This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Monday, June 23, 2014

PCUSA General Assembly 221 + Day Eight (Saturday)


Reconsider?
            The Saturday session is usually somewhat perfunctory.  There are a lot of thank yous to the hosting city and the Committee on Local Arrangements, and other groups and individuals that worked hard on putting the GA on.  And usually they approve the budget that has been mandated by the Assembly’s actions all week.  And a final worship service.  That’s it.  They deliberately avoid putting anything controversial on Saturday morning.  They only have the building until noon.  And, due to the vicissitudes of airline schedules, a large number of commissioners will have already departed.
            Hence, it is raucously unfair for someone to make a motion on Saturday morning to reconsider an action taken earlier in the week, especially one that passed very narrowly.  This is what was attempted by opponents of divestment from those companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine. 
            Fortunately, the Assembly has some level-headed members and this travesty was not allowed to happen.  But for the future I believe the rules of the Assembly should include a prohibition of motions to reconsider on Saturday morning.  Sigh.
           
Conclusion.
            All-in-all, I think this was a good Assembly.  There was that parliamentary passing off of the fossil-fuel divestment initiative, which meant that this assembly declined to make a clear statement on the most important issue on the planet.  But other than that, the Assembly did not show reticence to take stands and make decisions.  They even made some that will offend some neighbors and friends, and some sisters and brothers.  
            Thus, while being offensive is not the point, it is often the case that taking courageous stands rubs some folks the wrong way.  GA221 is an advance over the timid and reticent GA220.
            We in the presbyteries will have some things to deal with.  The most important of these is the second attempt to add the Belhar Confession to our Constitution.  This is overdue, and will provide an essential non-European, post-colonial perspective to our standards. 
            Obviously, there will be the requisite wrangling over the same-sex marriage AI and amendment.  Or not.  Churches upset with this may choose to direct their energy into securing gracious dismissal.
            The fallout from the divestment decision is unclear.  I expect much hyperbole and a good deal of hysterical, paranoid criticism.  But there is a chance that, in conjunction with other aspects of the BDS movement, the Israelis may actually enter into serious negotiations for peace and justice in Palestine.  At the very least, I hope the Assembly’s decision gave some comfort to the Palestinians we met in our trip last February to help them plant olive trees.
            For those of us who work in Mid-Councils, we have this consuming mess of synod and presbytery realignment to get through.  I expect it to take up a lot of my time… but most people-in-the-pews will barely notice.

           
              

Saturday, June 21, 2014

PCUSA General Assembly 221 + Day Seven (Friday)


Synods.
            For years, the denomination has been debating/discussing the function and purpose of synods.  Synods are regional councils, made up of several presbyteries.  At one time, at the height of the corporate/bureaucratic era in the church, they were very powerful.  That was when we went to larger and fewer synods.  But for the last 30 years they have been declining in influence.  Recent General Assemblies have even considered abolishing them altogether.
            The new recommendation is to make them still larger and fewer, which I do not think is a good idea.  It is merely the continuation of a movement that hasn’t worked and is liable only to make synods even less relevant to the life of churches.  It reflects an obsolete, Modern, hierarchical/bureaucratic, management mindset that we have to get away from.
            While I have been a proponent of synod abolition, I have now realized that, under the new Form of Government, in which presbyteries are given far more power, synods can provide a newly re-necessary oversight function, checking that power when it is abused.  So I hope we keep synods.
            But here is my humble, though far-reaching, suggestion, based the following assumptions: that the task of a congregation is to do mission.  The task of a presbytery is to support the mission of its congregations.  The task of a synod is to assist the presbyteries in supporting their congregations:
            What if we went to smaller synods made up of smaller presbyteries?  Maybe reduce presbyteries down to around 12-25 churches, 1-6K members, with a Stated Clerk and an Administrative Assistant.  This would give us perhaps 200-225 presbyteries.  Reduce synods down to like 6-10 presbyteries, with maybe 25 synods in all.  The synods could then afford staff to support the work of the presbyteries.  And they would be close enough to the presbyteries to be effective
            For instance, in my region (which I arbitrarily identify as the Northeast megalopolis stretching from Boston to Richmond) we could have 4 or 5 synods and maybe 25 presbyteries.

