(This post will go up soon on The Outlook website, but I’m traveling so can’t link there immediately. Feel free to read and comment here, but also check out all the awesome General Assembly coverage over at The Presbyterian Outlook.)
And Friday night, at the General Assembly, the commissioners were tired, the energy level was low, and the most controversial items had already been considered. So, first a few funny recollections from the week:
- The Stated Clerk, Gradye Parson, has a suave-looking John Calvin bobble-head on his desk. I covet.
- Moderator Cynthia Bolbach’s fun sense of humor kept the assembly in good spirits throughout the week. Perhaps her best crack cams during the moderator election when she, and elder said, “Ministers going on tangents…who knew?”
- The chairs in the assembly hall, when scooted back or forth, sound like vuvuzelas. It’s hilarious.
More seriously, my read of the assembly is that it was a perfectly fine one, one that wrestled with tough issues conscientiously and sought the Spirit in its work. Many hugely important changes are proposed to the PC(USA) constitution, including the addition of the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.
But, as I prepare to go back home, I’m also struck with a questioning sense about whether this formal, costly, somewhat unwieldy church structure is the most faithful way of conducting business at a national level. At 27, I’m too young to be a hardened cynic, but many times this week I thought, after a beautiful policy statement or theological document passed the assembly, “How much did we spend per word to make that document? And, how many Presbyterians – let alone others – will ever read it?” When I closed my eyes and listened to debate on the plenary floor, I wondered how much —really, how little— the basic way we govern ourselves has changed in fifty years.
Several folks, on both sides of theological divides, pointed out that if the rate of membership decline in the PC(USA) continues as it has in recent years, the PC(USA) will cease to exist in roughly 40 years. Sophisticated statisticians would surely add some complexity to that model, but even a simpleton can see we have a huge problem. So, I leave confused and saddened that the report of the committee on church growth and evangelism flew by so quickly, and with so little discussion.
Another systemic issue to raise my hackles this week was the fact that, in so many floor debates, we spoke to the surface-level of issues before us rather than to a deeper level, often the reason the issues were so controversial in the first place. For instance, our debate on sex and sexuality directly connected to many more pieces of business than the headline grabbers—ordination standards, marriage, and pension policies. But when such issues came up, we tended to argue in polity wonk language rather than actually talk about what was behind the arguments (e.g. the main motion and substitution motion regarding the General Assembly, Permanent Judicial Commission, the Bush case, and all the complexity). I’m all for our polity, but I’m also for truth telling.
This kills me at presbytery often as well, so maybe it’s just a bad Presbyterian habit: we argue over surface-level questions rather than converse about the real foundational issues underlying them that make the surface-level questions tricky in the first place. We are struck in a dualistic way of doing things – vote yes or no – one that gets us a “conclusion” when a majority votes, but really doesn’t solve a thing.
Next, just an observation without too much analysis: the Young Adult Advisory Delegates totally impressed us all this week, as usual. Our young people are extremely talented and fantastic church leaders. Also noteworthy is the fact that, on the big sexuality questions, they consistently voted more liberal than the assembly by MANY percentage points. If we don’t scare these youth away with our bickering, their minds don’t change, and they are somewhat representative of the young adults in the larger church, it’s difficult to imagine the hot-button sexuality questions not eventually turning more progressive (for want of a better word) in a few years’ time.
But here’s the thing, whether that scares you or excites you, it can lead us away from the point. I played a game with friends last night in which, before the evening assembly, we each chose key words for which to listen in the evening plenary. Each time that certain word or words were spoken, we took note, promising to donate a certain amount of money per word to our seminary. One of my friends listened for the phrase, “Jesus Christ.” Let’s just say she won’t be writing a big check.
So we continue the conversation. We continue our prayers that the Spirit might guide the church so that we might be more faithful, conduct our business more wisely, and make us good stewards of our gifts. General assemblies are our human attempt to do just that. I’m grateful God showed up, so grateful, but also I’m praying God’s got something new in mind real soon.
image by Erin Dunigan