Enough of the more general material that focused on the theology and structure behind our Presbyterian system. It’s now time to look at General Assemblies specifically. Let’s begin by looking at who is there.
God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
While I won’t spend much time here, it is important to note that the whole system of Presbyterian government is based on the idea that we gather in groups to discern together God’s will. As the constitution of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) says, “Christ is always present in His Church and governs it by God’s Word and Spirit
through the ministry of men.” [ The Code, IV-15(2)] The delegates to any Presbyterian governing body are not there to vote their opinions, or to represent the views of the body that sent them. They are there to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC(USA)) Book of Order puts it thus: “Presbyters are not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ.” [G-4.0301d]
Here is where the action is. The commissioners are sent by their presbyteries or sessions to gather together for the decision making. From my looking around there are two general methods by which commissioners to General Assembly are determined.
For the smaller Presbyterian branches the general rule is that every church can be represented by minister/teaching elders and ruling elders. In several branches the representation is every minister/teaching elder is a voting delegate and the session may select two ruling elders to go as commissioners as well. The largest branches that use this system are the PCI and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) which, according to their web sites and Wikipedia, have roughly the same membership at a bit over 300,000.
For larger churches this would lead to very large assemblies. For the PC(USA) the assembly would number about 30,000 commissioners. Instead, presbyteries send commissioned representatives to GA. In the PC(USA) it is currently one clergy and one elder commissioner for every 8000 church members in a presbytery. In the Church of Scotland (CofS) it is one quarter of the minister members of a presbytery and a corresponding number of the elder members of the presbytery. While many CofS presbyteries sent their commissioners on a rotational basis, the GA passed a rule that commissioners must be formally elected, not just assigned on a rotating basis.
One additional category of commissioners will probably surprise many of you and that is deacons. In most branches of Presbyterianism the deacons are purely an office of service not of governing. However, in the Church of Scotland, deacons in The Diaconate are trained and ordained professionals. While they frequently have a ministry of care and service, like social work, they are also able to lead congregations, if necessary, with some limitations on their responsibility and authority. In this form of leadership they are in a ruling capacity and function somewhat like a commissioned lay pastor in the PC(USA). Again, for representation, one quarter of The Diaconate can go as commissioners to GA.
In most Presbyterian branches the term delegates is used for other representatives to GA who have official standing and usually have voice but not vote. A significant exception is the PC(USA) where in committee the delegates have both voice and vote, but have only an advisory vote in plenary.
For every branch that I have followed in the General Assemblies there are Ecumenical Delegates from other like-minded churches. In some cases, like the most conservative churches, the number and diversity of the ecumenical delegates is fairly limited. In the case of the large churches, like the PC(USA) and the CofS, there are ecumenical delegates invited from (probably) every member church of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and every Presbyterian branch around as well as the “full communion” denominations.
I know that two branches, the PC(USA) and the CofS, have one youth delegate from each presbytery attend GA as advisory delegates. In the PC(USA) they only have voice in plenary, but in the CofS they can make motions under certain circumstances, but not vote on the motions.
The PC(USA) also has student advisory delegates from its seminaries, known as Theological Student Advisory Delegates (TSAD) as well as advisory delegates from the mission field.
Every Presbyterian governing body has a Moderator to run the business meetings and GA is no exception. The Book of Church Order of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) 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]
The manner in which the Moderator is chosen varies between the different branches. In the US branches the Moderator is usually chosen from among the commissioners and in most cases must be an elected commissioner. The PC(USA) system seems to be the most sophisticated with election to be a commissioner, then endorsement by their presbytery to stand for Moderator. There can be a simple campaign leading up to GA with nominating speeches on the floor.
In the other branches a nominating committee usually selects a candidate from among submitted nominees well in advance of GA and it is usually an honor for long-term dedicated servants of the church on the national level. While they must be elected by the Assembly, it is usually a formality at the beginning of business.
The most unusual selection process may be the one used by the PCI. On a designated evening a few months before Assembly all of the presbyteries meet simultaneously and take nominations and vote on their choice. There is no predetermined list. The candidate nominated by the most presbyteries becomes the moderator-elect. Now there is a process that really depends on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a very Presbyterian manner.
In a few branches the Moderator can nominate, and the Assembly approve, a Vice-Moderator to assist the moderator. In most branches if the current Moderator needs a replacement a former Moderator will preside over the meeting.
There is much more to be said about the Moderator and I’ll address that in the next installment.
