Saturday, October 28, 2006

Streamlining the Book of Order

In my personal library I have a Presbyterian Hymnal published in 1843 by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (a predecessor denomination of the PC(USA)). In addition to its 236 pages of metrical Psalms and its 679 hymns, there are 82 pages consisting of The Form of Government of the Presbyterian Church, The Directory for Worship, and The Shorter Catechism. The Westminster Confession is not included in this hymnal (which is 3 inches wide, 5 inches tall, and an inch and a half thick).

Without belaboring the obvious, the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, which today consists of Part One (The Book of Confessions) and Part Two (The Book of Order), has evolved from a succinct constitutional document to a sometimes bewildering smörgåsbord of confessions, ordinances, and rules to cover everything from proper representation on judicatories to which presbytery gets to examine and ordain a candidate for the ministry. Some have said the constitution has become a manual for operations. I tend to look at it as a progression from general principles to specific instances. However one looks at it, it has bloated to the point where its usefulness is diminished as elders and ministers try to determine what part of "shall" is essential or, dare I say it, what the meaning of "is" is.

In this environment the 217th General Assembly commissioned a task force to study how to streamline the Book of Order with the charge to develop a document that:
  • Preserves the foundational polity of our church;
  • Focuses on providing leadership for congregations as missional communities;
  • Provides sufficient authority and flexibility to presbyteries to assist congregations in addressing cultural, economic, and societal challenges facing the church;
  • Provides flexibility at all levels of the church;
  • Is guided by the first four principles from the Report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church, and
  • Preserves the wording of G-8.0200 and G-6.0106b in their current form. (For the precise wording of the task force’s charge, please see Item 05-11.)
To this end, the Task Force has issued a draft chapter that address the Form of Government and a draft chapter on the Foundations of Polity. In addition, there is an outline of the remainder of the Form of Government section, which is pretty skeletal at this time.

I have read over these documents, but have not done any in-depth analysis. I really am not a polity wonk (unlike Moderator Joan Gray, who wrote the book). My initial impressions are that it is definitely simpler that what it proposes to replace, yet there are themes and phrasing that hearken back to the 1843 Form of Government.

Whether this endeavor will succeed in streamlining our polity without sacrificing what it means to be Presbyterian and Reformed remains to be seen, but I look forward seeing how this takes shape in the coming year or so.

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