Category Archives: parliamentary procedure

Top Ten Presbyterian News Topics Of 2015

Once again, as I think back on the year and review what has happened I decided to make a list of the different themes that stood out to me from different Presbyterian branches. Here, in no particular order, is my list. Your list may vary.

Racial Reconciliation

One of the more dramatic moments in a Presbyterian General Assembly this year occurred at the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. A good narration of the action comes from Travis Hutchinson’s blog. He begins his post with this description of the personal resolution offered from the floor of the Assembly:

Mississippi Teaching Elders, Drs Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan entered a personal resolution at the beginning of the Assembly which acknowledged the involvement of our denomination (and our predecessor denomination) in promoting racism and failing to act to support the goals of the Civil Rights movement. It encouraged us to seek repentance and carry this message to our local churches. The resolution was referred to our Overtures Committee for a recommendation.

The Overtures Committee recommended referring it to the next GA to allow for it to be perfected but when it returned to the floor it was clear that many commissioners felt making the statement at the current Assembly was a more important action than waiting for refinement. But in that parallel universe that is Standing Rules and Parliamentary Procedure the choice before the Assembly was not to adopt the original motion but to refer it back to the Overtures Committee or refer it to the next GA. After much debate, a couple of votes and not a small amount of prayer the Assembly voted to send it to the next Assembly. Then a protest was filed “expressing [personal] confession of sin and hope for repentance.” Over 200 of the commissioners signed onto the protest according to the official news item. Another detailed description of the Assembly action on this item can be found on TE Timothy R. LeCroy’s blog.

Other news in this topic includes the continued work of the Reformed African American Network, the formation of the African American Presbyterian Fellowship within the PCA’s Mission to North America ministries, and the PC(USA) has launched an anti-racism campaign.

In the PC(USA) the presbyteries approved the addition of the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions leaving only the final approval of the 222nd General Assembly in 2016.

Finally, in Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been working with the indigenous peoples and at the release of their final report the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada made a statement that acknowledged the pain of the past while expressing hope for the future.


Mass Shootings and Gun Violence

With several high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. this year it may be impossible to chronicle every Presbyterian connection. But two in particular caught my attention. The first was the shootings at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church in June. Among many connections, the church has had a long and close connection to Second Presbyterian next door. I chronicled some of the many connections in a headlines piece at the time. The other tragedy was the recent San Bernardino shootings close to where I live and several friends were mentioned in local news stories about responses and pastoral care. The PC(USA) issued both a pastoral letter as well as an initial and then a follow-up news article.

In addition, the Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly, Larissa Kwong Abazia, issued her own personal statement about the situation and asking the denomination to seek ways to respond to gun violence in general. In addition, in light of all the shootings it was a year in which the PC(USA) film about gun violence, “Trigger“, was highlighted.

As I said above, there were multiple incidents world-wide and that same June Headlines piece also contained links to several stories about a terrorist attack in Tunisia that killed adherents from the Church of Scotland.


Presbyterian denominations and same-gender relationships

This was an issue across many Presbyterian branches this year with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada beginning a study process to consider making their standards more inclusive and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland debating and sending to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act the proposed changes to their governing documents. For the Canadian church the study documents have been released. In the case of the Kirk the indication is the changes to the Acts and Proceedings have been approved by a majority of the presbyteries but the results will not be certified until next year.

In the American Presbyterian church, the PC(USA) presbyteries approved a change in the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship in the Book of Order. That change went into effect at the end of June and in early September the chapel at the PC(USA) national offices hosted its first same-gender wedding ceremony.


Reaction within the Presbyterian family to same-sex marriage decisions

The reaction to these decisions is worthy of its own item in the list with the reaction to the PC(USA) decision being swift and wide-spread. Within two weeks of the vote total being reached the National Black Church Initiative cut ties with the PC(USA) over the vote. A couple of months later the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) and the Evangelical Presbyterian and Reformed Church of Peru (IEPRP) ended mission partnerships on the national level. The PC(USA) has issued a news article acknowledging these breaks but also saying that other mission partners have decided to continue the partnerships.

