A Constitutional Change I’d Like to See

For several years I’ve been thinking about a constitutional change to PC(USA) polity that I’d love to see get some traction.

Currently, when a constitutional change is passed by a General Assembly, it must be ratified by a majority of presbyteries. Each presbytery votes on the matter and the tally of presbytery votes determines whether or not the change passes.

The problem with this system is that each presbytery vote carries equal weight but each presbytery is not equal in size. I come from a large presbytery. Our vote, which represents 43,000 Presbyterians, counts the same as the vote of a small presbytery, some of which are smaller than the congregation that I serve. In a democratic polity, is that a fair way to discern the will of the majority of Presbyterians?

What I would rather see is a move to ratifying constitutional changes by a majority vote of elders not presbyteries. In other words, I’d like for us to figure out a way to count the votes of the total number of teaching elders and ruling elders commissioned to presbyteries. This would provide a much more accurate representation of what Presbyterians across the country actually think about a given constitutional change.

Using an analogy from our civic polity, when it comes to voting for the President of the United States, we have a popular vote of the people and an electoral college that actually casts the votes that elect the President. But in the case of our federal government, the electoral college is proportionate to the populations represented. Texas and Rhode Island do not have the same number of electoral college votes. This is not the case for presbyteries in our Presbyterian system, which is like Texas and Rhode Island each getting an equal vote for President in the electoral college. That just doesn’t make sense. (Of course, we all know of a recent example of the popular vote and the electoral college not matching up in a presidential election, but that’s a rarity)

I tried to slip this into the Mid Councils Commission when we first debated the issue of non-geographic presbyteries. My sense was that one of the fears people have about non-geographic presbyteries is that they could result in gerrymandering voting blocs to sway changes to the PC(USA) constitution. If we changed from ratification by presbytery to ratification by elders, we would eliminate this potential abuse of non-geographic presbyteries.

Unfortunately, I was essentially told that this was beyond the mandate of our commission so I wasn’t able to include it as a further boundary/safeguard for the provisional non-geographic presbyteries we are recommending

However, I don’t see why it couldn’t be added as an amendment to our report now that it is in the hands of the General Assembly.

In any event, now that I’m (presumably) done with the Mid Councils Commission, I’ll most likely be working to promote this change in our voting practices as an overture to the next General Assembly.

Comments

  1. Marsha Heizer says:

    This sounds like a rational idea, John, as are all of your blogs. Best of luck!

  2. This is a fun thought exercise… (and I’m just thinking, not proposing or advocating)…

    If the PC(USA) worked like the US Government (electorally), the PC(USA) would:

    1. Hold congregational meetings to elect GA commissioners, where each member’s vote carries equal weight, and any member (whether ordained to office or not) is eligible for election. (This would, perhaps, be a very interesting change. Today, getting involved at the GA level requires heavy involvement at the Presbytery level.)
    2. Have two bodies at the GA: one whose membership is proportional to Presbytery membership, another whose membership is non-proportional. The former body would hold primary responsibility for the budget, the latter body would hold primary responsibility for oversight appointing the PJC bodies and confirming the GAMC.
    3. Elect the Moderator by congregational vote, using an electoral college system. The Moderator would appoint and preside over the GAMC, but not the GA.
    4. The GA would elect a Chairperson for the former house, the Moderator would appoint a Chairperson for the latter.

    The one flaw I see in using popular vote of Elders is that Sessions are free to expand and contract their size. This means that the vote could be stacked by simply ordaining more Elders. To achieve what you’re trying to do, I think you have to find a way to accurately measure “active membership” and provide proportional representation to that metric.

    Before we answer the question “who votes?”, we have to answer the question, “who are we trying to proportionally represent?”

  3. Love the idea! I remember conversations in the last 5 years about the same thing. All off-record, of course. Maybe we can get some traction for next time.
    I don’t like the idea of using an electoral college as we do for the President. I prefer the popular vote number. Just this TE’s opinion.

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