Following this reflection on the Assembly I have added shorter comments on specific matters in Appendices.
The recent PCUSA General Assembly, held in Portland, did some good, wonderful, and remarkable things. I also experienced some frustration and gained a deeper understanding of some of how a General Assembly, and our denomination, works. Or not.
The most important action we took was the final approval of the Belhar Confession. Composed by a church oppressed by apartheid in South Africa, the Belhar Confession highlights unity within the Body of Christ, and rejects the rejection and segregation of sisters and brothers in the faith. I see it as a riff on Galatians 3:28, building on our own Confession of 1967 with its theme of reconciliation. Belhar is a challenging document for our church and situation, especially in this summer, shaped by racism and resistance. [Read and download the confession at http://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/belhar.pdf.]
Belhar in some ways set the tone for the whole Assembly, as we proceeded to do things that affirmed what we have confessed, or in some cases, showed that we are not quite living up to Belhar’s promise.
Among the encouraging things to happen at the Assembly was the emergence of a new “face” of our denomination. We elected two women, one black and one white, to be our co-Moderators — Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston; and we elected our first black Stated Clerk — G. Herbert Nelson. It is at least powerfully symbolic that we are presenting to the world a leadership team that expresses the inclusive vision of the confession we just adopted, not to mention of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I hope it does not just turn out to be window dressing, masking the inertia of an institution on life-support.
This was our first Assembly after the final resolution of the sexuality controversies that consumed and paralyzed us for 40 or so years. The Progressives won that war. The votes on whatever remains of these issues are now lopsided. Many conservatives have departed.
Thus we find ourselves on new and unfamiliar terrain. At the last Assembly (2014) we fell out over Israel/Palestine, an issue on which Progressives are divided. That question provided some fireworks this time as well; but I was encouraged to see that the pro-Palestinian arguments generally prevailed again this year. Perhaps it would have been too dissonant to excuse or rationalize Israeli apartheid after affirming the anti-apartheid Belhar Confession. Still, we managed to spend time debating whether to commend the Israelis for saying that they do not victimize as many Palestinian children as they used to.
Without the distraction of matters having to do with LGBT inclusion, we also got to see more of the inner workings of the denominational bureaucracy. Attending GA is different as a Commissioner. I have been to many of these meetings as an interested observer; but I haven’t served as a commissioner since 1990. You don’t really get a sense of how scripted and tightly controlled the proceedings are unless you are inside the blue fence, trying to actually do things. You think you have power… but mostly you don’t.
I discovered that the GA has its own arcane and complicated rules which officials in Louisville know and work well. Almost all the commissioners to GA are there for the first or second time in their lives. This is not their full-time job. The bureaucracy knows how to manipulate and control what this amorphous and largely clueless body does. (For my reflection on how they squashed my question about the suppression of the report on the 1001 New Worshiping Community scandal, see Appendix 1, below.)
I raised a concern about the practice of having motions “to disapprove.” These kinds of motions are strongly discouraged by Robert’s Rules, supposedly our parliamentary authority. But the GA does it this way because… as one official helpfully pronounced, the GA does it this way. Even though it creates a blizzard of unnecessary confusion.
So, on the overture from our Synod of the Northeast, the assembly voted not to disapprove, and then voted, no kidding, not to approve. See what I mean? It finally got referred, since the assembly, given the convoluted procedure, couldn’t figure out what else to do with it.
That overture would have allowed congregations to elect ruling elders to specific tasks that don’t involve serving a term on a local session. It was an attempt to encourage more younger and non-white ruling elders into our system. Eventually, it failed because the ACC has no imagination and is also firmly committed to “the way we’ve always done it.”
Probably most obviously egregious (to me, anyway) was the bizarre decision by the leadership of the Environment Committee to allow in their plenary report a 10-minute propaganda presentation by MRTI that undercut and contradicted the decision of the committee! Clearly, the bureaucracy has too much invested in their own seats at the corporate feed-trough to allow an assembly to approve divestment from the rapacious fossil-fuel industry. (See Appendix 2, below.)
Anyway, my committee was Peacemaking. We did manage to affirm BDS (boycotts, divestment, and economic sanctions) as a traditional, historical set of non-violent tools to witness against injustice. And we approved a long document called “Risking Peace in a Violent World.” Unfortunately, we retained affirmative language about “Just War.” (See Appendix 3, below.)
We also preserved the on-line journal, Justice Unbound, which was slated to be cut. This was kind of a miracle since it is expensive and bucked the general trend against spending money. I was amazed! Apparently the Spirit wants this to continue and would not be denied.
The General Assembly has been conducted under the same basic format, right down to which interest groups have their programmatic meals on which days, for decades. At this one, I got the sense that the next assembly would be very different. That is a good thing.
First of all, I have hope that the new Stated Clerk will be able to cut through the inertia in Louisville and move us in new directions. This was hinted at in comments about our next meeting, in 2018, in St. Louis, and the one after that, in Baltimore. These two cities have been epicenters of racial conflict recently. I suspect that the GA as hermetically sealed bubble, protected against local issues, is over. There is talk of GA as a missional witness for reconciliation in these host cities. I am hoping for a radically different format, one that reflects the title of Nelson’s recent chapter in a book entitled, Faithful Resistance: “Dismantling the Corporate Church as a Step Toward Liberation.”
