A historic vote this evening: the Assembly voted to approve the new Form of Government, sending it to the presbyteries for ratification. A majority of the presbyteries must approve, in order for it to become the new law of the church.
I said upstream that the nFOG is a true insider issue. It’s of little interest to anyone outside the Presbyterian Church. To us, though, it’s of very great importance.
I like the nFOG. I don’t agree with everything that’s in it (I’m especially uncomfortable with its replacement of “minister of the word and sacrament” with “teaching elder”– a triumph of Melville’s ecclesiology over Calvin’s for no good reason I can see, other than that some people who grew up with the “teaching elder” moniker want it back). Yet, I can live with the things I don’t like about the nFOG because I’m convinced its simplicity and flexibility will help the church become more nimble in ministering to a rapidly changing world.
The Form of Government has steadily grown in size over the latter half of the 20th century. Time and again, as presbyteries got into tough spots and had a hard time making a decision – particularly, saying “no” to a powerful congregation or pastor – they overtured the General Assembly to insert a new rule into the Constitution, so they would never have to take that sort of heat again.
“We never want any presbytery to have to face the sort of situation we just faced,” would be the usual explanation. Well, sorry – sometimes the presbytery just has to be the presbytery, claiming the authority it already has and staring down the ecclesiastical bullies.
The book became needlessly complex. It also became inflexible. A detailed rule that worked out well for Presbyterians in the urbanized Northeast proved disastrous for Presbyterians in, say, sparsely-populated Nevada. The bigger the book got, the less anyone could even pretend that one size fit all.
So – if a majority of the presbyteries concur – in a year’s time we’ll have a new Constitution that’s a lean, mean mission machine. We’ll have to get to work, in every “council” of the church – the new name for governing bodies – to adopt administrative policies manuals that will restore as much of the former detail as we feel we still need. Yet, those manuals will be local-option items. Their regulations will be subject to suspension by a simple motion, or even dropped altogether by a simple amendment. The regulations at the policies-manual level will be a continual work in progress – which is as it should be, in a missional church.
The Assembly Committee that handled the nFOG added about 30 amendments to the document the nFOG task force had labored mightily to put together over the past 4 years. I’m told that most of these changes were agreeable to the task force. Not one, but two different committee members told me they think the nFOG is stronger for these changes.
I don't believe it. I doubt the task force members really believe that's true, in the case of all these eleventh-hour amendments – although I fully understand why they think they needed to present a united front and proclaim the party line. The task force members believe – quite rightly – that, with the stakes so high, a slightly imperfect document is better than none at all.
The opportunity to write a new Constitution doesn't come along every day. It’s not to be wasted.
In a subsequent blog post, I’ll list what I think are the most important of the changes the Assembly made to the draft document.