Moderatorial Malpractice.
            It is out of order for some expert, when she is asked a question, to proceed to make a long speech on one side of the matter at hand before answering the question.  Yet that is what this Moderator decided to allow.  It is inappropriate as well for a Moderator to engineer the calling of a question before adequate testimony has been heard from people on one side of an issue.  And, while it may not be technically out of order, it is a violation of fairness for a Moderator to overlook the many YAADs waiting to speak in favor of divestment from fossil fuel companies.  The Moderator knows who is waiting to speak and their position on the motion at hand.  He chose to do this. 
            It is nice to hear everyone declaim their desire to care for God’s creation and so on.  They just don’t want to do it anytime soon.  The Assembly does not know from Dr. King’s “fierce urgency of now”.  And if any issue demands to be addressed now, not after two years of study by an overworked, understaffed entity of the General Assembly, it is that of global warming.  The movement to divest is surging now.  We could have been a part of that.  Now, sadly, we’re not.  Other institutions are responding to this call. Not us.  The YAADs advised the Assembly to act.  They chose not to.  Apparently, we want to retain our “place at the table” with frackers and mountaintop removers, et al.  Congratulations to GA221.  
            Thank God we didn’t have anybody embarrass us by denying global warming.  At least that level of ignorance was not present at this meeting.

All Politics Is Local.
            Here’s a take on the way these debates and votes go.  We care most about what people we know will say about us and to us.  We care less about people far, far away whom we are not going to see at the grocery store or the bank. 
            We know Gay people.  They are our friends and family.  We have relationships with them.  We will have to face them when we go home.  We may even be Gay ourselves!  This is a strong incentive to vote in favor of measures that benefit Gay folk. 
            There is nothing wrong with this.  It is a big reason that many exclusions and bigotries have diminished over the past few years.  As America becomes more diverse, different kinds of people become our neighbors.  It is harder to demonize them.  This has been a very good thing for our country.
            Most of us have Jewish friends and even family members.  I suspect this is why it is so difficult for a body like the General Assembly to do anything that might offend them.  (Then add a layer of Holocaust guilt.)  We know we will have to explain/defend ourselves when we get home.  We also know people who work for companies enabling and profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  Politics is not just local, but often personal.
            While there are Palestinians among us, there are not that many and they are not that visible.  Palestinians are still mostly far, far away, and the image most people have of them has been shaped by our media, which has decided they are all terrorists.
            (One example of this is the appropriate deep concern for the three kidnapped Israeli young people… while not acknowledging that Israelis have killed on average about one Palestinian child every three days since 2000.)
            So tonight’s vote, however close, to authorize divestment from these three companies is that much more impressive and even courageous.  To vote to support suffering people we don’t know personally, and risk offending people we do know and meet daily, is a remarkable thing.  The Assembly should be commended.  

Drones.
            Someone, who was apparently a former Navy chaplain, informed the Assembly that opposition to drones was “naïve” since the military was well on the way to expanding the use of drones, even to the point of abandoning the use of manned combat aircraft altogether.  That was interesting news.  However, the idea that the church should not comment on anything because it is a done deal as far as the military is concerned is a surrender of the church’s prophetic witness.   
            I usually don’t have much patience with these resolutions aimed at some other entity, like the government.  But they do have an educating function and encourage and advise participation in a democratic political system.  These things should really be addressed to the church.  Yes it is naïve to have any expectation that the military will listen to us, let alone change their behavior.  But it is not naïve at all to organize followers of Jesus to exercise their own rights and responsibilities as citizens. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

PCUSA General Assembly 221 + Day Six (Thursday)


