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With the singing of hymns and a procession of banners, the Assembly convened one week ago Saturday. Five-hundred-fifty-three elder and minister commissioners (81% of whom had never been to an Assembly before), plus over 200 Advisory Delegates then settled in to spend what always turns out to be an exhilarating but also exhausting week making decisions about the mission of our church.
Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the Stated Clerk of the Assembly, set the tone for the gathering, telling those in attendance, "The sole reason we are here this week is to discern the will of Christ." In his opening address he said, "This has been quite a year! The world was 'turned upside down' on September 11th and many times it has seemed that our church has been 'turned upside down' as well."
He went on to describe a 30-year-old experience that he saw as a parable of the position of the church today: he and some friends were on a train trip in Mexico, an adventure all by itself under the best of circumstances. But this particular trip featured an unusual bit of theatre: with the squeal of brakes and a jolting halt, the train stopped about 100 feet from another train coming in the opposite direction on the same track. Neither engineer was willing to back up and pass on the second set of tracks that ran beside.
At first both engineers simply blew their whistles at one another hoping that the other would back up. After that appeared not to be working, both men came out with a huge manual (their Book of Order, Cliff said) and proceeded to scream at each other as each sought to prove that the other was on the wrong track. When that didn't work, they both got back into their engines as the crowds on each train began to yell, "Choque, choque! (Crash 'em!).
The two engineers started up their trains and again headed toward one another, stopping just short of disaster. With that they came out again, but this time with tools and began to fight and literally beat each other with wrenches until the crowd pulled them apart and they were taken off for medical treatment. After a few more hours, railroad officials came out from town with two new engineers, and Cliff's train was backed up and passed by on the other track, heading for Mexico City.
Dr. Kirkpatrick continued: "While this event has nothing to do directly with the PCUSA, I couldn't help but feel that the human emotions and the counterproductive approaches the two train engineers were using to resolve their conflict have everything to do with the situation in which we find ourselves with our conflicts in the PCUSA. We have a 'train wreck' in the making if we all continue on our present path."
He went on to cite specifics:
Strong words. And for what it is worth, it appears the Assembly heard them, and the result was a gathering that, to this one observer, at least, was as peaceful and peace-filled as any in recent memory. Thanks be to God!
Perhaps a hint of what was to come appeared in the first official business of the group, the election of a new Moderator, the person whose task is to preside over the meetings but, more than that, to represent our denomination as its highest elected official for the coming year. There are brief nominating speeches, brief statements from the candidates (there were three this year), a question-and-answer period during which commissioners can ask whatever is on their minds with responses coming from each candidate, and finally a vote. One can generally guess who the winner will be by gauging who gives the best answers, who makes the fewest blunders, or, as one of my friends adds, who looks good with their face blown up to twelve feet tall on the giant TV screens. For what it is worth, in my not so humble opinion, the one who did best in the back-and-forth was Dr. Fahed Abu-Akel, a Palestinian-American from Atlanta whose ministry is with international students. The fact that the other two in the race were seen as representing positions on the right or the left, a vote for Fahed was down the middle, and he won, a harbinger of things to come. He proved to be an inspired choice, running the meetings with grace and good humor.
Worship is always a highlight at General Assembly. Last Sunday, some 7,000 of us gathered for majestic music, a rousing sermon, a celebration of the Lord's Supper, the commissioning of new missionaries, and this year, a hymn specially commissioned for the 2002 General Assembly on its theme, Ambassadors for Christ (which we will sing together in just a few minutes). And this year, instead of the normal two hours the service usually takes, it only lasted an hour-and-a-half! Go figure.
Now, down to business. Each year, hundreds of items come before the Assembly for action. All are important in one degree or another, so they are assigned to committees for deliberation. That process begins on Sunday night and continues till Wednesday afternoon at which time the Assembly reconvenes in plenary session to make final disposition of the recommendations of the committees.
As I sat there and watched committee after committee make their report with the Assembly approving recommendation after recommendation with hardly a murmur of dissent, I began to wonder if I were in the right meeting. But it soon became evident that this was a Presbyterian General Assembly that was tired of all the fighting, tired of the looming "train wreck" that Cliff Kirkpatrick had spoken of. They wanted to trust the work of their committees and showed it by approving their proposals.
Even the "hot button" issues. And there were several this year. One was whether or not to move to General Assembly meetings to a biennial rather than annual schedule as has been our practice since 1789. By a vote of 343-167 (more than 2 to 1), it was decided that stewardship - of time, money and energy - outweighs the value of the tradition of convening legislative gatherings of the denomination's highest governing body every year. One commissioner said it succinctly: annual Assemblies "are a luxury we can't afford anymore...an extravagance" at a time of "reduced missionaries overseas and closing churches here at home." The new schedule will begin in 2005 and will be reconsidered after several years of seeing whether the new model works for us or not.
Another hot button issue was the Presbyterian understanding of Christology, which is simply a three-dollar church word meaning what we believe about Jesus. Now, if that catches you off guard, it should. This should never have been an issue, since what Presbyterians believe about the person and work of Jesus Christ has been spelled out very carefully in our Book of Confessions. Sadly, certain elements in the church chose to make it an issue last year in the midst of the debate over whether or not we should ordain practicing homosexuals. The result was, during the past year, our General Assembly Office of Theology and Worship produced a brief document and study guide entitled "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,"(2) an excellent summary of what is stated clearly in our confessional documents. The Assembly voted 497-11 to adopt that document as its statement concerning what we believe. The actual wording of the most scrutinized paragraph in the statement reads:
Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, 'for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God' (Eph. 2:8). No one is saved apart from God's gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3-4). Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith.Good statement. I hope that settles the question.
