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.

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