Reflections on General Assembly 220
Last month, one of the local papers carried a story on the risks and symptoms of dehydration — important things to be on the lookout for with all the high temperatures sweeping the nation this summer. The paper listed several of the symptoms of dehydration to include, "weakness, dizziness, confusion, thirst, and sluggishness."
Following the meeting of the General Assembly last week in Pittsburgh, Pa, I couldn't help but think that this list of symptoms sounded an awful lot like the state of the church.
While there was energy and good work done by many faithful committees and commissioners to the 220th General Assembly, overall the church felt confused and sluggish. It lacked decisive moves toward creativity and openness that are necessary to launch the church forward. Many of the votes were tainted by political maneuvering and lacked generative conversion. There was also a pervasive distrust by the Assembly of the work that had been done in many of the committees. Seemingly non-controversial reports dragged on with questioning and the need for perfected minority reports. Voting down funding for HIV/AIDS ministry? Really?? Overall, the church felt entrenched, sluggish, and confused. The church felt dehydrated.
One of the reports before the Assembly that I paid particular attention to was that of the Mid Councils Commission. Two years ago at the last General Assembly in Minneapolis, the commission was charged with at looking at the role of synods and presbyteries in the rapidly changing context of the 21st century. The commission's extensive 300-page report put forth, among other things, a recommendation to eliminate synods and to allow for provisional presbyteries. The hope was to increase our denomination's structural flexibly while also allowing for some creative exploration of the way we are organized at the presbytery level. The Assembly punted on the issue of synods, creating another task force to look into that, while voting down a period of experimentation through provisional presbyteries. The most hopeful part of the Assembly's voting was the recommendation to create a study guide from the report that contains what I think is one of the best articulations of the challenges facing the church in a post-modern, post-denominational, post-Christendom world.
I think that some of the problem with the Mid Councils Report is related to the fact that these commissions and task forces meet over a period of years, in this case two, allowing for extensive discernment and study. Thus, they often put forward recommendations that are too far reaching for the Assembly who hears them in only a matter of days. Combined with the fact that institutions are set up to protect themselves and so will resist the kind of radical change that is needed, this one was a difficult sell. While the Mid-Councils Report was not without fault or controversy — setting up provisional presbyteries has some significant risks that may not be worth the cost — I was disappointed that there was a lack of conversation about it at the Assembly and that there will not be a chance for further conversation and experimentation. When institutions don't know what to do, they do what they know — even if its slowly killing them.
Another big issue before the Assembly was the recommendation from the Committee on Marriage to change the language in the Worship section of the Book of Order from "a man and a women" to "two people." After much conversation (read political maneuvering), the recommendation failed by a margin of 30 votes (338-308) — a very disappointing outcome for some and a sigh of relief for others. Interestingly, when the advisory delegates voted, the YAADS (Young Adult Volunteers) voted 75 percent in favor of changing the definition of marriage to two persons, and the TSADS (Theological Student Advisory Delegates) voted 82 percent in favor of the motion. Immediately after the vote, someone tweeted this: "When your church members ask where the young people are remember this vote" (@presbyEmily#ga220). I couldn't agree more. Once again the church proved its inability to be prophetic and in any way relevant to the faiths lives of a growing generation. While many have left the church already in search of more open places (Just this week the Episcopal Church did what the PC(USA) was unable to do), my hope is that young people and our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters will grant us the grace to wait and hope a little longer.
In the gospel of John, Jesus offers himself to those he meets as living water. After Pittsburgh, it seems the PC(USA) could really use a drink. I am continually grateful for my call to the ministry and feel deeply called to what God is doing in the context of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and so along with others I continue to live in the tension of frustration and hope. If you are interested in reading more, below are links to some recent blogs by friends and colleagues following the Assembly that are well worth the read. I am grateful for their words as they have continually helped me understand my privilege, fear and blind spots. And as always, I welcome your thoughts and further conversation.