The Plenary Sessions, Voting and Procedures in the PC(USA) General Assembly

PC(USA) GA in Plenary Session

PC(USA) GA in Plenary Session

(You can read the first of my posts about the PC(USA) General Assembly here).

Plenary sessions of the PC(USA) GA– bringing together all the various delegates- took place in a vast conference hall in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in central Pittsburgh. Commissioners and Delegates sat at tables with their laptops in front of them. Like other participants, I had to bring laptop, which was connected to a system called PC-Biz, which brought all the reports, motions, amendments and results of voting to your desk. Commissioners have allocated seats, and sit with members of their own Presbyteries; and others have their own areas too. I thought it was a pity that people were anchored to their laptops in this way; I rather enjoy the way that at the Kirk’s assembly, you can end up being surprised at who are you sitting next to: someone from a different part of the country, a different theological viewpoint, an overseas delegate, or in my case, one year, my old secondary school head teacher!

GA participants used laptops to keep up with business

Chained to our laptops!

One you got the hang of PC-Biz, you could follow the business fairly easily (and there was plenty of help on hand). But this was no paperless Assembly; apart from flyers from the exhibition hall, there was also a lot of business which seemed to end up on paper. One piece of paper I and many others did appreciated was a daily tabloid newspaper, compiled and printed overnight, which newsily reported the decisions of the previous day and what was upcoming that day- an innovation which I’m sure many in the Church of Scotland would find useful.

A jazz accompaniment to the singing at the Opening Worship of the PC(USA) GA

Worship plays (time-wise) a much larger role in the American GA than in Scotland. Each morning we had about half an hour for worship in the middle of the morning. There was a lively range of styles of worship, including choirs and some excellent jazz. We also had a sermon each time- not a ‘reflection’ or a ‘meditation’ or a ‘pause for thought’, but an good old fashioned exposition of the Word. if the GA is anything to go by, then, despite the debates about the form preaching should take, it seems to PC(USA) continues honour- more than we do in Scotland?- the central role of the sermon as a vehicle for sharing the Word.

Voting is done electronically- as we do in Scotland. It took longer, however, since each before each vote the votes of Advisory Delegates were taken (youth, theological students, ecumenical and missionaries); their votes do not count, but were meant to be an indication to the voting commissioners, although to what extent they carried any weight it was impossible for me to tell.

The 'Playpen' containing clerks and officials at the Kirk's General Assembly. This has now been replaced by a new layout.

The ‘Playpen’ containing clerks and officials at the Kirk’s General Assembly. This has now been replaced by a new layout.

It was also interesting for me to watch the way the procedural rules at the GA helped or hindered the business. Like many American institutions, the PC(USA) uses Roberts’ Rules of Order, a handbook for running meetings in a ‘parliamentary’ style. Much of this was familiar to anyone who has been at the Kirk’s assembly; it provides rules of debate, handling issues like motions, amendments etc. Any large assembly can get into a fankle with whatever set or rules is used (I’ve seen it happen in Edinburgh, and at times even suggested a solution to those who are supposed to be running the business in the ‘playpen’).

Motions and amendments projected on the big screen at the GA. This playpen gets tablecloths!

Motions and amendments projected on the big screen at the PC(USA) GA

But my impression was that Roberts is a clumsier set of procedures than our own GA’s standing orders; and that there was less flexibility in the way the Americans used their procedural rules. For example, with any set of rules you sometimes get situations where following the rules creates situations which counter common sense. For example, sometimes the wording of a motion can mean that assembly participants can find themselves being asked to vote yes in order to vote again something, and to vote no if they wish to vote yes. In my experience, we are more likely to suggest to the Assembly that we ignore the conventional rules and vote in a common sense way. PC(USA) Moderators and clerks were less inclined, to make any such suggestions. A motion to do thing differently, or to suspend from standing orders, needed a vote every time. Moderators were less inclined to take authority to move things on. For example, in Scotland, in order to put a limit on the number of speakers because of pressure of time, the  Moderator will just ask what seems to be the will of the Assembly, and being answered with foot-stomping, will rule accordingly. I was surprised that the PC(USA) Moderators were less inclined to act that way. A motion from the floor might suggest a limit on the number of speakers, and then would follow the complicated electronic voting process (including, for this merely procedural vote, the non-binding advisory delegates’ votes). By the time each vote had been taken and displayed, you wondered whether the time saved had been eaten up by the time taken to vote! Slavish adherence to Roberts, and an unwillingness to allow the Moderator more authority to move things on, seemed to hold up and unnecessarily complicate the business in the American assembly.

All this could have something to do with the role of Moderator, which I want to discuss in my next post.

There is certainly an awareness of these issues within the PC(USA): see this report about a committee discussing the GA.

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About Rev Peter W Nimmo

Minister of Old High St Stephen's Church, Inverness, Scotland, UK www.oldhighststephens.com
This entry was posted in Church of Scotland, General Assembly, Pittsburgh, Presbyterian Church (USA) and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Plenary Sessions, Voting and Procedures in the PC(USA) General Assembly

  1. albertbogle says:

    Peter,

    I had the privilege in 1998 of leading the PCUSA in worship with the Bogle band while on tour in the USA.

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