Sunday, September 17, 2006

A Matter of Polity

A few days ago, I heard a member of a member of another Presbyterian church tell this joke:
Two dogs meet in a park. On says, "I am a St. Bernard. I help save people." The other responds, "I don’t know what I am. I must be a Presbyterian."
I believe that many of our problems in our denomination are rooted in an identity crisis. We have real doubts about what it means to be Reformed, Presbyterian and in some cases, Christian. Lately, I have been concerned about the lack of understanding of basic Presbyterian polity among our leadership. Our congregation has recently received a pastoral letter from the Synod exec of the Synod of the Sun. In the letter, Judy Fletcher wrote...

With leaders from all 11 presbyteries in this synod, we worshipped, prayed and considered the needs of Presbyterians. In congregation after congregation there are people like you trying to be faithful to Christ and diligent in mission and ministry. That was just as true before the Assembly...

All 11 presbyteries affirmed that the Book of Order has not changed and the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian persons is still prohibited. Presbyteries expressed commitment to uphold our constitution.
Now, I was grateful to hear that those in attendance--presbytery executives, staff members, members of Committees of Ministry, moderators of presbyteries, etc–agreed to uphold our constitution. However, those people do not speak for the presbytery as a whole. The language of "affirmed" suggests that a formal action was taken. None was. I will not question anyone’s motives here, but the synod executive’s opinion doesn’t carry much weight. For example, Mission Presbytery’s recent actions along with the synod’s Permanent Judicial Council’s ruling appears to contradict the Synod executive’s letter. Someone sitting in a pew would be baffled again at more confusing language coming from the leadership of the church.

Too often we seem to conflate the leadership of a governing body for the body itself. I have seen pastors treat sessions as extensions of themselves. I have seen presbytery executives assume that their opinions have the weight of the presbytery behind them. Many buy into the ruse. More than once during debate at a presbytery meeting concerning an overture from a particular session, some asked the pastor about "his or her overture." Such actions are contrary to Presbyterian governance.

Another example of poor polity comes from the "double super secret" documents drafted by denominational lawyers addressing property concerns. From what I understand, those documents were distributed to some presbytery executives as early as 2002. The documents were labeled as "confidential" or "do not distribute." Why should the presbytery itself be kept in the dark? Isn’t the presbytery the governing body, not the executive? In fact, I would argue that the executive works only at the discretion of the presbytery. Historically, presbyteries did not even have executives. Bypassing the normal governing bodies suggests that someone was trying to hide something (even if they weren't).

Our polity indicates we are ruled by elders. Unfortunately, our practice doesn’t always agree.

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