Sunday, May 02, 2010

The New Form of Government for the PC(USA) is Still a Good Idea

A new Form of Government was proposed for the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the General Assembly in 2008. Predictably, it was sent back to the church for study until the next assembly, which meets in July. I think the great majority of Presbyterians have no idea that a new Form of Government has been proposed, nor that there is a consequential debate going on. This is pure polity wonk material. As a polity wonk, I feel a duty to weigh in.

The Presbyterian Church, like every big Christian denomination, has always had a range of theological views and religious practices under the big tent of the Bible and traditional theology. Presbyterians takes a specifically Reformed approach, which has some particular consequences, but this picture is true of every large denomination.

For the past long generation in the PC(USA) we have had a continuous theological and cultural struggle. One important front in this struggle has been over the precise wording of the Form of Government (FOG), the portion of the church's constitution that regulates who does what in the church. We don't usually have fights over the part of the constitution about how worship services are to be conducted. While we have a few large disagreements about what we confess theologically, the church made the portion of the constitution that is full of theological confessions merely advisory in the 1960s. So, ever since then, nearly all fights have been about the Form of Government. As a result, the FOG has grown from a short, practical set of regs that commissioners brought to presbytery meetings in their breast pocket, to a fat rulebook.

The idea behind the new Form of Government was to make the denomination-wide FOG a slimmer set of general operating principles. The governing bodies of the church - the local sessions, the presbyteries, the synods, and the General Assembly - would create their own manuals of operations within the general constitution. The different governing bodies could be a little different from one another. The big principles of the church would apply to all. That way, the church would not have to spend every single assembly fighting over amending the by-laws to suit one side of the culture war or the other.

In the upcoming assembly there are a few overtures to shelve the nFOG. The ground of their objection is that, in the words of Central Washington Presbytery,

the proposed changes to the Constitution of the PC(USA) are so vast and foundational, that they are not simply changes to our current communion, but would go so far as to functionally constitute the creation of a new denomination. As such, we believe that many who have taken ordination vows to a vastly different constitution would no longer believe that their vows were still in force. We believe the potential chaos of both intentional changes and unintended, unforeseen consequences will not serve to advance the mission of the church and will only escalate the level of strife and distrust that already exists.
They object to nFOG because it might have unforeseen consequences. That is true. That is true of every change to the constitution.

They object to nFOG because it would let presbyteries have somewhat different rules from one another. That is also true. But that has always been true of the Presbyterian Church, and every large denomination that has ever existed.

The great gain of adopting the new Form of Government is that the inevitable diversity within the Presbyterian Church could be contained within the overall order of the church, while allowing some variation at the local level. The attempt made by both extremes in the church's culture war to force everyone to comply exactly with the views of one wing or the other damages the church unnecessarily. They force the other extreme out. Worse, the endless skirmishing so disheartens the vast loyalist center that they just withdraw from the denomination altogether.

End the war. Allow local variation. Pass the FOG.

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