It was definitely a very full, and at times overwhelming, week for the commissioners, advisory delegates, observers, and guests that travelled to Portland for the 222nd General Assembly. In addition to an incredibly full business agenda, there were countless "special" meal gatherings hosted by a variety of groups and ministries, exhibit hall and plenary presentations, mission tours, Bible studies, four special Worship Celebrations, and other events that filled the days and nights of the 2500 registered participants.
On Sunday night, as I settled into my seat on Alaska Airlines flight 28, I began to reflect on the week and the work that was accomplished by those who had been elected to serve the church in this important time in our life as a denomination. By now, many of you have read numerous articles from the various sources that have reported upon and critiqued -- and criticized -- the work of the General Assembly. On some issues, I am sure that you probably found more information than you really needed; on others, you undoubtedly have more questions. At our next presbytery meeting, our commissioners, alternates, and observers will do their best to help unpack a few more of the actions of the Assembly and what it all means for our congregations here in Minnesota Valleys.
For me, General Assembly has two sets of highlights -- those that happened in the Assembly Hall and those that were more personal and happened out on the edges of the Assembly -- on the light rail, in the Exhibit Hall, out around the region. This week, I will share the highlights from inside the Assembly Hall. They are in no particular order:
The election of our first ever Co-Moderators:
For the first time in our history, we have shared moderatorial leadership. The Reverends Denise Anderson of National Capital Presbytery and Jan Edmiston of Chicago Presbytery were overwhelming elected by the body on the first evening of the Assembly. During the week, they guided the body with warmth, grace, and humor. It is our hope that, in as much as our attempts to have the previous Vice-Moderator here fell short on two occasions, we will be at the top of the list and be able to welcome Co-Moderator Denise here just as soon as possible.
The election of a new Stated Clerk:
By a 4:1 margin, the Assembly elected the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson as Stated Clerk. Our own Scott Prouty was part of the team that interviewed thirteen applicants for this role in the life of our church, and I know that it was a most rewarding experience for Scott and his colleagues to see the culmination of their efforts.
My wife, Sue, and I first encountered J. Herbert over 20 years ago at the Montreat Youth Conferences. We were struck by his pastor's heart and his prophetic voice. He was, and is, a dynamic presence in the pulpit, and he will bring passion and energy to his office and to the life of our denominations.
A Revised Directory for Worship
After several years of work and comment, the Assembly received and approved a revision of this part of our Book of Order. The Directory has been made more concise and user-friendly -- five chapters instead of seven. Probably one of the most significant changes that we will see is that the Directory presents us with a new flexibility to welcome unbaptized inquirers to the Lord's Table, as long as the invitation to be baptized is made clear to them.
Our own Andy Davis was part of the committee that recommended the Assembly's approval. The next step is that this action of the General Assembly will come to all of the presbyteries for action over the next year.
The Belhar Confession:
Many people have lifted this up as the top action of the General Assembly, and it is hard to offer much disagreement. It was significant that the final action regarding this confession took place in the same city where, fifty years earlier, The Confession of 1967 was approved.
In the celebration which followed the confirmation of Belhar, one of the authors of the confession, Theologian Allan Boesak of South Africa, addressed the assembly and said, "We may not know what tomorrow may bring, but I know this: tonight, we have overcome. I know this: because of Jesus, we shall overcome. I know this: whatever may come in our world, we shall overcome."
In response to those comments, the Assembly responded by spontaneously breaking into song, singing "We Shall Overcome."
Fossil Fuel Divestment:
This issue provided some contentious moments. Upholding our need to be good stewards of creation and the resources that we have as God's children, this issue had theological, environmental, and financial overtones. In some of the conversations leading up to the vote, I saw another side of some of my very good friends - as they passionately lifted up their concerns.
In the end, the Assembly rejected a call for an aggressive divestment of the church's stock market holdings in two hundred corporations that produce fossil fuels and instead chose to engage a strategy which keeps the church engaged in conversations related to climate change and the part the fossil fuels play in this chance. It was the hope of the commissioners that a less confrontational strategy might produce more faithful and effective long-term changes as we seek to both care for creation and make wise use of the church's financial resources.
Just an aside, don't talk about ethanol with your fossil fuel friends . . . or your engineer son, for that matter!
The Assembly approved an amended report, "Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace." This supports a two-state solution for the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine.
The Assembly refrained from moving beyond phased divestment from Hewlett-Packard (the position of the last Assembly) to an outright boycott, continuing to work with that corporation to encourage them to do less to support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas.
The Future of Synods
The past two General Assemblies sought to reduce the number of synods in our denomination from 16 to 12 or less, creating even larger regional councils. From the start, there never really has been a plan for how this would be accomplished, and over the past few years, many current synods have been exploring different models of shared ministry and collaboration. In our own synod, we have experienced some really significant interaction with our neighbors in the Synods of Mid America and Lincoln Trails, and the need to merge or reconfigure boundaries has not been a big concern. Encouraged by the work of the existing synods, this year's Assembly chose to rescind the actions of the previous assembly, and leave the current synod structure intact.
Déjà vu all over again - What's in a Name?
The General Assembly approved an overture that, if approved by the presbyteries, will return us to using the term "minister of the word and sacrament" as the title for those ordained to what we have been calling the ordered ministry of "teaching elder." Both terms will still be used, but "minister" will now be primary, as it has been through every other era of the church's history. Related to this, the title "ruling elder commissioned to limited pastoral service" (commonly called "commissioned ruling elder") will now be called simply "commissioned pastor."
The General Assembly was asked to issue a formal apology to LGBTQ Christians who have been marginalized by past church teachings. After much significant conversation, the Assembly declined to use the word "apology" and instead chose to speak a word of "regret" to these brothers and sisters. The commissioners felt that this was an appropriate action to take, as they wanted to provide gracious space for those who are not in agreement with the church's tolerant stance on same-sex marriage, honoring their freedom of conscience.
And, Really Final:
A few quotes, and some stats from the week . . .
- o From Alice Ridgill (Pastor, New Faith Presbyterian, West Greenwood, SC) -
- Regarding the Presbyterian Church (USA), she said, "We may be wounded, but we will not die. This is not the time to lose hope, but to keep hope alive."
- Regarding our witness as the people of God, "What kind of footprint will we leave behind?"
- o From Jerry Andrews (Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, San Diego, CA) - Preaching from II Corinthians 5:16-6:2, he reminded the Assembly, "God reconciles, not the church."
- "The command is not 'get along,' it is 'be righted'"
- "Reconciliation is God's work; announcing it is ours."
- o Statistics about the 1001 New Worship Communities (NWC) - 344 have been established, and of the 344 . . .
- 64% of the participants are under age 40
- 53% of the participants are racial-ethnic
- 78% of the participants are new to the PCUSA
- 57% of the communities meet in non-traditional settings
- 53% of the communities are led by ordained Teaching Elders
- 71% of our presbyteries have at least 1 NWC - ours is the Hope Christian Ministry in Worthington
- o And finally, General Assembly Per Capita
- For 2017 -- $7.00
- For 2018 -- $7.73
It was quite a week in Portland. I am sure that I missed sharing a good deal of important information, and I guess that is why we send a team of folks to General Assembly. It takes many of us to paint the complete picture. Until next time,
Grace and Peace,