GA 101: The Moderator – All Things in Moderation

In my last post on the Cast of Characters I talked about the Moderator of the General Assembly with a brief introduction to the role they play and the way in which they are chosen.  I don’t know about other GA Junkies, but when I have been elected as a moderator of a governing body in the Presbyterian Church I have found it hard to properly communicate to someone not familiar with Presbyterian polity the proper significance of the position in a sentence or two.  (Although you may have noticed from my blog that it is difficult for me to say anything in a sentence or two.)

The easy answer is that the Moderator chairs the meeting.  In the previous post I quoted The Book of Order of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) which describes the position by saying “The Moderator of a court has the necessary authority to keep order, to expedite business, to convene, recess and adjourn meetings in conformity with rules of the court.” [16-4A]  Pretty much the chair of the meeting.  But within our system to say that the Moderator is the chair of the meeting is like saying the Clerk is the secretary.  The position takes on a greater ecclesiastical role.

At the opposite end it is tempting to describe the position as being like a bishop.  While this may convey some of the ecclesiastical significance of the position, the power and authority is extremely limited and a Moderator generally does not have the authority to assign other individuals here and there.  Furthermore, the simple mention of a “bishop” sends shivers down the spines of hard-core Presbyterians since we don’t like the image of a single individual with significant authority.  Authority is held by the covenant community.

The answer to “what is a Moderator?” lies between these two images.  The closest one-line description that I have found is that they are like the Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress.  They have the authority and power to not only run the meeting but to set the tone and to help set the agenda.  There is a bit more honor and prestige to the office than a simple chair has and selection as the Moderator frequently reflects recognition for time spent working for the church in other ways. (Although previous experience in other positions is also important training for the position of Moderator.)  And finally, the Moderator becomes not just the spokesperson for the governing body, but its representative and maybe even its embodiment.

In a national church, like the Church of Scotland, the Moderator of the General Assembly is a national figure and represents the church at important occasions and ceremonies.  In any Presbyterian branch, the Moderator can speak for the General Assembly where the Assembly has spoken.  If there is no resolution concerning the matter from the Assembly the Moderator must be clear that if they speak, they are speaking only their personal opinion.  At a presbytery level, when the presbytery has examined and approved the ordination of a minister/teaching elder, it is usually the Moderator of the presbytery, or their designee, who convenes the commission to ordain, helps lead the worship service, and asks the questions and pronounces the declaration on behalf of the presbytery.

Within and during the Assembly the Moderator sets a tone for the proceedings, may call for breaks from business with singing, prayer, stories, or “ice breakers” among the commissioners, and generally leaves their stamp on how business was done at that Assembly.  After an Assembly they, frequently with their immediate predecessor(s), may have the responsibility to appoint the members of task forces that the Assembly has established.  And they are frequently the ambassador for the church and in large Presbyterian branches, like the PC(USA) and the Church of Scotland, they can spend much of their term as Moderator criss-crossing the country, if not the world, representing the denomination.

The Moderator can usually invite any other commissioner to chair the
meeting and in most branches past Moderators, if they are not commissioners, are
automatically corresponding members with the privilege of the floor.  In most branches the polity states that a former Moderator, usually
specified as the most recent that is present, would chair the Assembly in
the event that the current Moderator can not.  While rare, this could be the case at the opening of a General Assembly where the Moderator of the previous Assembly would normally preside long enough for the Assembly to elect the new Moderator.

In my opinion, the most unique method to chose the Moderator of the General Assembly is that used by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.  On a given evening in February all 21 presbyteries meet at the same time and vote on their choice for Moderator of the upcoming General Assembly.  In 2008 for the first time they had a list of nominees to chose from.  In previous years each presbytery came up with their own list independent of the others and nominated one of those individuals.

Most Presbyterian branches around the world seem to use a nominating committee approach where the committee meets months ahead of time to consider individuals that have been nominated and select one to serve as the Moderator.  There is usually an election vote taken at the beginning of the Assembly meeting that is an uncontested formality.

The EPC and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand
elect a Moderator-elect at each GA who is the “presumptive nominee” for
the Moderator of the next Assembly.  However, this designee must be
formally elected by the next Assembly and can be subject to challenge by
a nominee from the floor.

