The Committee on the General Assembly (COGA) has a very weighty set of decisions in front of it. The General Assembly, currently scheduled for June 20-27, 2020 in Baltimore, MD, likely cannot be held physically during that time frame. Yet the church is mandated to have one in 2020, and there are legal and financial decisions that need to be made by a representative group of commissioners in order to renew the rotations of leadership and membership of national agencies. Further, many of the reports to this central decision-making body are time sensitive.

So the logical decision, if you have limited resources and capacity, is to pick the most essential or critical items for the institution and have a process to vote on them. Yes? No.

Staff of the Office of the General Assembly made the initial narrowing of the business and the COGA—who are elected volunteers—rightly opened the process a bit, partly as required by the church’s “open meetings” policy. They also effectively conducted a test of how essential or critical the General Assembly itself is considered to be.

The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) was one of the bodies submitting comment for the decision-making process.

Clearly, the social teaching of the church, its ethical reading of various pressing matters, is an important part of what the national church is supposed to address. A Reformed church takes some responsibility for the conditions of the world and country in which it is placed, and most pastors at least want the church to use its voice. Working and witnessing for justice and the healing of creation are parts of the church’s vocation, even when it is a minority within the overall culture. The values of the church are different and do challenge a market-and-consumption oriented culture.

Yet what if the General Assembly office simply doesn’t have enough capacity to organize committees to deliberate on the main reports and overtures (requests for action) from presbyteries, the church’s regional bodies? What if it only has enough juice for some kind of plenary process? And how will that deliberation be done, “decently and in order,” given that there is a good month and a half before the week set aside for the commissioners is scheduled?

What is the ethical obligation of the church to those bodies, committees and study teams, who have worked to prepare recommendations for action at the General Assembly?

One response to this is to delegate or commission another representative body to deliberate in some representative fashion on the business submitted. At one time, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s predecessors, General Councils of the Assembly, would have been the logical place. Now, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board is more or less a usual non-profit board, and it further had much of its financial responsibility removed at the last General Assembly and put with a new, seventh board, the “A Corp,” to handle administrative management concerns. Not good if your polity is resolutely democratic in that your church does not put all power in any individual leader, or even a few of them.

Still, referring or commissioning a representative group may be better than simply “receiving” all the business, without acting on it. Much is time sensitive, and cumulatively, all is institution-sensitive. Participation and responsiveness are the name of the game for a democratic church.

Further, at a time when the federal government is bitterly divided between a party that does not want mail-in ballots to ensure voting by as many people as possible, and a party that does, the kind of example a national church sets does count for something. Some of those pieces of business, in fact, are reports that are to guide how church representatives advocate for changes in policy that will help the common good, in this country and in our foreign policy.

However these matters are decided, precedents matter. If some things are determined to be secondary, un-critical, and not part of the core business of the Assembly, then their constituencies weaken and the church’s spiritual footprint gets smaller in the culture and life of its congregations. And if not part of the Assembly’s life, does the church become less united and less interactive between its national and regional expressions?

How much value can be put on a talk-fest that just happens to be the central unifying body and event of the church—especially when many leaders are afraid to ask for more “per capita” money—a flat fee per member—that is assessed to congregations. Some do not pay it already, and giving to the church is expected to decline with the virus. But how much will be saved by not meeting in person, some of which could go for cyber-creativity?

Yes, the church needs to change. But what are its hallmarks? And who decides?

Unbound normally does a well-read issue of articles on business going to the General Assembly. The Assembly is the symbolic “court” or central place where projects are presented, prayed over, and even blessed, and servants of the church honored. It performs many functions, and the decision-making—with the best possible information—is a big part of that.

ACSWP sent in its views, and there are others who have communicated as well. The principles of Presbyterian Church government and other aspects of our character are part of what is at stake. To read the response from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, click here.

Chris Iosso is the General Editor of Unbound and the Coordinator for the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy in the Presbyterian Church USA.

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