Attending the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is an awe-inspiring and sometimes frustrating experience. I have often encouraged my fellow teaching elders (the presby-speak term for “ministers”) to attend at least one G.A. for the sake of soaking in the reality that we are much broader church than many of us would assume or would like.
Attending G.A. offers a look at the diversity of a denomination that continues to wrestle with being over 90% white European American—evidencing that diversity is more than skin color. Would I like us to be a more ethnically diverse denomination? Would I like us to be challenged and enriched by the practices of people with different backgrounds? Desperately “yes” on both counts. There is so much we could learn from others who do not look or act like the majority of us. But I am also aware that Presbyterianism is a uniquely European way of being and making decisions (our way of being the church was “born” in Scotland, after all), which can make it difficult for people of other ethnic traditions to find their place in it. However, we still hang on to hope that we can change!
Every two years we Presbyterians travel to different cities around the U.S. to gather with commissioners and advisory delegates from across the country and around the world (we have advisory delegates from the mission field, as well as ecumenical partners in other denominations and faith communities who offer their guidance in our discernment). This year, we are in Detroit, Michigan.
This morning (Sunday) I attended worship at Fort Street Presbyterian Church in downtown Detroit. The sanctuary was adorned with flags of countries around the world where their parishioners have visited or from where missionaries have visited the congregation. The sanctuary adorned with flags of countries around the world.[/caption] The sanctuary adorned with flags of countries around the world.[/caption] On the auspicious occasion of helping host the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA), they welcomed two members of the interfaith community who offered greetings: Jewish Voice for Justice, and a regular contributor to The Huffington Post,) and Imam Abdullah El-Amin (click here for a 2009 article about Imam El-Amin running for Detroit City Council).
Rabbi Wise offered an interesting Hebrew saying that seems to speak wise wisdom into any eclectic gathering of diverse minds and perspectives: machloket leshem shamayim, “a disagreement for the sake of heaven.” This statement inspires me in an environment where passionate opinions and perspectives can often result in bitter division that separates the faithful and pushes God’s gracious Holy Spirit aside. The discernment in which we share as a church, and the debates in which we engage, are ultimately for the sake of heaven, or the kingdom of God which Jesus declared “has indeed come near” (“your kingdom come, your will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven.”).
Both Rabbi Wise and Imam El-Amin offered powerful words in their greetings from their respective faith communities, sharing of the wisdom of those traditions. The Imam enlightened us with the idea that we all have a lot to offer one another when it comes to seeking the peace of the God of Abraham we share in common.
The 220th General Assembly (2012) in Pittsburgh, PA, was painful for many. The assembly was embroiled in controversy that caused the dutifully elected vice-moderator to resign. Some of the decisions made were the last straw for many of our conservative churches, and we lost hundreds of thousands of members as entire congregations sought membership in one of our many sister Presbyterian churches (Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the newest to form from the debates over inclusion of LGBTQ—lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, and queer/questioning—people, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, or ECO Presbyterians).
From a slate of left-leaning moderates, we elected a moderator of the General Assembly (that’s usually one of the first items of business) who will serve for two years. Typically these votes go to a third or even fourth ballot before any one candidate gains a majority. It could be akin to electing a new pope, but with much less pomp, circumstance, or secrecy. Plus, our moderator, in true egalitarian Presbyterian fashion, does not have nearly the concentration of power of the bishop of Rome. On our very first ballot (which had to be taken with a stranger technology called “paper ballots” due to snags in our electronic voting mechanisms, the commissioners elected Dr. Heath Rada, a retired ruling elder who served as CEO of the American Red Cross in the Greater Richmond area and as president of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (PSCE) in Richmond, Virginia (see more here). He brings a wealth of organizational knowledge and a spirit of cooperation to give voice to our prayers for the PC(USA).
The committees begin meeting in just a few minutes! Please keep all of our commissioners, advisory delegates, staff, volunteers and us “GA Junky” observers in your prayers this week. May the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob keep us and shower us with love and grace as we seek to discern God’s will for this time in the life of humanity.
For more information or to watch the plenary sessions live later this week, click here.