American Presbyterianism seems to be the exception in selecting the Moderator.  Their polity generally requires that the Moderator be a commissioner to the GA and elected by the other commissioners so an election can not be held ahead of time (EPC obviously excepted).  There are generally nominating speeches, comments by the candidates, maybe questions to the candidates, and then an election and it is over.  The outgoing moderator asks the commissioning questions of the newly elected moderator, an installation prayer is said, the sign of the office is passed, and the new guy (yes, it is usually a guy since the PC(USA) is the only American Presbyterian branch that uniformly ordains women as elders) takes over running the meeting.  A simple election done “Decently and in Order.”

And then there is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who may do it decently and in order, but it is more complex than any other Moderator election process that I know of.  They do follow the basic pattern of the other American Presbyterian branches:  the nominated candidates must be commissioners to GA and the election is held the first evening of the Assembly with nominating speeches and candidate Q & A.  But there are a lot of other steps and formalities thrown in.

First, it is to be understood that a person does not seek the position, the position seeks the person.  That is, God through the voice of the community calls the person to the position.  Therefore, a person does not “run” for the office but “stands” for election.  It is also why they must go through two other votes before the Assembly.  They must be first elected a commissioner by their presbytery and then endorsed by the presbytery to stand for election as Moderator.  I don’t know how many cases there are of potential moderator candidates not being elected as a commissioner to start with, but I know of one case where the person ultimately chosen as Moderator of the General Assembly was barely elected a commissioner.

Once elected a commissioner and endorsed as a candidate for Moderator the person can begin campaigning.  There are however tight restrictions set out in the Manual of the General Assembly (Section H) on what they can do to campaign.  General expenses may be no more than $1500, excluding travel and meeting expenses.  The candidates may not send mailings, e-mail, or phone calls to commissioners but information may be placed in commissioners’ mailboxes at GA.  There is also a time and place for Moderator candidates and their selected Vice-Moderator candidates to be available to commissioners and delegates, but each has their designated floor space and you get a stern warning if you stray outside your boundary line.

After the speeches and questions the delegates and commissioners vote.  The Youth Advisory Delegates take great pride on identifying the eventual winner with a plurality on their first ballot.  But the commissioners keep voting on all nominated candidates until one receives a majority of the votes cast.  I don’t know what the record is, but the highest I can remember is five ballots.

It is a favorite game of GA Junkies to “read the tea leaves” of the Moderator election for the PC(USA) to determine how commissioners may vote on the controversial issues that will come up later.  While there may be a minor degree of that in the voting patterns, after following 10-plus Moderator elections I have concluded that there are several other factors that more significantly influence who is elected.  It is my conclusion that the important factors are (in slight order of influence):

  1. Service to the denomination (it could be because of the experience or just that it gives the candidate name recognition)
  2. Warmth, wit and wisdom in the Q & A
  3. Campaign message of understanding, reconciliation and unity
  4. Moderate theological stance (or lack of extreme position)

There have been exceptions to each of these, maybe especially #4, but on balance this is what I have seen.  Things that I have seen that to me have not appeared to work are catchy campaign slogans, major endorsements, cute campaign buttons.  My observations.  Your conclusions may be different.

The one other polity item to mention is that the PC(USA) and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church also elect a Vice-Moderator as part of the “ticket” with the Moderator, although the Moderator gets virtually all the attention.  This is relatively new in the PC(USA) and almost no other Presbyterian branchs have a Vice-Moderator of GA or General Synod.  And the Vice-Moderator is not the presumptive nominee the next time.

It was once the case across all Presbyterian branches that only clergy could be the Moderator of a governing body, and of course it was the case that all ordained officers were male.  It has only been in the last century that ruling elders have been eligible for election as moderators but for whatever reasons male clergy still seem to dominate as those selected for the position of Moderator of the General Assembly.  While male clergy still have an edge in the PC(USA), they are not quite as dominant with one-third of the Moderators since reunification in 1983 being female and exactly the same proportion being elders. (Note of current significance:  At the present time all three of the candidates for PC(USA) Moderator for 2008 are male clergy.)

Well, that pretty much covers the position of the Moderator.  With all that has been going recently on this entry took a bit longer than I wanted to get polished off.  Next:  On to the Business of the Assembly.  How does it get there?

Update:  In the time since this post was written others have weighed in on the role of the Moderator.  Here are the ones that I know of.

One thought on “GA 101: The Moderator – All Things in Moderation

  1. Pingback: Moderator Designate For The Church Of Scotland 2016 General Assembly - The GA Junkie

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