A PC(USA) General Assembly is often not a user-friendly thing. It takes non-Presbyterians (and I suspect it takes a fairly large majority of Presbyterians uninvolved in national denominational politics) a while to get their bearings.
Endless tinkering has rendered the process increasingly Byzantine. Modifications that have, on their surface appeared good – the desire to increase representation and responsiveness, the desire to create a worshiping rather than deliberating governing body, the desire to lessen conflict – have had the combined effect of introducing needless complexity and making it far harder for all but a very few to know what is going on. Then there is a tendency toward insider speak – a preference for language that is less standard English and more PC(USA) English. Add to that a peculiar taste for ever changing abbreviations and acronyms … YADs, YAADs, GA, OGA, COGA, GAC, GAMC, MRTI, ACSWP, ACREC, ACWC, MEMG, MESC, PNS, BOC, BOO, GANC, GACOR, ACC, ACL, BOP, PCCEC, OTW, TWE, COTE, GAPJC, PILP.
When people pepper their speech with insider jargon and obscure acronyms, they do not generally mean to exclude and mislead, but their words often have that effect. Actions emerging from a General Assembly of the PC(USA), statements by various officials, agencies, services, committees, councils, and news reports can leave observers bewildered. Differentiation between official policy and policies that have the support of national staff and various committees or even of interest groups can often prove difficult. This creates a climate where statements can be made as if they were true and representative if unchallenged, but that allows excessive room for plausible deniability when those statements miscarry.
Since I am commenting on a General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I think it prudent to offer a few very simplified tips and definitions in the hope of helping the uninitiated navigate these perilous waters. This barely scratches the surface, but I mention these items because they are likely to come up on this blog. I would refer readers to the PC(USA)’s website for more information, but I find it rather unhelpful in untangling the web.
Presbyterian: a form of church government – government by presbyters (or elders). There was an envisioned collegiality among ruling (laity) and teaching (clergy) elders. The idea was profoundly anti-clericalist and anti-hierarchy. All elders are elected by church members.
Session: the governing body of a local church. It consists of elected ruling elders, and it is usually moderated by a teaching elder (formerly called a minister of the word and sacrament, formerly called a teaching elder). It is responsible for the day to day business of a congregation.
Presbytery: a (smallish) regional meeting of representatives – ruling and teaching elders – from local congregations. These together usually make decisions that are wider in nature than the concerns of a local church. The presbytery exercises some oversight of local congregations.
Synod: a curious creature. It’s composed of several presbyteries – and it is a higher governing body. Nonetheless, most Presbyterians are mystified by its exact nature and responsibilities.
GA (General Assembly): the national meeting of representatives from presbyteries (not synods). The only people who can vote at this assembly are ruling and teaching elders commissioned for the task by their presbyteries. A commissioner is one of these. How such commissioners are selected remains a mystery – the process varies greatly among presbyteries.
It is important to note: the General Assembly is, in theory the highest governing body of the PC(USA). There is, however, a great gulf fixed between theory and practice. Commissioners operate at a gross disadvantage. For the most part, they are amateurs … they tend to have day jobs. They can be easily swayed by the pros … national staff who eat, sleep, and breathe national PC(USA) politics; national committee members, interest groups, even single issue activists – all have more information, more consistent strategies for getting their ways, better communications, the ability to spin GA decisions to their liking. More importantly, non-commissioner participants tend to be perennial – they have the luxuries of experience and long term thinking – while commissioners tend to come to GA for a week and go home. It is fairly rare for a person to serve as a commissioner more than one or two times.
OGA (Office of the General Assembly): the office of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. It is responsible for planning the General Assembly meeting, constitutional services, church statistical reporting and other duties. The OGA is overseen by the COGA (Committee on the Office of the General Assembly).
GAMC (General Assembly Mission Council): a GA agency responsible to “lead and coordinate the total mission program”. Its members are members of the board of directors of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) corporation. It is responsible for basically all aspects of the mission of the PC(USA) – though it is theoretically accountable to the GA. It has oversight of things like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, Evangelism and Church Growth Ministries, and World Mission. Until recently, the GAMC was known as the GAC (General Assembly Council); this year they propose renaming themselves Presbyterian Mission Agency. [As an aside, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll have a PMA – not to be confused with PDA (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance).]
ACSWP (Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy): a permanent committee “responsible for the process of developing and recommending social witness policy to the GA.” Members are elected by the GA.
MRTI (Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee): a permanent committee that views itself as implementing GA “policies on socially responsible investing (also called faith-based investing) by engaging corporations in which the church owns stock.” Its priorities are determined by GA referrals and ecumenical consultation.
ACREC (Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns): a permanent committee that theoretically “advocates for full access for all racial ethnic/immigrant groups to all programs, ministries, middle governing bodies and congregations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by monitoring implementation of policy and corresponding actions, decisions and issues of racial ethnic concern.”
ACWC (Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns): a permanent committee that advocates “for full inclusiveness and equality in the church and in society,” and views its role as providing “a prophetic witness to and for the church on existing and emerging issues of women’s concern.”
ACC (Advisory Committee on the Constitution): a permanent committee of the GA that advises that body on the constitutional implications of various business items before it.
Special Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies: a temporary committee which offers recommendations about adapting to the recent change from annual GAs to biennial ones. A little noticed group, they have brought proposals that have the potential to dramatically alter the Presbyterian balance of power. They have also recommended extending their mandate …
IPMN (Israel / Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA)): a mission network focused on Palestinian advocacy. It was created by a GA, it enjoys the tax-exempt status of the PC(USA), it has access to PC(USA) distribution and information pathways, it is supported by PC(USA) staff. Nonetheless, national PC(USA) staff and officials claim they can exercise no oversight of this network.
NMEPC (National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus): an officially recognized caucus of the PC(USA). Its nine-member executive committee speaks for Middle Eastern Presbyterians to the denomination’s General Assembly, synods and presbyteries.
All committees listed here were created by one or another GA. They all theoretically operate under the auspices of the GA – though many claim some form of independence. They are all theoretically accountable to the GA, and through the representative GA, they are all ultimately accountable to Presbyterian members.
That’s a long enough list to go on with. I will try to use the full name of any office, committee, network, or group the first time it comes up; I will only subsequently employ the alphabet soup acronym. I will doubtless fail in some instances – so I apologize in advance for excluding the uninitiated.