Elsewhere, the decision by the Church of Scotland was a concern in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland which initially expressed “deep sorrow” at the decision and during their General Assembly decided that they would not send a representative to the Kirk’s 2016 General Assembly. Outside the Presbyterian family the Russian Orthodox Church has broken off ecumenical discussions with the Church of Scotland over this.


Shifting between Reformed branches

The movement of churches between different Presbyterian and Reformed branches continues unabated. ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians announced that their membership had grown to over 240 churches, most are congregations that have departed the PC(USA). In Scotland the Free Church continues to see a few congregations and ministers wishing to move from the Church of Scotland. In addition, a few churches completed the process of transferring from the Reformed Church in America to the PCA.



With shifts in Reformed branches comes the question of taking or leaving property. Those moving from the Church of Scotland to the Free Church typically do not get to take it. University Reformed Church was assessed about $300,000 to take their campus to the PCA.

But bigger and more plentiful property disputes came from churches departing the PC(USA) including congregations that walked away, were graciously dismissed with a payment, kept their property in civil suits, lost their property in civil suits, and one of the more unusual cases where the court awarded the property to the PC(USA) faction of the congregation but not on behalf of the presbytery.

Other interesting property cases include a very convoluted property case in California with the KAPC and a case in Malawi where the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) “sued itself” over property.


Presbyterian branches working together

Particularly in light of very recent developments this might qualify as the most interesting topic of the year.

Let me begin with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America whose Unification Task Force is on track to bring a proposed set of bylaws to the 2016 General Assembly. This would put the two denominations on track to make final approvals in 2017 and unite in a single general assembly in 2018.

While not a move with unification in sight, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church held their General Synods jointly in a move to strengthen the ties between these two streams of American Presbyterianism. For those not aware, each of these branches traces their heritage back to Scotland separately and apart from the mainstream branch of American Presbyterianism.

Finally, in a move that is not between two Presbyterian branches but between two national churches, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England just formally announced their intent to be more intentional in their joint work in what they are calling the Columba Declaration. This was followed by the Church of England’s Anglican partner in Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church, issuing something of a “what about us” statement.



In putting this list together it seemed at times that I could have filled it with humanitarian crises. But if there is one that that Presbyterians world-wide seemed not just outspoken about but responsive to it would be the Middle East refugee crisis.

Regarding statements, these came from all quarters including the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Free Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, and the PC(USA), and many others.

In terms of action, there are accounts of relief and resettlement efforts all over the news. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is partnering with the Hungarian Reformed Church. Presbyterian churches are among those across Canada ready to help resettle refugees. Similar things can be said for the U.S. where, among many towns and churches, Trinity Presbyterian in Atlanta is ready to sponsor two families. And in Princeton, NJ, Nassau Presbyterian Church and the Seminary are working together to help resettle a family.

And we also have the account of a PC(USA) group traveling to Turkey and seeing relief efforts first hand as they worked in a local soup kitchen and food pantry to help feed Syrian refugees.

In another refugee story, the final Central American individual who found sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson was able to go home after 15 months under a confidential agreement. However, with an announced round of deportations coming up the church, with others, has responded that they are ready to offer sanctuary to more refugees who fear for their lives if they are deported.


Membership trends continue

Not much new to say here. As with all the mainstream churches in the U.S., the PC(USA) membership decline continues with a loss of 2.1% in the number of congregations and a 5.3% decline in the total membership. What is interesting, at least to me, is that when normalized and compared the membership decline in the PC(USA) over the last decade is very similar to the decline in the Church of Scotland.


Publications and Media

Not sure what it was this year but publications and media, particularly those recognized with awards and honors, seemed to catch my attention more than most years.

Let me begin with the Learn resources from the Church of Scotland, particularly the Learn Eldership book that I reviewed last spring. It has been joined by two additional pieces – hard to call the relatively short How Will Our Children Have Faith? a book – that I might get time to review in the future.

But the series in general, and the Learn Eldership in particular, have been recognized by different organizations. In addition to being a best seller, Eldership was a finalist in the Publications category of the Scottish Creative Awards. It was also recognized in the Innovation category as being among the crème-de-la crème of Scottish magazines in the Scottish Magazine Awards.

