About this blog...

Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Clint McCoy's Take on the General Assembly

Clerks of Session really ought to subscribe to the free e-mailings of the Synod of the Northeast's "Nor'E-News", to stay up on the latest news and events. You can download the July issue on the Synod's website.

To subscribe to the Nor'E-News, contact Nancy Lomberk in the Synod Office.

In the July issue, Synod Executive for Partnerships, Clint McCoy, comments on his observations at the General Assembly. Here are a few highlights:


The work of the 219th General Assembly was so extensive, requiring presbyteries to take action on so many items, that Associate Stated Clerk and Director of Constitutional Services, Rev. Mark Tammen, wrote a memo to presbytery leaders, suggesting that consideration of General Assembly issues be scheduled over three separate presbytery meetings in order to avoid commissioner overload. Presbyteries will consider
1) a new Form of Government,
2) adding a confession of faith (The Belhar Confession)
to its Book of Confessions, plus
3) other "normal amendments" to the church constitution, including a change in the language regarding ordination.


Issues of the Peacemaking and International Issues Committee included...
...a call for the United States to end direct combat operations in Afghanistan, the denomination's first such statement since the war began in 2001, also requesting the U.S. government to increase humanitarian and economic development assistance to Afghanistan
...the Assembly's authorizing a denominational study, building on 1980's "Peacemaking: The Believers' Calling," to consider new thinking and approaches to peacemaking and nonviolence as a fundamental response to the challenges of violence, terror and war.
...additional action based on committee recommendations included statements urging the United States to end its use of seven military bases in Colombia; prayers and advocacy for peace in Sudan; restoration of sustainable agriculture in Haiti; reconciliation on the Korean peninsula and the reunification of North and South Korea; protection of religious minorities around the world.


A 21-member Middle Governing Body Commission, with authority to act on the Assembly's behalf in responding to realignment requests from synods and presbyteries, was created by the Assembly. The commission can change presbytery and synod structures "upon a majority affirmative vote of the affected presbytery or presbyteries or a majority affirmative vote of the presbyteries in the affected synod or synods." Decisions of the commission itself are subject to a required 2/3 majority of its voting members.

The commission will have the authority granted to the General Assembly in G-13.0103m and n "to organize new synods and to divide, unite or otherwise combine synods or portions of synods previously existing" and "to approve the organization, division, uniting or combining of presbyteries or portions of presbyteries by synods."

In other middle governing body-related actions, the Assembly rejected overtures...
...to eliminate synods
...to create a new synod based on theological affinity alone; and refusing an overture to give congregations flexibility to join presbyteries outside of their geographical area based on theological affinity
...to create a Korean-language presbytery within the Synod of South Atlantic.


Addressing a report prepared by the Middle East Study Committee (MESC), "Breaking Down the Walls," dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the General Assembly committee dealing with Middle East issues, came to unanimity with regards to its recommendations. Committee Moderator, the Rev. Karen Dimon, Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery, said that she witnessed the Holy Spirit at work in the committee, whose members held diverse views.

Actions of the committee included...
...reception Part One of the MESC report, including eight letters to the ecumenical and interfaith community, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans, as rationale for recommendations only, not as policy.
...a reaffirmination of Israel's right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders.
...authorizing the creation of a seven-person monitoring group on the Middle East for the next two years.
...lifting up the often neglected voice of Palestinian Christians, and commending for study the Kairos Palestine document, "A Moment of Truth," endorsing its emphases on nonviolence, love of enemy, reconciliation and liberation hope.
...calling on Israeli and Egyptian governments to limit their Gaza blockades to military equipment, guaranteeing adequate food, medicine, building supplies and free commercial exchange in and out of Gaza.
...deleting much of Part Three of the MESC report, requesting the monitoring group to replace it with eight comparable narratives arising from Palestinian (Christian and Muslim) and Israeli perspectives that are pro-justice and pro-peace.


Assembly in Brief - a 16-page bulletin insert-sized summary of the Assembly in words and pictures produced by the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian News Service is available to download. Click here to download the bulletin.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Status Confessionis?

Are we in a "status confessionis?" That's what the General Assembly is asking the presbyteries.

According to theologian Karel Blei, that venerable Latin phrase means "a situation of confessing, a situation in which the confession of Jesus Christ is at stake." From time to time the church needs to confess its faith in fresh terms, to meet the world's urgent need to hear the good news. The General Assembly has just said to the church: "We believe we are in just such a time."

Specifically, the Assembly voted to continue the multi-year process - begun by the 2008 Assembly - of adding a new confession to the Book of Confessions. That sort of change hasn't happened since 1990, when the church adopted A Brief Statement of Faith - and, before that, not since the Confession of 1967.

The confession the Assembly would like to add doesn't come from our country, nor even our hemisphere. The Belhar Confession - written in South Africa in 1982 in the Afrikaans language, and in English in 1986 - would be the first confession in the book that arises out of the vibrant churches of the Southern Hemisphere.

Specifically, the Belhar Confession was written by leaders of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC), the former "coloured" (mixed-race) Reformed denomination in South Africa. It's named for a suburb of Capetown in which the General Synod of that church was meeting at the time.

Since 1994, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church is no more. Its congregations have since united with the black Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (DRCA) to become the multi-race Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa. That denomination is still working towards full unity with the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (DRCSA), the white Reformed denomination.

Back in 1982, though, under the brutal apartheid system, Christians of different races were not even permitted to sit together at the Lord's Table. I remember attending the General Council meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Ottawa, Canada in that year (Claire and I were leading the youth component of the Visitors' Program). At the opening communion service, delegates from the black and coloured South African churches stood in silent protest. They refused to partake of the sacrament with delegates from their country's white church. To do otherwise would be a sham, they were saying - for, if they were barred from sitting together at the Lord's Table back home, why should they do so overseas, at an ecumenical gathering?

Their protest electrified the General Council meeting - ordinarily a rather staid conclave of academic theologians and denominational officials. Before the meeting had ended, the World Alliance had suspended the membership of the white DRCSA, and declared apartheid to be a sin. (In theological terms, a sin is more serious than a heresy - a heresy is technically a disagreement among friends, while a sin is an affront to God). That church has since been re-admitted, after repudiating apartheid as a theology.

Decrying racism's insidious power to separate people one from another, the Belhar Confession proclaims “that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.” Thus, any racist statement that claims to base its authority on scripture isn't even worthy of consideration, because it has revealed itself to be false from the very outset.

"Separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups," the Belhar Confession makes clear, "is a sin which Christ has already conquered."

Does Belhar speak a message to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that we need to hear? Furthermore, if we make this confession our own, does it aid our witness to the wider world?

Personally, I think it does. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous remark that "Sunday morning at 11:00 is the most racist hour in American life" is still all too true.

The Reformed Church in America adopted the Belhar Confession as one of its official confessions this year. The more conservative denomination of Dutch Reformed heritage in our country, the Christian Reformed Church, provisionally adopted it in 2007, and is expected to finalize that decision in 2012.

These churches evidently believe they are in a status confessionis. Will the PC(USA) decide the same? The voting in our presbyteries in the coming year is an important part of that careful process of discernment.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sermon on the General Assembly

Last Sunday, I preached a sermon in which I reflected on my experiences at the General Assembly.

I'm preaching through the Acts of the Apostles these days. The sermon is based on Acts 14:8-20, in which Paul experiences some rocky times - literally - while spreading the faith in the city of Lystra.

In case any of you are interested in reading the manuscript, you can find it here.

