Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Best Thing I Saw at GA: 1001 New Worshiping Communities

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The Presbyterian Church (USA) set itself the task two years ago of creating 1001 new worshiping communities.

At this General Assembly we have heard about the 248 new worshiping communities which have been created so far.  Some are traditional churches, most are new kinds of worshiping groups. Half are predominantly 'racial ethnic', presbyspeak for not all white. 

Some of these communities will last, some will be ephemeral.  All, though, are a great step forward. The 1001 new worshiping communities are about the best sign of vitality I have seen in our slimming denomination.

Friday, June 20, 2014

PC(USA) Over-Reaches on Drones

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The General Assembly voted to oppose drones in combat and surveillance, at home and abroad.  As a commissioner who was a military chaplain said in opposition that drones were the wave of the future - he went so far as to say that in ten years we will not see planes with pilots in combat.

A member of the committee that considered this overture told me that the more modest overture on drones was greatly expanded by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.  The ACSWP (A C Swap, in Presby-speak) is, in my estimation, the most activist of all the Presbyterian agencies.  In past assemblies that I have followed, they tend to advise pushing the church to the left every time.  Their advice in committee is often more assertive than that of other Presbyterian agencies.

I think the drone vote is one of those that will make the PC(USA) look foolishly naive and offering advice out of its depth.

Presbyterians Dodge a Bullet on Fossil Fuel Divestment

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

An overture came to the GA to divest from 'fossil fuel' companies now. It seems to me this is a bad idea.

The PC(USA) is blessed with a well-developed Mission Responsibility Through Investment process, which is designed to thoughtfully engage with companies when they do bad things. One of the really good things that MRTI does for the church is to really research what, exactly, are the bad things, and have a dialogue with the company about separating the bad from the good.  As a last resort, the MRTI recommends that the church divest from intransigent companies.

The overture proposed to prematurely divest from fossil fuel companies now.  The committee was closely divided, but in the end voted to refer the issue to MRTI.  A minority report was moved to make the church's stock-holding bodies divest within five years.  The Young Adult Advisory Delegates were for it.  The elders, however, voted it down, 70% to 30%.

The GA then considered the committee's main motion, to refer the issue to the MRTI.  This passed, 81% to 19%.

The proposers of the 'divest now' side flatly claimed that "we only have six years" to reduce fossil fuel use and carbon waste.  I believe global warming is real, and that human action has contributed, but I am skeptical of the claim that if we don't act right now we are doomed.

The other error the 'divest now' side made, especially among the YAADs, is the belief that divesting our miniscule holdings in energy companies will somehow help end global warming - rather than just sell those energy company stocks to someone else, who will likely not push the companies to develop alternative fuels.

Anne Zaki is a Great Preacher

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

Yesterday the worship in the middle of the Assembly featured a sermon by Anne Zaki, of the Evangelical Presbyterian Seminary in Cairo.  She preached an excellent sermon on Jairus and the woman who touched Christ's garment.

She has a long association with Calvin Theological Seminary in the U.S.  Here is a brief interview with her.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Conservatives Pronounce the Death Knell of the Presbyterian Church, Again

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The Presbyterian Coalition, an organization of conservative groups, issued a press release immediately after the General Assembly voted to allow same-sex marriage in the church.  They write

Today the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) took two illegitimate actions that may prove in future years to be the death knell to the church as we have known it.
It is no surprise that the remaining conservatives in the church consider this the last straw.  Opposition to normalizing homosexual practice has become a defining issue for PC(USA) conservatives.  Thousands have left the denomination in recent years, especially since the church accepted gay ordination a few years ago. 

No doubt, we will see another wave of departures following these decisions.

Still, it is worth remembering that conservatives have pronounced the death knell of the Presbyterian Church in every generation since the denomination was created.

And in the next generation, the new conservative on some new issue will pronounce the death knell, again.

Reformed, and ever reforming.

The Sex War is Over in the PC (USA)

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The Presbyterian General Assembly voted to change the definition of marriage from "a man and a woman" to "two people, traditionally a man and a woman." The motion passed, 71% to 29%. It will now go to the presbyteries for ratification.

