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.

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