From Westminster John Knox Press we have a winner of the 2015 Christianity Today Book Awards in the Theology/Ethics category. It is Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. (Yes, technically announced in 2014 but awarded in 2015)

I would also include in this topic the just-released book by Dr. Sean Michael Lucas, For A Continuing Church: The roots of the Presbyterian Church in America. It is described as the “first full scholarly account of the theological and social forces that brought about [the PCA’s] creation.”

Finally, two films directed by PC(USA) Presbyterian Disaster Assistance agency photojournalist David Barnhart have been invited to the Beaufort International Film Festival in February. The films are “Kepulihan: When the Waters Recede” about the aftermath of the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami and “Locked in a Box” about immigration detention facilities.


So there you have my list of what caught my attention.

Some of you may be wondering where all the issues that were happening in Louisville are? In my list above I tried to capture more broad themes and those are more denomination specific. But, to add them here the news out of Louisville included: an outside audit of cost overruns at the last Presbyterian Youth Triennium; continued investigation, dismissals and lawsuits related to the New Church Initiative fiscal management; the departure of Linda Valentine and hiring of Tony de la Rosa in the Executive Director position; the search for a new Stated Clerk and Gradye Parsons announcing he would not apply again; and the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s own budget crisis.

For more information specific to the PC(USA) you can check out the Presbyterian Outlook’s list of top stories. For that matter, the Free Church of Scotland has their own year in review, and the Church of Scotland Mission and Discipleship agency has one as well.

And so I hope that 2015 was a good year for you and my prayers for all of you for a good 2016. My year will start out on a very high note, so stay tuned for that. Until then

Happy New Year and a Joyful Hogmanay

Overtures To The 141st General Assembly About Changing Ordination Standards In The Presbyterian Church In Canada

Coming up later this week the 141st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada will convene in Vancouver. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this Assembly meeting will be dominated by overtures and discussion directly focusing on ordination standards related to those in active same-sex relationships. While I will do a broader preview of the meeting in a couple days, here is a more detailed look at the background and business before the Assembly on this particular issue.

It is useful to realize that while ordination standards, and specifically those standards related to individuals in same-sex relationships, have been a hot topic for a while in a couple of Presbyterian branches, for the last couple decades it has been much more of a background issue for the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC). That has been changing quickly over the last few months.

The current discussion has its roots in the 1984 General Assembly when the Assembly asked for a Statement on Homosexuality which was presented to, and adopted by, the 1985 General Assembly. But to go along with that a study was requested and approved by the 1985 Assembly. It was presented to the 1992 Assembly which approved it and sent it down to the presbyteries. The final version was accepted by the 1994 General Assembly (page 251). The first two parts are available within a study guide prepared later.

The report deals with a number of issues regarding human sexuality but as regards homosexual relationships it follows the church’s doctrine and comes out against them:

6.20 Is homosexual practice a Christian option? Our brief, exegetical review of biblical texts set within the broader biblical perspective on our vocation as sexual beings leads us to say `No’. Committed heterosexual union is so connected with creation in both its unitive and procreative dimensions that we must consider this as central to God’s intention for human sexuality. Accordingly, Scripture treats all other contexts for sexual intercourse, as departures from God’s created order.

One individual resigned from the committee that drafted the study and four more recorded their dissent.

At the same Assembly where this study was accepted the Assembly was already dealing with a specific case. Mr. Darryl MacDonald was serving as a supply minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Lachine, Quebec. The church applied to the presbytery to ordain him and the presbytery approved and he was ordained. The decision was appealed to the General Assembly by 13 members of the presbytery and a nine-member investigating committee formed. With a slim five-member majority the committee recommended to the 1996 General Assembly that his ordination call be nullified. By a wide margin the Assembly approved the committee recommendations including that his certification for interim work be revoked as well. Presented with the request to come into compliance with the order of the General Assembly the church chose instead to sever ties with the denomination. There was another appeal to the 1998 General Assembly to at least allow Mr. MacDonald to preach in Presbyterian Churches. The Assembly reaffirmed the 1996 decision and stated that the revocation of the certificate was complete and he could not lead worship in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Ultimatly, St. Andrew’s joined the United Church and Mr. MacDonald was accepted as a minister in that denomination which had not barriers to ordination. In 2012 a petition was sent to the General Assembly pointing out that other United Church ministers could freely preach in Presbyterian pulpits and the force of the earlier Assembly decision meant one United Church minister in good standing in that denomination was singled out for exclusion. A special committee was formed and the Assembly concurred with that committee’s recommendation that the restriction should be lifted. The article in the Presbyterian Record quotes the committee convener:

“Accepting the petition removes an anomaly that only one ordained minister in a sister denomination is prohibited from preaching as a guest in one of our congregation’s pulpits,” said David Kilgour, a commissioner from the Presbytery of Ottawa and convener of the special committee.

