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As you know, for many years I have made it a practice to attend General Assembly to bring you back a perspective on the work of your church around the world. This year was a particularly delightful experience because I got to attend in the company of my daughter and got to see things through her eyes as well as my own. For example, following her first Assembly Committee meeting, she called me and said, "Dad, whoever said there is no such thing as a dumb question is WRONG." How true, how true!
To give YOU a chance to see the Assembly through her eyes, let me call on her right now. Erin...
Good morning y'all. It's easy to see that in the past two weeks I have gone back to my southern ways. I got to have grits and sweet tea...and they were wonderful! I have missed being home though. I really and truly do love this place and being with y'all makes it all the better. I appreciate this church and I am so grateful to God for bringing my family here. Thank you all so much for your faith in me that helped me get to the General Assembly which was such a wonderful opportunity.
I was a youth advisory delegate, a so-called YAD. We are youth, usually ranging from ages 18-22 who get to have full voice and vote in our committee meetings but only full voice in the plenary sessions where everyone gets together and meets. We do get to vote in plenary, but we vote before the commissioners to "advise" them, hence the name "advisory delegates." There are other advisory delegates too: theological students, missionaries, and ecumenical advisory delegates.
I started receiving papers this past January on different things having to do with what I had just gotten myself into. I honestly had no idea what I had signed up for except that I would be going to the General Assembly which I thought would be pretty exciting. I eventually got my committee assignment which was Church Polity, and then I got the reading materials for mine and every other committee and I started to read up. There were some things in there that I didn't know anything about and wouldn't have much to say about, but a huge part of my committee was dealing with sexual abuse cases. My committee moved VERY slowly, every other committee was done with their work by 5 on Tuesday evening and we stayed until 9 that night - we had some talkers in there, UGH! Luckily for supper, the advisors for the YAD's brought pizza for all the YAD's in my committee so we all got to know each other better and have a lot of fun during our dinner break. That was the best part of the committee meetings, by far.
That week I learned more about the PCUSA and parliamentary procedure than I ever thought I wanted to know. I started dreaming in parliamentary procedure and by the end of the week I did have a favorite phrase, "Mr. Moderator, I move the previous question." That was what ended debate and shut up the people that just liked to hear themselves talk. Unfortunately I had already heard all those people because they were all in my committee!
During the week I sat with the two commissioners from Lake Erie Presbytery, Dennis Kitterman and Norm Wittig. Dennis is an Air Force Chaplain stationed in Germany and Norm is an Elder at First Presbyterian in Corry. We were front and center, we had the best seats in the place! Dennis would often ask how I was going to vote and then why, and I would do the same. We disagreed on a lot of the issues at hand, but it was nice for us both to hear another view, even if we were both trying to change the other's mind.
One thing that I learned about while I was at GA was the Taco Bell Boycott. I realize that we no longer have a Taco Bell in town, but I urge you not to eat at one when you are out of town. I knew that the PCUSA was boycotting Taco Bell but I didn't really remember why. Taco Bell is a part of Yum Brands which buys tomatoes from a company that pays their workers the same amount now that they did in 1978, 40 cents per barrel. Some of these workers are forced to pick tomatoes at gunpoint and there have been 5 cases brought to the Supreme Court against this company dealing with slavery. Yum Brands continues to support this company. Unfortunately, there is no huge publicity surrounding this. There have only been two articles published about it and those were in "National Geographic" and the "New Yorker." I realize that it is easy in Warren to boycott a restaurant that isn't even here, but they are out there, so please don't eat at Taco Bell. Please, see me if you would like some more information on this.
On a happier note, I had such a wonderful week getting to know other Presbyterian youth. I was so lucky to find more Presbyterian PK's (preachers kids) in one setting than ever before. I had 2 other pk's in my committee and one night we just sat around talking about what it was like and what was expected of us. I am fortunate that I never felt like there was too much expected of me, but others did feel like they were under a microscope. I loved getting to know other Presbyterian youth, we were all of the same faith with different beliefs and a mutual respect...who could ask for more?! The week at General Assembly really helped me grow in my faith and love for God. This experience truly blessed me, and I encourage each and every youth to apply for this so that you will be able to be blessed like I was, and so that we may all have life in fullness.
Thank you, Erin. Certainly a full life is what commissioners and delegates experienced for themselves. Many hours of work in preparation for the Assembly and many more once the meetings commenced. The week began with the election of a General Assembly Moderator to preside over the meetings and to represent the church until the next gathering in 2006. There were three candidates, two reasonably well-known ministers and a relatively-young elder involved in a ministry to immigrants on the Arizona/Mexico border who, prior to the meeting, I would not have given the proverbial snowball's chance of winning. Well, win he did and the name Rick Ufford-Chase is one we will get to know more and more. At age 40, he could easily pass for 28 (one of my friends nick-named him Doogie Hauser), and he brings an energy and vitality to the task that is a pleasure to behold. Erin says we should invite him to Warren just as we did with last year's Moderator, Susan Andrews. And, by the way, Susan sends her greetings and said that for six months after her visit here, people all around the world heard about the Presbyterians in Warren, and in particular, about a certain creative approach to feeding the hungry through the proceeds of the Farmers Market. Good job!
