Monday, June 20, 2016

Reflections on Day 2

Editor's note: I am cautiously resuming my General Assembly blog for my reflections on events of the Assembly. I will not be commenting on upcoming business. Should I be asked to remove my posts as I was before, there will not be another letter of apology to my viewers - the posts will just disappear.

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
After breakfast, commissioners and participants were whisked off to local churches, either by bus or light rail. Often, the preacher of the day in these churches is a denominational or ecumenical dignitary. (It was how I first met Heath Rada and his family 26 years ago.) This Sunday feature had been dispensed with for many Assemblies, but has returned in the past six years. I worshiped at Portland First Presbyterian Church where Princeton Seminary President was the preacher of the day.

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. 

David Baker
A second candidate, the Rev. David Baker, the stated clerk of Tampa Bay Presbytery, was also nominated. Baker is a thirty-something clerk who launched two successful IT firms before following a call to ministry. His nominator identified his corporate leadership skills as his best asset for the position.

The election won't be held until Friday morning, but the conventional wisdom is that Nelson is likely to win in a landslide. First, the process is stacked against challengers. In order to be nominated, a challenger must have first applied for the position (and been rejected). And, no campaigning is permitted - so name recognition becomes a major influence. But perhaps more consequential is that it is 2016 and in the 228 years of the PCUSA and its major predecessor bodies, the position of stated clerk has only been held by white males. Given the church's strong desire to develop a more diverse identity, it has been widely assumed that the nominee would and should be someone who reflects that diversity. Add to that Nelson's visibility and popularity, and a challenge is daunting indeed. There must still be a question and answer period with the Assembly, and anything could happen (and has before). So whether Nelson or Baker wins, the outcome will be a major headline from this Assembly.

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.

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