Another GA FAQ - Immigration

The PC(USA) Response to Arizona Immigration Law
Questions and Answers

What did the Assembly do?

The 219th General Assembly (2010) amended and approved a commissioner’s resolution that calls for the Presbyterian
Church (U.S.A.) to:

* “refrain from holding national meetings at hotels in those states where travel by immigrant Presbyterians or Presbyterians of color or Hispanic ancestry might subject them to harassment due to legislation similar to Arizona Law SB 1070/HB2162”;

* “offer nonfinancial support for the creation of accompaniment programs to support persons of color who feel that they are at risk when attending church‐sponsored worship or programs” in congregations and camp & conference facilities;

* Encourage camps & conference centers in Arizona and other states that pass similar laws to “develop ‘sanctuary’ responses that would create safe places for all participants”...; and

* Develop educational and legal resources for congregations through the PC(USA) office of immigration.

The vote was 420‐205, with 18 abstentions.

What does it mean?

The PC(USA) will now refrain from holding national meetings in the state of Arizona, and will monitor the progress of similar legislation to Arizona Law SB 1070/HB2162 that is currently being considered in seventeen other states (as of June 23, 2010). As directed by this assembly, the PC(USA) will refrain from holding national meetings in states that pass such copycat legislation.

What’s next?

Steps will begin to develop the programs and resources that are detailed in the assembly action.

Where can I get more information?

Full text of the resolution

Immigration Issues information from the PC(USA) website

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What's Up With All These FAQs?

In case you're just joining this blog and are wondering what's up with all these FAQs, read on for the explanation. They were issued by the leadership of the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as attachments to a pastoral letter issued by the denominational leadership.

Scroll down past the 5 sets of FAQs to read the cover letter.

Scroll down beyond that to read my impressions of the General Assembly.

Scroll down even further to get to general blog posts of interest to clerks of Session and other Presbyterian leaders.

Ordination Standards FAQ

Ordination Standards
Questions and Answers

What did the Assembly do? What has changed?

The 219th General Assembly (2010) proposed a change to the PC(USA) Constitution regarding ordination standards by a vote of 373‐323‐4. This action does not change the Constitution. It is a first step in the process. A majority of the 173 presbyteries would have to vote in the affirmative to approve the replacement by July 2010.

What does it mean?

G‐6.0106b is a provision in the PC(USA) Book of Order (Constitution) that provides the following standards for persons ordained as church leaders (deacon, elder or minister). The current version reads:

“Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W‐4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self‐acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.”

The 219th General Assembly (2010) recommends deleting the above provision and replacing it with the following language:

“Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G‐1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G‐14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W‐4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”

This proposed change would focus ordination examinations on the individual calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability of candidates for the responsibilities of the office, in joyful submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.

What’s next?

Presbyteries will study this recommendation and vote over the course of the next year. If a majority of the 173 presbyteries approve the change, it will replace the previous provision in the Book of Order. The deadline for presbyteries to vote is July 10, 2011.

Where can I get more information?

In the report of the General Assembly Committee on Church Orders and Ministry.

Middle Governing Body Commission FAQ

The Middle Governing Body Commission
Questions and Answers

What did the Assembly do? What has changed?

The 219th General Assembly (2010) has created a Middle Governing Body Commission with the power to act as the General Assembly, upon request of presbyteries and synods. The commission has the power “to organize new synods and to divide, unite, or otherwise combine synods or portions of synods previously existing” (G‐13.0103m) and “to approve the organization, division, uniting or combining of presbyteries or portions of presbyteries by synods” (G‐13.0103n) — upon the request, by a majority vote, of the affected presbyteries and/or synod.

What does it mean?

Presbyteries and synods wishing to realign their structures or boundaries may request such actions from the commission and make those changes without having to wait until the 220th General Assembly (2012) for approval. The commission will also supervise the work of the Special Committee on Administrative Review of the Synod of Boriquen in Puerto Rico and its constituent presbyteries. That special committee has been seeking reconciliation among the governing bodies in Puerto Rico, which have experienced struggles that threaten the effectiveness of the PC(USA)’s mission and ministry in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The 219th General Assembly voted to continue the special committee for two more years.

What’s next?

The moderators of the 218th General Assembly (the Rev. Bruce Reyes‐Chow) and the 219th General Assembly (Elder Cynthia Bolbach) will appoint the 21‐member commission. The commission will serve until at least the 220th General Assembly (2012). It must include at least one representative from each of the 16 synods.

Where can I learn more?

The Office of the General Assembly will provide information about the membership, meetings and activities of the commission at the OGA website.

Middle East Peacemaking FAQ

Actions regarding the Middle East
Questions and Answers

What did the Assembly do?

The General Assembly approved a comprehensive report on the Middle East – its first since 1997. The paper calls for:

* An immediate cessation of all violence, whether perpetrated by Israelis or Palestinians;

* The reaffirmation of Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders;

* The end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories;

* An immediate freeze on the establishment and expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and on the Israeli acquisition of Palestinian land and buildings in East Jerusalem;

* And many other steps toward peace in the region.

The General Assembly also approved the report of the Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI) committee, which:

* Provides an update on all corporations that MRTI has engaged as a result of the 2004, 2006 and 2008 General Assemblies;

* Acknowledges that “Caterpillar has in many ways provided positive leadership to its community, its state, and the nation. It has donated considerable resources and equipment in support of local development and disaster relief at home and overseas. It has significantly improved workplace safety, acted aggressively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and pursued environmental conservation within its production processes. In recognition of these accomplishments, Caterpillar has been listed for seven consecutive years in the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index”;

* Strongly denounces Caterpillar’s continued profit‐making from non‐peaceful uses of a number of its products on the basis of Christian principles and as a matter of social witness;

* Calls upon Caterpillar to carefully review its involvement in obstacles to a just and lasting peace in Israel‐Palestine, and to take affirmative steps to end its complicity in the violation of human rights.

What does this mean?

Coming into the 219th General Assembly (2010), few thought that agreement on issues relating to the Middle East would be possible. Diverse perspectives divided Presbyterians from each other, and from the Jewish community.

However, during the committee deliberations and again in the plenary session, through God’s grace, a place of broad consensus was found ‐common ground for continued peacemaking work in Israel/Palestine.

The General Assembly rejected immediate divestment from Caterpillar in favor of continued corporate engagement with Caterpillar and other companies profiting from the sale and use of their products for non‐peaceful purposes and/or the violation of human rights.

What’s next?

A Monitoring Group for the Middle East will be formed to assist the appropriate General Assembly Mission Council offices and the Middle East staff team in monitoring progress and guiding actions to ensure adequate implementation of
policy directions approved by this General Assembly. MRTI will continue to engage Caterpillar, and other companies, in relation to particular actions whereby the company profits from “non‐peaceful action” of their products.

Where can I find out more?

Middle East Peace

New Form of Government FAQ

New Form of Government
Questions and Answers

What happened? What changed?

The General Assembly voted to recommend a revised Form of Government to the presbyteries with a vote of 468 in favor, 204 against, and 6 abstentions – a 70%‐30% margin. The new Form of Government includes:

* Foundations of Presbyterian Polity - the principles that are foundational to government, worship, and discipline for the PC(USA). Preserves the vast majority of the material in the first four chapters of the current Form of Government.

* Form of Government - in six chapters, which spells out the constitutional framework for government of the PC(USA) as it seeks to respond to God’s call to life in mission.

* Advisory Handbook for Councils for the Development of Policies and Procedures Required by the Form of Government - an aid to councils (governing bodies) of the church for developing the policies and procedures to carry out their mission.