  (Three other web sites that have information on this history include a page from Religious Tolerance, an AP news story and the successor church’s history web page.)

So that brings us to the recent developments. Since the 140th General Assembly a number of overtures from presbyteries and church sessions around Canada have been submitted for consideration by this year’s Assembly. The lead overture is #4 from the Presbytery of East Toronto titled “Full inclusion in the church of persons regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.” By my count there are six additional overtures that are concurring or similar in wording and intent. In response there was a flood of overtures that began with #6 from the Session Of Kortright, Guelph, Ontario titled “Affirming the Statement on Human Sexuality (1994).” There are a total of 13 of these or similar overtures. Beyond that there is an overture (#15) to encourage listening within the church on this subject, another (#16) to set up a process for dialogue about the issue and another (#29) to have the Church Doctrine Committee “review how The Presbyterian Church in Canada has formerly addressed the issue of homosexual relationships, and in particular to study the traditional exegesis of the biblical texts that speak to this issue, alongside the various revisionist readings of those texts that have been suggested in recent decades.”

In total, there are 24 overtures out of all 37 submitted to this Assembly that deal with human sexuality. You can find all the overtures at the end of the reports volume beginning on the 471st page of the volume.

One detail that might be a point of major discussion in this work, and which is the point of the one memorial submitted to the Assembly, is whether the act is a declaratory act and takes effect immediately or if it will need to be sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act. The memorial and the overtures affirming the 1994 report request that any changes be sent to the presbyteries. The overtures requesting full inclusion ask for a declaratory act. In a parallel discussion the Church of Scotland just spent some time in a similar discussion and decided to send it to the presbyteries. On the one hand that is always a safe call, and from my sense of polity, if the PCC approves more inclusive language I would argue that it should go down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act just as the Church of Scotland action did last year. However, I do disagree with the Kirk’s action this year as the action it took was more in the line of an adjustment to last year’s act to bring it in line with the new civil environment and not a brand new action so presbytery concurrence is not necessary.

One more interesting overture in here is the very last one, #37. It asks for a gracious dismissal policy for churches to leave the denomination, implicitly suggesting that particular churches might want to break with the PCC if the Assembly decides to change the ordination standards. As a polity note, and since the PC(USA) action is specifically mentioned, I would point out that the PC(USA) General Assembly action was to encourage presbyteries to have gracious dismissal policies resulting in a large number of various local policies and not a uniform national policy.

Now here comes the “hold onto your hat moment.” None of the actions respectfully requested of the Venerable the 141st General Assembly may happen, at least this year. Faced with this groundswell on both sides of the issue a special process is being proposed. Here are a few excepts from a Presbyterian Record article about the background:

Eighteen sessions and six presbyteries have filed overtures for discussion at this year’s General Assembly on the issue of human sexuality. This volume of response is without precedence in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

“I went through the Acts and Proceedings from 1960 to 1966, the years before the ordination of women was approved,” Rev. Stephen Kendall [Principal Clerk of the General Assembly] told the Record. “There were three overtures on that issue.”..

The overwhelming response has prompted Kendall and his team at the Clerk’s office to proceed a little differently from previous years. All of the referred overtures have been sent to Committee on Church Doctrine and to Justice Ministries for review, so they can prepare themselves for the inevitable debate…

Three Presbyterian educators—Dale Woods, Principal of Presbyterian College, Montreal; Patricia Dutcher-Walls, Professor of the Hebrew Bible, Vancouver School of Theology; and, Kevin Livingston, Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto—have been asked to prepare a facilitation process on human sexuality. Time on the assembly agenda has been designated for these discussions. “Assembly should be a safe place for conversation,” said Kendall. Several blocks of time have been allotted to ensure voices are heard and ideas are shared.