Marriage.
            The big thing today was the approval of two measures intended to allow teaching elders serving in States where it is legal to celebrate same-sex marriages.  The first was an Authoritative Interpretation (AI).  Some close friends of mine whom I deeply respect and admire worked on this, and I understand the reasoning.  However, I do get a little nervous when an “interpretation” seems to go so far beyond the thing it is interpreting.  Now, when the current Directory for Worship was framed, the notion of same-sex marriage was nowhere near being on the radar.  And some earlier versions of the Directory simply referred to the two “parties” in marriage.  It is therefore not so far afield to imagine this interpretive language clarifying the actual words in the Directory.  In any case, the Assembly thought so, and it is their call.
            The other frustration some expressed with this approach was that it changed the practice of the church without the consultation with the local presbyteries that an actual Constitutional Amendment would require.  I get this as well… however, it was made moot when the Assembly proceeded to approve just such an amendment.  So the AI makes room for teaching elders to perform same-sex marriages now, and the amendment, if it passes the next hurdle, will take effect in 2015.
            While many are worried that this will accelerate the exodus of conservative congregations from the denomination, others are hopeful that it will aid us in welcoming new groups of people who were previously excluded.  Certainly any move away from the anti-Gay stance that characterizes so many churches will enhance the church’s credibility with most younger people, for whom this is all simply not an issue.
            Personally, I was pretty sure these initiatives would pass.  Not only has the culture shifted tectonically in favor of same-sex marriage – which is now permitted in many States – but with the departure of many conservative churches the center of gravity in the church has shifted to the left.  This is evident in the fact that votes on controversial issues that were once pretty even, now come down around 70/30.
            After the vote, some suggested that the AI would certainly be “appealed”.  I understand the sentiment behind this view, however, there is no body to whom an appeal might go.  This is a General Assembly.  Appeals always go from a lower council to a higher; there is no higher council than a GA.  The Assembly therefore has awesome and nearly absolute power to interpret the Constitutions.  In principle, an Assembly could issue an AI saying that “even though the Book of Order says green, we interpret that to mean orange.”
            I know a lot of people are not comfortable with this.  It was controversial last time in Pittsburgh, over an issue regarding the Book of Confessions, which is, after all, part of, not higher than, the Constitution.  Due to decisions made then, some bitterly concluded that the confessions were no longer authoritative for us, and thus we are not a “confessional” church. 
            Some erroneously believe that the Permanent Judicial Commission functions like some kind of “Supreme Court,” and may overrule a General Assembly.  But the PJC is a commission of the General Assembly, not above it.  We have no “separation of powers” as in the secular government.  The General Assembly itself has all ecclesiastical legislative, judicial, and executive powers.
           
Guns in Church.
            Seriously?
            The Assembly decided it was necessary to recommend to churches that they declare themselves “Gun Free Zones.”  For a person like me, who is uncomfortable with even water-pistols in church, it glaringly obvious that if anything doesn’t belong in a gathering of disciples of Jesus Christ it is firearms.  I realize that this initiative is intended to make a statement, especially against these “open carry” idiots, but also commenting on the plague of gun violence now throttling our society.  I pray that all our churches have always been gun free zones; now we are simply finding a reason to say so publicly.    

Thursday, June 19, 2014

PCUSA General Assembly 221 + Day Five (Wednesday)


Family Reunion.
     The actual business of a General Assembly is often confusing, frustrating, and barely tolerable.  It concerns the commissioners who are often overworked and overwhelmed.
     But there is another GA going on.  This is the “family reunion.”  This includes people like me who come to support and resource the commissioners, but also to reconnect with friends and colleagues.  So around the edges there are all kinds of luncheons and meetings that sometimes relate to business, and often don’t.  At this level the business almost becomes a pretext for getting together and sharing what is going on in our lives and churches.  We advise, console, support, connect with each other, tell our stories, laugh and cry; it involves a not insignificant amount of alcohol.
     I am coming to the realization that the real business of a GA is not in the plenary or the committee meetings but in these smaller, formal or informal, gatherings around the edges where relationships are being built and maintained, and real insights shared.  Indeed, the business meeting is becoming a pretext for the more important gathering of Presbyterians for mutual support and encouragement.
     Next week Susan and I are going to the Wild Goose Festival.  I will attempt to blog from there as well.  It is rather a completely different kind of gathering.  But in another sense, it is kind of like a General Assembly… without the business meeting.  It is a gathering of Christians for education, celebration, mutual support, and networking.
     I suspect that the future will be towards ecclesiastical meetings that look more like Wild Goose, and less like the  stockholders’ meeting that GA can devolve into.

Lunch. 
     On Wednesday I went for lunch to the Israel Palestine Mission Network luncheon, which featured a talk by Jerry Pillay, who is the General Secretary of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in South Africa and President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches.  The question repeatedly comes up as to whether what is going on in Palestine is appropriately defined as “Apartheid.”  Having experienced Apartheid first-hand in South Africa, Pillay should know what he is talking about.
     He visited Palestine with a delegation from South Africa a couple of years ago, and he reports that many of the oppressive techniques of Apartheid are indeed being inflicted upon the Palestinians.  Indeed, he reported that in some ways what is going on in Palestine is worse than South African Apartheid.  He and his group were often left in tears from having memories of their own horrible experience re-awakened and from seeing first-hand what the Palestinians are forced to go through.
     For some reason, the masters of the Assembly saw fit to invite this rabbi to address the GA from the podium, who basically pleaded that we should not offend the Jewish community by approving divestment.  There was no opportunity for a representative of the Palestinian community to respond.  (I am told there will be.)  But if this isn’t a clear attempt to either sway the commissioners or mollify our Jewish friends, I don’t know what it is.  And now, after all these personal appeals, if will make it look like an even more deliberate slap in the face if and when we do approve divestment.