This is strong evidence that the conservatives have mostly given up and moved elsewhere.

An Irenic Gesture on Same-Sex Marriage

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

As the Assembly considers a very consequential measure to change the definition of marriage to "marriage involves a unique commitment of two people," a famous liberal, John Wilkinson, proposed an amendment to add the phrase "traditionally between a man and a woman."

A noted conservative thanked Wilkinson for the amendment.

The motion passed 85% to 15%.

Bad Committee Work on the Authoritative Interpretation

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

One of the most contentious issues before the General Assembly is over whether Presbyterian ministers can perform same-sex marriages.  The committee charged with answering the various overtures on this matter is faced with clear language in the church's constitution which says marriage is a union of 'a man and a woman'.

One of the proposals approved by the committee is to change the constitution to define marriage as between 'two persons'.  This makes sense as a way to solve the problem.

My quarrel is with the other approach, which is to issue an "Authoritative Interpretation" of what the constitution means.  Changing the constitution requires the joint action of the General Assembly and a majority of presbyteries. An Authoritative Interpretation, on the other hand, can be issued by the GA itself, and holds until undone by another GA.

The committee received overtures to issue an Authoritative Interpretation declaring that ministers can, indeed, perform same-sex marriages.

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution, which advises every committee on each overture that comes before it, gave this clear advice:

Section W-4.9001 and related citations (W-4.9002a, W-4.9004, W-4.9006) limit marriage to couples who are “a woman and a man.” Because these statements are clear and unambiguous, they can not be interpreted in a manner that is inconsistent with their plain and ordinary meaning.
In other words, you can't issue an Authoritative Interpretation that when the constitution limits marriage to 'a man and a woman', that does not mean that marriage is limited to a man and a woman.

In what I hope is my one and only speech in the plenary, I asked the committee how they answered this clear word from the ACC.  

The moderator of the committee answered that they didn't.

A member of the committee told me that someone in the committee debate said that the constitution was just describing traditional marriage, not defining marriage in, you know, a constitutional way.

Regardless of what you think about the substance of the issue of same-sex marriage, declaring that 'black is white' is just bad committee work.

Linda Valentine Overwhelmingly Re-Elected

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

Linda Valentine, the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, was re-elected to a third term by an overwhelming voice vote.

She has a big job - she is essentially the chief executive of the denomination's 'doing things' arm.

In the past, the election of the Executive Director has been very contentious - in the '90s an Exec was unseated by a floor nominee, even though the sitting Exec was the official nominee.

Linda Valentine's easy re-election is a good sign of renewed trust in the central agencies of the church. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Belhar Passes - and Why I Voted No

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The Belhar Confession is a great confession.  It is a landmark in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a Book of Confessions, the first part of the constitution of the church.  There has been a movement for the past decade to add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions. The previous General Assembly passed the overture, and sent it to the presbyteries for adoption.  A majority of presbyteries voted to adopt the confession - but not quite the super-majority which is required to amend the Book of Confessions.

This General Assembly, the proponents of Belhar tried again.  They had strong leadership, made a glossy presentation to the Assembly on the first day, and this evening proposed, once again, to add Belhar to the Book.

The commissioners voted,  86% to 14%, to adopt the Confession.  It will now go to the presbyteries again, seeking that super-majority.

I was among the 14%. 

I did not vote against Belhar because it is a bad confession.  It is, as I have said, a great confession.  Its message against racism is timely and apt for the PC(USA).

My objection is to the entire project of the Book of Confessions. I have written against the theory of the B of C several times before.

From the founding of the Presbyterian Church on this continent the church had one confession, the Westminster Confession and its attendant documents. This Confession was not a static 17th century British document, but a living part of the constitution, as living as the parts of the constitution regulating order and worship.  The denomination periodically amended the Westminster Confession, as needed.

In the 1960s, to conclude a merger of two Presbyterian denominations, a new confession - the Confession of 1967 - was commissioned.  Rather than replacing Westminster with this new confession, though, the seminary professors who wrote it also advanced the theory that confessions were not living documents, but documents of their time and place.  Thus they sold the church on the peculiar idea that for the theological foundation of the constitution, the church should have many confessions, all listed together.

