Progress, Pushback, Possibilities: A preliminary look at the 222nd GA

 

On Saturday morning at the 2015 Covenant Conference, national organizer Tricia Dykers Koenig offered an early look at the Covenant Network’s priorities at the 222nd General Assembly (2016), which will meet next June in Portland, Oregon:

 

We have a great deal to celebrate.  We rejoice with the LGBTQ persons who have been ordained or installed as deacons, ruling elders, and teaching elders since 2011; with those who have been married; with all who have conducted a same-gender wedding.

We have come a long way in the PCUSA!  GA is just one aspect of our ministry, but when we work at the General Assembly, it’s not theoretical – it’s because the church’s policies and practices affect the lives of people.

Marriage equality is the law of the land. But does anyone think that we’ve arrived where God wants us to be? The post-election-day news has been a graphic reminder of the pushback against progress that is happening in some parts of our nation. Stories of horrendous persecution of LGBTQ persons in some foreign nations are shocking.

We still have work to do to live into our call as a truly just and generous church, as we have heard repeatedly these last few days.

The next General Assembly will set the tone for how the PCUSA lives into the new day ushered in by the passage of Amendment 14-F this year, and 10-A four years before.  The Book of Order provisions that were interpreted to exclude LGBTQ Presbyterians from ordination and marriage are no more, but we will need to build on this foundation to make full inclusion a reality.

The commissioners and advisory delegates who travel to Portland next June will have no fewer important decisions to make than in the pre-10-A and 14-F years.  The 222nd General Assembly will have the honor of casting the final vote in a long process of adding the Belhar Confession to the PCUSA Constitution. A revision of the Directory for Worship will be on the agenda. This GA will elect a Stated Clerk to lead us for the next four years, consider proposals to reorganize GA agencies, and engage in discernment about where God is calling us as a denomination.

Supporting continued progress on sexual orientation and gender identity issues

It’s early, but there are only 22 overtures registered with the Office of the General Assembly thus far, and fewer than half of those have received the necessary concurrence from a second presbytery. One we will be watching, Overture 15 from the Presbytery of Kiskiminetas, takes a few phrases from Amendment 14-F but is an attempt to reverse marriage equality and return to the language of “a man and a woman.” We don’t expect that effort to gain much traction, but we cannot ignore it either. With the strong presbytery support of Amendment 14-F, the church declared that the days of arguing over exclusion based on sexuality are behind us; we will be alert to any movement to turn back the clock.

Because the world is still not safe for LGBTQ persons, however, we are encouraging presbyteries to adopt an overture addressing global discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The overture is in keeping with current PCUSA policy, which has consistently upheld human rights for all; and it seeks to give more specific content to our principles by naming explicit goals enumerated in an excellent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and connecting that report to the work of the PCUSA; if you are interested in pursuing the overture in your presbytery, I would be delighted to send you a copy.

Defending the General Assembly’s ability to discern God’s will

A large number of the currently-posted overtures that concern us are ones you may have heard of, since Foothills Presbytery, which initiated them, has been marketing them actively; in the online program pc-biz these are Overtures 3 through 10. The presbytery intends these overtures as a means to “reform, renew, and refresh” the church, and of course with all Presbyterians we share those goals – none of us would claim that the church is all that God is calling it to be, and we need to be open to where God is calling us even if the path is not well-worn. What we do not share, however, is their diagnosis of the church’s current condition, and their prescriptions.

The pastor in whose church this effort emerged has stated that it began because some in his congregation were distressed over marriage equality. A fundamental problem they have identified, therefore, is that the General Assembly sometimes makes controversial decisions; they are also concerned that change happens too swiftly, and they want to prevent the GA from addressing issues unless large numbers of presbyteries have already done so.

Now certainly we recognize that issues we’ve advocated have at times generated difficult discussions in the mid-councils and congregations of the PCUSA.  As the General Assembly has sought to discern where the PCUSA is called to proclaim and reflect God’s justice, other actions have been controversial as well. But we believe that faithfulness to Jesus Christ requires the church to see where God’s people are hurting and wrestle with how to alleviate that suffering. Jesus Christ was unafraid to afflict the comfortable of his day. Where we disagree about what faithfulness entails, we must all of us seek new ways of living together in the midst of our disagreements, rather than to place constraints on the General Assembly’s ability to seek to discern God’s will for the church.

Most of the Foothills overtures are aimed at preventing the GA from taking actions, or even having discussions, that might divide Presbyterians – particularly, amendments to the Book of Order and what they characterize as “partisan issues of social justice, economics, and politics” – although their proposals would affect all amendments and social issues, no matter the level of controversy.

If all these overtures were approved, here’s what it would take to amend the Book of Order in the future:

  • Constitutional amendments could be considered only every third GA, hence every six years.
  • In order even to get on the GA’s agenda, 15% of the presbyteries would have to concur before the General Assembly meets, currently 26.
  • If the GA approved, then 2/3 of the presbyteries would be required for ratification; and any amendment that meets that level of approval would not become effective until after yet another vote by the next GA two years later.
  • If a presbytery thinks the amendment might be a good idea at some point but that this process has been too swift, or wants to avoid taking a position for whatever reason, they would be encouraged to abstain – which is effectively a “no” vote.
  • The exception to the only-every-6-years rule is that an overture that gets the approval of 2/3 of the presbyteries before it gets to GA could be considered at any General Assembly.