As usual there were several hundred individual pieces of business facing the Assembly ranging from mundane money matters to new mission strategies for the coming years. A new advertising campaign with the theme line "Here and Now," was introduced to help congregations reach a younger and more ethnically diverse population. The messages are designed to be bold enough to challenge preconceived notions about the Presbyterian church. They seek to communicate to "unchurched" people in an "un-churchy" style and voice while dealing with subjects of importance in people's lives. We will make good use of them.
As usual the hot-button social issues were on the agenda. Most were dealt with in unsurprising fashion - we would either point with pride or view with alarm as appropriate.
One action DID surprise me a bit however. The Assembly heard a report entitled, "Iraq: Our Responsibility and the Future." It lays out a plan for Iraq's reconstruction and pledges the Presbyterian Church (USA) to support the approximately one million Christians there - including about 2,500 Presbyterians. In fact, a Presbyterian pastor from Baghdad, the Rev. Younan Shiba, was in Richmond as a guest of the Assembly. Instead of the usual weasel-worded expression of concern, the commissioners came right out and condemned the U.S. policy of pre-emptive military action as ethically indefensible and contrary to the "just war" theory that has been the basis of much Christian theology on warfare for centuries. It called the invasion "unwise, immoral and illegal," and when some commissioners wanted to tone it down a bit by asking Pastor Shiba if he felt that he and his nation were better off now than before under Saddam Hussein, we were all taken aback when he quickly responded, "Before." Hmm.
As Erin mentioned, her committee on Church Polity was responsible for recommending changes to our form of government. A number of those changes dealt with the disciplinary processes of the church and were recommended by an independent committee that had investigated sexual abuse at a primary school in the Congo over a period of more than 20 years. Two of the four perpetrators were Presbyterian missionaries. The amendments lay out careful procedures for dealing with abuse charges to insure that no victim falls through the cracks and no perpetrator blithely gets away with the crime. The Assembly added a long comment to the committee's report, an apology for the church's failings in its handling of abuse cases in the past.
The one issue that seems to dominate, not only our Assembly but also the equivalent bodies of all the mainline churches, is sex, and in particular, the place of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. The reason the issue is so pervasive is that this is not simply a church issue - it is a societal issue that society has not yet decided upon. In the church, just as in the rest of society, there are passionate people on both sides of the issue. Despite what you may have read in the newspapers or heard on radio or television, there was no attempt this year to remove our denominational prohibition against the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. The only issue of contention this year was whether or not to discard some language from the 1970's called an "Authoritative Interpretation" defining the reasons homosexual persons should not be ordained. The Assembly decided to leave the language in place for now, knowing that the whole issue will come up again in 2006 when a previously established task force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church is scheduled to report.
The last time the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church met in Richmond, Virginia was 1847. At the time, another major social issue dominated the agenda - slavery. And just as today, there were passionate voices raised on both sides. Officials of the Presbyterian Church in Great Britain had sent letters to the American church deploring the institution of slavery and calling on U.S. Presbyterians to call for its abolition. The two leading Presbyterian figures of the day - one from the North, Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary who had been the Assembly Moderator the previous year, the other from the South, James Henly Thornwell, the region's most esteemed theologian and the Moderator of the Richmond Assembly - agreed during the meeting that slavery was a matter for the state, not the church, to deal with. There were moral, economic and political complexities involved that finally the state DID deal with. It took a war...just 14 years later.
Today the issues that attract that kind of attention are equally difficult. We look back on the struggles of the 1847 Assembly and wonder how in the world they could not have seen what is so obvious to us now a century and a half later. It would not surprise me in the least if I were to attend an Assembly in Richmond in another century and a half that those folks would look back on the struggles of 2004 and wonder how in the world we could not see the obvious.
The 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is now history. Yes, there were contentious issues - there always are. But at the end of the day, there was a spirit of energy, enthusiasm and excitement about the church that I have not seen for a while. No question, the youthful exuberance of the new Moderator was infectious. All good. If my daughter has her way, you will meet him.
Two weeks ago, Erin and I joined some 8,000 Presbyterian brothers and sisters for worship in the Richmond coliseum. Two-and-a-half hours. It was a colorful kaleidoscope of liturgical dancers, musicians and choirs whose performances often prompted spontaneous applause despite the note in the bulletin saying "No applause, please."
The preacher for the Assembly's opening worship is traditionally the outgoing Moderator, and Susan Andrews did a wonderful job. Her text was the same as ours today - Jesus' description of himself as the Shepherd, and the "metaphorical stew" he uses to explain himself - the voice that guides us, the gate that welcomes us, and the shepherd who "wanders with us through the unpredictable wilderness of the world." He is the one we as the church are called to not only proclaim but embody, and when we do it right we offer in his name what he himself said he came to bring - Abundant Life for All.