The Polity Committee is tasked with reviewing proposed changes to the Book of Order. That was understood by the committee’s advisory delegates and commissioners going into Monday’s meeting.
But the morning’s unscheduled business was adapting to the use of new technology. Bit by bit and byte by byte, the committee persevered, making its way through its agenda, with the end result being one item of business that will ask the Assembly to amend the Book of Order.
Frustrations were smoothed during the day with moderating and resourcing that included lots of teaching and repeated demonstrations of grace toward the new committee process for this hybrid Assembly. Whenever it seemed like too much, prayer was administered and gladly received.
Things already felt unfamiliar when the committee members sat down inside the Presbyterian Center’s committee space B for an executive session, which included opening prayer, group building, worship and “a word on parliamentary procedure.” As the Polity Committee handled its first item of business, “POL-14: On Streamlining the Sale of Property Given to a Congregation as a Gift to Fund Ministry and Mission” and the newness of the system found some in the room feeling out of sorts.
Mixing masks with eyeglasses is hard enough. But burnishing microphones and interpretation headphones and PC-Biz screens added to the things needing attention by resource staff and committee leadership.
With Sarah Thornburg moderating and Cheryl Hartman serving as vice moderator, the first item was worked through.
After committee discussion, and advice from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) to disapprove the motion, it disapproved by a vote of 2 to 29.
Earlier, one commissioner had said, “It’s not just a property issue, it’s a theological issue,” adding that the motion would hurt church unity. The ACC’s written advice in the comments section of the item in PC-Biz struck the same point: “These provisions recognize that while congregations may hold legal title to property under civil law, they do so as stewards for all Presbyterians across time and space.”
It wasn’t enough to vote against approving the motion. The committee needed to send something “affirming” to the Assembly.
In the end it voted to disapprove POL-14, with 29 yes votes and 2 no votes. “That is what will be reported to the Assembly,” Moderator Thornburg said to a round of Bronx cheers about the only item it had completed that morning. “I know that was painful, folks.”
During lunch, one commissioner told the News Service about her morning. She had experienced the same slowdowns as others when it came to seeing voting. The commissioner wears hearing aids, which made it especially tricky to sort through digital sound delays from nearby headphones and voices from people speaking in the room.
“But as our moderator said at the outset, we are guinea pigs [for the new systems], so we are going to discover how things work well and don’t work well,” the commissioner said. “I trust that the people who have spent a lot of hours trying to figure this out are doing their best.
“We are trying to do electronic voting in the system in the way it’s designed.”
Moderator Thornburg had said before the lunch break, “I do believe we are going to see this pick up its pace.” She was right.
After lunch, with members taking tech questions directly to GA staff, the committee accelerated through “POL-06: On Amending G-3.0303 by Adding a New Paragraph g. Regarding Authority to Convene Meetings”—like other items before the committee, a referral to GA225 from GA224. After receiving advice from ACC to disapprove, with an explanation that the authority requested by the motion was already in the Book of Order, a motion to disapprove was voted on and passed 30 to 0.
Next was “POL-16: On Amending F-1.0302 and F-1.0404 Regarding Abilities.”
Deborah Huggins from Northeast New Jersey Presbytery, overture sponsor, spoke by video in favor of POL-16, and that item’s original amendment proposal that the Book of Order add “abilities” in two places. The original item also recommended that “disability” be included in future lists of marginalized people in policy, procedure and liturgy.
Madison McKinney, co-chair of the Advisory Committee for Women’s Concerns, spoke to approve the item and pointed to ACWC’s written comment advising additional language changes to include “all people” and “abilities, gender.” A motion to that effect was brought forward by a commissioner.
After ACC responded to a question about other places in the Book of Order with similar issues about “conforming language,” (places where “men and women” appear), the Office of the General Assembly advised that a subsidiary motion could be brought, via overture comment, that instructs OGA to look through the Book of Order for other language to change in the same, or “conforming,” way.
After that subsidiary motion was brought, voted on and passed, the moderator summed up where things stood: the original overture had addressed changes of language regarding disability, then a motion had been brought adding language about “all people” and “gender,” then a subsidiary motion was approved with the comment for OGA.
A vote was then taken to approve POL-16, with the amended language. It passed with 27 yesses and 2 nos.
Next up was “POL-09: On Amending G-6.04e Regarding Two-Thirds Affirmative Vote to Amend the Book of Order.” The motion would amend the Book of Order to require a two-third majority at the presbytery level instead of a simple majority. The intent of the motion was to “bring stability and require broad consensus to change” as expressed in the rationale.
Larry Veith of the Presbytery of Inland Northwest, sponsoring presbytery, spoke via video in favor of the motion.
ACC advised to disapprove and spoke about that in front of the committee. Commissioners also spoke against making the change, with one saying that the church would be very different today if the proposed 2/3 rule had been in place during recent decades.
When votes were taken, 29 committee members voted to disapprove the motion.
After a well-earned break — the committee had caught up to its schedule after its slow morning — the last agenda item was handled: “POL-08: On Amending G-2.0301 to Allow Congregations to Elect Members as Ruling Elders for Service to the Larger Church.”
Jenny Lee of the Synod of the Northeast, overture sponsor, spoke in favor of the overture, relating her own experience of not being permitted to serve above the congregation level because of Book of Order’s current wording. The overture rationale explained that this is a common occurrence with immigrant congregations. The Rev. Dr. SanDawna Ashley, a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, spoke in favor of the motion over video. The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) had submitted a written comment in favor of the overture.
ACC advised to disapprove the item, saying in its comment that the problem seeking to be addressed by the overture “does not require a constitutional solution” and that it presents problems to the church’s longstanding polity regarding elders. The ACC member speaking to the committee added that the goal of inclusion wouldn’t be addressed by the overture. The Racial Equity Advocacy Committee also commented on the item, recommending disapproval.
After committee members spoke in favor and against the item, the motion to approve failed on a razor-close vote, with 15 voting yes and 16 no.
After more discussion, and two pauses for prayer, the motion to disapprove item-08 produced a mirror result: 16 yes and 15 no.
The committee will reconvene publicly Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Watch it on the livestream.