From the Lions’ Den - General Assembly Edition, Part 1
In my last column, I began reporting on the 224
th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) which convened via Zoom June 19-20 and 26-27. It was a historic Assembly both because it was the first Assembly held electronically, and for the actions it took.
Due to limitations inherent in both the technology used and in the Assembly’s by-laws and rules, business was limited to “essential” items only. As I mentioned in my last column, that did not stop the Assembly from taking some timely action related to Native American ministries, the COVID-19 crisis, and racial injustice.
The Native American mission items were especially appropriate as the Assembly had just elected the first Native American Co-Moderator, Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart of St. Paul, Minnesota. The Assembly declared the years 2020-2030 “the decade of confession and repentance” for the Doctrine of Discovery, the colonialist partnership between church and state to subjugate indigenous peoples and seize their lands. Among many recommendations and directives, the action encouraged church councils to designate a portion of proceeds from property sales as reparations. A fund-raising program to make essential repairs to Native American churches and facilities was also adopted.
The Assembly action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic urged the church to be guided “by the evidence of science and our deepest values as a people of faith.” It identified the church’s challenge not so much one of adjusting to a “new normal” as continuing to grow as “new humans in Christ” in loving, faithful, and caring responses to our neighbors.
The item receiving the most attention – and controversy – was a statement “On This Moment in History,” a late item of business from the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, prompted by the murder of George Floyd and other atrocities. The original overture was a brief restatement of existing policy on racial injustice intended to be short, straightforward, and non-controversial. The statement, however, did not adequately express the growing sense of outrage felt by the commissioners on this important issue. One commissioner introduced a procedurally complicated substitute motion offering a more robust, socially prophetic statement. That led to lengthy deliberation, perfecting amendments, and votes.
In a normal Assembly, the standing committee assigned the overture would have perfected the statement. But with no committees, a time crunch, and limited opportunity for people to be heard, the final product was improved but imperfect. One notable omission was any statement about racially motivated violence against women and girls, a matter the previous Assembly commissioned a task force to explore. When exhausted commissioners balked at a last-minute effort to suspend the rules in order to reconsider and repair the previously adopted statement, the Assembly Twitter-feed exploded with accusations of systemic racism that echoed for days after adjournment.
That was an unfortunate ending to the Assembly, and all things considered, a largely unwarranted judgment on what was undoubtedly the most theologically and socially progressive assemblage of commissioners in recent history (perhaps ever). It illustrated well the problem of going beyond routine business in a forum ill-equipped to hear the voice of the whole church.
One benefit of holding the Assembly online was saving as much as two million dollars in travel, hotel, meal, and convention center costs. That permitted the GA portion of the per capita assessment to remain virtually unchanged, increasing only $.03.
Our presbytery was well-represented by our commissioners Elder Heather Bailey of Bay City First Presbyterian Church and the Rev. Matt Schramm of Midland Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Dan Saperstein, Executive Presbyter