Nothing has changed until a majority of presbyteries vote to approve this new Form of Government. Voting must be completed by July 10, 2011, and if affirmative, the new Book of Order would take effect the next day.

What does it mean?

The current Form of Government has served the church ably over the past quarter century. The bedrock historic principles of Presbyterian governance will continue to order our lives together today and into the future, just as they have guided those who witnessed before us. At the same time, the world in which we as 21st‐century Presbyterians proclaim the gospel is not the world of the 1950s, or even the 1980s.

The proposed Foundations of Presbyterian Polity and Form of Government are intended to help the church better meet the needs of mission in the 21st century. The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity gathers together in three succinct chapters the historical and theological provisions that have defined, and continue to define, our church life together. Placing this bedrock material into a separate section of the Book of Order provides an excellent teaching tool to explain who and what we are.

The current Form of Government has evolved over the years from a Constitution into a regulatory manual that attempts to provide a “one size fits all” answer to every situation faced by congregations and presbyteries. The problem with this regulatory approach is that the diverse, multicultural environment in which we do mission no longer permits a “one size fits all” approach if we are to do mission effectively. The proposed new Form of Government lifts up the constitutional standards that are essential to our life together, while at the same time empowering councils (governing bodies) at all levels to respond more effectively to the ministry and mission needs that each faces.

What’s next?

The revised Form of Government must now be considered, and approved by a majority of presbyteries, before July 10, 2011, in order to replace the existing Form of Government.

Where can I learn more?

The document, as amended by the Assembly, is available now online.

A formatted version will be developed and made available online and in hard copy.

FAQs on Marriage and Civil Unions

Civil Union and Marriage Issues
Questions and Answers

What did the General Assembly do? What has changed?

The General Assembly approved both the Final Report and the Minority Report of the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage and ordered they be sent out for study by the wider church. The vote was 439 in favor, 208 against, with 6 abstentions.

By this action (sending both reports for study) the Assembly maintained the efinition of marriage as "a man and a woman.” With the action to send the reports for study, no change has occurred, or is pending.

What does it mean?

The Special Committee Report provides descriptive material on the historical and theological aspects of marriage, as well as a look at current laws on same‐gender partnerships and their children, and the place of same‐gender covenanted relationships in the Christian community. They commend to the church their covenant, “Those Whom God Has Joined, Let No One Separate” as a guide for Presbyterians to come together to discuss difficult issues when there is disagreement. The Minority Report, also approved for study by the Assembly, concludes that Scripture is clear that marriage is between a man and a woman only and does not support any kind of sexual behavior outside marriage. The minority report also contains a covenant for the wider church to use.

What next?

The Special Committee Report and the Minority Report will be prepared for istribution as one document to the wider church. By sending both reports to the wider church, it is the hope of the Assembly that Presbyterians will find helpful
background information on civil unions and marriage, as well as material to help individuals and groups remain together as they work through these difficult issues.

Where can you learn more?

Majority report
Minority report

Pastoral Letter from Church Leaders

The Moderator and Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly, the Stated Clerk and the Director of the General Assembly Council have issued this pastoral letter to the church, reporting on the General Assembly. The letter includes links to lists of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) related to the more controversial items - the ones that are most likely to be incorrectly reported by some news organizations.

I'm reproducing the entire letter here, although it's also available on the 219th General Assembly website.

I'll also reproduce each of the FAQs as separate blog entries, because - at least as of now - the links from the pastoral letter to the FAQs on the GA website don't appear to be working.

Now, the letter...

To Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations:

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38)….

Just one week ago, the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) convened with Scripture and music and prayer. Commissioners and advisory delegates from every presbytery across the church gathered around the baptismal font with hopeful expectation of what God’s Spirit would do in and through them as they sought to discern together the mind of Christ for the PC(USA).

As the week progressed, prayer was a foundational part of each day’s deliberations and decisions, and the presence of the Spirit was palpable!

“Out of the believer’s heart…

While all assemblies are significant, this one holds particular significance in the life of the PC(USA). Among the assembly’s decisions – to be ratified by presbyteries – are the addition of the Belhar Confession to The Book of Confessions and a revised Form of Government. Both of these items give a clear signal that we are a church that is not afraid to change – an important perspective to have in these days of great change in the church and the world.

The assembly celebrated and was greatly encouraged by the commissioning of 122 young adult volunteers and 17 new mission workers for service around the globe. Commissioners voted unanimously to renew the call to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide” and were inspired by the stories of congregations that are growing in evangelism, discipleship, diversity, and servanthood. They celebrated the generosity of Presbyterians who have contributed more than $10.5 million to relief and redevelopment work in Haiti in the wake of Januarys’ devastating earthquake.

The assembly also engaged in discussion about significant matters of faith and life – ordination standards, justice and peace in the Middle East, and civil union and marriage, to name just a few.

Information on the more than 300 assembly actions is available. Answers to frequently asked questions about the items that have already garnered media attention are attached to this letter and available online. We commend these resources to you for their accurate and straightforward information.

Civil Union and Marriage
Form of Government
Middle East Peacemaking
Middle Governing Body Commission
Ordination Standards

While the content of the assembly’s decisions is important, what may be of equal or greater importance is the manner in which commissioners and advisory delegates did their work. They debated, but did not fight. They tackled tough issues while refraining from tackling each other. They placed great value on finding common ground as they displayed gracious, mutual forbearance toward one another. They sought the will of God within their actions, rather than regarding their decisions as the will of God. One commissioner called the experience of seeking – and finding – common ground truly “miraculous.”

In short, this assembly exhibited to the whole church and, indeed, to our society and the world a way to engage in difficult issues while maintaining respect for one another. To put it another way, they exhibited well what it means for the church to “a provisional demonstration of what God intends for the world” (Book of Order, G-3.0200).

…shall flow rivers of living water.”

Just a few short hours ago, the 219th General Assembly ended in the same worshipful manner with which it began, as well as with a similar same sense of hopeful expectation that the hard work done in Minneapolis will continue forward across the church.

Michael East and Caroline Sherard, elected by their peers as co-moderators of the young adult advisory delegates to this assembly, shared their thoughts in a blog entry:

If all our commissioners and advisory delegates returned to their places of community and encouraged others to continue similar stories, what great things could be next for the PC(USA)? These narratives have the ability to inspire discussions on new, creative, and innovative ways of being the Church. At the heart of being Presbyterian is the principle belief that our discernment is best done when we gather together. Being able to gather in one place, as one people, for the one Church is a powerful and transformative experience--one which dramatically shapes future generations.

The assembly has commended to the church a number of items for further study, out of which is hoped will come, as Michael and Caroline write, “new, creative, and innovative ways of being the Church.”

May the good and faithful work begun in Minneapolis truly be just the beginning of a season of respectful, earnest, and gracious engagement – both in our words and in our deeds – all for the sake of the gospel.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord,
Elder Cynthia Bolbach
Moderator, 219th General Assembly

The Rev. Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly

The Rev. Landon Whitsitt

Vice Moderator, 219th General Assembly

Elder Linda Bryant Valentine

Executive Director, General Assembly Mission Council

Friday, July 9, 2010

Wrapping It Up

The momentum at GA grows steadily greater, as the Assembly moves through its last full day of business. The commissioners are starting to get tired. They grow impatient with speechifying, and vote more quickly to close debate.

The Moderator, too, seems very much on-task. She moves through the business so quickly, at times, that some commissioners miss their chance to get to the microphone.

