Sunday, June 26, 2016

Assembly Wrap-up: The World about to Turn

“My heart shall sing of the day you bring
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.”[1]

The chorus of Rory Cooney’s theme hymn “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout” echoed through the Convention Center halls many times during the week. The hymn, based on the Song of Mary in Luke 1, is a song of hope in God’s justice and redemption. And as it punctuated the closing worship of the 222nd General Assembly Saturday morning, it seemed perfectly suited to this General Assembly.

The PC(U.S.A.) had been through a horrible string of setbacks in recent years: six-figure annual membership losses; scores of churches leaving or closing each year; multiple lawsuits over who owns church property; personnel and finance scandals in our mission agency leading to the resignation or firing of key personnel (and subsequent defamation lawsuits); multiple layoffs in our national offices from a “financial meltdown” in mission giving; attacks on the church from conservatives who claim we’re too liberal, liberals who claim we’re too conservative, Jews who claim we’re anti-Semitic for supporting justice for Palestinians, member employees of corporations we are boycotting or divesting out of justice concerns, environmentalists who claim we are unjust for not boycotting or divesting… the list could go on and on.

But coming out of the 222nd General Assembly, one can’t help but get the sense that the world is about to turn, and Presbyterians with it.
L to R: Tony De La Rosa (PMA); Denise Anderson, Jan Edmiston (Moderators);
J. Herbert Nelson (Stated Clerk)
Just look at the leaders of our denomination. One couldn’t have imagined such a diverse group of younger leaders even a decade ago: an openly gay married Latino heading our Mission Agency; an African-American from South Carolina as our Stated Clerk; an all-female team of Co-moderators of our General Assembly. They literally come from north, south, east, and west. They reflect a diversity in age, race, gender, and sexual orientation that is more like the world we serve than was the white male hegemony of years past. But these leaders are more than symbols; they are gifted and visionary and hopeful Presbyterians. This is the public face of the Presbyterian Church and I couldn’t be prouder.

Despite the many challenges facing the church, the 222nd General Assembly lacked the tension and anxiety of previous assemblies. There was only one “sexuality overture” – an attempt to restore the language of “one man – one woman” to the definition of marriage in our Book of Order that only garnered 21% support among commissioners. And yet, despite the virtual absence of an organized conservative wing, the Assembly showed tremendous restraint and wisdom when offered opportunities to adopt radical proposals. The assembly refused to “apologize” to the LGBT community for harm and exclusion done to them by the church, instead offering “regret” that respected the conscience of those whose interpretation of scripture leads to a different conclusion about ordination or marriage. It refused to go beyond the limited divestment of US companies in Israel to an outright boycott; it refused to join the boycott of fossil-fuel producers as have the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Canada, the Unitarians, and more.

There was a palpable unity present in the Assembly, with only a rare flash of ranting or snark, and the fewest number of close votes I can recall in an Assembly. The moderators and stated clerk kept the spirit light with self-deprecating humor, and led with confidence and ease.

There were more moments of genuine emotional uplift, including the final ratification of the Confession of Belhar, witnessed by one of the authors (Allan Boesak); an unprecedented complete and unqualified apology offered to a victim of sexual abuse at a youth event; heartfelt gratitude and a classy exit by our outgoing Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons; and of course, the significance of the election of J. Herbert Nelson barely a year after the Mother Emanuel AME Church massacre in his birth state.

Even so, there are those who are still trying to divide the church. The right-wing echo chamber seems to have been trying to trump up a minor episode into a major issue regarding interfaith greetings extended by a local Muslim cleric who went off script and offered prayer to Allah. But those are the death-rattles of the old PCUSA. The world is turning, and the PCUSA is not looking back.

[1][1] Words by Rory Cooney, 1990. GIA Publications, Inc.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Reflections on Day 7: The Homestretch

The 222nd General Assembly raced to the finish line on Friday with a historic election and much important and sometimes controversial business. Amazingly, they managed to recess earlier than expected – only 10:57 p.m. – thanks to some judicious restrictions on debate during the evening session.

