In a not entirely surprising—though no less disappointing—series of events, the Mid Councils Commission report was gutted and mostly rejected at the General Assembly. Though I still hold out some hope that the issues we raised will generate discussion and perhaps even innovation in our church, I must say that I’m feeling pretty discouraged at this point. I just don’t think the church is ready for the kind of changes we recommended. I suppose that after the major changes of Amendment 10-A and nFOG that happened over the past two years, an institution as big and as change averse as the PC(USA) needs time before taking more risks.
For those not following developments in Pittsburgh, here is the short version of what happened. Our recommendations to eliminate synods as councils of the church has been referred to a task force that will work between now and GA221. This keeps the proposal alive, which would not have happened if the assembly approved the committee recommendation to create a task force that would simply reduce the number of synods. Our recommendation about provisional non-geographic presbyteries were flatly rejected—despite an effort to refer this idea to a task force to keep it alive. There will be a study guide created and distributed electronically, which gives me hope that this work might still help congregations and presbyteries think about the challenges and potentials of being church in our post-Christendom world. (For full coverage, check out this story from the Presbyterian News Service. You can watch the full plenary debate on this video, beginning at the 48:00 mark.)
What really discourages me about the fate of our report is that I don’t really feel that our diagnosis of the issues our church is facing nor our pleas for adaptive change were really engaged. I know this probably sounds like sour grapes from a sore loser. But in committee and on the plenary floor, what I heard most was what I feared the most: passionate pleas based on predetermined opinions about synods and non-geographic presbyteries. I don’t think I ever heard a commissioner talk about the post-Christendom realities we find ourselves in and how our recommendations might or might not address them. Instead, we were shredded by people from the few functional synods testifying about how much they love their synod and people (mostly progressive friends of mine) warning that non-geographic presbyteries would destroy the essence of Presbyterianism.
[I will also say that I can't help feeling that the deck was stacked against us. After 21 people worked two years to produce a 300 page report, we were only given 30 minutes to present to the committee. This was immediately followed by 15 minutes of the representative from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (who worked with us the whole time and was supposed to make sure that what we turned in was constitutionally sound) ripping our recommendations apart and saying they were filled with constitutional holes. The oppositional testimony time from the overture advocates and the open hearing far outweighed our own time. I also find it strange that our moderator, Tod Bolsinger, was not given time during plenary to make a presentation about our complex report (compare this to how much time was given to resource people at the beginning of the Middle East Peacemaking Committee's report.) In fact, Tod was only asked to speak in response to questions from the floor and was then chastised for advocating for the report. Our system, like most institutions, is clearly designed to protect itself.]
I figured non-geographic presbyteries would get pounced, but I was really shocked that our synod proposals were rejected, which most people assumed would be a slam dunk. Many within the church have been calling for the elimination of synods for years, and our research and listening demonstrates that there is widespread consensus that synods are not necessary. All I can figure is that the people who came out in force to defend their synods won the day, especially given what I perceive as a deep reluctance to change right now.
As something of a rebuttal to the arguments made against our synod recommendations, I want to reiterate that our plan would not have stopped the good work that some of our synods are doing. It would have just reconfigured how that work is organized and resourced. Our plan also provided for the judicial functions and racial/ethnic concerns that were raised.
Regarding non-geographic presbyteries, it seems that this proposal was essentially considered an attempt to appease conservatives and allow for reorganization based on theological affinity. No one bought our argument that these provisional presbyteries were simply one option we wanted to allow churches to try out during a wider season of experimentation and innovation in missional ecclesiology. I honestly don’t know if non-geographic presbyteries would have worked, and I still have some reservations myself. But all we wanted to do was give it a try. Given the safeguards we built into our proposal, I really don’t believe that cataclysmic harm would have resulted.
As expected, the “loss of diversity” argument against non-geographic presbyteries was loud and clear (especially from my friend Joann Lee). I’ve already written about this, so I’m not sure I have much more to say. I really don’t think our non-geographic presbyteries proposal is simply a strategy to avoid our differences, though I do think it is a strategy of polarity management that might transfer our problems with division and conflict somewhere else in order to free presbyteries to focus on their primary purpose of supporting the mission of local congregations.
With the resounding rejection of non-geographic presbyteries, I’d really like to hear some good ideas about how to get our church unstuck, because in two years of work on this commission we really didn’t hear much else—at least when it comes to structural changes. It may be that our biggest problem is poor leadership, because the few presbyteries that are in fact making innovative changes and moving forward are doing so because of visionary leadership (see our report for examples).
In the end, I’m disappointed and discouraged by the failure of our report to make much of a difference at this General Assembly. I’m hopeful that some seeds have been planted and that the ideas we’ve raised will gain some traction.
I certainly don’t regret the two years I devoted to this project. I learned a lot and I’m proud of our report. And I made some great new friendships—some across theological lines—that I will cherish for years to come.