This morning, there was a brief attempt to reconsider the same-sex marriage issue. It didn’t get very far: motions to reconsider rarely do, unless it can be shown that some significant error was made, or that perhaps there’s some new information that hadn’t previously been considered. The motion failed, 60% to 40%.

Yesterday, the Assembly voted to move to the next step in formally adopting the Belhar Confession, from South Africa, as the latest in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions. There was also a successful move to approve a plan to create a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. This will be in conjunction with the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America.

There had been some overtures asking the Assembly to approve non-geographic presbyteries or synods, which disaffected conservative churches could join, so as not to have to rub elbows with those gay-friendly liberals. Those overtures were all defeated.

The Assembly approved a new Commission on Middle Governing Bodies. Those who will eventually be chosen for this duty will take a detailed look at synods and presbyteries, asking the question of whether we still need synods at all, in this age of rapid communications. The new Commission will also seek to develop models for doing presbytery, so we’ll have a better idea of what size presbyteries we ought to have in the future.

This morning belonged to the Middle East. The report of the Middle East Study Committee has been harshly criticized for being too soft on Israel’s neighbors, while piling criticism on the Zionist state. The Assembly modified the report in several key ways.

A little later, they tackled Caterpillar, the construction equipment giant, for stubbornly continuing to sell military bulldozers to the Israeli Army, which the soldiers then turn around and use for bulldozing Palestinians’ homes. The Assembly passed a motion “denouncing” Caterpillar, and began steps that could be used to divest the church of the shares it owns in this company.

They talked about whether or not to extend benefits offered by the Board of Pensions to same-sex spouses or domestic partners of church employees. This increase in the pool of covered people could add as much as an additional 1% of employees’ salaries to the amount withheld for medical insurance. The Assembly, after some very detailed questioning of the President of the Board of Pensions, decided that adding the benefits would be “doing the right thing” by the employees.

Some supporters of gay rights are declaring that this Assembly gave them two-thirds of what they wanted: approval on ordination, approval on Pension benefits, but a rejection on same-sex marriage.

Speaking of rejection, the Assembly’s vote on the same-sex marriage issue inspired a protest demonstration today by Soulforce, a religiously-based, ecumenical gay rights organization. A group of 20 or so protesters entered the Assembly hall, and came down front. The Moderator called a recess while they sang a couple of hymns and prayed. Then, some Minneapolis police officers came in and asked the demonstrators to leave. Most did, a few refused, and they were arrested. It was clear the Moderator knew about this action ahead of time, but the Assembly gave the group no official recognition, nor did the Moderator even explain who these people were. Her approach was simply to ignore them, calling the recess for the sake of the Commissioners.

Tomorrow morning I hop on a plane to go back to Newark, and then home. It’s been a great Assembly – lots of good work completed and, all in all, a positive, grace-filled atmosphere. Now begins the hard work of interpreting the Assembly’s actions to the Presbytery, and to the folks in the local-church pews.

Microphone Duty

All in all, I’ve put in 3 volunteer stints as a Parliamentary Assistant – sitting by one of the microphones in the plenary meetings, checking credentials of those who wish to speak, helping them get questions answered and form motions, and handing out the color-coded paddles that tell the Moderator whether each of the speakers is intending to speak for the motion, speak against the motion, make a new motion, raise a question or move to close debate.

The volunteers are pretty much all presbytery stated clerks. We work in pairs. One of us sits closest to the microphone and asks the speakers what they want to do, handing them out the proper colored paddle. The other wears an electronic headset to communicate with the overall coordinator on the platform, who keeps track of who wants to speak where.

The Assembly uses a speaker recognition system. The Moderator can look down at her laptop there on the podium, and tell right away who wants to speak where and what each person’s purpose is. That way, she can insure there’s a fair distribution of speakers from the various locations around the hall, and also make sure the speakers alternate, pro and con.

The little handsets we’d ordinarily use to communicate the ID number and general intent of each prospective speaker to the platform weren’t working. We did it the old-fashioned way, instead – relying on the headset not only to receive information from up front, but to send it on up there, as well.

I gained a new appreciation for how complex the task of running a General Assembly meeting really is, and of how fair-minded and considerate the folks on the platform are, as they do their best to make things run smoothly. Generally, they succeed.

Coming: A New Hymnal

A couple of days ago I attended an informational meeting, here at the General Assembly, about the Presbyterian Church's new hymnal project.

To some of us, it's hard to believe the church is putting a new hymnal together already. Some of us remember all too well the skepticism we had to address concerning the last new hymnal project - in 1990. We Presbyterians have been developing new hymnals every 20-25 years on the average, so the timing is about right.

Here are some things I learned about this exciting new project:

About 37% of the hymns in the 1955 hymnal made it into the 1990 hymnal. This is the classic core of our hymnody. Just over 50% of the 1970 Worshipbook hymns made it into the 1990 book.

Based on polling of the committee to date, it's estimated that 90% of the hymns in that classic group that survived the 1955 cut will be in the new book as well, and somewhere around 40% of the hymns that were new in the 1990 book will likewise make it in.

Think of a hymnal, one of the speakers told us, as being like a family album. You'd never say, "We've already got enough wedding photos, we don't need yours." No, you just keep adding the new photos. If you run out of room, you may remove and store some of those older-generation snapshots.

Another analogy is to say it's like moving to a new house. The longer we've lived in a single place, the more accumulated stuff we need to get rid of. Some of the stuff we simply trash, other stuff we put into storage. Some of the stuff in storage will later be reclaimed and cherished later, by the next generation. There will be some hymns like that in the new hymnal. The committee hasn't released any list of hymns yet, but they're sure there will be at least a few rediscovered older hymns in the book.

They anticipate having a small, promotional sampler collection available at the Big Tent Conference next summer, and a larger sampler collection available at the 2012 General Assembly. These samplers will be free.

In the not-so-distant future, we may all be holding something like iPads in worship, although it's too early just now to say what that format will be.

It Happened Last Night

A good, thorough summary of what went on last night, as the Assembly acted on its collective wish not to deal with the same-gender marriage issue this year:

Rumor has it that there may be a motion this morning to reconsider. Historically speaking, such motions have been difficult to get approved.

We'll see...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Not This Year

To me, one of the surprising developments of this Assembly was how easily the Civil Unions and Marriage Issues Committee moved, on Tuesday, to recommend amending the Directory of Worship to allow for same-sex marriage.

Anyone who sat in the committee room for all those hours – as I did – knew it took a long time and much hard work to get there. Yet, when everything was said and done, the committee voted more than two-to-one to recommend the change.

It wasn’t so in the plenary session. The debate surged in earnest around a substitute motion to replace the majority report of the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage with a minority report that had been authored by the three most conservative members of the Special Committee. When it came time to perfect each side of the substitute motion in turn, the Assembly voted to attach one report to the other – even though they disagreed on the same-sex marriage issue. At one point, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons admitted that, because of the way those amendments were worded, there was no longer any significant difference between the main motion and the substitute. Either one would have resulted in the two reports being circulated throughout the church for study.

Perhaps it was because of this almost accidental unity of purpose that, when a commissioner made a motion to answer all remaining items of business in the committee’s report with the earlier motion to circulate both reports, the Assembly approved it with little debate. The margin of passage was not large – just over 50% – but it was enough. Having once again recommended to the presbyteries that they authorize the ordination of gays and lesbians, the Assembly was clearly not ready to circulate a set of amendments that would have scrubbed the Directory for Worship of all references to marriage as exclusively male-female.

Not this year – although one thing is certain. It will be back.

