The Standing Rules Committee of the 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) began meeting today with ten of its 31 items scheduled to be considered. While some of these items were considered with discussion, amendments and more time for discernment by the body, most of the recommendations were received and approved with little extra work.
The committee meeting began with team-building exercises that included introductions, technical training, covenant building and a time of worship. In worship, Elizabeth Kanerva, the committee assistant, offered a brief meditation on how General Assembly can be experienced as a sacred space, a “thin place.”
J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the General Assembly, brought greetings to the committee during its opening session. He emphasized the importance of the work of the General Assembly at this time under a different set of circumstances. He talked about how everyone is supporting the prudent measures to avoid spreading COVID during this meeting time. He thanked the commissioners and advisory delegates for their work, their faith and their love of Jesus Christ.
As the committee started its work it was emphasized multiple times this committee has a unique set of business since all the recommendations come from the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly and the Standing Rules are related to how the General Assembly is organized and operates.
Andy James, a member of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA), introduced the work of COGA and the Office of the General Assembly. He then helped the committee understand the first three items of business and COGA’s reasons for bringing them to the committee. In response to a question from a commissioner about changing the process to suspend the Standing Rules, James explained that both the current method of requiring a two-thirds vote and the proposed method of having a majority vote but with advanced notice are options under Robert’s Rules of Order. The three recommendations to clarify when the Standing Rules go into effect, how to suspend the Standing Rules and to remove the ratio of advisory delegates were readily accepted.
The committee next spent significant time in the morning and after lunch crafting the language in item STAN-22 regarding the qualifications for Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAAD). As finally adopted by the committee, the original recommendation was amended to change the age range for Young Adult Advisory Delegates from between 17 and 23 years old to between 18 and 26 years old. COGA also asked for clarification on whether a presbytery’s YAAD is required to be a member of one of the presbytery’s congregations and if a student from another presbytery going to school and involved in a campus ministry within a presbytery could serve as a YAAD. Also discussed was allowing participants in worshipping communities that do not have traditional membership categories to serve as delegates. To reflect these concerns the committee amended the item so that Young Adult Advisory Delegates could be participants of either a congregation or a recognized worshipping community in the presbytery.
Committee moderator Jennifer Jennings then guided the commissioners through the remaining seven items scheduled for the day. Five of the items passed with minimal discussion and no amendments; two were amended. Item STAN-32 updates the Standing Rules allowing a quorum to be established by sign-ins to an electronic voting system and not by manual registration. Commissioners decided that in case of technical issues a quorum could be confirmed by more traditional means. To provide for this option the “shall” in the recommendation was changed to “may.” Item STAN-30 regarding communication with commissioners was updated for current technology, permitting electronic distribution of materials to commissioners from approved groups rather than on paper or through the mail.
The other item for which there was discussion and amendments was STAN-19: Regarding Acknowledgement of Indigenous Peoples. This is an addition to the Standing Rules for the General Assembly to include an acknowledgment of the Indigenous peoples of the area and an opportunity to receive a welcome from them during the first session or in opening worship. The recommended language was changed slightly to read “Indigenous peoples on whose land the assembly is meeting,” acknowledging the dislocation of many Indigenous groups from their originally inhabited land.
Other items scheduled for today included a clarification of the role of advisory delegates, a rewrite of the section on Theological Student Advisory Delegates for clarity and brevity, updating the list of corresponding members to reflect changes in the church, and adjusting the wording for public hearings to be more flexible, allowing testimony by video as has been common at this assembly.
Concluding the work scheduled for the first day, and finding themselves with over three hours until scheduled adjournment, the committee continued into the second day’s work. Again, most items were handled efficiently and smoothly even when amendments were offered. And the resource people from COGA, James and Lynn Hargrove, frequented the microphone to answer questions.
What was scheduled as the first six business items tomorrow morning all involved overtures and other business items submitted for an assembly? The first, STAN-20, adjusts the language of the Standing Rules for electronic submission of overtures. The next, STAN-21, streamlines and updates the language regarding requirements and processing of overtures. As written, it included a provision that a presbytery or synod could be charged a processing fee if the overture exceeded 1,500 words. The committee amended it to say an overture could be no more than 1,500 words.
STAN-23 expands the language regarding the need for translations of all assembly business and again imposes a fee for excessive length. In reply to a commissioner’s question, James clarified that this recommendation is a general one covering different types of business and not just overtures, but also reports and commissioner resolutions, so it does not conflict with the action taken before.
The next item was STAN-24, which removes the fee for a report of excessive length. The rationale explains this is no longer necessary as the reports are no longer printed and the translation fee is included elsewhere. This was followed by STAN-25, which set the word limit on concurrences at 1,500 words. As was pointed out, the text of the overture in a concurrence must be the same as the original, but a presbytery or synod can write their own rationale. Finally, STAN-26 set the word limit for Commissioners’ Resolutions at 750 words. As part of this discussion, Associate Stated Clerk Tricia Dykers-Koenig confirmed for the committee these are usually generous limits and relatively few items of business reach the Office of the General Assembly that exceed them.
With smooth approval, item STAN-31 was adopted stating items of business submitted to the Office of the General Assembly may be declined for referral.
The committee next considered item STAN-38, outlining the process for appointment of General Assembly committee moderators and vice moderators. The recommendation from COGA included language to recognize there are now co-moderators of the General Assembly and revised wording that all synods will be represented. Members of the committee were also concerned with the existing language and hoped to include diverse gender representation.
Commissioners considered possible revisions for an amendment, trying to discern how to properly craft it to be most inclusive and achieve the desired result. Commissioner Josefina Ahumada from de Cristo Presbytery encouraged the intent of the efforts but added caution, saying the words they use are important and, in the present case, she didn’t think it was accomplishing what they had hoped. Soon after, a resource person suggested the amendment needed work outside the committee meeting and should be brought back to the group tomorrow. A motion to postpone the discussion until tomorrow morning was unanimously approved.
With that, Committee Moderator Jennings suggested it was a good point to adjourn for the day, although two hours remained until the scheduled adjournment. While some commissioners wanted to continue, an adjournment was agreed, and the committee closed in prayer.
With that, the committee completed not just Monday’s business but also three-quarters of Tuesday’s items. The schedule of 10 items for the day had expanded to 17 leaving the one postponed item from today and 13 new items to be considered in the coming days. The committee will return at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow morning.