To be at General Assembly — at least that of the Presbyterian Church (USA) — is to be dunked in polity. No sprinkled baptism, we’re talking full immersion.
A prayer offered during the Immigration and Environment Committee deliberations on Tuesday thanked God for working through the processes of polity. While this prayer followed a vote that had been a fiasco, the committee members said their Amens and went on with their business. They agreed. The process of polity is how God works — even if there was something fishy about how a wide-margin straw poll victory before dinner turned into a real vote loss after dinner.
At one point during Thursday afternoon’s plenary session, things got tangled into something of a Gordian Knot. There were motions and counter-motions. Amendments and recommendations. Soon, co-moderator T. Denise Anderson herself was confused about what was being voted on. At one point, she said, “Let’s forget all that!” But that wouldn’t do. Polity is sacred here. There is no going backward. There is no, “Hey! We’re all reasonable people here. Can we just do that all over again?” There is only a trusting of the system, a belief that God’s will is going to be seen and achieved through the working out of polity according to the sacred writ of Robert’s Rules of Order.
This is no surprise, since the name Presbyterian itself is polity-based, referring to rule by elders.
Tweets during Thursday’s tangled up proceedings reflect struggles with polity and the belief that teaching parliamentary procedures would cure what ails this General Assembly. (Can you think of any other teachings that might be helpful?)
Problems are to blamed on Robert’s Rules of Order (or not obeying them).
Of course, referencing Robert’s Rules makes for a the missing square in Presbyterian Bingo.
Jesus may be our Savior. But polity will rescue us.
And when things get rolling again, there is much rejoicing!
It may be too strong to say that there is an idolatry of polity. But then again, maybe it’s not.
The overall thrust of this General Assembly has been that the kingdom of God will be realized through effecting institutional change. Whether that change is in lobbying Congress for certain immigration policies or providing special loans so church buildings can be outfitted with green energy retrofits, the hope is in legislating change. Unlike the sending of the people of God in the power of the Holy Spirit to be witnesses to Jesus through sharing his message, there is an expectation that word-smithing the Book of Order and passing other legislative decrees will be what wins people to Jesus.
More than once, when matters came to vote in committee meetings, committee members would say, “This vote is an evangelism issue. If we don’t do this, the people who live in my neighborhood won’t come to my church.” This assumes that evangelism is the result of taking stands on issues rather than having conversations with people about Jesus.
The business portion of the ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians national gathering in January lasted three hours, with the rest of the time focused on training for mission. With the General Assemblies of both the Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church going concurrently with that of the PCUSA, it’ll be interesting to see how each denomination weights the time spent talking, amending, and voting on issues and on equipping for mission.