Belhar.
     The big news of Wednesday evening was the approval of the Belhar Confession for inclusion in the Book of Confessions.  We tried this 4 years ago, but it failed to garner the requisite 2/3 majority of presbyteries’ approval.  (There was a lot of other stuff coming to presbyteries that year and Belhar kind of got lost in the blizzard.)
     The Belhar Confession was composed by Christians in South Africa during the horror of apartheid. This is a wonderful confession which will add a new, non-European, dimension to our Constitution.  It is all about inclusion and diversity, with segregation the big anathema.  Now Belhar will go back to the presbyteries again for ratification.
     If this Assembly once again endorses Apartheid in Palestine after approving by a wide (86%) majority the Belhar Confession, it will be a mind-numbing contradiction.  If we refuse to divest in companies enabling, enforcing, and profiting from Apartheid, we will be demonstrating that our enthusiasm for Belhar is a lie.
      

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

PCUSA General Assembly 221 + Day Four (Tuesday)


Worship.
            Worship on Tuesday took place in the plenary hall.  The practice of worshiping in the same place where the assembly does its business is a good one… in theory.  It will probably work better for the rest of the week, when the plenary is in session.  But on Tuesday, worship featured a relatively small number of people, scattered across a huge space, with most sitting in the back.  In other words, it was what we experience in far too many of our churches every Sunday.  The excellent Korean choir was situated on bleachers way off to the right.  And those of us not right up front had to view the proceedings on TV screens.
            An excellent sermon was preached by Lark Labberton on Matthew 7:24-8:10.  He talked about the need to back up our words with our touch, that is, real actions.  We’re been celebrating the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper at every worship service, an innovation of former Moderator Neal Presa, and something I am finding very moving and spiritually nourishing.   

Parliamentary Hell.
            I slipped in to watch several committees on Tuesday, finding all of them mired in inconsequential discussions of procedure.  That is, not addressing the substantive issues they are here to address, but spinning their wheels in mind-numbingly boring technicalities of motion- and amendment-making.  Parliamentary procedure is supposed to facilitate the fair making of group decisions.  Today it seemed to stifle many attempts to actually discuss anything.  Instead of having conversations, committees were hamstrung by the rules.
            This of course is the Presbyterian disease.  It’s like we don’t really care what gets done as long as it is done the right way.  We have this faith in procedure that seems to think that if things get done the right way it somehow guarantees that the right thing will get done.
            It is also discouraging to observe how many of the commissioners in committees were using their laptops to play games while all this parliamentary wrangling is going on.  (Solitaire was most popular, though at a distance it is difficult to distinguish from FreeCell.)  Before huffing about irresponsible commissioners, I want to suggest that if we are boring them to the degree that they seek some way to more fruitfully pass the time, this is a problem.  It's like they don’t even care about the intricacies of procedure.  Imagine that!  Maybe if we could figure out how to get to the substantive issues commissioners are here to discuss, they would be more engaged and actually pay attention.

            One of the handy ways out of this mess is to make a motion to refer.  This has the twin benefit of avoiding conversation entirely – except the lengthy debate about whether and to whom to refer something – and making it look like a committee is making progress on its agenda, when really it is avoiding its agenda.  If it refers enough of its assigned work, a committee could even finish early!
            The Presbyterian bureaucracy is an efficiant machine in this regard.  Well-dressed officials from Louisville and Philadelphia have years of experience in making impressive presentations about their particular corporate entities; it is easy for them to impress the newbies who make up most committees.  “They look like they know what they’re doing; why don’t we just let them handle this?” is the sentiment.  So the tendency is to refer matters to the guys in the suits. 
            This is what I saw happen regarding the overture to divest from fossil fuel companies.  The committee did not discuss for one second the matter they were sent here to discuss.  They politely listened to the advocates and witnesses, then decided to refer the whole matter to the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) group, which was set up years ago in an effort to encourage the Capitalist institutions in which the church invests its money not to act like Capitalist institutions.
            In this case the Capitalist institutions in question are among the worst on the planet: oil, coal, and gas companies.  The committee was convinced that divestment was unwise because it is important for us to maintain a dialogue with such companies.  If we sell our stock in them, we lose our place at the negotiating table.  Although what we have to talk about with such enterprises escapes me.  The devotion to and effectiveness of these companies at pillaging, destroying, and poisoning God’s creation is legendary.  Just sitting at the same table with them is to give the finger to the simple Lord Jesus who walked lightly on the earth.
            What are we supposed to suggest to them in these negotiations with, say, Exxon-Mobil?  “Please stop producing fossil fuels”?  Seriously?  Because that is the only thing we could possibly and morally have to say.
            How can we continue to preach the gospel with our mouths and reject the gospel with our money?  How can we support the mission of local churches by means of income derived from companies whose work daily contradicts, undermines, and cripples that very mission?  Should we do evil that good may result?  Does that work?   


