Much of the work to be discussed at this year’s delayed General Assembly has its genesis in previous meetings. Following a number of decisions taken by the General Assembly three year’s ago, which at the time led to much public (and private) comment, the General Council accepted that clarification was necessary regarding the issues of decision making and dissent within the denomination.
The Council, PCI’s senior decision making body that takes any necessary decisions on behalf of the General Assembly between its meetings, established a Task Group to look at ‘Presbyterian decision making and the place of dissent’ Its purpose was to outline how decisions are made in PCI’s Presbyterian system of church government, what dissent formally means and how other forms of ‘dissent’ can be expressed, while outlining how decisions of the General Assembly can be changed. The report was sent down to PCI’s 19 regional presbyteries for comment and feedback.
Proposing the Task Group’s report and recommendations, Convener of the General Council and former Moderator, Very Rev Dr Noble McNeely, said, “The Report on Decision Making and Dissent within The Presbyterian Church in Ireland was prepared for the 2020 General Assembly. Although reported on at the 2020 General Assembly Standing Commission, it was agreed to remit it to this Assembly for consideration. The report is the result of feedback from 19 Presbyteries and much deliberation by the Task Group.”
Outlining some of the 12 recommendations, Dr McNeely said, “The report firstly addresses the process of reporting and decision making at the General Assembly. There are six recommendations being proposed regarding this process. The presbytery responses were generally in favour of greater consultation and forums for discussion outside the annual General Assembly…”
The report having been approved will alter significantly the way in which PCI manages and discusses policy prior to a General Assembly. This will now include the introduction of regional / presbytery conferences and a ‘Green Consultation Paper Stage’, where significant changes in policy or controversial matters would be considered prior to coming to a General Assembly.
Dr McNeely continued, “The idea of a “green paper’ and a consultation period was widely supported by presbyteries. The form that the annual assembly meeting takes was also considered and the Task Group is recommending a shortened Assembly…” He went on to explain that further consideration of this suggestion will be included in the Report of the Making the General Assembly More Accessible’ Task Group, which comes before the General Assembly on Wednesday.
The second half of the Task Group’s report addressed the standing of decisions and the issue of dissent. Dr McNeely said, “The report affirms the standing that the PCI is a confessional Church and Presbyterian. The church stands firm on the foundation of its supreme standard, the scriptures, and loyal to the Lord Jesus, the King and Head of the church. Having consulted the responses of the presbyteries and after much rumination of the Task Group, it is recommended that the ‘1974 Brief Statement concerning Faith and Order’ for the guidance of office-bearers and church members be updated.
“The report states clearly the implications of being a Confessional and Presbyterian Church. The church independently interprets and explains her standards, under the guidance of the Spirit of God and the decisions of the Assembly are conclusive and are binding,” he said.
The report also outlined a variety of decisions and the Task Group recommended that the Judicial Commission’s Code Republishing Panel define three different types of Assembly decision: Decisions that are binding, decisions that provide guidelines, and decisions that are in the form of guidance. Dr McNeely also said that the term ‘dissent’ was misunderstood.
“Dissent, as accepted in the courts of the church, is different from the common use of dissent. Members of the Assembly can dissent from a decision and have their dissent recorded but are obliged to implement the policy of the church. It was agreed that this should be referred to as ‘formal dissent’,” Dr McNeely said.
In light of both feedback from presbyteries and further discussions, the Task Group concluded that the principles contained in its report should replace the more limited 2014 report ‘Freedom of Individuals to express Opinions’. It therefore recommended that the General Assembly require the Task Group to draw up a report for the 2022 General Assembly entitled, ‘The freedom of those I ordained Leadership to promote opinions at variance with the clear position of the General Assembly’ which it will now do.
Addressing the issue of changing the decision, or policy of the General Assembly, Dr McNeely said that for most people the process was ‘unclear’. He explained that “Members of Assembly can change decisions, or policies, through debate within the Assembly. Kirk Sessions or presbyteries can change decisions through a memorial to the General Assembly.
“The Task Group agreed that the processes of change need to be clarified and recommend that the Clerk, in consultation with the Judicial Commission Code Republishing Panel consider how the procedures can be simplified and report to the 2022 Assembly,” Dr McNeely said.
The General Assembly will meet in Assembly Buildings until the afternoon of Wednesday, 6 October. Business also took place on Monday evening and will take place on Tuesday evening. For full details visit the General Assembly Overview page here. As in previous years, throughout the General Assembly there will be a live Twitter feed. You can follow preceedings via @pciassembly hashtag #PCIGA21.