|L to R: Tony De La Rosa (PMA); Denise Anderson, Jan Edmiston (Moderators);|
J. Herbert Nelson (Stated Clerk)
Sunday, June 26, 2016
Saturday, June 25, 2016
|J. Herbert Nelson is installed as Stated Clerk|
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|
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
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
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.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
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.
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.
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
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.
“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.”
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.
Monday, June 20, 2016
Two decades ago, the General Assembly ran ten days, not the present eight. The pace was more leisurely, with evening entertainment and Sundays free. The Robert Shaw Chorale performed in 1983, the Utah Symphony in 1990; the Dave Brubeck Quintet in 1997. Now, with financial pressures to pack more business into less time, Sundays have become increasingly business days -- but they are relatively light business days.
Day two of the 222nd General Assembly started with the annual breakfast hosted by the Presbyterian Foundation. The featured speaker was Philip Jenkins, professor of church history and sociology of religion. Jenkins spoke about changes in the global religious context, and their implications for mission. (For example, the relative numbers of Africans to Europeans has changed from 1:3 a century ago to 3:1 today.)
|Worshipers at First Presbyterian, Portland|
But by mid-afternoon, we were back in the Assembly hall for business. The most significant business was the report of the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee. The Stated Clerk is the highest elected office in the church. The Stated Clerk is not only the chief ecclesiastical officer, but also is the public face of the church, especially in interfaith and ecumenical contexts. For the past 8 years, the position has been held by the Rev. Gradye Parsons, who announced 20 months ago that he would not seek a third four-year term.
|J. Herbert Nelson|
The Stated Clerk Nominating Committee is a diverse group of persons elected by an Assembly to make a stated clerk nomination to the Assembly. The process takes a full year. It begins with conversations with the church about the role and function of the stated clerk, develops a position and person description, solicits applicants, reviews and interviews candidates, and makes a single recommendation to the Assembly.
This year, that candidate is the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, who for the past five years or so has directed the Washington Office of the General Assembly, where he works cooperatively with other faiths and denominations in lobbying Congress on behalf of positions endorsed by the Assembly. J. Herbert is a humble leader, a powerful preacher, and is the first African-American to receive the official nomination for the position.
The Assembly also heard some agency reports (including the PMA video featuring yours truly), and received interfaith greetings from local representatives of the Mormon church, the Jewish community, and the Muslim community. The Assembly's reaction to the latter two suggests the items that concern Middle East issues will be passionately debated.
The Assembly recessed for the Moderators' reception, dinner, and initial committee meetings in the evening.
So far, the civil tone I noted yesterday has prevailed. I have been informed that the anticipated protests concerning divestment from fossil fuels will be smaller in scope and less disruptive than expected, or than the Episcopal Church encountered earlier this year during their national gathering.
Tomorrow, committees will hold open hearings on matters before them, then get down to deliberations and recommendations to the full Assembly.
Sunday, June 19, 2016
The 222nd General Assembly officially got underway Saturday in Portland, Oregon. Nowadays, Assemblies seem to get off to "rolling starts" before the first strike of the gavel, however. Committee Four ("The Way Forward") met on Friday to begin its business, and Saturday morning "Riverside Conversations" have become a staple at recent conventions, allowing commissioners and advisory delegates a chance to preview issues before the Assembly.
|The Assembly opens with worship. Photo: Robert Lowry|
That conviviality was in full display during the highlight of the first day's events, the election of the moderator. For the first time in memory - perhaps in history - there were only two nominations from which to choose, meaning a single ballot election was a certainty. Also, for the first time, co-moderator nominations were permitted. The choice was between two sets of co-moderator nominees: Teaching Elders T. Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston (of National Capital and Chicago presbyteries, respectively) and the tandem of Ruling Elder David Parker of Salem Presbytery and Teaching Elder Adan Mairena of Philadelphia Presbytery. If the contest was driven by competing agendas, it was not evident. All candidates were pleasant - even joking - during the 30-minute Q&A period. Perhaps most enjoyable were responses to a question about resiliency following a ministry failure. All four candidates seemed to want to outdo each other with stories of who failed worst. The popular winner was Jan Edmiston's admission of the time she failed to show up at a wedding, assuming the date was a week later. Earlier, Adan Mairena had spoken of his failed attempt to fit in to Philadelphia street ministry wearing the semi-formal attire he had regularly sported at tony Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. "So, do you work for the D.A.'s office or something?" was the response he got from kids on the street.
|Co-moderators Jan Edmiston (left) and|
Denise Anderson (right) enter the hall
after their election. (Mike Cole photo)
While the quick read of regular attenders was that both teams were effective in their responses, the vote was nevertheless a landslide in favor of Anderson and Edmiston, who carried the YAAD vote by a whopping 126-22 margin and the commissioners with over 76%, 432-136. They are not only the first co-moderators in the history of the Assembly, but also the first all-female moderatorial slate to win (including moderators and vice-moderators in previous elections).
