16 September 2009


“The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedients and by parts.” Edmund Burke, April 3, 1777

Edmund Burke was a contemporary of the founders of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. The republican form of government adoprted in the Summer of 1787 in Philadelphia by both the PCUSA and the United States in their respective constitutions was no accident. And the fear of strong central governments held by the men of that day can still be found in the words of those constitutions.

The desire and demand of free men for liberty is anathema to despots, and they endeavor by all means to usurp the power that ought belong to the individual. That is especially evident in the restructuring of the Form of Government with respect to the congregations. Rights that have always been conceded by the leadership to reside in the congregations are quietly removed in the hope that the commissioners to the presbyteries will not notice their absence.

Compare, for instance §G-7.0304 of the current Book of Order with the proposed §1.0503 of nFOG.2. Section G-7.0304 declares that
a. Business to be transacted at meetings of the congregation shall include the following:

(1) matters related to the electing (sic) of elders, deacons, and trustees;
(2) matters related to the calling of a pastor or pastors;
(3) matters related to the pastoral relationship, such as changing the call, or requesting or consenting or decliningto consent to dissolution;
(4) matters related to buying, mortgaging, or selling real property (G-8.0500);
(5) matters related to the permissive powers of a congregation, such as the desire to lodge all administrative responsibility in the session, or the request to presbytery for exemption from one or more requirements because of limited size.
Limitations b. Business at congregational meetings shall be limited to the foregoing matters (1) through (5). . . . (emphasis added).

New §1.0503 (“Business Proper to Congregational Meetings”) strips away all of the powers heretofore residing in the congregation and then sets forth a new, very limited authority:

1.0503 Business Proper to Congregational Meetings
Business to be transacted at meetings of the congregation shall be limited to matters related to the following:
a. electing ruling elders, deacons, and trustees;
b. calling a pastor, co-pastor, or associate pastor;
c. changing existing pastoral relationships, by such means as reviewing the adequacy of and approving
changes to the terms of call of the pastor or pastors, or requesting, consenting to, or declining to consent to dissolution;
d. buying, mortgaging, or selling real property;
e. requesting the presbytery to grant an exemption as permitted in this Constitution (G-2.0404).

Note the differences. The introductory phrase of §G-7.0304 (“Business to be transacted at meetings of the congregation shall include the following:. . . “) is changed to “Business to be transacted at meetings of the congregation shall be limited to matters related to the following: . .” (emphasis added). From being a constitutional form in which all powers not delegated to the GA belong to the congregations, it has flipped into an oligarchical form in which the oligarchs dole out those few meaningless powers,e.g., to appoint local leadership, that they do not want---yet.

In other words, powers that had previously belonged to the congregation alone have been stripped away. The phrases “shall include” and “such as” in §G-7.0304 clearly connoted that the list that followed was not exclusive and that other powers also resided in the congregation and could be the basis for a congregational meeting.

Because the current Book of Order is ambiguous, and because it was drafted by the GA, in the event of a dispute between a congregation and its presbytery or the GA over the right to disaffiliate, under the legal doctrine contra proferentum, the ambiguity would be construed against the presbytery or GA. Hence the change.

By nibbling away at the rights of the congregation, if nFOG.2 is ratified as written, congregations that previously had the power to disaffiliate will be trapped in the PC(USA) at the mercy of the GA. The right of a congregation to unilaterally disaffiliate from the PC(USA) will be gone.

And, once trapped, there is more. . . . .


jim_l said...

OK Mac, waiting for the other shoe to drop... My church paid $1.7MM ransom to leave. At least we got out. I fear there may no longer be any "option" in the future for those that remained, other than to completely walk away from the building.

Reformed Catholic said...

I wonder how much of that change will actually be seen by Session members, let alone understood.

FWIW ... the elders on the Session where I serve barely understand what the BOO is, let alone what it does or does not mandate.