concerns with nFOG
Commentary by Michael Herrin, Special to The Layman, February 3, 2011
As many proponents of the proposed Form of Government (nFOG) have argued, it is important to read the proposal with care. It is also important to make a careful comparison with the current Form of Government before deciding whether the proposal is, in fact, an improvement. It is equally important to read thoughtful criticism of the nFOG.
The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) took the extraordinary step of issuing comments on the nFOG even before the 219th General Assembly began its deliberations. Assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, the changes made to the nFOG during the General Assembly have not mitigated the GAPJC’s concerns.
The GAPJC contends that the adoption of the nFOG will result in the loss of much of the PCUSA’s history of constitutional interpretation. Proponents of the nFOG have responded that adopting a new form of government does not necessarily wipe away all precedents, even from antecedent denominations. The 1978/1979 definitive guidance on ordinations standards is sometimes cited as evidence that previous authoritative interpretations can continue to have validity.
However, when the paper which included “definitive guidance” was adopted by the United Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1978 and the Presbyterian Church U.S. in 1979, it was not intended to be an interpretation of a particular paragraph in either of their constitutions. It was, instead, “A Policy Statement and Recommendations,” expressing how the two denominations would handle ordination issues going forward. Such “policy statements” were specifically granted continuing force and effect in the newly formed PCUSA by paragraph 1.9 of the Articles of Agreement. In contrast, the Articles did not mention precedents or binding interpretations remaining in effect, nor was the terminology of “Authoritative Interpretation” yet in use.
The GAPJC does not claim that all prior policy statements and reports and other precedents would be swept away, but simply that all prior authoritative interpretations “of specific wording” “will be called into question by new wording.”
The General Assembly approved the formation of a special committee to study which authoritative interpretations will have continuing validity. That committee does not report until July 2012. Should Amendment 10-A pass, it goes into effect July 11, 2011, a full year before the special committee evaluating its effect on prior GAPJC rulings even reports.
It is the uncertainty, the fact that all prior Authoritative Interpretations “will be called into question,” that is problematic. Which Authoritative Interpretations will be left standing? Which will no longer have force and effect? No one will know until after the nFOG is put into place and until after the 220th General Assembly acts on the special committee’s recommendations. The presbyteries should not vote to approve the nFOG without sufficient information to make a wise decision. But given the uncertainty highlighted by the GAPJC, such information simply cannot be obtained in time to inform the amendment voting cycle.
The GAPJC’s second concern is that nFOG lacks due process requirements for pastors in termination processes. Proponents of the nFOG assert the adequacy of nFOG G-3.0109, which states that all persons involved should be given “fair notice and an opportunity to be heard on matters at issue.” But “fair notice” is not defined. What would be sufficient “opportunity to be heard on matters at issue?” Each presbytery will be left to define these themselves.
In contrast, the current form of government is specific. G-9.0505b(1) says, “Fair notice shall consist of a short and plain statement of the matters at issue as identified by the commission and of the time and place for a hearing upon the matters at issue. The hearing shall include at least an opportunity for all persons in interest to have their positions on the matters at issue stated orally.” None of this language is present in the nFOG. Instead, it would be up to each governing body to decide what involves “fair notice” and what constitutes “opportunity to be heard.” That means the nFOG would allow (and probably require) disagreements on the definitions of these terms to be litigated.
Further, while nFOG G-3.0109 does require congregational meetings to be held, G-9.0505b(2) in the current Form of Government provides specifics about how these meetings shall be conducted: “there shall always be a meeting of the congregation at which the commission shall hear the positions of the pastor and the members if they choose to speak. The pastor shall be accorded the right to hear the concerns expressed by members in the meeting and to have reasonable time to respond during the meeting.” None of this language is present in the nFOG.
The GAPJC is concerned that the removal of these procedural particulars could lead to lawsuits in civil courts: current G-9.0505(b) 1 and 2 of the Book of Order “contain very precise constitutional language ensuring process rights for pastors in termination processes, in part as an attempt to meet civil court standards for due process and keep such matters within our system.” Simply put, it is the very vagueness of the nFOG that would encourage disgruntled pastors to file suit in civil courts in order to keep their jobs.
The GAPJC’s third concern has to do with matters addressed in governing bodies’ manuals of operation. The problem is that permanent judicial commissions at all levels will be forced to interpret and apply not simply one constitutional document, but also the manuals of the different governing bodies. This will increase the workload of permanent judicial commissions at all levels.
To minimize this concern, proponents of the nFOG assert that the operating manuals of sessions and presbyteries are already varied in many respects. This implies that there is already a great degree of flexibility within our current governmental system, and that this is not now causing problems for PJCs. But on the other hand, they insist that the nFOG should be adopted precisely because it will increase flexibility. They imply that the current Form of Government is too restrictive and thus that a significantly increased amount of variation within the practices of our governing bodies is needed for the church to accomplish its mission.
In sum, the GAPJC’s analysis continues to call into question the wisdom of adopting nFOG.
Michael Herrin is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson, Miss., and the stated clerk of the Presbytery of Mississippi