The effect was to make the confessions optional.  Officers of the church were left to take whatever 'guidance' they chose from the confessions.  The action in the church shifted to the Book of Order, which became the only truly living part of the church's constitution.

Because I object to the whole idea of a book of confessions, I voted against adding the Belhar Confession to our Book.

I know this is a minority position, which is not likely ever to be victorious.  But I thought, in consistent conscience, I should vote and tell you why.

Voting for Child Care

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

Surprisingly, there is not child care at the GA, or even a good nursing room.

A commissioner made a Commissioner's Resolution to make sure we had it in future was defeated in committee.  The commissioner, a pastor, spoke to the issue, saying he and his pastor wife come to GA with their kids as a family vacation.

This seems like common sense to me. Cheap, too.

By a close margin, we voted to refer it to the Committee on the General Assembly, rather than just requiring it. 

Frankly, I think a bunch of commissioners (and even more YAADs) did not understand that a 'yes' vote meant referral, not the opposite.

The First Real Vote

I am blogging this week from the Presbyterian General Assembly.
The first real vote: to ask ministers to pay per capita.

I expect that the great majority of ministers do pay per capita (about $40 per year) and much more.

I thought asking them in this way was tacky.

The motion failed by about 10%.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Church Works Better When We Trust Our Committees

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

It is true of any organization, really.  I note it now because I have been to General Assemblies in the past in which a recommendation from an official church body was taken as a good reason to vote against the proposal by a significant minority.

So far in our Polity Committee, we have considered the advice of our official advisors to be sound.  When we consider an overture, we have the written response of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution before us, as well as a representative of the committee in the room to reply to the official 'overture advocates'.  On some matters, other advisory bodies also weigh in.

Yesterday we considered a proposal to let presbyteries, rather than congregations, ordain elders.  This was a well-intentioned overture to help newly forming immigrant communities have officially recognized leaders before they had organized as full congregations.  However, this idea strikes at a basic norm of Presbyterian polity that the elders arise from the congregation and are chosen by it. 

A change so basic brought out advisory opinions from a broad range of denominational muckety-mucks - in addition to the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, we heard from the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, the Committee on Theological Education, the Office of the General Assembly, and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (the main action arm of the denomination) - all advising against.

The Polity Committee heard from representatives of most of these bodies, as well as reading their recommendations.  We appreciated the conflict of goods that this overture represented.  In the end, though, we respected our disparate new Establishment.  We trusted our committees.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Voting Down More Polarization

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The Polity Committee, on which I am serving, was asked to respond to an overture from a conservative presbytery to allow churches to switch to a more ideologically congenial presbytery.  This would increase the polarization in the denomination.

The committee voted down the proposal, 50 to 6.

This issue will come up again in the plenary in a few days, but I am predicting a similar outcome.

Presbyterians Get the Right Advice

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The Commissioners to the General Assembly get advice before each vote from an array of Advisory Delegates.  The bulk of them are Young Adult Advisory Delegates; in addition, there are smaller groups of theological students, and ecumenical visitors from other denominations.

If it were up to me, I would abolish all of these official advisors.  For my money, only the Executive (or General) Presbyters of each presbytery, and maybe the Stated Clerks of each presbytery, should get an advisory vote. They are the best informed group in the whole denomination.

To my surprise, a motion came from the floor at the plenary yesterday to ask for advisory votes from the presbytery executives.  This rule would apply only to this Assembly, and would be in addition to the other established advisory votes. 

The commissioners (like me) voted by raising red cards.  I thought the division was pretty close.  The Moderator, eyeballing the array (and from a much better position to see the whole than I had), declared that the motion passed.  I think this is an excellent outcome.

And then twenty minutes later, another commissioner asked if this vote was even legal (it was), and then asked for division.  Since the electronic voting system is still wonky, and since these advisory votes will not matter until the next plenary on Wednesday night, the Moderator put off the counted vote until then.

Still, an unexpected step forward, from my way of thinking.