In the last post I discussed where the business for a General Assembly comes from. We now turn to the question of once an Assembly convenes and has the docketed business in front of it, how does it go about dealing with the business.
The short answer is “Decently and In Order.” There is a lot of business to get through, there are a lot of commissioners who want to discuss a few hot topics, and so the Assembly sets about systematically working their way through the business, typically using parliamentary procedure as specified and adapted by the standing rules.
How much work is there? I think that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is probably the extreme example. The picture above shows you what there was to deal with at the PC(USA) 212th General Assembly of 2000. This is from “back in the day” when everything was on paper. The PC(USA) has now gone all electronic, at least when the electronics work. The behemoth in the lower left corner is the Reports to General Assembly. This was a small-print document mailed out in sections ahead of time that contained all of the national committee reports and the reports from the national agencies. The stack of papers on the left side of the orange notebook is the overtures to GA, the commissioner resolutions, and all the comments on them. The other half of the orange notebook is the reports generated by each of the General Assembly Commissioner Committees that were than debated in plenary. And in the upper left corner is that tote bag that they give you to carry it all in. I will try to get an estimate of the number of megabytes of the material from this year’s GA.
In terms of volume of business, probably the number two branch is the Church of Scotland, or maybe the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. For 2008, the reports from 25 committees and other entities to the Church of Scotland GA are 1.2 MB in plain text format with a PDF of a statistical report the same size. That is everything, including supplements and appendices. If you want it in Word format you can roughly triple that file size. The printed contents of this, plus the commissioner lists and standing orders (rules) comprise what is know in the church as the Blue Book, which in 2007 was 112 pages long.
Almost all Presbyterian General Assemblies are convened by the outgoing Moderator elected at the previous meeting of the Assembly. And, in almost all cases, the first major item of business, after the opening prayer or worship, is electing a new Moderator to lead the current assembly. I have covered the Moderator and the selection process in detail in a previous post in this series, but there are two general models. If there is a single nominee selected by a process before the Assembly, there is usually a formal vote and the new moderator is installed. If there is an open nomination process to elect one of the commissioners as Moderator, then candidates are nominated, there may be candidate statements, maybe a question and answer session, and a vote is taken. And then the new Moderator is installed. In almost all cases the election process happens very close to the convening of the Assembly; the PC(USA) is an exception with the election proceedings taking up the whole of the first evening.
Also at the beginning of the Assembly, in association with the whole “changing of the guard” thing around electing the new Moderator, the outgoing Moderator will present a report, or at least make some comments, about his/her term of office and the activities they were involved in. And, for the Church of Scotland, the monarch, or their representative the Lord High Commissioner, will be honored and the statement from the crown will be delivered.
With the business of leadership done the Assembly now turns to the business of, well, business.
In almost all cases there is a period of time when the Assembly as a whole takes up the list of business and begins working through the business item by item. But in many (most?) branches of American Presbyterianism, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Assembly commissioners are assigned to committees to work on the business in smaller groups first and report back to the plenary sessions. With the large amount of business to be covered, this allows a group of commissioners to focus, or at least try to focus, on all the business related to a particular topic and work on that business only in detail. They become the experts on it and in general the Assembly will then usually trust their judgment.
In those branches where commissioner committees are used the meetings of Assembly in plenary halts for a day or two so the committees can do their work. In the PCA there are eleven commissioner committees that mirror the denominational structure. Presbyteries get to elect which of their commissioners to GA will sit on each committee, observing proper balance between teaching and ruling elders. In the PC(USA) every commissioner is assigned to a committee by random assignment. The number of committees varies slightly from one assembly to the next, but is usually around the 16 that there are for 2008.
It is now the responsibility of the committee to take all of the business assigned to it, fine tune it, and bring a report back to the full Assembly with their recommendations. It is important to note that on the PC(USA) commissioner committees the delegates (youth, theological student, ecumenical, mission) have a vote as well as voice, just like the commissioners. Sometimes, particularly in the case of the PC(USA), there are conflicting overtures about a controversial subject or an overture differs from a standing committee recommendation and it is the responsibility of the committees to listen to, in open hearings, the overture advocates and other members of the church who wish to speak on the subject. The committee must then try to craft a compromise position, or failing that, recommend a position on the issue. On a controversial issue there will almost always be a minority report. In some cases the committee will hear reports from related agencies or denominational committees and may have the responsibility of reading minutes from lower governing bodies and entities, such as a theological seminary’s board of trustees like I had to do the year I was a commissioner.
Because of the volume of business, when an Assembly uses commissioner committees the Assembly trusts the committee to do the work and there will frequently be no objection to a committee report in full Assembly. This makes the work of the committee and the quality of its leadership very important. While a committee member can not put a new item of business on the table, they can have a significant impact on shaping the business that is assigned to the committee and so business shaped with particular viewpoints has been known to make its way through committee and assembly “under the radar.”
An interesting personal story: As happens frequently at GA, commissioners can get lost in the parliamentary language and sometimes end up voting one way when they think they are voting another. On my committee in 1997 one report was defeated and I was pretty sure that was not the way most of the members of the committee wanted it to go. My approach, rather than raise a point of order and ask to clarify the vote just taken, was to ask to submit a minority report about the issue. This was immediately acknowledged by the chair, but people started asking what happened and soon it was apparent that many were confused by the vote. Of course, the vote was retaken and the minority report became unnecessary.