J. Herbert Nelson is installed as Stated Clerk
During the morning session, the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson was elected stated clerk by an overwhelming margin over David Baker. Nelson, who currently heads the PC(U.S.A.) Washington Office, is the first African-American and person of color to hold the office – the chief ecumenical officer and head of communion for the denomination. Born in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Nelson grew up in the predominantly African-American southern presbyteries of the former UPCUSA, and is the first stated clerk from reunion to represent the “northern” stream of the church. Nelson will serve a four-year term with no limit on the number of terms possible. He is known as a man of humble faith, with evangelical conviction and a profound social conscience, a powerful preacher and ecumenical leader. "I believe we are not dying," he told the Assembly, "we are reforming." We will be well-served.

Friday afternoon and evening were filled with important decisions about polity, and the two most anticipated issues before the Assembly, our social witness policy on the Middle East and climate change.

The decision in 2014 to divest selectively from three US corporations supporting the military occupation of and illegal settlements in Palestine sparked a howl of outrage among pro-Israel groups. As we approached this Assembly, it remained to be seen whether there would be a reconsideration of the denomination’s approach or an intensification of our efforts. In the most significant item from the committee on Middle East Issues, the Assembly approved with amendment the report, “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace.” The document calls for a continued support for a two-state solution, while “seeking fresh approaches” to the conflict, and noting an imbalance of suffering between the Israelis and Palestinians. In related actions, the Assembly adopted a resolution calling for safety and civil and human rights for Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system. It also rejected a call to move beyond divestment to a boycott of Hewlett-Packard products and services because of their support of the occupation.

The vote on the minority report on fossil fuels divestment
In perhaps the most intensely debated item of the day, the Assembly rejected the call for fast-track divestment from 200 corporations engaged in the production and sale of fossil fuels. Instead, the Assembly adopted a minority report calling for a reaffirmation of the corporate engagement strategy through the denomination’s Mission Responsibility through Investment process adopted in 2014. This was a major blow for Fossil-Free PCUSA, an organization that generated overtures and concurrences from 30 presbyteries in the hope that the Assembly would join the witness of the Episcopal Church and other denominations that already adopted divestment resolutions. It was a victory for Faithful Alternatives to Divestment, a group based in Texas with the support of presbyteries in areas with fossil-fuel dependent economies, where divestment likely would have led to outrage and significant loss of members and churches. It was also the issue on which the Assembly acted least decorously, with one pro-engagement advocate yelling at the commissioners and a pro-divestment advocate rudely questioning the moderator. The minority report was an example of how Parliamentary Procedure is intended to work, amending the report to make it as broadly acceptable as possible without sacrificing its intent. It replaced the main motion by a margin of 71%-29%, and ultimately obtained the support of 84% of the commissioners, a clear consensus.

The report of the Assembly Committee on Church Polity had a number of lesser important but notable outcomes. The Assembly voted to recommend to the presbyteries for vote a number of constitutional amendments, including:
- Restoration of the title “minister of Word and Sacrament” and alteration of “Ruling elder commissioned to limited pastoral service” (commonly called “Commissioned Ruling Elder”) to “commissioned pastor.”
- Amendment of the 2014 action barring those who have renounced jurisdiction during a disciplinary proceeding from serving as employee or volunteer in any church to grant permission only following restoration to membership, self-accusation, and submittal to judicial process where applicable.
- Referred to the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly a request from the Synod of the Northeast to provide for individually commissioned ruling elders so that underrepresented groups such as youth and immigrants might be commissioned to higher councils more easily.

Despite the occasional lapse of decorum, the Assembly headed toward the finish line Saturday with a spirit of joy, unity, and accomplishment. I will have one more wrap-up post you can look for soon.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Reflections on Day 6

Thursday at General Assembly is the backstretch of the Kentucky Derby. All the pomp leading up to the event is over; the horses are out of the gate and are galloping at racing speed. It’s too soon to look to the finish line, for there is a lot of race ahead. But a failure to keep pace on the backstretch will make finishing well impossible.

Thursday is the first full day of plenary business. The exhibit hall is closed. Major business is addressed. And the Assembly’s unique personality begins to reveal itself.

By its actions on Thursday, the 222nd General Assembly is progressive, but not radically so. It is distrustful of institutional authority. After spending an hour and a half following parliamentary rabbit-holes on an item that had a unanimous recommendation from its Assembly committee, the commissioners almost as a whole recognized the ease by which they can expend precious time on minor technical details, and, therefore, the value in trusting the committee work of their fellow commissioners.

