A General Assembly would still be interesting if all the players got together, worshiped, elected a Moderator, elected individuals to national committees, councils, and commissions, heard greetings from other ecumenical bodies, reviewed the minutes of lower governing bodies, and then adjourned and went home. But you could do that in a day or two and it would leave the Moderator with little to preside over. It would not be the same as when they have to preside over a business session with a substitute motion on the floor, an amendment to an amendment under discussion, and a commissioner rising to a point of order to challenge the Moderator’s ruling on the last point of order. I have not seen this happen in other Presbyterian branches very often, but a parliamentary situation similar to this happens usually once each Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly. Without some business to do, the commissioners would never have this intellectually challenging (and mildly entertaining) opportunity. More important, the church would not have the opportunity to wrestle with the application of our Reformed theology to real-world issues. So where does this business come from?
From the church:
Being a connectional system, the first, and what should be the ultimate, source of business is from the lower governing bodies of presbyteries and synods (if the church has synods and if the General Synod is not the highest governing body).
In most branches presbyteries can pass overtures that are sent to the General Assembly. An overture is a request for the Assembly to consider something, a change to the Constitution or the Acts, establishing a new committee or task force to address a current issue, requesting that an existing committee study an item, or some other request for action or change at the highest level.
In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) there is an additional form of request from a presbytery. Using what is called a “Memorial,” a presbytery may send to the General Assembly a request for a judicial proceeding by the GA’s Standing Judicial Commission.
(This should not be confused with “Memorial Resolutions” passed by some branches, like the Bible Presbyterian Church, that honor devoted church workers who have gone to be with the Lord in the preceding year.)
Overtures to the General Assembly must almost always come from a middle governing body. Individuals would bring a proposed overture to their session and if approved by the session it would be advanced to presbytery for its approval. If approved, it would then become business for the Assembly. In the PCA an overture must be considered by the presbytery, but the individual or session can still advance it to the Assembly even if the presbytery disapproves of it. [RAO 11-10] However, the presbytery disapproval must be clearly indicated on the overture.
The overture is the one form of business that can deal with just about anything in the church, be it the constitution or polity, financing, structure, or theological and social witness issues. Every other source of business usually has some restrictions placed on it, although in smaller branches the new business from the floor can have few limits.
While controversial overtures tend to get the most attention, it should also be noted that some overtures deal with less controversial matters such as setting or moving boundaries of presbyteries, transferring churches between presbyteries, or establishing churches as union churches.
In my experience, the PC(USA) has far more overtures than any other Presbyterian branch. For example, there are now 80 overtures on the business list for the PC(USA) 2008 GA. At the present time the PCA has 12 overtures listed for its consideration at this year’s GA, while the Church of Scotland had only one overture to consider at its last GA in 2007 and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) had five overtures at its last GA in 2006.
From the institution:
At the General Assemblies of the larger Presbyterian branches, like the Church of Scotland, PCANZ, and the PC(USA), much of the Assembly’s time is spent dealing with business in the form of reports or deliverances from the national church structure. (Technically, a deliverance is the “for action” portion of a report for branches like the Church of Scotland that use this term.) For smaller branches these reports are still part of the business but with less internal structure they represent a smaller part of the total docket.
Business in reports might include review and actions related to the seminaries, reports from departments in the national office, report of the nominating committee and election of individuals to national committees, and the reports and actions from those committees.
Often the action items from a committee are related to an overture at a preceding GA that the Assembly approved and then referred to the committee to do the work and the committee is now returning the finished product for the Assembly’s consideration. This is usually how major items of business get accomplished. With no General Assembly running more than a week, and most being composed of at least one hundred commissioners, it is impossible for an Assembly to create from scratch a major polity or theological document. Instead, the request is sent to a committee or specifically created task force for their work and then a future Assembly has the opportunity to deal with their product by modifying, adopting, commending, accepting, or rejecting the work on behalf of the larger church.
Another source of business, while not usually one of the major ones, is unfinished business from the last Assembly. These “referrals” from one Assembly to the next can be for a number of reasons from the Assembly running out of time on its docket to the business being complicated or controversial and the first Assembly decides that the church needs time to deal with it outside the Assembly.
One of the more interesting continuing items of business that is happening is the revision of the Directory for the Public Worship of God by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. This is an effort that already has 18 years of work in committees and now the final editing is being done by the General Assembly. The 2007 GA was able to get through only five of the eighteen sections and so referred the item to the 2008 GA. PC(USA) GA Junkies in particular will appreciate that one item of extended discussion dealt with the language of “shall,” “will,” “must,” and the like. We will see how much further they get this year, and it should be remembered that no Assembly is bound by a previous Assembly’s actions so even those first five sections will be on the floor again.
In some branches, like the PCA and the PC(USA), business can be introduced by the commissioners themselves. In the PC(USA) these are specifically known as “commissioner resolutions” and each resolution must be submitted by two commissioners and no commissioner may sign more than two commissioner resolutions. In both the PCA and PC(USA) there is a deadline early in the Assembly for these resolutions or “new business” to be submitted so that the commissioners and committees hav
e adequate time to deal with them. At the last PC(USA) GA in 2006 there were 18 commissioner resolutions, of which 13 were debated and the remaining five were declined because they could be dealt with in items already docketed.
Another item that usually comes, at least partly, from within is the budget. While another body may have already prepared a proposed budget, many actions by the assembly have financial implications and at the end of the Assembly the commissioners usually need to approve the final budget including the changes they have introduced as a result of the business they have conducted.
In a connectional system it is the responsibility of the higher court or body to review the actions of the lower bodies. In most Presbyterian branches, this means that the General Assembly, usually through a working group of commissioners, reviews the records of the presbyteries, synods, and the seminary or seminaries. And being the highest governing body the Assembly has the responsibility to review its own minutes.
In some branches, like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, there are no permanent judicial commissions so the GA itself becomes the “court of last resort” for the appeal of judicial cases from the presbyteries and will, as a whole, sit and hear the appeals brought to it and decide the case.
Well, that is all the different sources of business for a General Assembly that I can think of. Not all Presbyterian branches have every one of these types of business, but all (or maybe almost all) have most of these in one form or another. To be clear, these are the sources of “business” in the sense of items to be acted upon. An Assembly can also have presentations, communications, reports, and greetings that it may “receive” but not debate and vote upon and these can come from many different sources.
So now that we have outlined where the business comes from the next post will be on how the Assembly deals with it: Doing the Business of GA — Decently and in Order