Sunday, June 19, 2016

Reflections on Assembly Day One

Editor's note: I am cautiously resuming my General Assembly blog, mindful that I could be asked to cease commenting about the Assembly as I was before. I am somewhat encouraged by the publication of this piece by Steve Plank, another member of the ACC, in an official publication of the church. I intend to report on what happened, but will try to refrain from commenting on business still pending before the Assembly. However, should this new series of posts meet the same fate as the former series, don't look for another retraction letter - they will just disappear.

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
So far, the Assembly appears to be muted and civil - much like GA221. Unlike assemblies of the 90's and 00's, when conflicts over sexuality and related topics created a palpable anxiety, GA222 is more laid-back, with more of the "family reunion" atmosphere that is always a part of the Assembly experience.

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 morning's pre-Assembly Riverside Conversations focused on the COGA-sponsored survey of Presbyterians "When We Gather at the Table" which is before Committee Four ("The Way Forward.") It appears that high expectations are being placed upon Committee Four, which yesterday heard from three heavy hitters - Associate Stated Clerk Tom Hay, Moderator Rada, and COGA member Eileen Lindner - all saying that the future of the denomination is in the hands of that committee.

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 and the most popular twitter hashtag is #ga222.


  1. Dan, some memories are longer than others. The 1967 in Portland had two candidates, Gene Smathers and William Hudnut. Gene the pastor of a 73 member church in the Tennessee hills won. Check the ongoing conversation about that on Facebook. John C Matthew

    1. Thanks for filling in the historical record, John. Good to hear from you!