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

PCUSA General Assembly 221 + Day Three.



            GA day three began with a talk by Lillian Daniel, author of a book called Spiritual But Not Religious Isn’t Enough.  She had a lot to say about our practices and assumptions, especially regarding communicating with those who define themselves as spiritual but not religious (sbnr).  She appears to place the blame for our cluelessness in this area squarely on ourselves, which is entirely fair.  Several times she noted that we have no problem expressing our opinions in other areas, from politics to consumer products.  But when it comes to faith we are paralyzed.  The best we can say is, “We have a great choir in our church,” or “We’re a very friendly congregation.”  We fail to realize that people can sing in choirs and find friends without coming to a church.
            We continue to imagine that people who don’t go to church now did attend church at one time, but dropped out.  They therefore would need reassurance that things are better now.  the reality is that an increasing number of people in our culture have never been involved in a spiritual community at all.  And they are not looking for one.  They are not church shopping.  They have no interest in church at all.  Which means that when we tell someone that things are better now it is meaningless to them, and even telegraphs the message that things were recently messed up.
           Anyway, her message that Christendom is over and this is a good thing is something we need to hear and change our approach accordingly.

Israel/Palestine.
            I spent the morning in the committee dealing with the Middle East, listening mostly to the same arguments we have heard for 30 years.  What is on the table (again) is divestment from companies making money off the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  What is new this year is a growing awareness that the “2-State Solution” is becoming more and more untenable, due mainly to the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  Increasingly, the conversation is entertaining the idea of a some kind of single-State in the area, recognizing that in much of the area Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side, and trying to make a geographical border between them seems practically impossible.
            When people still push the 2-State thing, it is becoming clear that the Palestinian “State” they envision would be in at least four separate pieces, each one (except Gaza which has a coastline and a short border with Egypt) completely surrounded by Israeli territory, with virtually no water rights or the ability to defend itself.  These would be completely dependent on and subservient to Israel.  I believe the technical term for this is “Bantustan,” referring to the dopey, false, internationally unrecognized polities to which the white South Africans intended to reduce the majority black population.  This is not a real State with any real sovereignty.  It would be an Apartheid regime in full.
            The folks who dislike the emerging 1-State idea choose hysterically to assume it means the majority Palestinians will expel or exterminate the minority Jews, or that the Palestinians would treat the Jews with the careless violence that the Israelis are now use against the Palestinians.  This is not necessarily a legitimate fear.  It is possible for constitutional arrangements to be made that respect the rights of minorities.  There can be federalization in which different parts of a State have relative autonomy.  There can even be states within a State, as we have in the US.  Any attempt to impose a homogeneous, mono-ethnic regime, whether Jewish or anti-Jewish, would be unacceptable and criminal.  Whatever State emerges will have a sizeable minority of Jews whose rights and self-determination will have to be respected.           
            Anyway, at the end of the day the committee did vote to support human rights for all, and then proceeded to reduce this to empty rhetoric by declining to criticize those who deny the human rights of some.  Great.

Fossil Fuel Divestment.
            The most frustrating experience was sitting in the Environment and Immigration Committee and learning how The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP, in other words “c-swap”) gutted and cluttered the original overture coming from 9 presbyteries.  The ACSWP apparently has the job of offering commentary and advice to the General Assembly.  In this case the “advice” cuts the heart out of the overture, even actually deleting most uses of the word “divest,” for crying out loud, and then piling a lot of other crap onto the measure, including, get this, a carbon tax. 
            Advocating for a carbon tax is typical of the ACSWAP’s role as “resolutionaries,” who make meaningless pronunciamentos about what the government should do, when the government is not listening to us and doesn’t care.  Divestment is something we can do.  ACSWP prefers to talk and tell other people to do things.
            They also want to defer the whole thing for two years, to the next General Assembly.  So much for what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now”.           
            Fortunately the advice of the ACSWP is only advice.  The committee and the Assembly still have to make the decisions.  But it is obviously a mistake to assume that these people are allies.  They seem more concerned with whatever agendas they have among themselves and maintaining their own position in the bureaucracy.  Not to mention the delusion of Christendom in which they continue to participate.
            The overture’s supporters will press on and pray that the committee will show some faith and wisdom, and commitment to God’s creation and people.