Now obviously, if the Book of Order were ever going to be amended again, presbyteries would be spending a lot more time discussing possible amendments before they ever get to be considered by the most inclusive council, the GA.

A minority of 1/3 of the presbyteries could block any change favored by the majority. These proposals would have the effect of freezing in place the provisions of the current Book of Order, which were themselves not subject to the 2/3 requirement – although much that’s there probably met the test, not being controversial.  [i]

The presbytery wants the process of amending the Book of Order to be comparable to the process for amending the Book of Confessions, though in some ways it would be more difficult – a proposal to amend the confessions takes three GA actions and a task force, but would not be subject to the 6-year/15% of the presbyteries rule. They have cited the rarity of amending the US Constitution as an aspiration.  But they don’t acknowledge that in addition to the Constitution, operating the United States as one nation bound together requires thousands of other laws legislated by majority rule.  If the analogy were apt, the slim volume which is the US Constitution would be compared more to the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity than to the whole Book of Order.  In a rapidly changing world, we don’t think it makes sense to calcify our polity as of the year 2018.

On issues of social justice, the Foothills proposals would require an even higher bar in order to be discussed at a GA – 1/3 of the presbyteries, more than twice the requirement they propose for a constitutional amendment. That’s 57 presbyteries that would have to discuss an issue and act on it identically, just to get the matter on the GA docket. Once on the docket, Foothills also wants to discourage the GA from taking votes making national policy, in favor of urging congregations and presbyteries to study and discuss some more.

Foothills wants General Assemblies to be organized around the Six Great Ends of the Church, one at a time with a break every third GA to talk about constitutional change.  It is particularly troubling that they call it, and this is a direct quote, a “fact that social justice, economics and politics relate primarily to just one of the six great ends of the church.”  Presumably they mean “the promotion of social righteousness,” which is number five in order; if these overtures were approved, and implemented with the first great end highlighted in 2018, the next time the GA would focus on social issues would be the year 2030.

It is biblically and theologically suspect to claim that the Great Ends can be separated from one another in this way, and that issues of social justice are related only to one. Wouldn’t Micah and Amos challenge the notion that “the maintenance of divine worship” has nothing to do with justice? John Calvin might be surprised to learn that “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God” is unrelated to politics and economics, to how we as a church and in society organize ourselves to live out our values. Can we “exhibit the kingdom of Heaven to the world” while we stop talking about justice? Would Jesus think we could “preserve the truth” if the GA concerns itself with the needs of the poor only once every 18 years?

The Foothills authors deny that the intention is to divorce the PCUSA from speaking about justice, but the overall point of the overtures seems to be to make it more difficult for the GA to change the status quo, both in how we govern our own church life (except for how we run the GA itself) and in how we speak and act about what’s happening beyond us in the world.  Those who believe that the church has no witness to offer this hurting world would be confirmed in their view that we are inward-focused, irrelevant, and unconcerned with the needs of the planet, more invested in institutional survival than in why we exist in the first place.

In response, it appears, to anxiety over reactions to a small number of controversial decisions made by recent General Assemblies, these overtures would deny the mandate of our confessions to hear the voices of people long silenced, by making it more difficult for a small part of the church to call the attention of the whole church to the need for action. As Gradye told us yesterday, change can’t happen if everybody is asked to be quiet.

We will be urging the church to keep thinking about better ways to follow Christ into God’s future.

Letting our voices be heard

As one means to that end, finally, we urge you and all Presbyterians to go online and fill out the survey developed by the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, called “Join the Conversation,” which Gradye highlighted yesterday.  The easiest way to find that is at pcusa.org/identity. How many of you have participated thus far?

Let’s make it 100%.  Do it yourself.  Talk with your session and your PW and your presbytery committee and your Bible study group and participate together, or individually after the conversation. Make your voices heard so that your commitments and principles will inform the discernment when the General Assembly meets to chart the next steps for the PCUSA.

And of course, continue in prayer for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and continue supporting the movement toward a church as generous and just, just and generous, as God’s grace.

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[i] For some context, the current number of presbyteries is 171, soon to be 170, so 15% is 26.  The most popular idea proposed to the 221st GA in Detroit, as measured by number of overtures, received endorsement by 26 presbytery actions – no other came close – but even that idea came in 3 differently-worded overtures.  And that idea, while popular, was not controversy-free – requesting an Authoritative Interpretation to allow ministers to conduct same-sex marriages. Note that the Foothills proposals wouldn’t even have affected that request, though, because they don’t address authoritative interpretations, but only amendments; a request for authoritative interpretation would be much easier to put before the GA and thus much more likely as a way to meet emerging needs.

 

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