Special GA commentary by Steve Salyards
Among the overtures to any General Assembly, those that propose changes to the Book of Order typically have the highest profile. But right along with them are a few overtures each time that request or suggest the assembly provide an interpretation of the Book of Order.
This year Eastern Korean Presbytery has sent to the 222nd General Assembly two overtures related to an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) from the previous assembly. These overtures present this assembly with a choice of amending the current AI or replacing it with a new, more streamlined version. The current AI permits a geographic presbytery and its synod the option of transferring a congregation to a nongeographic presbytery in a synod next door if that synod does not have an appropriate nongeographic presbytery for racial ethnic or immigrant congregations. Technically, the language used is “a synod that has contiguous boundaries with their current synod.”
The first overture, listed as business item 05-07, would add a single sentence to the AI for G-3.0403c concerning synods: “In cases where the racial ethnic or immigrant congregation is in a synod that does not share a contiguous boundary with a synod having a nongeographic presbytery, then transfer to a nongeographic presbytery in another synod may be considered.”
The second overture, item 05-08, would replace the whole AI with a more compact statement:
“A presbytery may transfer an organized racial ethnic or immigrant congregation to a nongeographic presbytery that can meet the congregation’s particular mission needs. Ordinarily, this nongeographic presbytery would be within the bounds of the same synod. Such transfers require approval of both the sending and receiving presbyteries, as well as the synods and the General Assembly.”
Because the current AI also relates to section G-3.0301 the second overture also includes a one-line AI for that section that preserves the current AI as it applies there.
It is important to note that the current AI restricts transfers to a nongeographic presbytery in another synod to organized congregations. Other groups, such as new church developments and fellowships, cannot be transferred out of the synod. The two overtures would make no changes in this requirement.
Nongeographic presbyteries are typically presbyteries that cover an area larger than a traditional presbytery but remain within the boundaries of a synod. The current AI allows expansion beyond the bounds of a synod, but still restricts the geographic area to adjoining synods. While the area is wider than a geographic presbytery, congregations in nongeographic presbyteries still share a general region as well as their sense of racial ethnic or immigrant identity. In theory, the proposed modifications to the AI could permit a congregation in California to become part of a nongeographic presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic states. This consideration is something the assembly commissioners will have to weigh.
If the assembly discerns that a modification like this advances the mission of the church, it might wish to consider if some parameters should be placed on transfers, such as requiring that transfers shall be to the closest related nongeographic presbytery.
There are two other considerations for the larger picture. The first is the future of synods. The possibility exists that the synods will be realigned to such an extent that an appropriate nongeographic presbytery will exist in a contiguous synod. But that is still a work in progress and the AI would provide temporary relief in the meantime.
The other factor is a philosophical debate on the nature of nongeographic presbyteries themselves. Nongeographic presbyteries are seen by some as a transitional structure to ease the integration of congregations into geographic presbyteries. Alternately, many view nongeographic presbyteries as an important center of mission in their own right and should be regarded as an ongoing component of the PC(USA) structure.
This tension around the nature of nongeographic presbyteries is demonstrated in the history of Hanmi Presbytery in the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii. The 1983 assembly established Hanmi Presbytery with a 10-year term. The 1992 assembly renewed that term for an additional 15 years. In 2008, the assembly granted a modification to let the presbytery continue without a term limit. Then, the 221st assembly in 2014 dissolved Hanmi Presbytery for a number of reasons — and in doing so, it wrestled with the complex nature of nongeographic presbyteries.
In the rational for these new overtures, the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii is specifically cited as a case where there is no nongeographic presbytery in a contiguous synod. If one of these overtures were approved, it would open the door for a congregation that was transferred from Hanmi to a geographic presbytery to apply for transfer to a nongeographic presbytery elsewhere in the country.
Ultimately, the discernment of the 222nd General Assembly in this matter will boil down to what arrangement best serves “the purposes of meeting the mission needs of racial ethnic or immigrant congregations.” Might a congregation’s mission be best lived out by being part of a distant nongeographic presbytery above and beyond any affinity groups they may be part of and therefore, should presbyteries and synods have the option to evaluate requests for transfer? Or, is the sense of location important enough that it outweighs affinity and being in a connectional environment in their own region is more important for the mission of the church?
STEVE SALYARDS is a ruling elder living in La Verne, California. He is an IT manager and geologist at UCLA, writes the GA Junkie blog and has been active with his presbytery and synod.