With the recent ratification of one amendment proposed by the 219th General Assembly (2010), leaders of the task force responsible for suggesting another major change are encouraging the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to be bold in envisioning the future of the church.
Amendment 10-A, which was approved earlier this month, changed ordination standards to make sexually active, unmarried Presbyterians eligible to be ordained as church officers.
People across the church were deeply invested in the debate surrounding 10-A and have had less energy to spend on the proposed New Form of Government (nFOG), said Elder Cynthia Bolbach, co-moderator of the nFOG Task Force.
Bolbach is also moderator of the 219th GA, a position she was elected to after having served on the task force since 2006.
It’s possible that the approval of 10-A has hindered presbyteries in voting for nFOG, another big change to the church’s constitution, Bolbach said.
“People say, ‘We can’t do a new Form of Government and an ordination change in the same year,’” she said.
As of May 23, 77 presbyteries have voted in favor of nFOG and 72 have voted against it. Those numbers are according to the Office of the General Assembly’s official tally, which must wait for official word from presbyteries before posting.
For the nFOG to pass, 87 of 173 presbyteries must vote in favor of it.
From the Middle Governing Bodies Commission to The Fellowship to the Assembly’s Special Committee on the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century, there is much conversation across the church about inevitable changes in the denomination, Bolbach said.
“If we’re so afraid of change that we don’t want to adopt a new Form of Government, what does that say about more substantive change in the years ahead?” she asked.
One huge obstacle to the passage of nFOG is a lack of understanding about what it is and would mean, said the Rev. Dan Williams, co-moderator of the task force.
The major difference between the proposed nFOG and the current Form of Government is not in what governing bodies are expected to do, but in how and who does it, he said.
The current FOG is very specific and has a “one-size-fits-all” approach to structure and governance. The nFOG has the same essential polity but doesn’t mandate who does the work, Williams said.
“It recognizes that the way you do ministry in New York City is probably going to be different than the way you do it in Anchorage, Alaska,” Bolbach said.
The current FOG has a sort of East Coast bias, Williams said. It’s comfortable for presbyteries that are geographically smaller and have a larger population and can do their work without being encumbered by distance. But for presbyteries in the western part of the country — which are often spread across long distances — the current FOG is more of a burden, he said.
Since 1983, the Book of Order has been amended more than 300 times, turning it into more of a manual of operations rather than a constitution, Bolbach said.
Through the process of amendments, bodies are very concerned with doing things “decently and in order,” Williams said.
“We spend so much time doing things the right way that we may not be focusing on doing the right things,” he said, comparing the nFOG to clearing the barnacles from the bottom of a ship.
Some opponents fear that adopting the nFOG will mean too much busy work and a total rewriting of current manuals and resources, but that work doesn’t have to be done right away, Williams said.
“There is no provision in the proposed Form of Government that would void existing manuals. If the manuals of governing bodies or councils include citations to nonexistent provisions or to provisions in a defunct Constitution, those citations merely indicate that the governing body or council adopted the rule to accord with a constitutional provision formerly in effect,” reads a statement from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution.
The nFOG is focused on flexibility and coaching rather than giving direct answers, Williams said. If governing bodies need guidance or advice, both forms of government encourage them to turn to other sessions, presbyteries and synods. The Office of the General Assembly is another resource.
There seem to be two competing views on any Form Of Government, Williams said. One is that in order for a body to do something, it must be expressly listed in the Book of Order. The other is that as long as it doesn’t violate the Book of Order, it’s OK.
That first point of view has been dominant, but if the church doesn’t break that mindset — even if the nFOG is passed — the system won’t change, he said.
“We’re attempting to relate to the 21st century world using a model of the 1970s,” he said, adding that the church makes a lot of rules, perhaps because it is afraid to make decisions.
“The New Form of Government is not an end-all solution,” Bolbach said. “But it’s the start of a new mindset.”