PCUSA Assembly Approves Changes to Adapt to 21st Century

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s highest legislative body voted Wednesday to approve a new Form of Government that will help the denomination adapt to the 21st century.

Praising the vote, Cindy Bolbach, moderator of the 219th General Assembly, said adopting the proposed revision to part of the PC(USA)'s constitution is a "step forward for the church to not just survive, but thrive," as reported by the denomination.

The revisions do not change the denomination's constitutional standards but they are intended to return the Form of Government to its role as a constitution rather than a regulatory manual.

The proposed Foundations of Presbyterian Polity and revised Form of Government now heads to the PC(USA)'s 173 presbyteries for ratification.

The process of revising the Form of Government began in the early 1990s. A task force was created in 2006 and charged with drafting a report and recommendations. The initial proposal was later referred to churches throughout the denomination for a period of feedback before a final draft was presented at this year's Assembly.

While the current form served the denomination over the past quarter century, PC(USA) leaders agreed that the world of the 21st century is not the same as it was 50 years ago and that changes were needed to better meet the needs of mission.

"[H]ow much more might we accomplish if we dare to step out in faith, if we are willing to take the risk and let go of a model of being the church bound up in structures and processes," the Rev. Dan Williams, co-moderator of the task force, said ahead of the Assembly vote.

Over the years, the current Form of Government has attempted to provide a "one size fits all" answer to every situation faced by congregations and presbyteries. But the diverse, multicultural environment today no longer permits such an approach if mission is to be effective, the task force stated. The proposed new Form of Government provides more flexibility to churches and councils (governing bodies). According to the task force, councils will have the opportunity to "rethink and perhaps reinvent procedures that are now problematic or do not serve the council well."

As the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly, explained, the approved revisions will "reboot the Constitution" and enable all bodies of the church to be "more responsive to their context."

Membership in the PC(USA) – the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country – has continued to slip. The latest count from 2009 reveals the church body now has just over 2 million members. In 1997, the PC(USA) counted 2.6 million. The net losses in members has also increased each year over the last decade.

With that, PC(USA) leaders concluded that they could not continue doing church the way they have been.

"Our current regulatory-based way of 'doing church' often leads us to focus on doing things right rather than concentrating on doing the right things," the task force stated.

"The church must change and adapt if it is to continue to proclaim God's Word into the 21st century. The proposed Foundations of Presbyterian Polity and Form of Government provide the polity framework to empower and enable that change and adaptability."

In other business, the General Assembly also voted Wednesday to add the Belhar Confession to the Book of Confessions. The Belhar Confession is a document rooted in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It was drafted in 1982 as a theological confrontation of the sin of racism and division and affirms the unity of the church and among all people, reconciliation within church and society, and God's justice.

Some Presbyterians expressed opposition to its adoption, arguing that it is confusing and could be used to press for issues other than racial equality, such as same-sex issues.

The Belhar Confession also heads to the presbyteries for approval. If approved by a two-thirds majority over the next year, the confession will be considered a final time by the 220th General Assembly before it is adopted.

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