A Line in the Sand

A commissioner rises to speak of his great love for the Presbyterian church, and of the joy he feels as he watches his young daughter grow up in the church. But then he promises that, if the motion currently on the floor passes, he and his family will leave the church - and, whether those in other parts of the church will be able to tolerate it.

It’s a line in the sand.

Anyone familiar with the actions of recent General Assemblies can predict what the issue is: whether or not sessions or presbyteries in some parts of the church are permitted to approve the ordination of those living faithfully in gay or lesbian relationships.

Specifically, the action before the Assembly is to remove the present text of G-6.0106b...

“Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.”

...and replace it with:

“Standards for ordained service reflect the church's desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate's calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate's ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”

After extended discussion – including two failed motions to end debate – the Assembly voted to approve the change, sending the amendment to the presbyteries for yet another attempt at ratification: 53% yes, 46% no, 1% abstentions.

Earlier in the afternoon, the Assembly rejected a move to reinstate the earlier authoritative interpretations of the Constitution that had been removed by the 2008 Assembly. These former interpretations declared “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” ineligible for ordination as ministers, elders or deacons.

If a majority of the presbyteries concur with the amendment that replaces G-6.0106b with the new language, there will no longer be any constitutional impediment to the ordination of those in same-sex relationships.

Past experience has demonstrated that presbytery approval of this change is no foregone conclusion. Last time around, though, it failed by the smallest of margins. Surprisingly, a significant number of presbyteries long considered to be reliable “no” votes switched over to the “yes” column. Given the fact that an overwhelming majority of the church’s younger members favor the change, it’s only a matter of time before it’s enacted. Sheer demographics make it inevitable. If not this year, then maybe two years from now, after the 2012 Assembly.

What about the poor commissioner with his line in the sand? I feel a little sorry for him. Did he seriously think that putting his own future out there in such a public way would sway the voting of hundreds?

It’s never a good idea to make a promise you aren’t prepared to keep – although maybe he is prepared to follow through on it, for all I know. Whatever the case, I hope he will change his mind, coming to a new understanding of the church as a big tent that can accommodate believers with a wide range of views. That requires a certain amount of humility, which for some of us is not so easy to come by.

There was another personal testimony that was part of this afternoon’s debate. Jane Plantinga Pauw witnessed to a powerful, Spirit-led “transformation” in the Assembly Committee on Church Orders and Ministry, as people of vastly differing viewpoints and experiences risked sharing their faith with one another and experienced a deep sense of unity. “It is not only possible to be united in Jesus Christ,” she reported, “but it has happened here.” In her view, the new G-6.0106b language actually gives the church its best hope for unity in the midst of diversity.

That, in fact, has been the experience of every General Assembly working group in recent years that has sought to find a broadly-accepted solution to the thorny sexuality issue. After much research, conversation, debate and prayer, the members of these groups came to a place where they agreed to disagree. Along the way, they discovered a rare sense of community, arising not so much out of their mutual agreement as out of the pain of their differences.

This they considered a sort of miracle, one they could attribute only to the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps this unexpected gift of unity, this surprising serendipity, will prove to be their most lasting gift to the church. Long after the words of their heavily-redacted reports will have been forgotten, it just may be the example of their stubborn love for one another that will endure.

Should this amendment pass a majority of the presbyteries, will those who suddenly find themselves in an unaccustomed minority respond by drawing their own, individual lines in the sand? Or, will they risk exploring, along with those on the other side of the proverbial aisle, what the Holy Spirit may be doing in our midst?

Only God knows.

Only God can make it happen.

A Little GA Humor

If you haven't run across the fictional Frances Wolverton's blog from the General Assembly yet, get over there right away.

Today, of all days, we're all going to need a little comic relief.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Eleventh-Hour Amendments to nFOG

As I mentioned in my last post, the General Assembly passed about 30 amendments to the draft of the new Form of Government. Many of these changes are trivial, but some are significant. Here are the ones I think are significant:

1) Footnote added to G-2.0105, “Freedom of Conscience”: “Very early in the history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, even before the General Assembly was established, the plan of reunion of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia contained the following sentences: ‘That when any matter is determined by a majority vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceable withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. Provided always that this shall be understood to extend only to such determination as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government.’” (Hist. Dig. (P) p. 1310.) (Plan of Union of 1758, par. II.)”

This footnote is an important corrective to a common misinterpretation of the famous “God alone is Lord of the conscience” principle that’s foundational to Presbyterian polity. The uninformed sometimes assume this principle means that Presbyterians can believe anything they want. What it really means is that the State cannot coerce the conscience of a believer through the use of force. Many of the original Thirteen Colonies had an established church, and used the civil law to punish those who sought to worship in other than officially-sanctioned ways. “God alone is Lord of the conscience” has more to do with the separation of church and state than it does with the right of the church to define the boundaries around orthodox belief.

Yes, Presbyterians are free to believe anything they want. Yet, if that belief has to do with a doctrine the church judges to be central to the faith, the church reserves the right to ask unorthodox believers to leave the church and practice their faith in another religious community.

What’s more, the church expects them to withdraw “peaceably...without attempting to make any schism.” It would be a good thing if more of those smug pastors who have taken churches out of the denomination, making narcissistic statements like, “I haven’t left the church, the church has left me” – to join groups like the New Wineskins Association of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church – paid attention to this centuries-old principle. “If you have a serious conflict of conscience with the church’s teaching,” says this principle, “you are perfectly free to leave. But don’t even think of taking your congregation with you as you do so, for that sort of assault on the church’s unity is a deep affront to God.”

2) Add the word “ordinarily” to this sentence in G-G-2.0504a: “An associate pastor is ordinarily not eligible to be the next installed pastor of that congregation.”

It’s been said that “the word ‘ordinarily’ is a loophole big enough to drive a truck through.” When the pastor of a larger church moves on or retires, there is often strong pressure to make the associate pastor the pastor. It’s understandable that a congregation should feel this way. Leadership abhors a vacuum, and the folks in the pews naturally dread the prospect of an extended interim period. Yet, as uncertain as churches may feel during an interim time, important things can happen during those months, as lay leadership shifts and the presbytery charges the congregation with seeking a renewed sense of mission. The vast body of practical experience demonstrates that even the possibility of an associate’s becoming pastor can put a congregation on the road to devastating conflict. The people tend to lay on their new pastor’s shoulders the impossible assignment of becoming the beloved predecessor. When that expectation remains unfulfilled – as it inevitably must – they often turn and blame the new pastor.

Even so, I know the task force wasn’t 100% in agreement that the nFOG should contain this level of specificity about associate-pastor succession. I can understand how some may think the addition of “ordinarily” gives presbyteries the flexibility to seek out those rare situations when associate-pastor succession may be a good idea.

I think presbyteries would do well to draft their policies manuals in such a way as to close this loophole.

3) Add the word “ordinarily” to this sentence in G-G-2.0504b: “A teaching elder employed in a temporary pastoral relationship is ordinarily not eligible to serve as the next installed pastor, co-pastor, or associate pastor.”

Unlike the associate-pastor situation, I think this change is helpful. While it’s generally true that temporary-pastor succession is not a good thing, there are more situations than there are in the case of associate pastors where this may actually be the best thing for the congregation.

4) In G-2.0803, replace “obtain approval” with “receive and consider the presbytery’s counsel,” so the new sentence reads: “...prior to making its report to the congregation, the pastor nominating committee shall receive and consider the presbytery’s counsel on the merits, suitability, and availability of those considered for the call...”

