I have been home for a week after attending the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Can you believe we have just had our 219th meeting? They used to happen every year, but now only happen every other year. That means we have been meeting in the United States as a body for more than 200 years! That is just incredible to me.
The meeting of the General Assembly includes an equal number of ministers and elders from each of the 173 presbyteries (regional bodies) that make up the PC(USA). Nearly 700 commissioners, elected by presbyteries with each one representing about 8,000 or few members within that presbytery, gather to discern the will of God for our denomination and the world, and then pass ecclesiastical (big word for “church”) legislation to help steer us toward the vision of their discernment.
The meeting is usually accompanied by a certain amount of anxiety about what might happen: some usually think the General Assembly went too far with some decisions, while others wish the commissioners had gone farther. For instance, one of the big debates is the ordination of GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons). Right now our Book of Order–part of our constitution that describes how we are organized–requires anyone who is to be ordained as a deacon, elder or minister of Word and Sacrament to “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” Basically, if you’re single you should not have sex, and if you’re married you should only be having sex with the one to whom you are married and that person should be of the opposite gender from you. Most people do not disagree with the issues of fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness, except for the fact that marriage is limited to opposite gender. So, this means that those in same-gender relationships must remain chaste (no sex) because they are not allowed to get married. This upsets a good portion of those within our denomination, especially those who are homosexual. This also upsets those who believe homosexual behavior is a sin because they are concerned that some day the church may deem such behavior as okay. For the past 30 years or so the debate has raged about how we define marriage and who can and can’t be ordained. And each year, the margin by which “full inclusion”, as it is called, fails to pass becomes narrower and narrower–lifting some spirits and crushing others.
So, we do what Presbyterians do: we debate, and debate, and debate. And here is where I love being a Presbyterian: we talk about stuff! There are no bishops to tell us what to do or believe, and no congregation can go off on its own to do whatever it feels like. We recognize our connection to one another as individuals, congregations, presbyteries and as a denomination. One for all and all for one, so to speak–and for better or for worse, in sickness and in health (I couldn’t resist). We are truly married to one another, that is until someone decides they want a divorce and they leave the denomination. Like any divorce, it hurts and the children are left wondering if it was their fault.
But in spite of all this, I truly love being a Presbyterian. When I attend General Assembly as an observer (anyone can attend if you pay the $60 Observer Registration Fee) I am reminded of not only why I am Presbyterian, but also what calls me to the Christian faith. In the midst of the passionate debates (and they are passionate at times), I glimpse the Holy, the Divine, the presence of God’s Spirit moving in and among the people at the microphones and in side conversations; I glimpse the truth of who we are: people trying desperately to discern God’s will for our lives and for the world in hopes that we might find a way to live in the Kingdom of God here and now. It is a tall order, but it is, in the words of parliamentary procedure, the “order of the day.”
At General Assembly I am reminded that we are not perfect, but made “perfect” (i.e., beautiful, wonderful) by the love and grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ and through one another as we passionately fight for what we believe is true. In the end, majority rules. We believe that God’s Spirit is better discerned through a group, rather than an individual. We believe that God’s will is made known in the stories of real people’s experiences of the Divine. In the end, we trust that God’s will for this time in the history of humanity is made known to us better and clearer when we do it together. It is a lot more work, mind you, than just having one person at the top or deciding to do our own thing regardless of others! It is a lot more work! But, in the end, I believe it is better.
I don’t always like the decisions that come out of General Assembly. I too believe that sometimes those present have either not gone far enough or have gone too far. Or, I just don’t like a decision because I find it rather inconvenient (said with nose turned up and an air of self-righteousness). But, I am always inspired by the passion and prayerful intentionality displayed by those present. In the end, it reminds me that I am part of something so much bigger than little ol’ me, I am truly living in the kingdom of God where God is fully present in me, those with whom I agree, as well as those with whom I disagree. I am reminded that we have all been claimed as children of this same, amazing God who loves us all and wants the best for us–even if we can’t figure it out what the “best” is ourselves.
So, I am thankful to God for Jesus–our guiding light. I am thankful for my faith–my adventure in discernment. I am thankful for the Church–the place where my faith is shaped and challenged to be bigger and more prophetic. I am thankful for God’s love–poured into me as well as that annoying person at the microphone with the shrill voice who keeps saying things I don’t like. Thanks be to God!