“Assemblies are places of discernment and when we’re actually there together we will have the opportunity to do just that.”

In summary, the special facilitation process being proposed would defer decisions on the overtures until the whole church has had a chance to talk about them.  It would begin with discussions among the Assembly commissioners and spread to the wider church in the coming year. The recommendations also come with a reading list. (It will be interesting to see if Kevin DeYoung’s brand new book gets added to that list.) Here are the specific steps (slightly edited) being proposed which the commissioners would have to accept (the Recommendations begin on the 158th page of the Reports Volume):

  1. That the General Assembly move into a committee of the whole for up to two sessions of a facilitated process to discuss the issues addressed in the overtures concerning human sexuality and our church’s response to them. The Saturday session would be “Listening Circles” around the tables and the Sunday session would be “Praying Circles.”
  2. That notes of the conversations during the facilitated process be submitted to the Committee on Church Doctrine and the Life and Mission Agency Committee (Justice Ministries) to assist those committees as they prepare their responses to these overtures for a future General Assembly.
  3. That the Committee on Church Doctrine and the Life and Mission Agency (Justice Ministries) confer throughout the coming year as each continues the work of responding to the overtures referred to them.
  4. That the church (congregations, sessions, presbyteries, synods and standing committees) be encouraged to engage in a year of conversation and discernment on the topics of human sexuality, sexual orientation and other related matters raised in the overtures.
  5. That the Committee on Church Doctrine and the Life and Mission Agency (Justice Ministries) prepare a joint study guide on sexual orientation to be posted on the church’s website by the end of October, 2015.
  6. That the above be received as the interim response from the Committee on Church Doctrine and from the Life and Mission Agency (Justice Ministries) regarding our church’s response to sexual orientation today.

So if the recommendations are accepted there would be the start of significant discussion but limited debate about these issues at this General Assembly and recommendations would be returned from the Committee and the Agency to the 142nd General Assembly.

We will see what the will of the Assembly is regarding the overtures and the proposed process. As this develops you will probably find discussions on Facebook on the Presbyterian Record page as well as page of Canadian Presbyterians for the Ordination of Gay and Lesbian People.

So there is the background, the overtures and the recommendations for the Assembly to consider later this week. As I said, I will have the broader preview in a couple of days, but right now, Belfast is calling

The Fog Around nFOG

[No, this is not about the questions arising from the differences in the official vote count on nFOG and the unofficial tallies.  (The official tally for this week is posted and the OGA has the count at 45-32 while the unofficial “word on the street” is 24-35.)]

This post is about my experience the last three days with the discernment process around approving a New Form of Government (nFOG) section of the Book of Order that is currently being voted upon by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presbyteries.  But it seems that this amendment has left many people conflicted or confused.  And it seems that it is hard to work up any enthusiasm for or against this major change in polity.

As part of the discernment process for my presbytery the group planning the presbytery meeting where the Belhar Confession and the New Form of Government would be voted upon asked two individuals to be resource people for each of these issues.  Each of them had served on the committee (Belhar) or task force (nFOG) for that issue.  Unfortunately, the nFOG specialist was not available yesterday and I guess I got the call as the second choice.  So my job at the presbytery meeting was to give a pre-presbytery presentation on nFOG, a brief intro to the debate, and to answer questions during debate.  In agreeing to the request I did make it clear to the planners that they were not getting an nFOG advocate but a polity junkie who would try to give a fair and balanced presentation.  What I got out of it was a better understanding of nFOG myself, and a fascinating insight into the nFOG discernment in my congregation and presbytery.  So here it is as a story in three scenes.

Scene 1
I have the advantage that I have been following the progress of the New Form of Government since the task force was created over four years ago, so I know the history.  I have read, but not studied in detail, a lot of the material that is out there concerning nFOG.  And I have previously heard presentations at least five times by members of the task force, including the member who was not able to make it yesterday.  But that really only covers the history, charge, and over-arching view of the product — what about the details?