            Of course, all this talk about divestment might make us ask why a church owns corporate stock.  Money received by the church is presumably intended to advance the mission of Jesus Christ.  Why would we then give this money to a corporation that may or may not be doing good things, with the intent that we make money off the bad things the corporation is doing?  Doesn’t this mean the money isn’t supporting mission?  Is interest itself not prohibited by Scripture?  Don’t we hereby become complicit in whatever the corporations we invest in are doing?  Isn’t it possible we could actually be profiting from human misery?  Isn’t this whole practice an indication that we worship not Jesus but an economic system based on teachings exactly contrary to his?
            Maybe if we more closely examined where we put our money in the first place we would not have to have these endless debates over removing it.  I am afraid to look at the list of companies we have stock in. 
            Granted, it’s not like we pay no attention to this at all.  We do not own stock in gambling, alcohol, tobacco, or firearms.  And we did divest from South Africa during apartheid, eventually.  And we are trying to do good things and support companies doing good. 
            But it seems like too often we give companies the benefit of the doubt when we invest in them, and then wait until we have evidence of years of abuse before doing anything about it.    

Monday, June 16, 2014

PCUSA General Assembly 221 + Day Two (continued)


Post-denominational.
            In several of the reports received by the Assembly on Sunday we were asked to compare the situation today with some time in the past, like 1983, when the current configuration of the denomination was founded.  The Special Committee on the Review of Biennial Assemblies entertained us for a while with clips from that year, including a news report about the reunion General Assembly in Atlanta.  The point being: Yo, we live in a different world now; should we maybe change the way we do things?  Who but a collector wants an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, the most popular car from that period?
            The Special Committee to Review the Preparation for Ministry Process and Standard Ordination Exams is another case in point.  (And I use the full, official, bureaucratic titles of these groups on purpose.)   Presbyteries have known for years that there is almost no such thing as a “normal” candidate, one for whom our rules were written in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  So, completely and inevitably on the fly, we have to force-evolve this system and others so they work today… which will certainly mean changing our definition of what it means for a system to “work.”
            This is all quite exasperating for a Stated Clerk.  And it’s easy to blame the world for deliberately messing with our neat categories and systems.  And do procedural acrobatics trying to make people fit into our ways of doing things.
            The future is going to be very fluid and situational; things are going to have to be taken on a case-by-case basis, with no one-size-fits-all answers to just about anything.  But this will require a whole lot more attention to the very basic things that ground us.  And a denomination like ours has often taken this stuff for granted and thus lost our connection to it, relying and focusing so much on superficial things like procedures.  (And pronouncements.  I’ll get to that later in the meeting.)  
            What troubles me about a meeting like this is not that the future is post-denominational; it is that the present is post-denominational and we don’t know it.  It’s not that our “brand” is in crisis; the very idea of brands at all is crumbling.  In the end we (the General Assembly) are a gathering of gatherings of gatherings of people seeking to follow, and help each other follow, Jesus Christ, in wildly different contexts and situations.
            As for us “rules guys” we’re going to have to be less like trip planners relying on lots of maps, and more like trackers, finding the best way through unfamiliar terrain.  We need tools suited to that kind of task.
           


PCUSA General Assembly 221 + Day Two. (Sunday)


PCUSA General Assembly 221 + Day Two.

            This morning I went to the breakfast sponsored by the Presbyterian Foundation, mainly because I wanted to hear the speaker, Stanley Hauerwas. 
            Before Hauerwas came on, though, there was an excellent short video on the intentional investing the Foundation has been doing in Palestine, at the instruction of the last General Assembly.  Apparently we are providing microfinancing for small, mainly women-owned businesses, as well as some larger investments in renewable energy and education.  I see this as a positive development and an example of the kind of investments we can make with our savings that actually help people, as distinct from giving it to large corporations who use it for God-knows-what.  (Which is why various kinds of divestment are being proposed at General Assemblies.)
            Having just been to Palestine in February it was good to see these folks smiling and with resources to make a difference in a very difficult situation.  And it is refreshing to know that Presbyterians are a part of that.  I hope the Foundation keeps up this good work and extends it into other parts of the world.  Responsible investment that empowers people is a good thing. 
            Hauerwas was as blunt and direct as his reputation in his remarks.  He talked about America, God, and Christians, basically saying that the god of America is distinct from the God of Christianity in several significant ways.  “Our story is the story we choose when we have no story,” is how he described it.  We perpetuate lies about “freedom,” as if every individual can invent their own story, as if we do not inherit or have given to us any story.
            Hawerwas’ point was that as Christians we don’t invent our own stories; we are given a story that we are called to live into.  This story is that of the God who resurrected Jesus from the dead is the same God who delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt.  It is the God who brings life out of death.  And there are specific ways and practices by which we embody living into this story.
            To the degree that the church in America has become a subset of America and a medium of America’s story – the false and impossible story of the self-made person – it denies and rejects the story of Jesus and the Bible.   The same thing with the practices that embody the American story.
            Hauerwas is harsh.  But he is right.  Many if not most churches are outposts of the American spirit and story, wrapped in a veneer of Christianiness.  The obligatory flag in the corner – or worse right up by the pulpit or altar – indicates which story rules in a place.  It kind of stands there like a cop, making sure the proceedings do not stray too far from the dominant narrative.  The fact that it is basically the only thing that cannot be removed tells the whole story.