That led to overwhelming majorities rejecting later amendments to committee actions. Ultimately, all committee recommendations presented Thursday were approved, a few with minor amendments. Among the actions:

- By a 73%-27% vote, the Assembly rescinded the mandate requiring the consolidation of synods issued by the 2014 General Assembly. A minority report remanding the work of consolidation to a task force of eight persons failed.
- The Assembly answered an overture seeking an apology on behalf of the church to members of the LGBTQ/Q community who have been excluded from office and prosecuted for their sexual orientation with a statement of regret. The overture had split the progressive wing of the church, with the moderate left (Covenant Network) advocating for the softer response in recognition of the unity of the church and the rights of conscience and judgment preserved in Amendment 10-A.
- The Assembly approved a “2020 Vision Team” to develop a new guiding statement for the denomination, and make plans for its implementation. The task force is to be composed of persons who are out-of-the-box visionaries – which runs the risk of losing perspective of what is politically possible, an affliction that stymied the work of the first Mid Councils Commission in 2012.
- In a related action, the Assembly approved an Administrative Commission to address the organizational issues in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and explore possibilities of organizational restructuring with the Office of the General Assembly. The commission will have limited powers to change staffing patterns, but can’t order merger or realignment without Assembly approval.
- The complete set of items known as the “Foothills Overtures” arising from Foothills presbytery, were disapproved.  The overtures sought to change the threshold for constitutional amendment, and the way the General Assembly conducts business and approves social witness policy

In other Assembly events, my good friend and colleague in Lake Huron Presbytery, the Rev. George Baird, was honored with the C. Fred Jenkins Award, an award given to one who has given “wise, prudent, and vigilant support to the Constitution and polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” Also, eleven new mission co-workers were commissioned including Lake Huron Presbytery's own Juan Lopez and the Rev. Cathy Chang, now serving in the Philippines.

The Assembly adjourned for the evening at 11:15 pm, having to provide time for commissioners to return to their hotels before the light rail system closed for the night.

There is plenty of race yet to be run. On Friday, the Assembly makes the back turn and heads toward the finish line. More to come.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Reflections on Day 5 - Part 2: Turning the Page

In the first part of my daily reflections, I wrote about the historic vote Wednesday night to adopt the Confession of Belhar. In that post I said the PCUSA entered the 21st century on Wednesday. That claim is borne out by other actions and observations. Day 5 of the Assembly gave witness that the PCUSA has turned the page on the past 30 years (or perhaps 100 years) of civil wars and is moving fully into a new future it is ready to write.

Here is some evidence:

  • The end of the sex wars. There was only a single item this year reflective of the wars over homosexuality, gay ordination, and same-sex marriage. It was an overture seeking to restore the "one man - one woman" language to our Book of Order definition of marriage. It failed by a 79%-21% margin.
  • Darwin wins. One hundred years ago, Presbyterians battled over the challenges to faith presented by Darwin's theory of evolution. From 1910 to 1925 the General Assembly adopted "five fundamentals" of the faith that were incumbent on all persons in ordered ministries of the church. They constituted a rejection of modernist, scientific claims about God and miracles. In two separate actions Wednesday, the church stated forcefully that science is not the enemy of faith; that human beings evolved over millions of years from other species; that the universe is at least 13.8 billion years old, and that God's plan of salvation involves the full use of human faculties of (scientific) reasoning.
  • A more pragmatic approach to worship. Presbyterian worship in the last three decades has been schizophrenic. On the one hand the liturgical renewal movement of the late 20th century generated a revised Directory for Worship in 1987, and a Book of Common Worship in 1993 that were the apex of high-church, theologically correct worship. The revised Form of Government adopted in 2011 boasted a return to theologically distinctive titles for "teaching elders" and "commissioned ruling elders." On the other hand, congregations have moved to less formal, more accessible worship models. In the new revision of the Directory for Worship overwhelmingly approved on Wednesday to be sent to the presbyteries for approval, a more pastoral and pragmatic approach is being recommended, permitting greater pastoral discretion regarding baptism and admission to the Lord's Supper. and on Friday, the Assembly will consider changes to titles for church service that reflect a more common vocabulary, changing "teaching elder" back to "minister" and "minister of the Word and sacrament," and "commissioned ruling elder" to "commissioned pastor."
  • Co-momerators. Wednesday was the first time we got to see our new all-female moderatorial dyad in action. Dubbed "co-momerators" by the YAADs, Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston led debate with joy, humor, dancing, and a casual ease. It makes one wonder why we hadn't tried this before.
This has been a remarkable and historic day for Presbyterians. It began with powerful presentations for justice in morning breakfast meetings and the ecumenical worship service focusing on Belhar, Black Lives Matter, Palestine, and the anniversary of the Charleston Mother Emanuel shootings. It ended with the historic action on Belhar. Not only has the Assembly managed to move past the divisions that have afflicted it in the past, but the commissioners seem to have regained a shared sense of joy and achievement in the work they have been called to consider. 