I set about to look more closely at the details of nFOG by first visiting the official documents.  The amendment as printed by the Office of the General Assembly runs 46 pages. (The booklet itself also contains an Advisory Handbook bringing the total length to 58 pages.)  There is also an eight page insert that provides some background material and a study guide.  That insert has a list of six additional printed resources and a link to a 21 slide PowerPoint presentation explaining the proposal.  All total, that comes to 352 pages of material.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!  If that is not enough for you there are many additional nFOG resources floating around out there.  The most useful, and what I drew heavily from, is the regular analysis from the Association of Stated Clerks.  There is also a blog by the nFOG task force folks.  Most of the rest of the resources are from advocacy groups promoting one side or the other and most of those promoting a negative vote.  I won’t go into detail, and I have not made any attempt to add up the pages, but if you are interested I’m sure the best list of all these items is over at GAHelp.  And if you want one more, I have a one-sheet, front and back, nFOG Summary I used for my presentation yesterday.

The point of all this is that there is plenty of material out there about nFOG, and arguments for and against, for your reading pleasure.  For me, the challenge was to figure out what to pack into a 45 minute discussion and then a 15 minute presentation.

Scene 2
My pastor, seeing that I was doing the presbytery presentation, invited me to present to our church’s Session on Sunday.  I welcomed the opportunity to not only educate them, but to practice my presentation.  It turned into a bit of a “focus group” experience for me.

I had my prepared materials and went through my presentation and at the end one of the elders commented “this is just as murky as before.”  Message or messenger?

Well we talked about nFOG for a while and in the end it was probably a bit of both that was causing the murkiness.  Specifically, for our elder commissioners to presbytery, I recommended the GAHelp site and they were going to check it out to prepare themselves for the discussion.

Scene 3
With the help of the focus group behind me I threw out my first presentation and handout and started over to try to construct a more helpful one.  It must have been successful because I got good feedback from members of presbytery about it.  But what I also got was a lot of feedback about how people were feeling about nFOG.  I spoke with almost no one who had strong feelings about it but rather they were leaning one way or the other but said they were still uncommitted.  And this was across the demographic spectrum – it included teaching elders and ruling elders of different ages, levels of experience and theological leaning.  In fact, in the debate on the floor of presbytery there was no debate – there was one speaker against who made some claims, another speaker who then asked the question whether what the previous speaker had said was really correct because that was not his understanding, I got called on to answer the question, and debate was over — no one else rose to speak.  In the last three days I have had contact with no one in my church or presbytery who expressed strong feelings either way about nFOG except the one speaker who seems to have been working with incomplete information.  (For the record, I am pretty sure that several commissioners attending my presentation had firm opinions on nFOG but did not express them in that session or later in debate.  Also, again for the record, the lack of debate could also get back to my rule of thumb that a governing body has in it “one good debate per session” and the body had already had that debate on Belhar.)

Some observations
So what do I gather from this little drama in three scenes?  First, that there is too much material out there about nFOG and it results in sensory overload.  OK, let me rephrase that – while it is good and useful to have the 352 pages of official material available for someone thoroughly studying the dynamics and implications of the New Form of Government, how that material gets presented needs to be carefully considered.  One approach would be to have tiers – general information on the first tier, more specific resources on the second, and the comparison charts (all 268 pages) and other very detailed material on the third tier.  As it is now, they are all listed together with no guide for the uninitiated as to what to read first.

But the corollary to this is the fact that when these issues are sent out to the congregations and presbyteries for study, it is my experience that we usually pass up the opportunity.  (Anyone out there studying the Marriage Report I helped write and put so much time, effort and sleepless nights into?)  As faithful teaching and ruling elders we need to be aware of these items the GA wants us to study and encourage each other to do so.  This is especially true when we will have to vote on making them part of the church constitution.

Second, the nFOG in and of itself is too long to be easily considered in one fell swoop.  Yes, it is easier from a polity standpoint to just do a rewrite of the whole thing rather than work with a hybrid document as it is revised in bite-size pieces.  But we did the hybrid thing with current Chapter 14, maybe it would work for the rest of the book.  And based on the “deer in the headlights” looks I saw in my presentation when we started talking about the work of producing the operating manuals, taking those incrementally as well might make the task seem easier.

