Those Mysterious Manuals

November 7, 2011

Some of the changes to the Book of Order, particularly in the PCUSA Form of Government, were adopted earlier this year and their reality is only now hitting. The most obvious of these was the deletion of the fidelity and chastity standard for ordination, which I have written about extensively. But there are other more subtle changes whose impact is not yet clear, until we start using the book for our everyday business.

At the time of the debates on the new Form of Government (also known as nFOG), I confess I was not particularly engaged, having other fish to fry, so to speak. But now our presbytery is trying to adapt to the new ways, and some of the features and silences of nFOG are beginning to have an impact on how we do our business in San Francisco Presbytery.

As an aside: I have started using the new numbering in reference to nFOG in this blog. A downloadable copy of its text is available free of charge from the PCUSA.org website. Its advantage to a paper copy is its searchable function, which has turned out to be very helpful and easy to use. I do not have a paper copy even now, and use the PDF searchable document exclusively.  

What I would like to do this week on this blog is chronicle an inquiry I plan to make, once the Office of the Stated Clerk opens today, about how a presbytery ushers an overture through the process toward inclusion on the agenda of General Assembly (GA). Ordinarily, a presbytery would pass an overture (a piece of business it desires to have answered by the GA), submit it to the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) before a 120 day deadline (or 90 days if a change to the Book of Order is not required to implement the overture), and have it assigned to the appropriate committee of the GA for debate and recommendation the following summer.

However, over the weekend it seems that one session in our Presbytery has discovered the rules have changed, and it is not as simple to get business before the GA body. I was told that a new step has been interjected into the process: a presbytery, before debating an overture itself, must submit the text “to Louisville for prior approval,” (sort of like getting pre-approval from the Board of Pensions Medical Plan before non-emergency hospital admission). Supposedly, “someone” there at our church headquarters has the power and authority to say “Yay” or “Nay” to a Session’s motion to its presbytery, before it even sees the light of day locally. If this is true, it elongates the process for getting an overture on the agenda of the GA. In our case we have been told that the deadline to do so has already passed. Namely, it was to be submitted to our Bills and Overtures committee in October in order to run the gamut in time for debate in our presbytery in February, our last meeting prior to the GA deadline.

Because this is only something “I have heard” from a trusted colleague whose session is meeting tonight to debate a possible overture, this week I am undertaking the task of clarifying through whatever means possible how this procedure is now to be conducted. My hope is that other presbyteries, possibly facing a similar roadblock, might be equipped to ease the procedure in order to raise the necessary issues that must be resolved at next year’s assembly in Pittsburgh, PA.

One lurking question in the mind of many presbyters is the impact of the following provision in the new Form of Government, found at G-3.0106:

Councils higher than the session may provide examples of policies and procedures that may be gathered into advisory handbooks. These examples illumine practices required by the Constitution but left to councils for specific implementation. Such handbooks may also offer information that enhances or secures the ministry of the particular council. Each council shall develop a manual of administrative operations that will specify the form and guide the work of mission in that council. [Emphasis added.]

At face value, this means that a presbytery (or GA for that matter) can adopt enhanced powers that go beyond what is specifically mentioned in the Book of Order. Depending on the proclivities of a particular council, these could be quite detailed procedures or somewhat flexible. But in any case, it is not clear that a manual must be approved by the full presbytery or council itself. The provision says, “councils provide, and councils shall develop” operational manuals. The mystery manuals are the trump card in our game, I fear, and how a presbytery goes about writing and adopting them can build trust or thwart the legitimate business of the presbytery. The specific question raised today suggests that the GA might have adopted its own procedures for GA overtures, which now put more rigid requirements on lower councils. We shall see; and I hope I am wrong.

Tomorrow and through this coming week I shall share what has been gleaned so far regarding the adoption of manuals by my particular presbytery. We shall see together where this leads. My hope is that the business we are identifying as necessary next steps toward resolution of the evangelical conservative crisis of conscience can in fact be considered and adopted at the next GA.

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