Some would suggest that these kinds of national gatherings are long, boring, and cumbersome. But if we look closely, we see a spirit of connectional faith throughout the week. People gather. People re-connect. People talk, share, and listen. Somehow amidst the Robert’s Rules-o-rama, the discussions and debates—as well as the copious amounts of coffee—God’s Spirit speaks, moves, and nudges. Somehow, amidst the cacophony of divergent voices, a prophetic voice is heard.
To be prophetic is to serve as a voice of conscience in the name of love, compassion, and truth. Truth is often relative. The landscape in which we are called by God to do this prophetic work is constantly shifting. Often the prophetic voice interjects disequilibrium to stir open the eyes of our hearts to see injustices. It is not easy work, neither as prophet nor as recipient. It is not fun to feel uneasy. Sometimes the prophetic voice can be painful to speak and hear, let alone heed, especially if one is in a position of privilege. Yet, speaking and acting prophetically is one of the primary acts of being the Church.
The PC(USA) has a long history of speaking prophetically. Never has it been easy. Never have we been unanimous when it comes to challenging moments in which we must decide whether or not, let alone how, to be the Church. While we can get bogged down in parliamentary procedure, this assembly has sought to be the Church by speaking and acting prophetically in the name of love, compassion, and truth. Here is a list of some of the prophetic work done by this General Assembly:
- BELHAR CONFESSION: A big one was the final approval to include the Belhar Confession in the Book of Confessions (which is Part I of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for those of you not familiar with it). This confession was written in 1982 and adopted by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church on the occasion of dismantling the racist apartheid regime in S. Africa. The PC(USA) has been engaging inclusion for many years now. In 2014 the 221st General Assembly voted to present the confession to the presbyteries for inclusion. Yesterday, in historic fashion full of deep breathes, singing, and tears, the 222nd General Assembly officially voted to affirm the vote of the presbyteries and include the confession. Upon voting, representatives of the Uniting Reformed Church in S. Africa offered deep thanks to the PC(USA), followed by the entire assembly joining and lifting one another’s hands, and singing “We Shall Overcome.” It is a prophetic statement that is, in the words of Godfrey Betha from the Uniting Reformed Church, now a permanent part of the “DNA of the PC(USA).”
- MARRIAGE: Once again the definition of marriage came up. From the Presbytery of Kiskiminetas in Pennsylvania, with five concurrences, item 14-01 attempted to return the definition of marriage to “one man and one woman.” In 1997 the famous “chastity and fidelity” amendment to the Book of Order (G-6.0106b) became the spark of an 18-year debate that, at times, felt like it was going to rip the denomination apart. After more than 50 years of heart-wrenching theological work on behalf of LGBTQ/Q sisters and brothers, the 221st G.A. (2014) voted 61% to amend W-4.9001: “Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people,” from “one man and one woman.” Presbyteries approved the amendment 121-47. This year, the Theological Issues and Institutions Committee (14) discussed 14-01, and by a vote of 66-9-1 moved disapproval to the assembly. On the floor of the assembly, after very little debate, the assembly voted 443-119 (79%) to keep the current language. The tide has shifted and a prophetic voice has emerged, a voice of radical inclusivity, affirmation, and love in the name of Jesus Christ.
- CLERGY LETTER PROJECT (Science and Religion): In a move I was really unsure would happen, the assembly overwhelming joined the United Methodist Church and over 13,000 clergy and endorsed what is known as The Clergy Letter Project and the Christian Clergy Letter. In part, these recognize that science and religion are not diametrically opposed and, in fact, should be in dialogue with one another. In part, the letter states:
Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible—the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark—convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.
By 65% the assembly approved endorsement, a major step toward a more creative and faithful way of being in relationship with our sacred scripture while honoring the truths we have discovered through science. However, the assembly severely watered down an overture seeking to apologize to our LGBTQ/Q sisters and brothers for hurts committed in the midst of this long denominational fight (11-05). Some said after the vote on 11-05 that we have come a long way, but we still have a ways to go.
- PRESBYTERIAN WOMEN: The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) recommended that the moderator of the Presbyterian Women be included as a corresponding member, beginning with the 223rd General Assembly (2018). PW has been a driving force in the PC(USA), calling the denomination to think more deeply about our faith and to act more justly in the world. Since the 1800s Presbyterian women have been organizing and supporting mission around the world. Yet, it has taken until 2016 to recognize the driving force of PW and its predecessor organizations. None-the-less, the assembly voted unanimously by voice to approve COGA’s recommendation. It is a prophetic action to recognize the important work and voice of PW.
