Here’s the question everyone wants to know, as the General Assembly convenes: What are the big issues?
This time around, there are four, as I see it.
1) Ordination of Gays and Lesbians - This is the perennial issue that’s plagued every General Assembly in recent memory. Ever since issuing an Authoritative Interpretation in 1976, stating that homosexual practice is sinful (but homosexual orientation is not), the Assembly has wrestled with this divisive issue. Over the years, the Assembly has moved ever closer to removing the “sin” designation and allowing sessions to ordain deacons and elders, and presbyteries to ordain ministers, who are otherwise well-qualified but who are in same-sex intimate relationships. In 1996, the Assembly voted to add paragraph G-6.0106b to the Book of Order, which adds the specific requirement “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” The last Assembly voted to remove that paragraph, but it failed to garner the required majority of ratifying presbyteries. That last vote was close, though, and many observers noted how many presbyteries that had long been squarely in the “no” column (on removing G-6.0106b) had switched to “yes.” Many think this could be the year this change makes it all the way through.
2) Same-Sex Marriage - With several states now allowing same-sex marriage, and several others (including New Jersey) allowing same-sex unions as an almost-but-not-quite-the-same alternative, ministers out there in the field are receiving inquiries about officiating at these ceremonies. The Directory for Worship presently defines marriage as “between a man and a woman.” Recent General Assemblies have advised ministers that it is permissible to exercise individual discretion to preside at same-sex union ceremonies, but that care must be taken to declare that such ceremonies are not equivalent to marriage in the eyes of the church. Will there be change on that this year? Few think so, but there will be lively debate.
3) Israel-Palestine Relations - Two study papers are before the Assembly that relate to relations between Israel and Palestine, particularly the harsh conditions being endured by the Palestinian majority who live in lockdown conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. Some of these Palestinians are from ancient Christian churches dating back to the time of Jesus. We Presbyterians are especially attuned to their voice, a minority within the Muslim-majority Palestinian culture. While the General Assembly has no power to change any of this, it does have the power to speak. Some say major news organizations are especially interested in what the Presbyterians say on this and other issues, because they regard us as something of a bellwether for American public opinion in general (it seems that, on a number of occasions in the past, when the Presbyterians have publicly made a change on a tough issue of ethics or public policy, it’s been a barometer indicating that the rest of the nation is about ready to shift, as well).
4) nFOG - Now there’s an acronym only a hard-core church-polity fan could love. “nFOG” stands for the new Form of Government, a proposed total revision of the Book of Order, the portion of our church’s Constitution covering everything except worship and discipline. This is an "insider" issue - of great importance to Presbyterian leaders at ever level, but of zero interest to the general public. Over the years, that portion of the Constitution has expanded in size, so much so that it’s been hard for all but the most devoted students of polity (church government) to keep track of all the rules and regulations. The new Form of Government is a carefully-considered, thoroughly vetted - but still radical - effort to chop that portion of the book down to a more manageable size. It’s akin to cutting the famed Gordian Knot. While the Form of Government itself would become easier to work with, every governing body in the church (sorry, they’ll be “councils” if the nFOG is approved) – sessions, presbyteries and synods – will have to adopt their own local policies manuals, to fill in the gaps left by what was removed in the big revision. While some fear this will result in a balkanization of the church, others applaud the freedom to adapt to vastly differing local situations. This change would have to be approved by a majority of the presbyteries before it takes effect.
The Assembly will be engaged in lots of other work, of course, but these are by far the biggest issues, as I see them.
For a more thorough analysis, check out this July 1 blog entry by Regional Presbyter/Stated Clerk Sallie Watson, titled “Gradye’s Preview” (thanks to my friend Houston Hodges, for alerting me to it, via Facebook).