It was a heck of a way to start the day: “Have any of you heard the term ‘quasi-committee of the whole’?”
This was one of the first questions put to a bleary-eyed group of 15 students from five seminaries gathered for a 7 a.m. class at the Oregon Convention Center on day four of the 222nd General Assembly (2016). Asking the question was Paul Hooker, associate dean of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Hooker and Clifton Kirkpatrick, a professor at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (LPDS) and a former Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), are teaching the class, “Presbyterianism: Principles and Practices,” for which students earn academic credit while learning firsthand about church polity and structure by observing the workings of the General Assembly. Jerry Van Marter, the stated clerk of the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky, a former coordinator of Presbyterian News Service, is the course administrator.
Hooker explained that ‘quasi-committee of the whole,’ a favorite phrase of Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, refers to the process by which an assembly or assembly committee suspends parliamentary rules in order to discuss an issue more informally.
Other similarly technical terms were bandied about during the hour the students devoted to describing their experiences of observing or serving as student assistants in various General Assembly committees. There was talk of substitute motions, abstentions, administrative commissions and minority reports.
“Polity gymnastics” was the term used by Susan Pierson, a student at San Francisco Theological Seminary, to describe the process she observed in the General Assembly Committee on Middle East Issues. “It seemed like we were getting caught up avoiding the issues at hand. There were amendments to amendments and rebuttals to rebuttals.” “I would call it ‘parliamentary olympics,’” said Colleen Earp, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary, reporting on her time with the committee on Immigration and Environmental Issues.
She brought five pages of notes about the committee’s work, particularly on an overture urging the church to divest from fossil-fuel companies.
The overture finally passed in an after-dinner vote, following hours of parliamentary maneuvering and debate. “It was a day!” Earp said.
Another Union student, Annie Franklin, reported that the GA Committee on The Way Forward was considering creating an administrative commission to deal with a large group of overtures. “I hope the commissioners did their work last night,” she said. “I’d really like to not be here at 10 o’clock tonight.”
Heather McIntyre, a student at LPTS, described how things heated up unexpectedly in the committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations during a debate on whether the Confessions of Belhar should be added to the PC(USA) Book of Confessions.
“Everything got very confusing,” she said. “There were lots of polity and procedure questions.” As a student assistant, McIntyre had to scurry to find a member of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution and a second parliamentarian. Eventually the committee voted to approve Belhar, but because of the tensions in the room, committee leaders added a time of prayer and Bible study after the vote.
Piper Madison, of Austin Seminary, said leaders of the committee on Theological Issues and Institutions dealt well with contention over whether to approve a revised Directory for Worship. “God bless the leadership team,” she said. “There were some obvious agendas in the room – people who wanted to leave their mark on this document.”
Madison said that during the long debate she moved from the front of the committee room to the back, “where the ACC people were whispering with each other.” She said, “It was definitely the most interesting place to be.”
Sharron Boddy, a student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said she was surprised by the number of debates about what seemed like petty details in the committee on Mission Coordination. “I thought it was going to be cool, calm and collected,” she said.
When all the debated items ended up being approved, she wondered, “What was all this debate about? It’s so annoying.”
Ed Sackett, of Austin Seminary, experienced similar frustration in the committee on General Assembly Procedures. “It was strike this and strike that,” he said. Ultimately, the debate came down to one word – should vs. shall.
Another Austin student, Jim DeMent, praised the moderator of the committee on Church Polity and Ordered Ministry for being “skilled, experienced, and in control.”
He said the committee stayed on track all day and only had one business item left to deal with. “The moderator keeps us on time, opens us with prayer,” and enforces time limits “gently but firmly,” he said.
“There are lessons in all this,” Kirkpatrick told the students. It’s important for church leaders to be versed in Robert’s Rules of Order, parliamentary procedures, and the Book of Order. “If you want to exercise leadership in the church, you really need to learn the rules,” he said.