The only big theme in this year’s constitutional overtures appears to be the broad spread of topics and proposed remedies.
In the lead-up to a General Assembly a major focus of attention, second only to candidates for moderator, is the list of overtures proposing Book of Order changes. At the submission deadline — 120 days before the 223rd GA kicks off — there were 18 such overtures, all of which have the necessary concurrences.
Overture 31, offered by the Presbytery of Wabash Valley, addresses a polity question. It would amend W-4.0404 by requiring presbyteries to answer two additional constitutional questions at the installation of Ministers of Word and Sacrament. Those questions remind everyone that the installation is an act of presbytery and that the minister is a member of the presbytery. They ask the presbytery to affirm support of the pastoral relationship and welcome the pastor as a colleague. This is a creative and direct way of engaging the presbytery in this process, which is essentially theirs to begin with. If I have a quibble, it is that the wording preceding the questions does not appear to include pastors or elders from other churches who might be attending the service.
The most unusual overture is number 38, offered by the Presbytery of Western North Carolina. Titled “On Amending G-3.0104 to Prohibit Public Endorsement of Individuals Running for Public Office,” it addresses the relaxation and possible future repeal of the Johnson Amendment in the U.S. Tax Code. The Johnson Amendment prohibits nonprofits, including churches, from endorsing candidates for public office. The overture reminds officers and councils that there should be separation of church and state in these matters. I expect the Advisory Committee on the Constitution will have plenty to say about this overture, and will probably advise it be declined. The Foundations section of the Book of Order already contains reminders of church-state relationships. So does the Theological Declaration of Barmen. The overture inserts a specific prescription in the Form of Government — something the recent revision attempted to avoid. It is deeply rooted in our tradition that pastors have wide latitude in what they can preach. Furthermore, the wording is problematic in the way it addresses neither endorsing nor opposing candidates.
While we are on the topic of church and state: Overture 1 would provide a minor change to the Trust Clause in G-4.0203 to try to resolve the confusion between various state property laws and the ways litigation based on those laws has played out. It would add the phrase “unless state law requires otherwise” to the end of that section. While the intent expressed in the rationale is to have presbyteries make better decisions before getting involved in property litigation, it is worth noting that in most states laws on property disputes are general, and it is judicial case law that has applied property and trust laws to church property. As we have seen, this sort of interpretation is a moving target and highly dependent on the details of a case. In addition, there are periodic filings to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear one of these cases so that decisions might become more consistent between jurisdictions. Given the complexities, the additional phrasing in this overture might not provide significant guidance.
The longest overture is number 4 from the Presbytery of Santa Fe. It proposes 10 changes to the Directory for Worship adopted by the last GA. These changes include a reminder that the Lord’s Day is also a day of rest and renewal for the people of God; a change to the communion liturgy allowing the prayer following distribution of the elements to be offered by someone other than a Minister of Word and Sacrament; and additional spiritual direction to ministries, pastoral counselors and chaplains.
While most of the proposed changes are minor to moderate, a couple add language urging that the “institution narrative” be included in the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, and change the section that speaks of the relationship between baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The words “when appropriate” would be added to the line about an invitation to baptismal preparation and baptism.
In a related overture, number 27 from Grace Presbytery seeks to clarify and tighten the language in W-4.0202 related to baptized children receiving communion. The current language can be interpreted as encouraging a “first communion” type event. The overture seeks to keep the section from being interpreted as meaning that a specific age or form of preparation is required to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
An important subset of overtures deals with the ongoing polity discussion regarding the terms under which an officer who has renounced jurisdiction in the middle of a disciplinary case can come back into relationship with the church, be it simply in leadership or through a full restoration to office. Some initial changes to the Book of Order were made through the 221st General Assembly, and the statute of limitations was lifted by a change from the last GA. The question before the GA deals primarily with the restoration process and the level and responsibility for that process, with two overtures proposing different approaches. Both seek to remedy ambiguity in the current language as to procedure and responsibility for the process when the person desires to be restored. The current language in G-2.0509 says only, “unless and until the person rejoins the church, comes forward and resubmits to the disciplinary process.”
Overture 19, from the Presbytery of Central Florida, would replace the paragraph containing that language with two new paragraphs that rearrange some current wording and clarify other parts. For the language crucially at issue, this overture would substitute, “can be restored [to office] only through application to the presbytery in which he or she renounced jurisdiction for restoration to office.”
The other approach, Overture 15 from the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, adds a local component to the responsibility for the process and separates the possibility of working for a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) entity from the possibility of restoration to office. This overture proposes changing the end of the sentence in G-2.0509 to say that an individual may only work for a PC(USA) entity after “the council governing that congregation or entity has thoroughly inquired into the circumstances surrounding the renunciation of jurisdiction, determined that the person is suited to the work proposed to be undertaken, and received concurrence from the next higher council.”