Secondly, the GA in its current format is simply unsustainable on many levels. Financially, the meeting costs about $3M (that’s $17K per hour). Spiritually, the whole corporate stockholders’ meeting vibe is light-years from anything Jesus would imagine. And just in terms of practicality the whole process is cumbersome, often redundant, confusing, exhausting, and frequently pointless. There is a lot that is just theater and cheerleading.
At the same time, a GA is a wonderful family reunion where connections are made and restored, ideas are shared, memories savored, and plans made. The highlight of the assembly for me was worship. We celebrated the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on every day of plenary, and heard some remarkably good preaching. And the music was often spectacular.
I thank God and Elizabeth Presbytery for sending me. I continue to pray for Howard Bryant, whose place I took as Alternate when he, the primary commissioner, was unable to attend due to illness. And I hope that what we did glorified the living God and advanced the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.
Appendix 1. The 1001NWC Scandal.
Prior to the assembly, I was asked to make a Commissioner Resolution regarding the scandal over the “1001 New Worshiping Communities" that broke in 2015. 1001 NWC is one of the brightest and most positive things our denomination is doing. This disaster was a tremendous morale-draining buzz-kill. The program was hugely highlighted at the GA in 2014; this time it was barely mentioned, probably to squash unwanted questions about it. Like mine.
Very briefly, as I understand it, four denominational officials set up an illicit, independent corporation to plant churches, receiving $100K in funding from the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). This was against our rules. Once this was pointed out, the money was returned and the offending parties reprimanded. This might have been the end of it.
However, the PMA found it necessary to spend around $1M (!) on lawyers to produce a report about the whole thing that no one is allowed to see. As the General Assembly is technically the PMA’s boss, some of us thought a more comprehensive accounting should be given of this mess. A million dollars is, after all, a lot of mission money to hand over to attorneys for a secret report. (Especially when we would hear repeatedly at the assembly about how strapped for cash the PMA is and how we nothing we do should have “financial implications.”)
My request was parliamentarily squashed with rationale based on false information. Clearly if the PMA doesn’t want its boss, the GA, to know something, it has ways of making sure the GA will not know it. I was informed I could not ask any more questions about this.
I taught polity last January at Princeton Seminary. I told my students that GA is the ultimate earthly authority in the church. I was wrong. The GA is powerless in the face of the orgy of butt-covering, manipulation, and infighting that characterizes the Louisville curia.
In hindsight, it would have been better if some presbyteries had demanded a response. Such overtures are much harder to suppress than mere Commissioner Resolutions. But I don’t think the results would have changed.
However, it should sober us to know that the PMA can squander a million dollars on lawyers without any accountability at all.
Appendix 2. God and Money.
The video that MRTI was permitted to show basically told us that fossil fuel companies are not nearly as bad as they used to be, due to the beneficial pressure they receive from MRTI. As if they should be rewarded because now they at least talk sometimes in a way that sounds like they do care about mitigating their pillaging of the Earth, even though their actions indicate no such thing. (Kind of like the Israelis assuring us they don’t kill as many Palestinian children.)
That’s how Constructive Engagement works. Try to imagine Jesus negotiating with Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas. Pilate would claim that the crucifixion rate is actually down, and Jesus would… what, congratulate him? In my Bible, Jesus throws the merchants out of the Temple; he doesn’t constructively engage with them to get them to be slightly less exploitative. Of course, Jesus doesn’t get a cut of the profits of the commercialized Temple either, which is exactly my point.
The PCUSA continues to imagine that we can in fact serve both God and money, something Jesus insists doesn’t happen. It is very obvious which we have chosen to follow. Now we get to stay “engaged” with forces like the Koch brothers and Exxon, and disengaged from the planet, people, and communities that suffer at the hands of this industry. So, apparently, the principles of Belhar, placing us on the side of the destitute, the poor, the wronged, the downtrodden, and people in any form of suffering and need, are suspended when it comes to what we do with our money. When it comes to money, the denomination chooses to stay on the side of “all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others” (Belhar).
Oh, and someone should explain to me the theological rationale for holding what is best for my employer above the mission of Christ’s church. I don’t get that at all. Since when do Nestle, Caterpillar, and Exxon come before Jesus? A company “provides jobs” making bricks for Pharaoh, and their interests are held above the gospel? Really?
Appendix 3. “Just War.”
There is, of course, no such thing as a just war, except in theory. Maybe there are situations of such unambiguous aggression (like the 1939 Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland, maybe) that a war of resistance is morally justified. But the requirements for a Just War are so strict and demanding that we find few examples of such a thing ever actually happening. That doesn’t stop unscrupulous politicians (or the squad of military chaplains our committee pointlessly had to hear from) from claiming that the wars they perpetrate are just, necessary, and good. All warmongers proclaim their wars to be just! Just War is thus a rhetorical smokescreen that leaders invoke whenever they want to make war. The only thing we can learn from the Just War tradition is that it is a lie. To approve of Just War is tantamount to approving of war generally. Which is what we, in effect, did.
So, having affirmed ecocide with our decision to continue to underwrite oil and coal companies, we moved on to affirm war. Clearly, this is a denomination that still imagines itself to be part of the Establishment and an unofficial arm of the State.