Last night the General Assembly elected a new Moderator for the Presbyterian Church (USA). This is usually an exciting and well-attended event. The Birmingham convention center was packed through the hours of speeches and Q & A. The event did not disappoint, either – the candidates were evenly matched, and the election really did turn on the answers the candidates gave to questions from ordinary voters. This was a fine moment for democracy.
Moderator candidates are nominated by their presbyteries months before the GA. These days they have low-key campaigns, too – standing in front of booths, naming vice-moderator running mates, handing out sticker, tee-shirts, and, in the case of one candidate this year, cookies. The pattern in recent years has been to have three candidates, one clearly liberal, one clearly conservative, and the third aiming for the middle.
This year, there were four candidates. On paper, one might read Deborah Block as the liberal – a pastor from Milwaukee Presbytery, a board member of the liberal umbrella group the Covenant Network. Likewise, Tim Halverson looked like the main conservative – pastor of a Florida megachurch, father of seven kids. Joan Gray, an Atlanta interim minister and the author of a well-known polity book, would therefore be left with the center. The wild card was Kerry Carson. He is the pastor of a little church in Iowa.
Yet all of them ran as centrists. Block's pitch was as a sensitive bridge builder. Carson, as a pastoral uniter. Gray? A healing leader. Tim Halverson, in his published platform, said "in a left-right world, we have forgotten the center." In his speech he even said that if elected he would "lead from the center" – very gratifying to this author.
Each candidate was given a nominating speech, then had five minutes to make a pitch to the commissioners. Then followed an hour of questions from the commissioners and advisory delegates. These ran mostly in familiar channels. My summary notes of the questions mostly needed only a word or two to identify which particular chestnut we were dealing with -- Youth? Multiculti? Jesus the way? Gay ordination? Church's greatest challenge? Reconciliation after GA? Favorite Scripture for hope? Global South evangelizing us? PUP recommendation 5? Church in 5 years?
The decisive question, in my view, was bluntly put by a youth delegate: do you favor the ordination of practicing homosexuals? Block said yes, Carson said no. Halverson said no, but said he dreamed of a day when the church would judge officers by the content of their characters, not their sexual orientation. Joan Gray gave one of the few unexpected answers of the night: she respects gays and lesbians who want to serve, but that she had "not been able to get my mind around the idea that homosexuality is God's intention." The Moderator, she went on, is an officer of church, and stands on the constitution. As Moderator, she would fully support the constitution, and would only consider changing her position if the Holy Spirit moved the church as a whole to change the constitution.
In my opinion, Joan Gray ultimately won election with that answer.
The voting itself was fascinating. Here are the percentages won by each candidate on the first, second, and third ballots:
The center of the church has spoken. Centrism won.