A new day appears to have dawned.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Reflections on Day 5 - Part 1: History and Tears

As I was stepping off the light rail from the Convention Center where the General Assembly is being held to the Doubletree Hotel where I am staying, I heard someone humming "We Shall Overcome." As I looked around, I noticed the song was coming from a white, female YAAD (Young Adult Advisory Delegate) of about 19 or 20.

It was the perfect summary of this day in the Presbyterian Church.

It is hard to overstate either the significance or the emotional impact of today's Assembly actions. Tonight at about 8:45 p.m. Portland time - 5:45 a.m. tomorrow morning in Cape Town - the General Assembly ratified the Confession of Belhar as the 12th confessional document of the church, by a vote of 540-33. The Confession of Belhar, which emerged from the experience of South African apartheid, is a powerful statement of unity, reconciliation, and justice.

The culmination of a ten year review and ratification process in the PCUSA, the formal adoption of the confession was a foregone conclusion after its ratification by the presbyteries last year, but the action still carried the significance of a "kairos moment" - a spiritual watershed in the life of the church - that left many in tears of celebration, myself included. People sang and danced to the South African liberation anthem "Freedom Is Coming"; Godfrey Betha, the clerk ("Assessor") of the Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa, addressed the Assembly: "I bow in humility before God

and thankfulness to you.... You have made history today.... It is a defining moment for the PCUSA - A historic moment of truth. You have allowed Belhar to enter the DNA of your denomination."

Later, Allan Boesak, a leading Reformed theologian, one of the authors of Belhar in the early 1980's, and a leader of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa in that day, described the moment when the Confession was adopted in South Africa in 1986, At that time, Vernon Broyles, a leader of the Civil Rights movement in the former Southern church represented the PCUSA, and promised Boesak, who moderated the convention, "We shall overcome." Boesak continued tonight, "We may not know what tomorrow may bring, but I know this - tonight, we have overcome; I know this - because of Jesus, we shall overcome; I know this - whatever may come in our world... we shall overcome." And a spontaneous song of "We Shall Overcome" swept over the Assembly.

And now, 30 years later, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has acknowledged that the Confession proclaims a standard of belief and behavior by which we choose to define ourselves.

The YAAD humming "We Shall Overcome" on the light rail platform is the perfect symbol of the church's action today. Today, the PCUSA moved into the 21st century. It defined itself as a global church in solidarity with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed of the world, not as benefactor or colonist, but as a partner and learner. The YAAD was born more than 30 years after the Freedom Riders, the March on Washington, and the violence of Selma. She was born 20 years after Soweto. At her birth, Nelson Mandela was five years out of prison and the sitting President of South Africa. But she has a different set of experiences: Ferguson, Charleston, and Orlando among them. And she can tell others who ask what her church has to say about racism, violence, and discrimination that her church believes
that the church must ... stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
And, God willing, she will see that church grow into the faith it confesses.

Reflections on Day 4

Tuesdays at General Assembly are a rush of activity as committees consider and make recommendations regarding the most important issues before the Assembly. They are only recommendations for the full body to consider but they frame the debate and provide guidance for commissioners who have not had the opportunity to hear and consider the issues as closely. When the Assembly acts counter to the recommendation of a committee, it is newsworthy in its own right.

But committees are not the Assembly. One important difference is that in committees, advisory delegates (Young adult, Theological student, Missionary, and Ecumenical) have full voice and vote.  In the committee I resourced, for example, of the 78 voting members, 18 were advisory delegates, including 15 Young adult advisory delegates.  This is a significant percentage, so that their votes can sway a committee recommendation in a different direction from the commissioners alone. 

