I was very intrigued by a small line buried in the report from the Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies a few years ago. They wrote, “We affirm the value of Robert’s Rules of Order as our guide for doing business and making decisions together. Yet we have listened to the church and have heard a yearning for dialogue and conversation that focuses on issues and ideas rather than on rules and regulations.”
Yes, yearning is the right word for what I feel. I am aware that there are those out there who have been making the case for deeper changes in our procedures for quite a while — and we have indeed made some progress along that road! Yet, my hope for the Presbyterian Church (and the General Assemblies in our future together) is that we might continue to think creatively about ways to discern the Spirit that better reflect our theological convictions.
As much as we like to conflate Robert’s Rules and the Book of Order, they are not the same. The Book of Order was and continues to be formed by the particular theological convictions of the Reformed tradition. We allow – and in fact encourage – the Book of Order to be reformed and always reforming according to the word of God. That allows us to adapt to the changing landscape of being church in our modern context. The Book of Order is a document written by the church for the church.
Robert’s Rules of Order, on the other hand, is a secular set of procedures written in 1876 shortly after the Civil War as a resource to help maintain social order amid turmoil. It was found to be greatly useful and has since been adapted and expanded to fit the work of any sort of legislative body: corporate, church or governmental. It is a decent and orderly system, but it is not a system primarily concerned with the movement of the Holy Spirit, building unity in the Body of Christ or with making the sorts of adaptive changes our church desperately needs. Yet it is the primary tool we use when we gather to do just that!
The last significant overhaul of Robert’s Rules was made in 1970 – not in order to adapt to the many issues of civil unrest and inequality as named in our own Confession of 1967, but in reaction against activist groups of the 1960s. Rachel Donadio writes in “Point of Order,” an essay published in the New York Times, “Just as Robert’s original rules were intended to keep chaos at bay, so the 1970 edition was conceived as a bulwark against decision by consensus — a practice that Henry Robert III today calls “dangerous,” though it was common in protest movements.”
Are we really using a system designed specifically against consensus building to discern the will of God for the body of Christ? Is there any reason we should be surprised when this intrinsically adversarial system allows for little, if any, actual deliberation and leaves all sides feeling disenfranchised? My prayer for our church structure is that we continue to make strides to create more breathing space for the Holy Spirit in the midst of all of our orderliness.
CAITLIN THOMAS DEYERLE is pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her husband James, their cat Calvin and a very rebellious puppy named Molly.