The Route for Amending the RAO: Explaining How the 50th GA Handled Overture 7

By Jared Nelson | June 19, 2023

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

One potentially confusing part of the deliberations at the 50th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was the consideration of Overture 7. You can see the substance of that overture in a previous Presbyterian Polity article here.

While there was some confusion as to substance of the overture,[1] the greater confusion seemed to be more about the appropriate body to consider the overture’s proposed change to the Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO).

The Stated Clerk’s Office sent the overture to the Committees of Commissioners (CoC) of the Permanent Committees that the overture would affect, but not to the Overtures Committee (OC). However, the OC did take up the matter and ultimately, the Assembly approved the action of the OC, even though the overture had not been referred to it! What was happening?

The heart of the matter was a difference of opinion as to how RAO 11-5 (recently revised) and RAO 15-1 direct the referral of certain overtures.

RAO 15-1 only states “The Overtures Committee shall consider and make recommendation upon all overtures or recommendations (cf. RAO 12-1.) proposing amendment to the Constitution, and all other overtures referred by the Stated Clerk.

However, RAO 11-5 was recently revised to state “Upon receipt the Stated Clerk shall refer all overtures requesting amendment of the Book of Church Order or the Rules of Assembly Operations to the Committee on Constitutional Business for its advice to the Overtures Committee.”

Since the RAO is not part of the Constitution,[2] the Stated Clerk argued that, under RAO 15-1, he had the discretion to send it to the committees that the proposed RAO change would affect, and then to allow them to review it for comment and recommendations. However, the intent of the recent change to RAO 11-5 – at least according to some – was to direct the Stated Clerk to send Book of Church Order (BCO) and RAO amendments to the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) and then to the OC. Which RAO provision governs which? Some CoCs – such as those for Covenant Theological Seminary (CTS) and Ridge Haven (RH) – referred the matter to the OC (perhaps on the basis of RAO 11-5) and the commissioners making up the OC then debated over whether or not they should be considering Overture 7 at all since RAO 11-5 may make other recommendations out of order.

Ultimately, the OC decided to take up Overture 7, and the decision was partly made by those who thought RAO 11-5 properly gave it to the OC, and partly by those that wanted to have a recommendation prepared in case the overture would ultimately be referred to the OC (which would have necessitated reconvening the OC during the Assembly if it had no recommendation prepared).

In the end, during the OC’s partial report, the Assembly received an amended version of Overture 7 that seemed to answer some of the concerns about the original language of the overture (i.e., as submitted by Southern New England Presbytery) being too broad. In particular, the amendment limited the requirement of information about policies to reporting upon only the implementation of material changes ordered by the Assembly in the past year. The Stated Clerk argued in favor of this amendment, which was incorporated in the proposal the OC brought to the floor of the Assembly. The amended proposal from the OC was the action taken by the 50th General Assembly.

Before the 51st General Assembly, clarity and perhaps revision need to be made to RAO 11-5 or RAO 15-1 so that both the Stated Clerk and the committees of the General Assembly have a consensus about the path of referral RAO amendments should take.

Jared Nelson is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Hopewell Township, PA.

[1] At first, some commissioners and Administrative Committee staff were concerned that the rule-change proposed in the Overture would require all Agencies and Permanent Committees to make annual reports on all of their policies, which would be a gargantuan task with current personnel and budgetary resources.

[2] The Constitution of the PCA includes the Westminster Confession of Faith (as adopted by the PCA), the Westminster Larger Catechism, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the BCO (excepting most of the Directory for Public Worship). See the Preface to the BCO, Article III.