- RAISING AWARENESS OF SLAVERY IN SUPPLY CHAINS: With some amendment, the G.A. approved by voice vote to “encourage” all ministries and agencies of the PC(USA) to work with vendors who are actively trying to eradicate slavery in their own supply chains. It is a bit of a weak policy statement, to be honest, but it is something and at least raises awareness and will hopefully encourage us to continue digging deeper into the ongoing and widespread issue of slavery.
- BLACK LIVES MATTER: While there was nothing specific to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, other than in commissioner comments, an overture was approved to “Take specific action, not just in word, but also in deed, to address and improve the worsening plight of the African American male.” The approval included a comment that acknowledged concerns raised in the overture go “beyond the African American communities and applies to Hispanic, Native American, and all poor communities.” In a denomination that continues to be overwhelmingly caucasian (94%, compared to the U.S. being 72% caucasian), this is a statement of support and an attempt to be an ally with those who are still fighting for recognition and equality. There aren’t any real teeth to this overture. Money was committed, but by inserting words like “encourage” rather than “direct” the agencies of the PC(USA) to take these “specific actions,” agencies are left to decide what they will do and whether or not they want to do anything. I do wish the PC(USA) was brave enough to take a cue from some of our sister denominations and take real action to boldly affirm and live into #BlackLivesMatter.
- APOLOGY TO NATIVE PEOPLES: In the 1800s the Presbyterian Church was active in work that caused great harm to native people in the Americas. A long time coming, the 222nd G.A. issued an apology and asked for forgiveness for atrocities committed against indigenous people. Specifically, the statement included:
“We offer this apology especially to those who were and are part of ‘stolen generations’ during the Indian-assimilation movement, namely former students of Indian boarding schools, their families, and their communities. …[W]e confess to you that when our Presbyterian ancestors journeyed to this land within the last few centuries, we did not respect your own indigenous knowledges and epistemologies as valid. …We seek God’s forgiveness, healing grace, and guidance as we take steps toward building mutually respectful, compassionate, and loving relationships with indigenous peoples.”
We still have a long way to go toward understanding and seeking to fully respect the diversity of cultures and perspectives, especially when it comes to those who do not hail from western Europe. I hope and pray this may be one more step toward truly living in the Kingdom of God.
In other news related to how we do our prophetic work, though maybe not directly:
SYNOD RESTRUCTURING (05-01): Much has been said about synods in recent years. Some are doing great work. Some are struggling through what has been called an identity crisis. The Synod of Mid-America has become one of the most vivacious synods under the leadership of the Rev. Landon Whitsitt. Several groups have been formed to think creatively about synods. In 2010 the 219th General Assembly formed the Middle Governing Body Task Force to explore the relationships between synods and presbyteries, and their relationships to the broader Church. That task force reported to the 220th G.A. (2002) with a number of recommendations that were split apart with some being approved and others not. In 2014 the Mid-Council Report, version II, was presented to the 221st General Assembly. The report offered five recommendations that included re-drawing the lines of our synods and reducing the number of synods from 15 to “10-12.” No such plan arose due to major financial and structural challenges. The Mid Council Commission II recommended the forming of an Administrative Commission to “help” the synods get this done. Much work has been done by the staff of several synods to look more creatively at what they could do to resource presbyteries and congregations in the work of mission and ministry. They heard the voice of concern from the denomination and acted. After many years of consternation and struggle, and nearly 10 hours of discussion in plenary, the assembly paid attention and voted 421-158 to approve not follow the recommendation of the Mid Council Commission II and rescind the the action taken in 2014 to reconfigure the synods. At the same time, they included a comment encouraging synods to continue to be in conversation with one another and collaborate on mission and ministry, including encouraging stronger synods to assist struggling synods which may or may not include changing boundaries. This was a huge statement to synod staff who have worked so hard for the past several years to do hard mission and justice work the Church is called to do.
ISRAEL-PALESTINE: It is 5:15 p.m. on Friday night as I finish this post. For nearly two hours the assembly has been wrestling with 08-06 from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) to approve a 56-page document entitled, “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace.” While the committee moved approval of the report, a minority report has been put forth that will refer this document to the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). Both have been “perfected,” and the assembly will settle things after dinner.