This article appears in the Spring 2021 edition of the Presbyterian Connection newspaper, page 8. Written by the Rev. Stephen Kendall.
Commissioners vote at the 2019 General Assembly.
The year 2020 was a year of struggle and change. It was also the first year in our history that the General Assembly was cancelled. The global pandemic has moved much of the life of the church online and, in 2021, this will also be the case with the General Assembly.
Following a survey of presbyteries about whether we should move online for a 2021 Assembly, hold an Assembly in-person as soon as possible, or delay by another year, the Assembly Council authorized an online General Assembly to be held during the dates of June 6–9, 2021. While the vaccine rollout carries much hope, the council could not, with confidence, recommend planning to meet in person this year, much as we would have liked to.
We will not be the first to hold an online General Assembly. Several other denominations have already done so or are in the planning stages to do so.
The online Assembly will maintain many of the elements that take place in person. Commissioners will be responsible for the business of Assembly and its decisions. There will also be worship, ecumenical and interfaith guests, young adult and student representatives, and lots of breaks. The wider church will have the opportunity to follow the Assembly through live-streaming.
The General Assembly Office will work with the General Assembly Design Team on making the Assembly as meaningful and effective as possible under these new circumstances. Issues of how many hours we can reasonably meet, what business can and should be dealt with and how we can facilitate the participation of all commissioners are top of mind.
It will not be possible (and perhaps not advisable) to attempt to complete all the business that has accumulated since the 2019 Assembly. As they always do, commissioners will determine how Assembly business is dealt with. They will decide what can be dealt with quickly by consent, what should be discussed as part of the online meeting and what should be deferred to a future Assembly. The General Assembly Office is working on a method to assist commissioners with that process.
Commissioners are ultimately responsible for the Assembly. They will need to authorize its very existence when it starts, decide on the business and approve any procedures that will be necessary to facilitate the online Assembly. For example, if there is a process to decide what business should be deferred, commissioners will need to agree to both the process and the matters to be deferred. While we will, of necessity, need to find new procedures to facilitate the Assembly, the Clerks of Assembly will strive to ensure that all procedures conform with the principles of our polity as laid out in the Book of Forms.
PC-Biz (pc-biz.org), an online platform that has been in use successfully for 15 years within the Presbyterian Church (USA), will be used for presenting the reports and recommendations—and facilitating the business to commissioners in real time. PC-Biz also enables voting and tracking of all business. It will be customized for The Presbyterian Church in Canada and our decision-making processes. Staff from PC-Biz will train those who will facilitate the Assembly and every commissioner, so that all are sufficiently confident to fully participate. At the 2020 online General Assembly of the PC (USA), they found that only one of close to 600 commissioners was unable to manage the technology after the training.
The staff in the General Assembly Office are excited about serving the church in this new way and look forward to working with a team of volunteers and staff to help the Assembly be a positive and memorable experience.
What Does a General Assembly Commissioner Do?
June 2021 will mark the first time in the history of The Presbyterian Church in Canada that the General Assembly will meet entirely online. This will necessitate some modifications as to how the Assembly is conducted, but the fundamentals remain unchanged. Ministers and elders from across Canada will still unite in worship and discernment and the decisions made will shape our denomination and help us fulfill the ministry to which we are called.
Before the Assembly, commissioners will receive reports from the various committees, councils and agencies. The more commissioners familiarize themselves with the reports, the more effectively they will be able to participate. During the Assembly, commissioners will be expected to attend every sederunt (sitting) of the Assembly. Reports will be presented. Some of them will have recommendations that call for decisions to be made, others will not. Ecumenical and interfaith guests will be invited to address the court. After the Assembly, presbyteries will invite commissioners to report on their Assembly experience. Your clerk of presbytery should let you know how to go about submitting your evaluation.
The church is blessed when commissioners, embracing God’s inexhaustible love, seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and discern the mind of Christ together.