Did we talk about sex? Of course! But not nearly so much as in other years. Several overtures had been offered calling for a moratorium on any further deliberation on the issues relating to the ordination of gays and lesbians. The overtures were answered by a recommendation that we spend the next year in prayer WITH those and FOR those with whom we might disagree. One member of the committee said that one of her parishioners regularly came by her office to tell her that he was praying for her - praying that she would finally get her head together and her thinking right about these issues. She said that is NOT the spirit in which this recommendation was being made. Some said prayer was not enough. One Youth Advisory Delegate said that a year of prayer sounded like an excellent idea, especially since the day was coming when his generation would be taking over and the problem would then be resolved once and for all anyway.
Social issues are always on the Presbyterian agenda. By Friday morning the temperatures in Columbus were heading to the mid-90's and the temperature of the rhetoric in the Convention Center was rising proportionately. The issue was abortion, always a sensitive one, but one which for most Presbyterians, has long since been settled - our denominational position has been moderately pro-choice for years. So saying, there are some pro-life Presbyterians who want that overturned. That is perfectly all right - people of good will may and do disagree on such issues. The particular question this year had to do with late-term abortion, that procedure which would terminate the pregnancy even when there is the possibility that the fetus might survive on its own outside the womb. Some folks wanted us as a denomination to condemn such a thing out of hand except in the case where the life of the mother is threatened. The rhetoric was as intense on this one as anything all week. There is no question that such a decision is an agonizing one for all concerned. The Assembly decided that the last thing we need to do to a mother and father who are faced with such a crisis is to add a burden of guilt into the mix. We will not make any hard and fast condemnations (and between you and me, I would not do that anyway, no matter what the Assembly says).
Children. The Assembly heard from Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund. "We don't have a money problem; we have a values problem, and a priorities problem," she said. "We've got to wear out our leaders, until they hear our voices and do justice for our children." She said President Bush is more than welcome to use her "leave no child behind" phrase, but he can't have it unless he will DO it. In fact, the recent tax cut that so heavily benefitted the top one-percent of American society would have completely paid the cost of adequately feeding every American child.
In the United States, one in five children under age 3 lives in poverty, she said. CDF statistics show that children living in poverty are more likely to have working parents than parents on welfare. They are more likely to be white than Latino or African-American, and more likely to be living in rural areas than in cities. Poor children are twice as likely as others to be abused and neglected. Urging support for additional funding for early childhood programs, she said: "Something is wrong with a society that will spend $30,000 to $40,000 to lock up a young person who gets into trouble, and won't spend $5,000 to send a child to Head Start. We need to change our nation's priorities." We agreed. She got a standing ovation.
Another social issue. In response to an overture from the Presbytery of Tampa Bay, the General Assembly voted 297-176 to support a national boycott of Taco Bell restaurants. The boycott is intended to focus attention on working and living conditions among the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The Presbyterian Church has had a ministry with these migrant laborers in Immokalee, Florida for years. They live and work in horrible conditions. The tomato pickers have come to us asking for support in their negotiations with Taco Bell - Taco Bell has been almost completely non-responsive. Thus, the workers' call for the boycott. We hope that our support will lead to the bargaining table.
One final bit of business - yesterday morning, the Assembly approved by a vote of 426-8 the Mission Initiative, a five-year, $40-million campaign to raise money for international mission personnel and new church development, particularly racial ethnic and new immigrant congregations. The campaign, aimed at major donors, is designed to start 50 new churches per year and to send 115 new Presbyterian missionaries overseas over the next 10 years.
At beginning of the Assembly, it was noted that the body had met in Columbus before - 140 years ago in 1862! That Assembly met at a time in which the nation was in crisis as the War Between the States was raging. One of its casualties had been the division of the Presbyterian Church between Union and Confederacy. This was on top of another division that was still in full force between the Old School and the New School branches of the Presbyterian Church. In the midst of all of that turmoil, the 1862 General Assembly made a firm decision that God did not intend them to be caught up in a spirit of strife and division but to be passionate about the reconciliation of the world and the church. It was an Assembly that is remembered to this day for initiating the healing of the Old School/New School division in the Presbyterian Church. That Assembly adopted a "new covenant" for themselves, for the General Assembly in the South, and for all Presbyterians (including us): "to cherish fraternal greetings, to cultivate Christian dialogue, to worship God, to promote the cause of Christ, and to avoid all needless controversies and competitions adapted to perpetuate division and strife."
The 1862 General Assembly had it right! And it seems the 2002 General Assembly did too. By the time adjournment approached at noon yesterday, Dr. Kirkpatrick was able to stand before the body with a smile as broad as Ohio and declare that this Assembly HAD found the right track, the track of healing, renewal and Christian outreach. We were worthy of our calling to be "ambassadors for Christ."
Thanks be to God! Amen!
2. See www.pcusa.org/pcusa/cmd/cfl/christdoc.htm