When the full Assembly meets it begins going through the reports in the order docketed. Sometimes a controversial item, imp
ortant visitor, or special presentation will be docketed as an “order” or “order of the day” and so another report will be “arrested” before it is finished to meet the order. In the same way, meals and worship can be the scheduled items that cause a report to be arrested. Under good conditions an arrested report can resume following the special item. If time is tight, not an unusual occurrence, the balance of the arrested report may be moved to the end of the docket which could be a day or two later. In really difficult circumstances it can be referred to the next GA, such as the OPC Revision of the Directory for Worship.
Frequently with Church of Scotland or PC(USA) reports the item will also contain an educational or recognition moment connected back to the denominational committee or agency that relates to the report. This can include the premier of a video related to that ministry, celebration of a milestone reached, or roll out of a new educational or stewardship campaign or material. These provide an interesting window into the workings of the church and, if nothing else, give your brain a chance to recover between business reports. Also, a good Moderator will recognize the need to take a mental break and may insert something into the docket like a chance to stretch, prayer, singing, hearing a story or joke, or something else to provide the needed mental break and transition between reports. It may seem like it is taking extra time but my experience has been that a well placed break will help refocus the commissioners to more efficiently deal with the next item of business.
When the committee reports the committee chair or convener gives the report, sometimes calling on other committee members or staff to help with the presentations. (Note that this is pretty much the same whether the “committee” reporting to the Assembly is the denominational committee like the Church of Scotland or the commissioner committee like the American Presbyterians.) It will frequently begin with introductions, thank you’s, and an opening statement. There may then be a time for questions about the report in general, questions usually answered by the denominational chair or staff member. There may be a vote to receive the report. The Assembly then begins walking through the action items in the report. These may begin with consent items which are not debatable but can be removed from the consent agenda for debate. (I asked for an item to be pulled from the consent agenda in 1997 and was later thanked by a YAD who also wanted to speak to it, which he could do if debated, but he did not have the standing to ask for the item to be removed from the consent agenda.) The Assembly then moves on to the items docketed as debatable.
In the Church of Scotland this part is known as the “deliverance.” While this term is also seen in American Presbyterianism, it is not a widely used in Scotland. The Moderator walks the Assembly through the deliverance item by item. They debate those that commissioners want to debate, amending the item, and then approving that item. If no one jumps up at a particular item it is taken as approved by consensus and the next item is announced. When every item in the deliverance has been walked through individually there is then one final vote to accept or reject the whole deliverance.
As Presbyterians our debate is decent and in order. That does not mean that it is not passionate because we also balance ardor and order. And being Presbyterians the parliamentary procedure can get complicated. Interestingly, the Church of Scotland does not have minority reports, but in the PC(USA) a minority report is dealt with as a substitute motion which means that the first couple of times commissioners deal with it they are still trying to figure out the way it works. And when the Moderator gets lost, or does something wrong, the Moderator can look over at the Clerk to help straighten things out. And frequently the Principle Clerk or Deputy Clerk, or Stated Clerk can get on the microphone and either explain where they are parliamentary wise, or suggest a more efficient way for the Assembly or commissioner to accomplish whatever they just made that last confusing or out-of-order motion about.
At the larger Assemblies there can be several microphones and the Moderator has the duty of calling on speakers at the different stations. While the Church of Scotland may still be using paper for its reports, it excels in being electronic at the microphones. Each commissioner and delegate has an ID card they swipe at the microphone station and the Moderator has a video display that allows him/her to know not only if the individual is speaking for, against, or on procedural issues, but to also be able to address them by name and presbytery. The PC(USA) has recently adopted a similar system with an assistant at the microphone entering the individuals ID number, but they still use colored cards that those intending to speak hold up to indicate the intent of the speaker to the rest of the body. Smaller meetings may designate one microphone for, one against, and one for other items.
In many smaller branches voting is done by holding up a card when the vote is called for. If a formal vote is necessary in the PC(USA) there are electronic key pads at each commissioner’s and delegate’s seat. You use your own and don’t vote for your neighbor if they are not there. The PC(USA) Moderator asks “Advisory delegates vote now.” There are about 15 seconds to vote, the results display on the big screen and the Moderator continues “Commissioners you have been advised. Commissioners vote now.” For the Church of Scotland the commissioners get out of their seat and go to the voting station to swipe their card and enter their vote.
And with that the Assembly works its way through the business. By the end of many of these Assemblies there have been some late nights to get everything done (except for that Revised Directory for Public Worship) and the commissioners and delegates are physically and mentally tired. The last night of the PC(USA) GA it is not unheard of to adjourn at 2:00 AM. In 1997 we passed an omnibus motion to push a bunch of minor stuff off on the 210th in 1998. A wise Bills and Overtures committee will be sure controversial items are docketed while commissioners are still attentive. I know that by the end of the 209th GA I was mentally burned out. Those of you there as observers can help the commissioners by getting them out of the Assembly hall area for dinner late in the meeting so they can get their mind off the business, even if it is only for an hour or two.
Usually Assemblies conclude as they began with a day of formal reports and ceremonies and nothing that will result in debate pushing the Assembly past its docketed closing time. The business of the Assembly is concluded, but there is still more. In the next two posts in this series I will discuss the other stuff that goes on at an Assembly and what happens after the Assembly. We will see if I can get them done by June 21, 2008.