As promised in worship this past Sunday, I want to share some thoughts on the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Detroit last week. Every two years, our denomination’s largest governing body convenes with elders and ministers from all over the country, elected by their presbyteries, to formulate some of the policies and procedures that define us as Presbyterians. Because we're all part of one big Presbyterian family, I feel it’s important that you know what happens at these gatherings and in what ways they affect us as a congregation and as a larger denominational church.
But first, take a few minutes to read this one page summary, A Brief Summary of the 221st General Assembly, as it'll help make what follows a lot easier to digest.
(Did you read it? Seriously, it's worth it. You'll thank me later. Did I mention it's just one page?)
There are two things I'd like to draw your attention to, as both received a decent amount of national and international press. The first is the issue of same-sex marriage. As you may recall, in 2010 the General Assembly voted to remove language from our constitution that prohibited gays and lesbians from being ordained to ministry. This year, the body acted positively on two similar motions. One, known as “Authoritative Interpretation,” grants clergy in our denomination the ability, if they choose, to officiate at a same-sex wedding in states where the practice is legal (this went into affect immediately after the conclusion of the GA). The second, which will need ratification of a simple majority of presbyteries in the coming year, is a rewording of the description of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people (traditionally a man and a woman) Both passed with significant majorities.
So, two things. First, neither of these force a pastor or session to officiate or host a same-sex marriage if they don't want to - all it does is grant the ability to those who do. Second, you should know that great care was taken leading up to, during and following the vote to reach out to those in opposition, in an attempt to foster unity in the midst of disagreement. In fact, the parenthesis part of the motion was inserted on the floor of the General Assembly and was received very positively by those displeased with the overall change. Following the vote, a joint letter from the Presbyterians For Renewal and Fellowship of Presbyterians was issued, expressing disappointment while reaffirming their desire to remain part of the PCUSA (you can read that letter HERE). It was an extremely gracious gesture and, I hope, will go to great lengths to foster ongoing dialogue and unity, even as we may continue to disagree.
Another big issue addressed at the GA involved divesting the church’s investments in three American companies, Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola. The denomination's Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) had determined that their business practices and products serve to foster the ongoing conflict on the West Bank between Israelis and Palestinians. If you've been part of the PCUSA for a while, you know our denomination has a strong ethical sense to its various financial holdings, choosing to invest in companies that promote peace and the well-being of all (we do not invest in tobacco or alcohol companies, for instance). The MRTI had reached out to a number of companies to share our concerns and encourage positive change; and while some of these conversations proved fruitful, our dialogue with these three businesses did not. The measure was close and passed by only seven votes.
Almost immediately after the vote, the press, as well as numerous groups fiercely entrenched on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cast this action as a slight to Israel and a clear siding with the Palestinians - even though the motion itself affirms Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation and PCUSA's support of a two-state solution (you can read the text of the motion HERE). Some of the fallout the PCUSA will face in the months ahead will involve mending bridges with our Jewish brothers and sisters, explaining in full our reasons and rationale and assuring them of what this action was not about, as much as what it was about. I personally found this blog post to be very helpful in understanding this action and encourage you to check it out, and I'm grateful for this rabbi who seems to get what we Presbyterians are trying to do.
I can almost hear the question on the other side of the computer screen: So, Steve, what do you make of all of this? Good question. Three thoughts come to mind. First, both of these actions feel, to me, to be honest, thoughtful and faithful efforts to uphold and act on the tenets of scripture and our unique Presbyterian witness; as well as what I believe to be our primary calling: to always err on the side of the love of Jesus, even if that might cause hurt and confusion and make people mad. As a pastor, I feel compelled to acknowledge this and seek reconciliation with my brothers and sisters in and out of the church who may feel differently from me and fear these actions will lead to future declines in our denomination. I actually remain very hopeful that the opposite will be true (as echoed in this blog post from a colleague and fellow Presbyterian minister).
Having said that, I know there are those in our church and the PCUSA who grieve one or both of these decisions and may question their future in the denomination. Which leads me to my second thought: my door is always open to sit down and talk. The promise I make to you is not to try and sway your opinion, but simply to listen and be your pastor and friend. And, as I did in 2010 in my previous church, I'd ask anyone significantly grieved to give themselves six months: six months to remain active in the church, worshipping, fellowshipping, and serving as you always have. And if, at the end of six months, you truly feel something has categorically changed in the church, then you will leave with my blessing. If, however, you find that you don't feel any different about our church, then perhaps we can at least agree that amendments to open the door for same-sex marriage and further our commitment to peacemaking were not amendments that destroyed the church.
My third thought is this: regardless of how we feel about these decisions, I find myself staunchly proud to be part of this denomination; if for no other reason than it can never be said that we are a church that sits on the sidelines; bypassing and avoiding the tough, hard conversations and issues that matter in our world today. We tackle them head-on; we talk and listen, pray and ponder, dialogue and disagree and converse. And then we act. And if there’s anything the world today needs, my friends, it is a church that is not afraid to act - always in good faith, always with Christ leading the way. My hope and prayer is that we’ll continue in helpful dialogue, within and outside the PCUSA, to further discern God’s will as we worship, study and serve together.
Again, if you have any questions or concerns, my door is always open!
Your pastor and friend,