There’s a huge difference between “receiving and considering counsel” and “obtaining approval.” This change eliminates the Committee on Ministry’s ability to quietly head off what they consider to be a train wreck of a call process – perhaps based on confidential reference information they have received from the pastor’s present presbytery of membership. The presbytery still has power to block a disastrous call, but with this change, that power would have to be exercised at the very end of the process, after a congregation (and especially its PNC) has fallen in love with an inappropriate candidate.

5) Amend G-2.0901 by deleting this qualifying phrase, “unless the presbytery expressly finds that the church’s mission under the Word imperatively demands dissolution of the relationship without such a meeting” from the end of this section: “An installed pastoral relationship may be dissolved only by the presbytery. Whether the teaching elder, the congregation, or the presbytery initiates proceedings for dissolution of the relationship, there shall always be a meeting of the congregation to consider the matter and to consent, or decline to consent, to dissolution.”

This rarely-exercised provision is very much needed in uncommon situations of extreme conflict or personal misconduct on the part of a pastor. When a presbytery declares the words, “the church’s mission under the Word imperatively demands it,” it’s declaring a state of emergency and assuming extraordinary powers. A little scary, to be sure, but sometimes that’s the only way out of a bad situation.

6) Amend G-2.0905, replacing “offer” with “provide,” so the new sentence reads: “After the dissolution of the pastoral relationship, former pastors and associate pastors shall not provide their pastoral services to members of their former congregations without the invitation of the moderator of session.” This is a helpful change, in my opinion. Long-tenured former ministers – retired, or simply living nearby – often have trouble maintaining appropriate boundaries. Without those boundaries, they can create havoc in the life of their successor. This change closes the loophole by which a sly retired minister could smile innocently and say: “I’m not seeking out former parishioners to so I can perform their baptisms, weddings and funerals. The families are coming to me.” (Yeah, right.)

7) Amend Paragraph 2 of G-3.0103, so as to restore Committees on Representation. This was a high priority of the racial-ethnic caucuses and of women’s organizations. The original draft simply said presbyteries need to fulfill the function, somehow, of insuring that equal-opportunity provisions are being followed. The amendment insists that this can only be done through a mandatory committee that only has that responsibility and none other. Probably a little too much detail, I think (though some will disagree).


A historic vote this evening: the Assembly voted to approve the new Form of Government, sending it to the presbyteries for ratification. A majority of the presbyteries must approve, in order for it to become the new law of the church.

I said upstream that the nFOG is a true insider issue. It’s of little interest to anyone outside the Presbyterian Church. To us, though, it’s of very great importance.

I like the nFOG. I don’t agree with everything that’s in it (I’m especially uncomfortable with its replacement of “minister of the word and sacrament” with “teaching elder”– a triumph of Melville’s ecclesiology over Calvin’s for no good reason I can see, other than that some people who grew up with the “teaching elder” moniker want it back). Yet, I can live with the things I don’t like about the nFOG because I’m convinced its simplicity and flexibility will help the church become more nimble in ministering to a rapidly changing world.

The Form of Government has steadily grown in size over the latter half of the 20th century. Time and again, as presbyteries got into tough spots and had a hard time making a decision – particularly, saying “no” to a powerful congregation or pastor – they overtured the General Assembly to insert a new rule into the Constitution, so they would never have to take that sort of heat again.

“We never want any presbytery to have to face the sort of situation we just faced,” would be the usual explanation. Well, sorry – sometimes the presbytery just has to be the presbytery, claiming the authority it already has and staring down the ecclesiastical bullies.

The book became needlessly complex. It also became inflexible. A detailed rule that worked out well for Presbyterians in the urbanized Northeast proved disastrous for Presbyterians in, say, sparsely-populated Nevada. The bigger the book got, the less anyone could even pretend that one size fit all.

So – if a majority of the presbyteries concur – in a year’s time we’ll have a new Constitution that’s a lean, mean mission machine. We’ll have to get to work, in every “council” of the church – the new name for governing bodies – to adopt administrative policies manuals that will restore as much of the former detail as we feel we still need. Yet, those manuals will be local-option items. Their regulations will be subject to suspension by a simple motion, or even dropped altogether by a simple amendment. The regulations at the policies-manual level will be a continual work in progress – which is as it should be, in a missional church.

The Assembly Committee that handled the nFOG added about 30 amendments to the document the nFOG task force had labored mightily to put together over the past 4 years. I’m told that most of these changes were agreeable to the task force. Not one, but two different committee members told me they think the nFOG is stronger for these changes.

I don't believe it. I doubt the task force members really believe that's true, in the case of all these eleventh-hour amendments – although I fully understand why they think they needed to present a united front and proclaim the party line. The task force members believe – quite rightly – that, with the stakes so high, a slightly imperfect document is better than none at all.

The opportunity to write a new Constitution doesn't come along every day. It’s not to be wasted.

In a subsequent blog post, I’ll list what I think are the most important of the changes the Assembly made to the draft document.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Talking Past Each Other

Today I continued to monitor the Civil Unions and Marriage Issues Committee. This is something I’m doing for the Association of Stated Clerks – helping to produce an Amendment Guide to whatever Constitutional changes the Assembly may eventually recommend to the presbyteries.

In this post, I’m going to get a little personal in my comments on the work of the committee. Full disclosure: these comments reflect my own views and are not necessarily those of the Presbytery.

It saddened me to see the same pattern unfolding that I’ve seen at so many other General Assemblies: representatives of the two sides in the sexual-ethics debate earnestly talking past one another.

The conservatives, with unmistakable anger, bitterly accused their opponents of discarding certain individual verses of scripture. These verses, they contended, prove God’s plan for all ages for the proper ordering of human sexual relations.

Their next move was utterly predictable, based on earlier General Assembly debates: they threatened various cataclysmic outcomes that could ensue, should the Assembly allow for any other interpretation of these verses than their own.

Here are some comments made today by those opposing any change to the church’s definition of marriage:

“If you pass this, this denomination will just implode.”

“The General Assembly is one big homosexual party.”

“I don’t know if I could stay in this denomination if this measure got pushed through, and I know there are many churches that are right on the edge and ready to leave.”

Of course, these proof-texters have convinced themselves there’s no interpretation involved in their reading of the Bible. None whatsoever. What they have concluded, after reading the text, is what God says. Period.

Some also warned that any change in Presbyterian teaching about sexual ethics would put us seriously out of step with the rest of the ecumenical church, particularly the fast-growing churches of the Southern Hemisphere. This argument – while true – fails to acknowledge that, if change is going to come, it has to begin somewhere. Somebody, sometime has to be out of step with the pack, if the Holy Spirit is ever going to bring about something new.

The liberals, on the other hand – displaying a calm, conciliatory demeanor, in marked contrast to their opponents – typically roll out moving stories of people who yearn to benefit from the institution of marriage, but are currently excluded by the church’s definition of it. That's well and good, but I’m always dismayed at how few speakers on this side of the debate do the one thing that could maybe, possibly lead some of their opponents to at least think about changing their minds. They fail to explicitly cite scripture, crafting an argument largely based on the findings of modern social science and on personal experience. This makes them sitting ducks for the conservative counter-argument that liberals don't care about the Bible.

Today, speakers on the liberal side of the argument did a little better job of citing scripture than usual. One of them cited the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-39 (the early church’s acceptance of a member of a sexual minority). Another mentioned Jesus’ greatest commandment (“You shall love the Lord your God... and your neighbor as yourself”). Someone else alluded to the deep bonds of non-traditional family that united Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan. Others cited a few passages from the epistles, as well, that I didn't write down. That’s at least a start.

