, is that the church must recapture the notion of denominational councils as “gatherings of the church’s elected leaders for the purpose of theological discernment — not service on a board of directors.

“Far too many Presbyterians don’t get that, particularly in the ‘clericalization’ of the church,” Hooker said, referring to the loss of the Presbyterian principle of the “parity of ministry” of ministers and laypersons. “That’s fatal for us.”

. Hooker, who served on the special committee that developed the new proposed Form of Government, cited the proposal’s statement on the function of all governing bodies: “to nurture, guide and govern those who witness as part of the PC(USA), to the end that such witness strengthens the whole church and gives glory to God.”