            We went to worship at Fort Street Church, a gothic revival structure less than a mile from the convention site.  It was crowded with folks from GA.  The congregation appeared to be multi-cultural; the pastor was Sharon Mook.  Welcoming speeches were given by a rabbi and a local Muslim imam.  (It seems to me that Jesus’ name was only mentioned minimally in this service.  I wonder if that was normal, or an attempt to be hospitable and inoffensive to the interfaith guests?  Or maybe just an erroneous observation on my part.  I mean, on the one hand, Jesus himself made God the focus; on the other, he is our Teacher and Master, and we see everything, including God, in and through him.)  
            The church was decorated with dozens of national flags ringing the balcony, speaking of flags….  It was an attempt to be inclusive and global, and I appreciate that.  Still, flags represent States and governments, not necessarily peoples. 
            Worship included a wonderful dance piece by some young people.  The rest of it was the usual Presbyterian fare: lots of words.  And it seems like every preacher for GA has the same assignment: “we need to listen to each other,” or something like that.  Yawn.
           
            The Assembly met in plenary on Sunday afternoon.  The voting thing remains unfixed.  (Rumor has it that this is a complicated negotiation between tech people and the electricians union, and some of these people don’t even come in to work until Monday morning.)  Fortunately, not much voting was required for this session.  The votes that were taken had the commissioners holding up colored placards.         

Synods.
            One report came from the commission examining mid-councils, ie. synods and presbyteries.  Their big recommendation is that we reduce the number of synods to 8.  The rationale is that we are a smaller denomination now, synods as they are have been deemed ineffective or irrelevant, and this reconfiguration will hopefully encourage broader connections between different geographical groups.  And so on.
            The current staffs of synods don’t like this idea, for the obvious reason that their jobs are at stake.  Not to mention losing any good things their synods may be doing.  I get nervous about anything that smacks of “merger” since this is normally a strategy to manage decline, not encourage new life.  And I get additionally anxious when I suspect that the agenda behind making institutions larger is making them big enough to sustain staffs and conventional programs.  Generally I remain instructed by the revolutionary book I read years ago by E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful.   Therefore, I think smaller synods would be more effective in supporting presbyteries in their work of supporting congregations.   
            I have only recently changed my view and realized that synods have a point at all.  The new Form of Government gives a lot of power to the presbyteries.  Lately I have witnessed some events that teach me that this increased power is ripe for abuse, and that presbyteries need some oversight.  Thus, I now believe synods at least have this regulatory point.  There needs to be an effective recourse when presbyteries mis-step.
            At the same time, maybe synods can pool and shift resources among presbyteries so more effective mission can happen.
            Anyway, my bias is against larger synods.  And I am also puzzled about how this reduce-to-8-synods thing is presented as a given and now the only decisions to be made have to do with configuration.  I hope the assembly overturns this recommendation and gets a bit more creative in looking at better, more local options for synods.

            By far the most ridiculous initiative today was the vote (sort of) by the Assembly to poll the EP’s (by whatever euphemistic and aspirational titles they are calling themselves these days) as advisory delegates when taking votes.  What?  Hopefully, this does not make them official Advisory Delegates, with all the expense and privileges – voting in committee, et al. 
            But the point to checking with the EP’s before making decisions escapes me.  I do get the idea that receiving input from folks in presbyteries leading ministry.  That’s why we have a General Assembly made up of commissioners from presbyteries.   Is it because the EP’s are the vanguard of innovation?  Or something?  Do EP’s have some particular insight into what is doable?  Does that matter?  I can’t believe they even want this privilege.  Staff people don’t even have particular standing in our polity.  Oh, and don’t poll us Stated Clerks, either.  Jeesh.
            It would make at least as much sense to simply poll the first 20 people walking by on the sidewalk outside the building.  That would at least connect us to the wider world.   

