Friday, June 20, 2008

GA: Form of Government is the Primary Issue

The proposed new Form of Government (FOG) is the single most important issue before the Presbyterian General Assembly. The idea behind the proposed revision is to make the government section of the Book of Order less of a regulatory manual and more of a constitution made of basic principles. More choice and responsibility would be shifted to the presbyteries and congregations, less set by the church's central bodies. The main motivation, I think, was to keep the General Assembly from becoming a continuous constitutional convention, with each Assembly producing new constitutional amendments.

I applaud the idea behind the new FOG and most of their suggested revisions. However, I am a polity wonk. Few other people are, nor should they be. So it is normal for most commissioners to the Assembly to feel unprepared to decide about a whole new form of government.

It is possible that the committee charged with FOG will feel that they are masters of the situation after a few days of testimony and discussion. It is possible that the Assembly will trust the committee's judgment. But it is not likely.

The more likely outcome is delay for study. This would not be terrible, but it increases the odds that Nothing Will Happen.

One interesting idea on the table is a proposal from Detroit Presbytery to authorize six presbyteries to try out the new FOG for two years and report back to the next GA. This proposal is the brainchild of Ed Koster, the most serious challenger for the Stated Clerk's job. I would favor this over sheer delay.

One of the main reasons for the general ambivalence about the new FOG is sheer distrust of all the central institutions of the denomination. The nFOG Task Force did not, I think, deserve this mistrust, and it isn't really directed at then. Even critics of the proposal have generally praised the task force. The mistrust comes from a fear that if presbyteries and congregations are given more freedom, more local option in applying general church principles, some of them (especially the most liberal) will use this freedom as license to evade the standards of the church's majority.

Some safeguards have been built in to prevent local option on the most contentious issues. The property trust and chastity and fidelity provisions of the current Book of Order were specifically preserved by order of the previous GA. And there is good reason for this mistrust, as the recent PJC decision in the Spahr case demonstrates.

Still, I think the revised Form of Government proposal is a good one. I hope the Assembly gives it the attention it deserves, and that it is not overshadowed by lesser issues.

1 comment:

Dr. J said...

There was a time, I'm told, when ordination exams were unique to presbyteries--that is, we didn't have standard ords in that day. So, prospective ordinands would go prebytery-shopping. The point? I wonder if this will happen in reverse when we move to a more local-option system. Ministers (and others, I presume) would, in this scenario, shop around for a presbytery more to their liking, and presbyteries in turn would develop litmus tests to "keep out th' riff-raff." You're a polity wonk--just how inflexible do you think our current FOG is? I understand the issue of GA's turning into endless constituttional conventions, but that's a symptom, not the disease.