Regarding the resumption of the disciplinary process, these overtures also propose a change to D-10.0401d that would remove the reference to simply working for the church in G-2.0509 and make it clear that, for those who renounced jurisdiction while being accused in a disciplinary case, there is no time limit on the filing of charges.
So both overtures provide some additional clarity in this ongoing discussion. The assembly can choose between the suggestions here or use one or the other as a starting point to craft alternative or blended language.
Overture 9 from the Presbytery of North Alabama adds language to the Book of Discipline’s definition of an “offense.” Currently it is defined as an act or omission by a person in ordered ministry contrary to Scripture or the PC(USA) constitution. The overture adds another sentence saying that violations of the responsible council’s policies on sexual misconduct or child and youth protection will constitute an offense. This is possibly a valuable addition. As the polity experts consider it, we will see if it works in the overarching framework of the full Book of Order.
The Presbytery of Boston has offered two overtures regarding family leave for ministers and church workers. Overture 33 would amend G-2.0804 so that terms of call, in addition to including Board of Pensions participation, would also include 12 weeks of paid family leave. Its companion, Overture 34, requires presbyteries to offer Board of Pension participation and the 12 weeks of paid family leave under the minimum compensation standards in G-3.0303c.
Three overtures that were unsuccessful in previous assemblies have been offered again this year. Overture 17 from the Presbytery of Monmouth would permit the election and ordination of individuals as ruling elders without the current corresponding service on the church session. There was a proposal at the 221st General Assembly that would have permitted something similar if the person was going to serve as a commissioned ruling elder (now commissioned pastor). An overture almost identical to this one was presented to the 222nd General Assembly. In the first case the overture was disapproved, and in the second the assembly committee recommended disapproval but the full assembly decided to refer it to the Office of the General Assembly. I have not heard what OGA’s recommendation will be, but we should hear shortly. The advisory committee would probably again recommend disapproval. Its recommendation at the last assembly included the line, “The Constitution assumes [experience on session] as a prerequisite to exercise governance in higher councils.”
Overture 12 from the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest revisits the idea of requiring two-thirds of presbyteries to approve a change to either portion of the PC(USA) constitution, not just the Book of Confessions. The argument is similar to the disapproved proposal at the last GA, which was part of a related group of proposals that acquired the name of the Foothills Overtures. The rationale is to have greater unity among the presbyteries when making changes to the constitution and consistency in the standards between the two parts. The alternative argument is that the Book of Order is a fundamentally different document than the Book of Confessions and need not have the same standard.
Regarding professional associations and the certifications they require under section G-2.11 of the Book of Order, two similar overtures ask that a second association and certification be added to the only one currently mentioned, certified Christian educators. Overture 5 from the Presbytery of Central Nebraska and Overture 23 from the Presbytery of New Castle would add a new section for the Administrative Personnel Association and their certification. New Castle’s overture also includes a change elsewhere to make the wording consistent. The Presbytery of Central Nebraska brought a similar overture to the last GA, which disapproved it after the advisory committee cited a number of polity issues. We will see if the 223rd GA sees things differently this year.
And a few final overtures:
Overture 3 from the Presbytery of Santa Fe would clean up the language in G-3.0307 that was missed at the last assembly when the language was changed from Teaching Elder to Minister of Word and Sacrament.
Overture 11 from the Presbytery of Tropical Florida would add language to G-2.0503 requiring both presbyteries to approve a minister laboring outside the bounds of one and within the bounds of the other and require that permission to be renewed annually.
Overture 26 from the Grace Presbytery seeks to clarify the minimum number of members and composition of a congregational nominating committee. In addition, it restores to the Book of Order a requirement that a majority of the nominating committee be members-at-large drawn from the congregation.
Overture 28, from the Presbytery of Southeastern Illinois, also adds previous language back into the Book of Order in section G-3.0201. In this case, provision is made for an elder currently serving on session to moderate a particular meeting in the absence of the pastor or other regular moderator with that person’s knowledge and approval. This provision was removed in the streamlining of the Form of Government to make the polity more flexible. The overture retains the new style of the Form of Government with the potentially conflicting line that the presbytery may provide for the moderator by rule.
Considering that the new Directory for Worship was just approved, I expected to see more wordsmithing in this year’s overtures. Maybe that will come in the future as more use is made of the directory.
Looking forward, there is plenty here for the upcoming GA to discuss and for the presbyteries to have their turn at reflecting and voting on.
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.