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

Saturday, July 7, 2012

So, What Happened with Synods?

The ultimate “insider” issue at this Assembly – of interest to Presbyterians, and almost no one else – was the proposal by the Commission on Mid-Councils that synods as we know them be eliminated from our Form of Government.  In their place, we would have had regional administrative commissions of the General Assembly, as well as regional judicial bodies to handle appeals of Rules of Disicipline cases.

That didn’t fly.  The Assembly instead called for yet another committee. This one would be composed of a few leftover representatives from the Mid-Council Commission, plus some folks from the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, rounded out by a few commissioners to this Assembly.

It’s a solution roughly parallel to what happened with the New Form of Government, the first time it came before a General Assembly. The plea, back then, was that the final nFOG text had been published so recently that the church hadn’t had time to digest it.  No similar reason was given this time – nor could it, because the elimination of legislative synods has been talked about for nearly a generation.

The charge to this new committee will be “to further discuss, refine, and bring to the 221st General Assembly (2014) recommendations that consider the composition and organization of the mid councils in ways that reinvigorate their capacity to support missional congregations, and advance the ecclesial nature and character of those presbyteries, within the unity of the church.”

In case you need a translation of that gobbledygook into plain language, it’s called “kicking the can further down the road.”

Some of the language in the Assembly’s referral seems to suggest that reducing the number of synods would be a good thing.  Many of us think that’s exactly opposite of the way we need to go – that the move to huge regional synods in the early 1970s was, in historical hindsight, a disastrous mistake.  With so many presbyteries having to downsize their staff for financial reasons, it may be that our future lies not with even larger regional synods, but with smaller clusters of 3 or 4 presbyteries, each one having minimal staff other than a stated clerk, with an executive coordinating the cluster activities – and no legislative body other than, perhaps, a small coordinating council.  This structure, as I understand it, is similar to the one in the Reformed Church in America.

I sat in on most of the sessions of the Assembly’s Mid-Councils Review Committee.  I was struck by how most members of the committee just didn’t seem to have the will to engage the question. Nor did the Assembly, as it turned out. It’s hard to imagine what sort of report this new working group will bring back that will in any way improve on the exhaustive report prepared by the Mid-Council Commission.  As with the nFOG, it may be just a matter of resubmitting essentially the same proposal, with the possible addition of some study materials.

This is one of those times when the old British schoolchild’s fractured lines from “Onward Christian Soldiers” apply:
“Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God,
We are slowly treading where the saints have trod.”

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