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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

So, Who Was Robert, Anyway?

If you’re a Clerk of Session, you couldn’t have gotten to where you are today without having at least heard of Robert’s Rules of Order. They’re the unquestioned standard for parliamentary procedure in non-governmental decision-making bodies in the English-speaking world.

Ironically, the British Parliament doesn’t use Robert’s Rules, nor does the U.S. Congress - both of them have their own set of similar rules that preceded Robert’s. In fact, Robert himself is said to have modeled his rules after those of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Henry Martyn Robert (1837 - 1923) was a U.S. Army officer in the Civil War, eventually rising to the rank of Brigadier General. He was an engineer who helped design the defenses of Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and several port cities in New England. Following the war, he had a long career as an engineer, specializing in lighthouses and river-improvement projects. After General Robert’s retirement, in 1901, the Corps of Engineers called him back to chair a board of engineers that designed the seawall that would protect Galveston, Texas, following the disastrous hurricane the previous year that had nearly wiped that city off the map.

Robert’s Rules, first published in 1876, actually arose out of the church. Robert wrote the manual after being asked to chair a church meeting at a Baptist church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The meeting got out of hand, and he felt so badly about his own poor understanding of the rules that he determined to learn more about parliamentary procedure. When he couldn’t find a book that met his needs, he resolved to write his own.

Although Robert’s Rules has become a byword for Parliamentary procedure, the book has no legal status unless a body adopts it as its own set of rules. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has done just that, declaring in the Form of Government G-9.0302 that all working groups within the church shall use it as their standard “except in those cases where this Constitution provides otherwise.” Interestingly, G-7.0302 allows for exceptions in the case of congregational meetings, by which congregations have the authority to adopt “a comparable parliamentary authority” if they choose to do so (although it’s hard to envision a situation in which a set of alternate rules would make life easier).

It’s advisable, therefore, that all congregations have in their By-Laws a notation that Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (the official name for the most current edition) is their official standard, secondary to that of the Constitution of the church.

For a little parliamentary fun (no, that expression is NOT an oxymoron!), check out the Frequently-Asked Questions from the Robert's Rules official website. See how many of these you can answer correctly!

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