One conservative speaker after another came back to Matthew 19:4-5, in which Jesus cites Genesis 2: “a man shall leave father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” In his testimony in the open hearing, Alan Wisdom of Presbyterian Action for Faith and Freedom gave the most concise summation of this argument. He spoke of God “establishing marriage as the one-flesh union of the two created sexes.”

It’s always astounding to me to hear people present this verse as Jesus’ institution of marriage. That argument only works if they rip the verse completely out of context. One glance at the larger context shatters their argument into tiny pieces.

The larger context is that Jesus is teaching, here, not about marriage, but about divorce. Throughout the last century, the church struggled with how to apply this teaching to real human situations. Based on the “plain sense” of this passage – the very same plain-sense approach the conservatives urge us to apply to the line, “a man shall leave father and mother and be joined to his wife” – Jesus seems to be issuing an absolute prohibition against remarriage after divorce.

The problem for those traditionalists who cite Matthew 19:5 in support of the “one-man, one-woman” definition of marriage is that they themselves have extensively re-interpreted another part of this very same teaching, the part that deals with divorce. How can they justify re-interpreting “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery,” while at the same time insisting on a traditional understanding of “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?” That inconsistency is the proverbial elephant in the living room of their argument.

The basis of the re-interpretation of Jesus’ divorce teaching, of course, is that the institution of divorce of which he’s speaking is not the same as divorce today. In Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife on a whim, for a reason as trivial as burning the dinner. More often than not, the divorced woman became, overnight, a social outcast. Unless her family of origin had mercy on her and took her in as a household servant, she had no means of support. She faced a stark choice between prostitution and starvation. With that social context in mind, Jesus is essentially saying to his disciples: “Any married man who follows me cannot abandon his wife to such a terrible fate.”

The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t face that problem of interpretation. Catholics still hold to the literal, plain-sense reading of Matthew 19:4-5. Consequently, that church continues to maintain a near-absolute prohibition of divorce – although pastoral compassion has forced them to open (for those who can afford the hefty fees, anyway) the rather sizable loophole of the annulment process. Through the annulment investigation, couples seeking remarriage after divorce can, after turning an arduous series of intellectual and theological back-flips, finally gain permission to be married in the church. Yet, they do so only by convincing the church that the earlier marriage was never valid in the first place (an awkward and pastorally insensitive ruling, if children are involved).

Would those Presbyterians who get so worked up over even the thought of a Presbyterian same-sex marriage really want to embrace the Roman Catholic prohibition of remarriage after divorce? Not likely. Yet, if their proof-texting argument is to remain logically consistent, that's the only course available to them.

We Presbyterians need to seriously engage these biblical texts, and not in a superficial, proof-texting way, either. We need to do it together, in community. Only then will we stop talking past each other.

Proposed Revised Definition of Marriage

The Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee has just voted, 34-18-2, to recommended a series of amendments to the Book of Order that would remove references to "a man and a woman" from sections of the Directory for Worship dealing with marriage.

The action may be found here.

I'm posting this from my phone, and will have more to say later about the process in the committee that led up to this decision - but, it's kind of hard to do that from a smartphone, which is the only way I have, here in the committee room, of getting online.

Recommendation to Remove "Fidelity and Chastity" Paragraph

I just read a tweet from someone sitting in the Church Orders and Ministry Committee, reporting that the committee voted to recommend the replacement of G-6.0106b (the "fidelity and chastity" paragraph in the Book of Order) with new material that may be found here.

The new section would read:
"Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates."

Monday, July 5, 2010

Tonight's Tweets

As a public service, I'm posting some tweets that have come in during the last few minutes to Twitter #ga219, reporting on actions taken by various Assembly committees. These come from a variety of people who have been sitting in the committee meeting rooms, so I can't vouch for their accuracy. By and large, though, I think we can trust them.

The most recent are listed first:

Committee 16 recommends extending Heidelberg Catechism Special Committee to GA 220 to cont. translation work.

Committee 16 recommends Belhar Confession to full assembly 43-11-1.

Committee 14 recommends approval of MRTI report, includes denouncing Caterpillar's profiting from non-peaceful use of its products in M.E.

Committee 12 recommends Report of Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union & Christian Marriage to full assembly 47-8-2.

Committee 4 recommends MGB Commission as amended by vote of 38-4-2. Commission actions will require 2/3 vote, not simple majority.

A Question of Privilege

The Assembly's Civil Unions and Marriage Issues Committee just voted, 15-40-1, not to substitute the Minority Report of the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage for the Majority Report.

Just before that, a member of the Committee moved that the vote be taken by paper ballot. It's a debatable motion, but there was a surprising amount of debate on the motion to vote by ballot. The mover had expressed how it was, for her, a highly sensitive issue, so she would feel more comfortable voting "privately."

Several other speakers expressed regret that, after many hours of debate, some of their colleagues felt the need to vote in secret.

One member said she thinks that, if even one member wants to vote by paper ballot, the body should honor that request.

Another member expressed how important it was, to him, that all committee members should exercise "the courage of our convictions" and vote publicly.

The Committee voted, by a rather lopsided margin, not to vote by ballot.

This saddens me. It seems to me this committee failed to understand the spirit of Robert's Rules. The motion to vote by ballot is a "privileged motion." Robert's assigns it a high level of priority because it protects the rights of a minority.

For some committee members who are perfectly comfortable with voting by show of hands to impose that viewpoint on a minority who aren't is to trample on an important, protected minority right. It's fundamentally an act of incivility.

Were I the Moderator of the Committee, I would have explained to the members the reason behind privileged motions, and that it ought to be only for a mighty good reason that a member's request for such a small concession to personal privilege be denied.

It's possible to imagine a situation in which a request for a paper ballot could be a bad idea. For example, repeated requests for paper ballots could be used as a delaying tactic. I suppose that's why Robert's allows for a vote at all.

Yet, this was the first such request of the day. Surely this committee could have been more respectful of the proper request of one of its members.

Bone of My Bone, Flesh of My Flesh

Here’s a scriptural interpretation angle I hadn’t heard before – as much time as I’ve spent investigating the scripture passages typically cited as foundational to Christian marriage.

A member of the Assembly Committee asked the Special Committee to share where, in scripture, they find evidence permitting same-gender marriage. Surprisingly, one of the Special Committee members cited Genesis 2:23, in which Adam exclaims of Eve, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” – probably the passage most frequently cited by traditionalists. He did so by comparing it to Genesis 29:14, in which Laban says to his nephew, Jacob, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!”

His point was that Laban’s use of the bone-and-flesh imagery in that other context indicates that the similar statement in Genesis 2 describes not marriage in particular, but family relationships in general. No one’s suggesting that the ancient Hebrews practiced same-gender marriage, but, by that reasoning, what Adam is celebrating is the quality of the bond that unites him and Eve, not its particular nature as a male-female relationship.

In modern parlance, Laban and Jacob share the same DNA (like other ancient peoples, the Hebrews might have said they share the same blood, which is much the same). When Adam says of Eve, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” he is bringing Eve into the circle of family. That is one of the most beautiful features of marriage, but - if this take on the passage is correct - it’s not dependent on the male-female bond as such.

What God Has Joined Together

“Why are we here? We are here because, just like your families, we want the best for our children.”

Those were the words of David Wall, Presbyterian Certified Christian Educator, member of the administrative staff at Princeton Theological Seminary, partner in a same-gender couple – and father.