Finally, there is a great deal of mixed feelings about the nFOG.  Many of the people I have talked with understand the goal of flexibility and concept of returning the Book of Order to a constitutional document by removing the operational details.  But many experienced elders I have talked with in the last three days, both ruling and teaching, know how much our polity hinges on a few words here or a sentence there.  That is the stuff that Authoritative Interpretations and GAPJC decisions are made of.  To lose some of those, particularly the one due process section, raises concern in this experienced cadre.  For both experienced and inexperienced elders I really sensed that they were looking at the “risk/reward” balance and it was pretty even – the rewards did not outweigh the risks by much if anything.  I can also say that I had input from very few that saw this as an ideological issue or that saw it as change for change’s sake.  There was a real and profound sense that everyone was deliberately weighing the pros and cons of the text itself and actively seeking God’s will in this matter.

A couple of additional observations:
1. It might be reasonable to take some of these observations and experiences and look at the Presbyterian Church in America and the defeat of the Administrative Committee’s funding initiative in the same light.  While that change to the Book of Church Order was much shorter, only two specific sections, it struck me that it had the same sort of “sensory overload” as large amounts of official material, including the video, were unloaded on the church to “help” them make a decision.  Similarly, there was a large amount of unofficial chatter about the amendments. Were these resources truly helpful or did they add to the sense of confusion and being overwhelmed?

2. On the nFOG vote the commissioners in my presbytery were not alone in being undecided or looking for strong reasons one way or the other.  Last week there was an interesting exchange when John Shuck in advance of the Holston Presbytery meeting asked on his blog “Should I Vote for the New Form of Government?”  He expressed an undecided position and lack of strong reasons in support of the document,  sentiments that were similar to what I heard from commissioners in my presbytery.  Mr. Shuck admits in the first paragraph “I really don’t see myself having a horse in this race.”  In terms of arguments either way, one of them is “I know the LayMAN and the various true
believers and biblical reclaimers are against it. That would give me
reason to vote in favor, but admittedly not much of a reason.”  After the vote he tweeted “Holston Presbytery approved nFOG. I ended up voting in favor. Time
for a new thing…”  Change for changes sake?

So this was an interesting experience with the New Form of Government.  I don’t know if it will be approved and therefore it will be over and dealt with, or if the presbyteries will not concur and another rewrite may be back for another round in the future.  But whether it is this issue, or another large and complex one, we as a denomination need to think carefully about what will happen to it after it leaves the General Assembly and how it is presented to the presbyteries so they are best positioned to be able deliberate, discuss, debate and discern the issue.

Oh, how did it turn out?  San Gabriel Presbytery did not concur with nFOG by a 47 to 99 vote.  They approved of the Belhar Confession by a 79 to 66 margin.  Each vote had one abstention.

And You Think Robert’s Rules Are Confusing…

In governing body meetings we usually start to get the eyes glazing over when a substitute motion is introduced and sometimes moving the previous question gets a bit frustrating when debate is closed, or not closed, and those on the losing side of the vote would rather have it their way.  But in general parliamentary procedure is a set of parameters for the decent and orderly functioning of a deliberative body that we live with so the minority gets their opinion heard and so that we are clear what the body has done when it has done something.

For those with a knowledge of Robert’s Rules who are following the current Congressional maneuvering on the health care bill we sometimes have trouble completely understanding what the Congress is up to with talk of a “self-executing rule” in the House and a “budget reconciliation bill” in the Senate.

As I was looking at this in a little more detail I was struck by the introduction to the first edition (1876) of Robert’s Rules of Order where the good Brig. Gen. Henry M. Robert says:

Parliamentary Law refers originally to the customs and rules of conducting business in the English Parliament; and thence to the customs and rules of our own legislative assemblies. In England these customs and usages of Parliament form a part of the unwritten law of the land, and in our own legislative bodies they are of authority in all cases where they do not conflict with existing rules or precedents. But as a people we have not the respect which the English have for customs and precedents, and are always ready for innovations which we think are improvements, and hence changes have been and are being constantly made in the written rules which our legislative bodies have found best to adopt. As each house adopts its own rules, it results that the two houses of the same legislature do not always agree in their practice; even in Congress the order of precedence of motions is not the same in both houses, and the Previous Question is admitted in the House of Representatives, but not in the Senate. As a consequence of this, the exact method of conducting business in any particular legislative body is to be obtained only from the Legislative Manual of that body.  

