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Reflecting on the 40th General Council

Commissioners have confessed to the church’s brokenness and embraced the inevitability of real change

By David Wilson

The commissioner said he felt sheepish for even bringing it up. But he felt duty bound to draw the attention of his fellow General Council decision-makers to a problem in the proposal they were about to vote on: a comma was misplaced.

General Councils are a perplexing mix of big-picture thinking and obsession with detail. The 40th General Council in Kelowna, B.C., this past August was typical. Nearly 400 commissioners from every corner of the country considered tough, contentious issues such as a proposed boycott of cultural and academic ties with Israel. They also considered issues like “Adjourning and closing a meeting” and “Clarifying aspects of the grandfathering of Staff Associates.”

To no one’s surprise, the big issues generated the most thoughtful, passionate and faith-strengthening debate. The small stuff produced yawns and behind-the-scenes grumbling from commissioners who felt underutilized.

The business of General Council is largely shaped by proposals transmitted to it by other courts of the church. Often these involve minor changes to the Manual, the United Church’s book of rules and procedures. General Council has to deal with them because it is the only court authorized to do so.

Planners do their best to gather as many of these proposals as possible into a single item of business, but housekeeping still consumes a huge chunk of Council’s time. I estimate that about one-third of the 175 proposals before the 40th General Council fell into the category of minor tinkering.

There has to be a better way. General Councils are big, expensive gatherings that demand considerable sacrifices from the commissioners who attend them. More than half of the commissioners in Kelowna were laypeople, yet much of the housekeeping work they were asked to consider involved fine-tuning policies and procedures for ministers.

What if a specially appointed panel were to take care of housekeeping business before General Council even started? With housekeeping out of the way, commissioners might find they have more time and creative energy for dealing with major challenges.

I can already see the process police shaking their collective heads: a pre-Council housekeeping bee wouldn’t be allowed under the current rules. So maybe the rules should change.

From the opening gavel, commissioners in Kelowna signalled they were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. They were at their best when they were able to set aside the minutiae of church craft and focus on the big question of how God the Potter might be at work. By the end of a long week, the 40th General Council had confessed to the church’s brokenness and embraced the inevitability of real change. Now everyone is being asked to consider new ways of being the church. The General Council could set a good example by considering new ways of being itself — starting with the commas.

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Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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