Imagine this situation. The United States government implements a plan to functionally erase state governments. At the same time, Congress allows for changes to the Constitution to be made by voting needing only concurrence of a simple majority of the counties and parishes. What do you suppose the effects on the country would be within a very few years? Does the word “chaos” come to mind?
In essence, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) moved in this general direction across the latter part of the 20th century. Synods were combined and, in the process, became less and less connected to the lives of congregations and the General Assembly. The PC(USA) constitution became a large manual of operations, and under the old principle of majority rule, the Book of Order became a legislative tool subject to an ongoing battle of highly partisan voices. This move to assert the democratic principle over the constitutional principle created a sense of winners and losers. The winners-take-all dynamics have been devastating for the life of the church.
As a denomination named by our polity, the loss of a shared understanding of the nature and meaning of living constitutionally has led not only to a church that gathers to battle through an endless process of amending the constitution, but also to a loss of the core identity marker by which we distinctively claim our place in the family of Christian churches. It is past time to reclaim a true sense of our distinctive identity and time to refresh ourselves in our constitutional identity.
Towards becoming judicious again
In his 2008 address at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary convocation, the former head of the General Assembly Office of Theology and Worship, Joseph Small, spoke about changes in the church specifically related to the presbyteries, but his words apply to every level of governance in the church:
“We used to call presbyteries, along with sessions, synods and the general assembly, “judicatories.” While sometimes understood as “courts of the church,” the term judicatory did not denote a judicial court patterned along the lines of the American legal system, but rather indicated an assembly to enquire into significant matters and reach considered conclusions. Its meaning had become obscure, however, so the reunion of the northern and southern Presbyterian churches in 1983 devised a new generic term. Foolish thoughts produce ugly and inaccurate language; thus the church decided to call presbyteries, sessions, synods and the general assembly, “governing bodies.” Quite apart from the gracelessness of the term, it emerged from and reinforced the warped notion that the purpose of these gatherings of presbyters was to govern the church – to direct, regulate and manage the affairs of the institution. Thus, the change in terminology was significant: While judicatories are assemblies to exercise discerning judgment, “governing bodies” are managerial and legislative meetings for the regulation of institutions.”
Is this not our current ordeal? With the important move in the adoption of the new form of government in 2010 we have remedied the terrible language mistake we made. Moving away from the language of “governing body” and reclaiming the ancient term “council,” we have achieved a better nuance. In like fashion, the revision of the form of government itself was an important step in reclaiming a constitution. But having said that, the decades-long practice of using the constitution as a partisan tool for legislation has hurt us severely. And the practice of church governance as being managerial and legislative shows no signs of abating.
The PC(USA) – and I dare say the world – needs assemblies that are earnestly committed to practicing significant theological and moral judgment. Inside the church we urgently need to reclaim the breadth and depth of what it means to be and live the Presbyterian way. An important step in moving us in that direction is to reclaim the meaning and purpose of being a constitutional church. For our assemblies to be deeply discerning bodies, we need to be engaged in a deliberative process focused on more than rule-making and rule-keeping.
Our American practice
The constitution of the PC(USA) is a book of belief and practices as well as a set of governing rules and procedures. We require a two-thirds majority vote to amend part one of the constitution (the Book of Confessions), but not part two (the Book of Order). Our past practice has been to require only a simple majority to change the governing rules. We base this practice on the democratic principle of majority rule. Overtures to require a two-thirds approval for Book of Order changes have failed because the democratic principle has been affirmed above the constitutional principle.
The United States Constitution, of course, does not prioritize its principles in this way. An amendment to the U.S. Constitution may be proposed either by a joint resolution from Congress (requiring a two-thirds majority vote from both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate) or by a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of the state legislatures (as took place in 1787, when the Constitution was drafted). To take effect, the proposed amendment must also be ratified by three-fourths of the states (38 of 50 states). The result of this is that in the near two and a half centuries of national life, Americans have only amended the Constitution 27 times. As a result, it has remained a vital instrument for maintaining the nation’s vibrant, living identity. The changes made, for the most part, have moved us towards the end of “forming a more perfect Union.”
In the PC(USA), the move towards requiring a two-thirds majority to change the constitution can help us reclaim the strength and stability of being truly constitutional in our church polity.
Connected structural changes
Foothills Presbytery is currently looking at eight, interconnected overtures to move the PC(USA) towards a re-formed and re-newed practice of our Presbyterian polity. These overtures address how we seek to engage in social witness; how we practice voting; how often and for what purposes we gather as a church; and how we encourage wise and experienced discernment. Our General Assembly Reform Group sees these overtures as first steps in moving our denomination toward sustained attention and work in mending our denominational troubles and toward significantly improving our practice of being Presbyterian. Approving and implementing the practice of a two-thirds vote to amend the Book of Order will be an important step to move us into that sustained work.
GORDON W. G. RAYNAL is interim presbytery pastor and stated clerk of Foothills Presbytery.