Sunday, June 15, 2014

PCUSA General Assembly + Day One.



            The assembly begins with worship.  Trying to worship in what is in effect a giant, open warehouse, with several thousand people, in rows of plastic chairs, under a ceiling of lights, hvac ductwork, and wires, is challenging.  From where I sat the “chancel” area was a rumor, with the action projected on giant screens.  All the same, I still found the procession of bagpipers moving, imagining our distant Scottish heritage.  That line drives deeper even than the Reformation, to Columba and Ninian, Irish monks who evangelized the people of what is now Scotland, to Patrick who brought the good news to Ireland, to the mission to Gaul and figures like Martin and Irenaeus, to the Apostle John, sending witnesses out from Ephesus, to the Lord Jesus.
            So, no matter how “contemporary” our worship gets, there remains at its core the New Testament and the Sacraments, continually connecting us to this band of Palestinian Jews who followed Jesus, who watched him die and to whom he appeared after his Resurrection, and who received the Spirit at Pentecost.

            The Assembly continues in the afternoon with a long time of general orientation, the most portentous element of which was the decision to allow internet access to the floor, and to undertake a voting procedure in which commissioners would use their laptops, tablets, or phones to access the internet.
            The former policy of enforcing an internet blackout was paternalistic and obsolete… not to mention, given advances in phone technology, almost impossible to enforce.  Since the GA has abandoned this ridiculous policy, I will spare you the rant I had prepared about it.
            The voting change is another matter.  Very often, when the GA makes a jump in its use of technology, there is a major glitch, at least the first year.  So some of us received this news of the change in voting with some… concern.
            In the evening session, as the GA was preparing to vote for Moderator, it became apparent that this new plan was not working.  Voting by internet was unsuccessful.  Fortunately, the planners of the GA had a Plan B.  Trays of little, white, wireless voting boxes were wheeled in, and the boxes distributed to the commissioners.  A time-consuming process of testing them ensued.  This testing failed.  Fortunately, the planners of the GA had a Plan C.  (It is a bit scary that there was a Plan C at all.)  Plan C was, wait for it… paper ballots!  
            I do not know the last time the GA used paper ballots.  It was prior to 1990.  I was a commissioner that year, and we used wired boxes.
            A couple dozen mid-Council types (Stated Clerks and Executives) were drafted as tellers.  It is fortunate that there were only 3 candidates for Moderator, and that electing a Moderator only required a single ballot.  (Had there been like 7 candidates, requiring multiple ballots, God only knows how deep the Assembly would have gone into this morning.)
            The GA did manage to elect a Moderator, a ruling elder named Heath Rada.  I found the set of candidates rather uninspiring, myself.  All were white and middle aged.  All were relatively progressive on most issues.  My hope is that this does not predict an Assembly that looks back and takes few risks.  The Moderator’s “power” is largely ceremonial, procedural, and declarative.  The system is designed so that Moderators can’t do too much damage. 
            At the same time, I hope the Spirit uses presbyter Rada in some good way as we journey into an uncertain future.   

            The biggest bright spot on the Presbyterian horizon is called “1001 Worshiping Communities.”  After decades of moribund statistics regarding new church starts, and throwing away untold thousands of dollars on trying to do the nearly impossible: revitalize declining congregations, the denomination is undertaking a new initiative to start new worshiping communities.  We have finally abandoned the old, expensive, 1950’s model of church planting, which seems mainly to have involved buying property, building a building, and hoping people show up.  The new “worshiping communities” are not churches or congregations, per se.  They look like a lot of different things.  And this is wonderful!  (I blogged on 1001NWC last October.  It’s at http://www.raxweblog.blogspot.com/2013/10/2013-fall-polity-conference-day-three.html.)
            173 new worshiping communities have been started since 2012, which is fantastic news, totally blowing out of the water any Presbyterian church-planting initiative in memory.  The promise of this initiative is that we will have a plethora of different kinds of gatherings doing wild and amazing things, completely outside the conventional boxes defining things like “congregation” and “membership.”  I pray that the Spirit keeps moving in this.  My fear is that eventually it will occur to the denomination that, like Peter coming to Jesus on the water in the storm, that we are outside the boat, and we will frantically scramble to cram all this back into the usual Presbyterian structures and categories.   But for now, it’s going great, we haven’t managed to kill it yet, the Spirit blows, and the promise remains.