David told the General Assembly’s Civil Unions and Marriage Issues Committee of the daughter whom he and his partner, Bob, adopted as an infant, and who has now grown up to become a student at one of our Presbyterian colleges. He also told the committee how he and Bob recently got “unionized” according to New Jersey’s civil union law – or, he quipped, maybe the better word is “civilized.” That got a laugh.

David also spoke of how important it would be for him and his family, as Christians, to be not only unionized (or civilized), but actually married. He asked the committee to recommend that the Assembly adopt the majority report. That report actually takes no position on the question of same-sex marriage, but recommends further study of the issue, leaving the door open to change at some future time.

This was an open hearing time, with speakers pro and con. Sue Cyre, a longtime advocate of conservative causes, asked the committee to interpret Genesis 2 as a divine prescription of marriage between a man and a woman as normative for the human race. She urged the committee to support the minority report, which asks the Assembly to adopt a traditional statement defining marriage in just that way.

In the report of the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage that followed, Clayton Allard spoke movingly of how the members of that deadlocked group finally realized they had lost sight of the forest for the trees. In holding rigidly to their individual positions, they risked doing damage to the unity of the church as the Body of Christ.

“While we may not like or appreciate the views of others,” he observed, “we have no right to tell God who belongs at the table. Someone once said, ‘Anyone who starts to burn books ends, eventually, in burning people.’”

A covenant statement included in the committee’s majority report quotes the famous line from the marriage ceremony: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” It has a different sense, and a peculiar power, when applied to a church task force divided over the theological understanding of marriage.

Allard quoted Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39, as he advised his fellow Pharisees to leave the new proponents of Christianity alone, “because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

Is it possible, I wonder, that the conservatives who are so theologically dug-in on this issue can find their way to a place where they can exercise the magnanimity of Gamaliel? Can they allow sisters and brothers in the faith whose conscience leads them in a different direction to co-exist with them in the same body, the Body of Christ?

As another special committee member presented the majority report, she brought up the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia, in which the high court declared “a fundamental right to marry.” Loving v. Virginia was a “miscegenation” case – a word hardly ever heard anymore that refers to interracial marriage. The couple asking the Supreme Court for permission to marry was an interracial couple: one African-American, the other white. Now, 43 years later, we have a U.S. President who is the product of such a marriage – one that would have been considered illegal under the old Virginia statute. It’s easy to see how far we have come as a country, in a comparatively short time. No one would dream of challenging the legality of interracial marriage today – and that’s as it should be.

Will it likewise be the case that, 43 years from now, no one would dream of challenging the legitimacy of a Christian marriage between two people of the same gender?

What happens (or does not happen) at this General Assembly may be a part of the answer to that question.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bells, Whistles and Then Some

Opening worship at the General Assembly. Time for all the bells and whistles – and then some.

Today was the first-ever baptism at a General Assembly. A cute little girl from a Minneapolis church was baptized up there on the platform by her pastor, with the congregation also in attendance to answer the promises. I wonder if she’ll always be known as the General Assembly Baby? And, I wonder what difference it will make in her life to know that her baptism took place in such an unusual way?

There was the Lord’s Supper, as there always is – along with the impressive logistics of serving several thousand people in a matter of minutes (they do it with a whole lot of communion tables scattered throughout the hall).

“People shall come from north and south and east and west...” Presbyterians from round about the Twin Cities and its environs canceled their Sunday services today, and descended on the Convention Center en masse.

Outgoing moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow gave an impressive sermon, all about the need to prepare for the church of the future. One story he told was of sitting at a Presbyterian worship service somewhere, maybe at a presbytery function or in a conference setting, with a teenage girl beside him. A set of bagpipes started to play in the distance, and she leaned over to him and asked, “What’s that instrument?”

There was a time when that sort of question would have been unthinkable in a Presbyterian worship service, among the proud descendants of John Knox and the Covenanters. Those days – if not yet gone – are going fast, Bruce reminded us. And he’s right.

There was a grand procession, with liturgical dancers and giant puppets depicting animals reminiscent of the Native American artistic tradition. Off to one side, an artist spontaneously painted abstract designs on a giant canvas taped to the floor. An overhead camera recorded her work, and broadcast it to us periodically on the giant projection screens.

Music was glorious, and eclectic – from a wide range of cultural traditions. And yes, there were a few great hymns of the church, and a rousing rendition of the famous organ postlude by Widor.

All in all, it was more than any local church could ever hope to have in one of its worship services – at least, not all on the same day (or even year). But, that’s the point. A national gathering like this begs for all the bells and whistles.

One thing about us Presbyterians: when we set our minds to it, we can put together a slam-dunk worship service.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

We Have an Election

“We have an election!” Those were the words of outgoing General Assembly Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow, as he announced the name of his successor, Elder Cynthia Bolbach of National Capital Presbytery.

It happened on the fourth ballot – rather quickly, actually, considering that there was an unusually large field of 6 candidates.

There was the usual variety of questions – with a few more lightweight, non-controversial questions than usual. It wasn’t until the last question, when a seminary advisory delegate asked the candidates to state, in a paragraph or less, what views they held on the marriage and civil unions issue, that the Assembly could really hear the candidates address a divisive issue.

Then, the Q&A time ran out, and the Assembly got down to voting.

The voting did not go well – for purely technical reasons. The Assembly uses an electronic keypad system to record the votes of the commissioners and delegates, and today’s voting was plagued by technical glitches. Most votes were recorded all right, but there seemed to be problems with a few dozen keypads each time. The overall numbers didn’t quite add up. Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons told the Assembly there should be 712 votes from commissioners if all are present, but the most that showed up on the screen were just over 650. There couldn’t possibly be that many absences, so it seems the system problems were pretty widespread.

Where I was sitting, in the section reserved for presbytery and synod staff, I was surrounded by fellow stated clerks. There was a lot of quiet consternation among our group. We know how important accurate vote counts are, and we also know the virtual impossibility of trying to conduct General Assembly voting by a manual method, such as counting hands or paper ballots. Sure, it could be done, but we’d be up half the night trying to conduct multiple votes on a field of 6 candidates.

A stated clerk sitting near me asked, “Why doesn’t someone just move to adjourn?” His point was that this is what the motion to adjourn is for: to call a halt to proceedings in order to buy time to fix a problem that’s come up. Such a motion would have presented its own set of problems – it would have played havoc with the subsequent scheduling, and could even have resulted in a Moderator’s Reception tomorrow afternoon that would have no Moderator to host it – but I have to admit his suggestion did have a certain logic to it.

Cynthia started out with twice as many votes as any other candidate, and her numbers continued to rise steadily, so I’m sure she would have been the eventual victor, regardless. But, even so, we may never know how accurate the announced vote count was.

At one point after her installation, our new Moderator quipped that she hoped people wouldn’t think her middle name is “Florida” – a reference to the disputed Bush-Gore Presidential contest. A brave attempt to use humor to dispel an emotionally-charged situation.

I don’t imagine the Office of the General Assembly Staff, nor the employees of the company that provides the electronic voting system, will get much of a 4th of July holiday. They’ll need to get right to work testing and re-testing the system, until they’re 100% sure the glitches have been eliminated. They do have a few days to get it right: the Assembly will be going into a couple of days of committee work, before reconvening in plenary session on Wednesday.

Tomorrow morning is the big, stadium-style communion service, followed by the Moderator’s reception, barbecue and fireworks in the late afternoon. Those events take place on Nicollet Island in the Mississippi (the fireworks are the city’s 4th of July display). Heavy thunderstorms are forecast for earlier in the day, so we’ll hope for the best.