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Birmingham was chosen specifically this year because our Assembly would coincide with the General Assemblies of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the predominantly African-American Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America. The Cumberland Presbyterians broke off from the main body of Presbyterians in this nation shortly after the beginning of the 19th century over a dispute about how much education our clergy needed before beginning ministry on the frontier - how much Greek and Hebrew are necessary to serve folks wearing buckskin and living in log cabins? Good question. At any rate, about 100 years later - 1906, to be exact - many of the Cumberland Presbyterians reunited with the PCUSA, but some chose to remain independent. This joint gathering in Birmingham was not a prelude to merger, but simply an affirmation of our common heritage and continuing ministries.
Generally, the first important order of business in any General Assembly is the election of a new Moderator, but this year, that took a back seat to an incredible announcement that Stanley W. Anderson, a Colorado businessman and Presbyterian elder, has contributed $150-million to the PC(USA) to help presbyteries start new churches, transform struggling congregations and develop new racial-ethnic congregations. The money will fund a program called the Loaves and Fishes Church Growth Fund and will be distributed to presbyteries in grants ranging from $250,000 to $1 million each. Presbyterian mission causes and Presbyterian seminaries will also benefit. Presbyteries will be required to apply for the grants and will have to match a portion of it.
Anderson, whose family spent time on welfare when he was young, is a third-generation member of Central Presbyterian Church in Denver. He said he decided to establish the church growth fund because he was tired of seeing annual reports of membership decline, drops in mission giving and struggles to balance the church's budgets. "My fellow Presbyterians," Anderson told the assembly, "we can do more." Money is expected to start flowing from the fund to presbyteries and seminaries early next year and all grant applications must be processed and determined by the end of 2009, meaning the entire $150 million will be disbursed by 2012. Wow! Time for a dinner break.
After supper, the traditional order of business: selection of a new Moderator. There were four candidates this year, two women, two men, all pastors. As I have told you before, the winner is generally the one who does best in the question-and-answer period that precedes the vote and whose face looks best when projected on screens that are 12 feet tall. This year, each of the candidates did very well, and on the first ballot, there was almost an even split among the four - very unusual. In the end, it took three ballots and the winner was the Rev. Joan S. Gray, a pastor from Greater Atlanta Presbytery who said she doesn't have many answers for the Presbyterian Church's problems but is willing to let God lead the way.
For example, the candidates were asked their position on the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. Always a hot-button issue. Joan responded, "I have great respect for gay and lesbian people who want to be accepted for who they are and who want to do the work to which they feel called. But I don't feel homosexuality is God's will for creation. It's uncomfortable feeling that way, but I'm comfortable being uncomfortable until the 'still small voice' speaks to my soul and I'm convicted otherwise." That answer resonated with a lot of folks. "I don't have all the answers," she said frankly, "but I have a passionate faith in the God who through us is able to do more than we could ever imagine." So, home to bed after an exciting first day.
An old adage has it that "To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a committee." Nonetheless, Friday and Saturday found the Assembly working in its 14 Committees, processing the nearly 1,000 items of business that were before the body. As is the Presbyterian way, this is where the real work of the assembly gets done. Committees wrestle with issues, debate the pros and cons, then make a decision for recommended action by the whole body. In general, it is an efficient mechanism. Most of the committees were able to wrap up their business before breaking on Sunday for worship in area churches.
David Oyler, our General Presbyter, Doug Megill, our Stated Clerk, and I went to the Edgewood Church and heard Dr. Frances Taylor Gench, Professor of New Testament at Union Seminary in Richmond. Her text was from I John, that marvelous little epistle near the end of the New Testament that is so well known for its insistence on the importance of Christian love: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."(1) Right on. But her sermon was entitled "Dirty Laundry" and, good scholar that she is, she pointed out that there is a lot of NASTY stuff in I John too - there is a fair amount of name-calling and in-your-face pronouncements for anyone who might theologically disagree. It can get pretty mean. It did not take much imagination on anyone's part to see the parallels between the 1st century church of I John and us 21st century Presbyterians. "Dirty Laundry" indeed.
Sunday night was a time for gathering with our Cumberland brothers and sisters, thousands of us. Through word, song, dance and the sounds of unusual instruments in the eclectic and colorful liturgy, the worship highlighted the uniqueness of each church while affirming the common heritage we share.