Brig. Gen. Henry Martyn Robert

Mr. Robert goes on to talk about how he based his rules for deliberative assemblies on the U.S. House of Representatives at that time.  A shock to me.  To look at the way that Congress works today I have some trouble matching it up with Robert’s Rules.  Maybe the difference between then and now are the “innovations which we think are improvements.”   (I have seen in person a Senate session with three senators in the chamber — the President Pro Tem, and the representatives of the majority and the minority — discussing the consent agenda and agreeing to the docket and rules of debate for a major bill the next day.  And from the C-Span camera you would never know the rest of the seats were empty. But I digress…)

So in case you are inclined to check out the Legislative Manuals for the House and the Senate, the Library of Congress has made it easy for you with the House and Senate resources at the top of their Government Resources page.  Drilling down a little bit you get the more detailed list of resources from the House Committee on Rules and the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.  (And I can’t help but notice how the House web page has only the Committee Chair pictured while the Senate has equal sized pictures of both the Chair and the Ranking Member.  But I digress…)

In the current debate one parliamentary, or procedural, option being talked about is the “self-executing rule.” It turns out that the self-executing rule is a 20th century innovation and the Wilson Center has a good background piece on this innovation which was introduced in 1933 (that’s from another good article from the Washington Post).  For those of us familiar with Robert’s it is a bit like a “non-consent consent agenda,” I would say.  To put it a better way, it is a second motion which is not debatable but gets approved with the approval of the first debatable motion.  While technically separable, if you have the majority control you can keep it from being brought to the floor by itself.  And the Wilson piece is clear, and probably to no one’s surprise, while the use of this rule has become more common, throughout the last few decades the party in the minority is usually “shocked” to think that the majority would resort to such tactics.   (Reminds me of Captain Renault in Casablanca who says “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” as pretense and in mock indignation as he is handed his roulette winnings.  But I digress…)

I am sure that most of my American readers have heard more about the “budget reconciliation process” to be used in the Senate since that has been in the headlines for almost two months now.  For almost everything you wanted to know about Budget Reconciliation the Congressional Research Service has a handy publication.  It is what Robert would consider an “innovation” coming from the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 which provides a process which is governed by “special procedures.” “These procedures serve to limit what may be included in reconciliation legislation, to prohibit certain amendments, and to encourage its completion in a timely fashion.”  The floor procedure to provide for timely consideration is described thus:

During floor action on reconciliation legislation, the Senate and House follow different procedures and practices. In the Senate, debate on a budget reconciliation bill, and on all amendments, debatable motions, and appeals, is limited to not more than 20 hours. After the 20 hours of debate has been reached, consideration of amendments, motions, and appeals may continue, but without debate. The Senate often will consider a substantial number of amendments in this situation. The Budget Act does not provide any debate limitations on a reconciliation bill in the House. The House, however, regularly adopts a special rule establishing the time allotted for debate and what amendments will be in order. The House special rule typically has allowed for consideration of only a few major amendments.

First, remember the Robert quote above about each chamber having their own rules.  And second, by specifying the 20 hours of debate the debate in the Senate is automatically cut off meaning that there is no need for the closure vote that has the infamous 60 vote super-majority provision.

And finally, if you think you have never really heard of the reconciliation process before consider the acronym C.O.B.R.A.  While most people think of the extension of medical benefits the acronym comes from the name of the larger bill itself, with the wonderfully oxymornic title of “The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985.”  But you probably knew that al

Well, I have no intention of digging back in the Library of Congress to see how House and Senate rules have evolved over time, but I find Robert’s words about “innovations which we think are improvements” to be a bit prophetic.  I wonder if he would base his rules on those deliberative bodies today?

In general Presbyterian procedures seem less complicated, but we generally can not claim that they are purely Robert’s rules.  Every one has special procedures for changing doctrinal standards that involves voting by the presbyteries, some requiring majority and some super majority.  Many have their governing bodies hear and decide judicial cases so there are special standing rules for that.  And there is always the PC(USA) which has Advisory Delegates with voice and vote in committee but voice only in plenary.  Yes, we even have our own Legislative Manual beyond the basics of parliamentary procedure.