A lighthearted spirit also prevailed leading up to the election when outgoing moderator Heath Rada inadvertently referred to retiring Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons as "Grady Powell." Parsons, whose official duties end with this assembly, replied, "for the next six days, at least, I'm still Gradye Parsons." It became a running gag throughout the evening.
The Assembly began in the morning with worship, which is always a highlight. All went smoothly until the praise band hired (I understand) to lead singing during Communion seemed to lose all sense of time and place as they continued well past time in an already over-long service.
|Tweet by Greg Bolt|
The afternoon business session is a lot of orientation, interspersed with ecumenical greetings and other presentations. An extended memorial liturgy remembering the victims of the Orlando nightclub massacre one week ago, and the anniversary of the Charleston church shootings was especially moving, and included prayers from a Portland-area AME pastor and a Muslim imam.
Sunday begins with worship in local churches, an afternoon of reports, and the moderator's reception before committees get underway in the evening. Of greatest interest will be the report of the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee, which will place in nomination J. Herbert Nelson, director of the PCUSA Washington Office, who if elected would be the first African-American stated clerk of the church. A second nomination, of David Baker, Stated Clerk of Tampa Bay Presbytery, will challenge the Committee's selection. The vote of the Assembly will not take place until Friday morning.
For those wanting to follow Assembly developments, a live stream of business sessions and worship is available through a link at www.pcusa.org and the most popular twitter hashtag is #ga222.
Friday, June 3, 2016
It has been the purpose of this blog to present an "insider's guide" to the upcoming 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
I know that many have appreciated my posts and have expressed their gratitude for insights gained.
It has never been my intention to represent any opinions I might have expressed as representative of anyone other than myself, and certainly not that of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution. Nor has it been my intention to comment on the merits of any item of business before the Assembly, but simply to provide information that might not be available to the reader unfamiliar with the history and operation of the denomination.
Nevertheless, I am currently a member of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (by moderatorial appointment, pending election), and did serve on the Advisory Committee on the Constitution from 2006 to 2012 - a period in which several of the issues before this Assembly originated.
I have been graciously reminded that as a member of the ACC I am to avoid any comment that might be interpreted as speaking for the ACC, or that might give the appearance of influencing the independent judgment of commissioners.
For that reason, the list of the "Top Ten Issues" before the Assembly has been removed, and no more will be forthcoming. I have not yet been informed whether it would be appropriate to continue the blog during the Assembly, as I have for each Assembly since 2008.
I apologize to any who might have found my posts inappropriate, and to my colleagues on the ACC for any reproach I might have brought to the Committee.
In Christ's Service,
Monday, May 16, 2016
I believe, however, that what Winston Churchill said of democracy applies equally well to our Presbyterian system: that it is "the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Indeed, if the General Assembly were entirely political, it would be unbearable. But it is very much a spiritual process, albeit an incarnational one.
As Presbyterians, we believe that the will of God is best discerned through gathered assemblies of ruling and teaching elders prayerfully deliberating what God might be saying to the church today. It is a conversation that is surrounded in prayer, and conducted in conversation with the Bible and our Confessions.
But we are a large and diverse communion who sometimes hear God speak in different accents and inflections. This has been true of governing assemblies going back to apostolic times. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, we know only in part, and we prophecy only in part. And, we are universally inclined towards sin and self-interest. That is why we need to hear and deliberate with others who provide perspectives that might be a corrective to our own. And, it is why we never claim to have discovered the one, true answer to the issues that confront us, but offer them as our best understanding of God's will at this time, while preserving the right of conscience for those who disagree. As an extra corrective, those matters which would amend our Constitution are sent for ratification by the 171 presbyteries of our church.
Even so, ours is not a perfect system. It is constantly in need of review and improvement. And there are always criticisms - some helpful but many short-sighted. But that is the beauty of our system. If we believe in a living God who calls us to be faithful in a changing world, we will necessarily have to live in the tension of determining how we too must change to be faithful in our mission, witness, and service. The alternative would be to calcify our beliefs, shut out the movement of the Spirit, and declare that we have it all figured out already, so all we need to do is celebrate our uniformity and condemn those who disagree.
But in and between the debating and the voting are other extraordinary ways that God speaks to the church at the General Assembly: through inspiring worship, shared bible study, fervent prayer, bold witness, and joyful celebration. We are the most diverse of Presbyterian denominations, and that diversity makes our discernment livelier, and our witness stronger.
One last saying: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est secundum verbum Dei (the church reformed is always being reformed according to the Word of God). Reformation means change; and even good change is always accompanied by disagreement and resistance. People of good faith can disagree, but need not be disagreeable. It is always our prayer that our love for one another exceed our political passions. But you can't cook sausage without a little heat, so fire up the grill - the sausage is coming!
This will be my fifteenth General Assembly dating back to 1983 -- not as many as some but more than most. I have attended as a job-seeker, local arrangements host, Assembly assistant, observer, overture advocate, mid-council executive, ACC member, and corresponding member.