Every Presbyterian governing body also has a clerk who has duties not just to record the proceedings of the body but to be an ecclesiastical officer with other responsibilities usually including monitoring compliance with polity and guiding judicial proceedings.
For most branches, particularly the larger churches, the Clerk of the General Assembly, in some branches called the Stated Clerk, is a full time position and the officer has the responsibility for helping run the church between Assemblies and carrying out the Assembly’s actions. They usually have a
term that covers three or four years and is renewable. Clerks of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Very Rev. Dr. Finlay Macdonald and of the PC(USA), the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, have both served in that position since 1996. Because of this longevity in office, employment between Assemblies, and responsibility for polity interpretation, the Clerks of General Assembly are frequently viewed, rightly or wrongly, as the most influential or powerful individuals in a church.
Frequently an Assembly will also have other subordinate clerks assisting the main clerk. I don’t know if it is their intrinsic personality, or the fact that since they are not in the top job they don’t have to be as concerned with “upholding the dignity of the office,” but Depute Clerk
Reverend Dr Marjory A. MacLean of the CofS and Associate State Clerk Reverend Gradye Parsons of the PCUSA have always struck me as a bit more “colorful” than their bosses.
In some rare circumstances there are others who have some official standing at the Assembly. The most obvious case I know of is the Lord High Commissioner at the GA of the Church of Scotland. The CofS is not the state church, but it is the national church, so there is always a Lord High Commissioner at the Assembly as the representative of the crown. On occasion the monarch is in attendance, but usually it is a friend who has connections to the CofS or sometimes, like 2007, it is one of her children or another relative. In general, the Lord High Commissioner has no voice or vote during debate (although on rare occasion the individual is a presbytery commissioner as well) but does deliver a speech at the beginning and end of the Assembly.
At most Assemblies certain individuals are accorded the position of corresponding members. The individuals who most commonly hold this status are former Moderators of the Assembly. In addition, representatives of certain committees and in the PC(USA) Stated Clerks of Synods are corresponding members. In general, corresponding members have voice in floor debate but no committee membership and no vote.
These are not the chairs of committees made up of Assembly commissioners, but the chairs, moderators, or conveners of committees of the church that are bringing business to the Assembly. While I will discuss the business of the GA’s in another installment, I will say at this point that much of the business of a GA comes from committees that have been working in the time between Assemblies. In many GA’s these committee chairs directly present their business to the Assembly for information and possibly action. In certain cases, like the PC(USA), while some committees, like the nominating committee, report directly to the Assembly through their chair, in most other cases the committee reports through an Assembly committee and the commissioner chairing the Assembly committee reports, with the other committee chair speaking during the report.
During the Assembly meeting time there are scheduled and unscheduled times of worship. The unscheduled times can be gathering times when commissioners and delegates are returning from a break, when a short break is needed in the docket, or to prepare the commissioners and delegates to vote on an important issue.
Many times the Assembly Moderator will call upon a commissioner with musical gifts to regularly lead worship singing during the Assembly. This is not an official position but a use of gifts for the service of God. One exception that I know if is the Church of Scotland where the Assembly, like many of the churches, has a Precentor, who has the official duty of leading singing.
Not much to say here. Throughout an Assembly, especially a large one, there are numerous paid staff and volunteers running around making sure things run smoothly and people and documents are taken care of. Many times specific people have specific duties. For example, in the PC(USA), presbytery stated clerks staff the microphone stations and help advise commissioners on writing amendments and parliamentary procedure, and theology students are used as runners to deliver documents to the commissioners and delegates. Other experienced individuals, frequently presbytery or synod staff, serve as resource staff to Assembly committees.
Finally, there is the rest of us. Many of us do attend GA’s in no official capacity to see the church at work, experience the many associated activities, and find out first hand what is going on both on the Assembly floor and off.
As a general rule the different players at a GA can be identified by different colored badges that allow access to different areas.
Commissioners can develop various reputations over the course of an Assembly and the staff of the Church of Scotland keeps track of the number of times a commissioner jumps up to the microphone. Their “jack in the box commissioner” at the 2007 GA jumped up to the microphone 15 times with two other commissioners in double digits. (Sorry, my link for this audio update is now broken.)
Well, I think that about covers the cast of characters at a General Assembly. Let me know if I overlooked anyone. Next, I’ll go back and look at the Moderator in more detail in my next installment: The Moderator – All things in moderation.