This almost certainly happened in Committee 9, on Immigration and Environmental Issues. Arguably the most important issue before the Assembly is Item 09-01, an overture asking the Church to divest immediately from companies involved in the production and sale of fossil fuels. Groups organized on both sides of the issue have been engaged for months preparing for this Assembly. Of the 64 members of this committee, 56 voted on this item, recommending divestment by a vote of 31-25. But there are 13 Young Adult and Theological Student advisory delegates in this committee, who are among the most vocal proponents of divestment.  It will be interesting to see how the plenary body - in which advisory delegates do not have a vote - will act on this recommendation.

Another notable committee recommendation happened in Committee 5, on Mid Councils. The committee voted 28-15 to recommend approval of an overture to rescind the actions of the 221st General Assembly to reduce the number of synods from the present 16 to no more than 12.  This is the culmination of a six year process of consideration on the future of synods, which included four assemblies and two administrative commissions, had led to previous recommendations to eliminate or consolidate synods. A minority report, signed by two commissioners in the Synod of the Covenant, calls for the formation of a task force of eight persons from the two previous commissions to recommend boundary changes to the next Assembly if they cannot convince the 16 synods to agree to a plan within 8 months.

My friend and colleague Sallie Sampsell Watson, General Presbyter in Mission Presbytery, has written an excellent piece on the committee process on this item on her blog:

The actions of committees (and later, of the whole Assembly) can be found on under "Action Summary" for the appropriate item. Items are listed by committee, but you can use the search function to find a specific item.

Today (Wednesday) is expected to be a historic day, as the Assembly considers final ratification of the Confession of Belhar to be our 12th confessional document.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reflections on Day 3

During this Assembly, I am assisting Committee Four - "The Way Forward" - a committee charged with making recommendations on matters concerning the future of our denomination - from decision making to hierarchical structures to our identity and mission. In an afternoon briefing on the evolution of our denominational structures, theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw of Louisville Seminary quoted one of my favorite sections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. ... It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. ... We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point are great times for the church are times when it's pulled down. It is a great comfort which Jesus gives to his church. You confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is not your providence. Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough.... Live together in the forgiveness of your sins. Forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.”

Those are important words to remember at General Assembly. The church is an imperfect institution. Sometimes actions which we think are "honest, earnest and sacrificial" are in fact self-deceptive, insincere, and self-serving. But we don't have the option of an ideal church, just the real one with imperfect people like ourselves.

Day 3 is the day Assembly committees are in full swing as they work through hundreds of items of business, deliberating what to recommend to the full Assembly. The recommendations are not the final disposition, but they carry a lot of sway with less informed commissioners in plenary session. And inevitably there are actions which persons will either praise as inspired choices or shake their heads in disbelief and dismay. And inevitably there are commissioners and resource people who amaze you with their insight, eloquence, and conviction, and others who shock you with their ignorance, stupidity, and short-sightedness. All you can do is pray that somehow God is in the midst of all this, building the church and its witness, and then live in the forgiveness of our sins, forgiving others theirs.

As I have pledged not to comment on pending business, I can't tell you my own thoughts on some of the committee actions thus far. I can say, however, that the Committee on Immigration and Environmental Issues voted narrowly to recommend approval of an overture calling for the church to divest from corporations engaged in the production and sale of fossil fuels. A minority report, affirming the ongoing work of the denomination's Mission Responsibility through Investment Committee is expected as well.

It was also reported to me that the Middle East Issues committee has recommended endorsement of a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine (vote tally unknown). Both of these actions deal with deeply held convictions that leave many feeling jubilant and others kicked in the gut.

And there are unbelievable stories of genuine inspiration like the community ministry to children at risk personally developed by 86-year old Ruben Armendariz of San Antonio. And stories that are unbelievable in a different way, like the Teaching elder (minister) who reportedly asked what the distinction is between believer's baptism and infant baptism.

But the judgment of what is good and bad ultimately does not belong to us. And even if it did, there is a lot more business yet to come out of committees, not to mention the actions of the Assembly as a whole.

Altogether, not a bad way to spend my 59th birthday. Especially when the 70 commissioners in Committee Four all sing "happy birthday" to you.