I Made a Mistake: The Rules that Govern GA Overtures

November 8, 2011

This week’s objective is to work through the process required to bring an overture to the attention of the General Assembly next summer. An overture is basically a motion, stated as a resolution that the General Assembly take such-and-such an action. This piece of legislation is often accompanied by a rationale, which itself is not enacted, but offers some background to the decision-makers. When the GA convenes next June, the committees will receive and debate the overtures relevant to their focus. Some years there are only a few dozen overtures; other years the Assembly must deal with perhaps 200. Already this year, overtures have been made to consider giving clergy discretion about marrying same-sex couples and redefining marriage to be a covenant between two people. You can keep track of the overtures that have been registered with the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) by going to the official website here

One question being explored this week is whether the rules for submitting overtures have changed. The rules that govern the procedure for overtures submission are not in the Book of Order but in section A.3. of the Standing Rules of the General Assembly. The current version of this important document can be found here

Most people, especially those who have never attended a GA, are completely unaware that this separate document even exists, and that it (now) can affect the business of a local presbytery. It is in fact one of the famous “manuals of administrative operations” referred to in the new Form of Government at G-3.0106. [There is a Manual of Judicial Process as well, which governs a lot of the procedures of Permanent Judicial Commissions, with which I have become acquainted in recent years.] Yesterday I made a dumb misstatement in my blog when I suggested that the OGA might have developed its own mysterious manual to which most people were unacquainted. Well, the General Assembly itself (a “council” now, in nFOG) adopts its Standing Rules, with an open amendment process that is conducted through a committee of the GA and then enacted by the whole body. The manual is mysterious only to the degree that most people ignore its existence as irrelevant. What seems different now is that GA procedures reach way past the eight-day summer meeting into the presbyteries and their time tables for considering business to be sent up to the GA in the first place. A case in point:

For the first time in San Francisco, a rule is being applied to the development of overtures. It can be found in A.3.b. and A.3.c.(5) of the Standing Rules of the General Assembly. The rule requires the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery to consult with the OGA “to determine whether a similar overture has already been proposed for the current year. If so, the presbytery will be encouraged to concur with that overture.” The way this is being applied here is what caught one local session by surprise: our Bills and Overtures Committee chair is requiring the “overture author” (a session representative, not the Stated Clerk) to consult with the OGA in Louisville personally before the overture is presented to our presbytery Bills and Overtures Committee for consideration. This consultation is meant to reduce the number of similar overtures and to check the wording of the ones being proposed, based on the authority and expertise of the individual in the OGA. It is not clear how directive the consultant can get.

So far, I have been unable to determine if this provision in the Standing Rules is new or if it has been heretofore unnoticed in our neck of the woods.  This is the first time since I started watching things in 1992 that such a rule has been applied and been accompanied by a requirement to get overtures submitted two months earlier than before. The session in question first heard this as a rebuff of their overture and a refusal to consider it at this late date. However, in conversations with the moderator of that session and the chair of B & O today, I believe the two misunderstood each other at least to some degree. What I have written above is what I think was intended, despite the inarticulate interpretations of both sides.

All this goes to demonstrate how delicate is the process and how easily it can be misunderstood by well-meaning people. When trust levels are low, as they are within my presbytery, it is easy to assume the worst motives when surprises and roadblocks appear. On the other hand, the level of expertise required just to write an overture can seem overwhelming to some elders, and the addition of a consult with “big brother” feels intimidating rather than helpful. I hope this little detour has demonstrated honest inquiry that every Presbyterian leader should be able to conduct when something doesn’t “feel” right.

I can’t stay on this “Rules” topic for too long, or I will miss my calling to Bring the Word to Life. Which raises the question: How do our rules help us Presbyterians bring the Word to life for people? That is worth considering!

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