The sermon for the evening was delivered by the Rev. Setri Nyomi, General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. He called us to "lay aside every weight and sin" - especially divisiveness and fragmentation - in order to run the race of faith properly.
"I'm afraid that fragmentation has crept into the church,"
he said. "Everything is seen as a disposable good, including relationships and the oneness of the church." He called for a renewed focus on Jesus Christ. "Our Lord has made it possible for us to run the race successfully. We won't have to
struggle alone." Christians can do something about the injustice in the world and can be agents of "transformation in our societies, with all the cloud of witnesses surrounding us."
While I run this race.
As the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was celebrated, massed choirs of the CPC, CPCA, PCUSA and the Chorale Presbyterienne du Congo joined to convey the powerful presence of the Spirit through their music. As he rose to offer the Prayer after Communion, elder Army Daniel, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, poignantly observed looking around at the assemblage, "Such a beautiful cloud of witnesses won't make headlines, but isn't it a glorious sight?" Amen!
Monday morning. Down to business in plenary sessions that would last well into the night. As we noted earlier, almost 1,000 pieces of business were under consideration. Many were routine, but many were not.
For example, the Committee on Theological Issues and Institutions sought and received approval for a study paper called "The Trinity: God's Love Overflowing." It offers alternative language to understand the triune God beyond the traditional Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As one commissioner said, "Just last Sunday -- Trinity Sunday -- during the prayers of the people, we gave thanks to God who spoke the world into being, we gave thanks that God became known to us in the living Word. We prayed for the powerful, indwelling breath of the Spirit. 'Speaker, word and breath, giver, gift and giving.' These and so many other Biblical images give us fresh ways to try to understand the God who told our ancestors in faith that his name was only I Am."
The disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have led "to a new power for mission and energy in the Presbyterian church." Those were the words of Susan Ryan, coordinator of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), during a celebration Monday night of PDA's recovery work. "We are finding the world at our doorstep in new ways," Ryan told the crowd. She said that "thousands from 40 different states...along with people from Mexico and Canada [and Warren, Pennsylvania]," among others, have gone to the Gulf Coast to help bring relief and rebuild. (Well, she didn't mention Warren, but we know she could have.) A sea of hands went up when Ryan asked how many people had been part of a work team bringing relief and recovery to people and property in Louisiana and Mississippi.
You will note in many of the pictures from the Assembly the presence of laptop computers. This year, in an effort to avoid the destruction of uncounted forests in the distribution of tons of paper, GA went electronic - all business was contained on a system called "Les." No, it is not an acronym for anything, just an affirmation of a paper-LESS gathering. There were a few glitches, as is always the case with anything new, but all in all, it was a most worthwhile transition.
In the most highly anticipated moment of the Assembly, commissioners dealt with the report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church. The Task Force had been formed in 2001 by the 213th General Assembly and was asked "to lead the PCUSA in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity as we move into the 21st century. It was specifically asked to address issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards and power. The group was comprised of 20 individuals who reflected the wide diversity of theological understandings that we find in our denomination today. After five years of prayer, worship, Bible study, research and dialogue with each other and many others throughout the church, the Task Force produced a unanimous report, not much shy of a miracle.
They came back with some recommendations: first and foremost, STAY TOGETHER, regardless of your differences. Study and reflect TOGETHER on these issues and consider alternatives to strict parliamentary procedure in decision-making. No problems there. The possible bones of contention though came in the recommendation that the Assembly approve a new "authoritative interpretation" of our Constitution that maintains the current ordination standards of the church but grants ordaining bodies greater discretion on a case-by-case basis in determining if any departure from a constitutional standard is a departure from "essentials," therefore disqualifying for ordination to church office, subject to judicial review" and that the Assembly reject any attempts to change current denominational policy in regard to the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians.
After two hours of impassioned debate, by a vote of 298-221 (57-43%), the Task Force recommendations were approved. Despite what some reported, the action does not ease the way for the ordination of gays and lesbians. It simply reaffirms the traditional Presbyterian way of doing business in the matter of choosing church officers - it is best handled at the Session and Presbytery level. In tandem with that action, the assembly then voted to disapprove more than 20 proposals pending before them to delete the section of the Book of Order which requires of church officers "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."(2)
Neither the far right nor the far left in the church were happy with the result, but such is the nature of compromise. But in the concluding words of the Task Force's final report,
[We are] convinced that the world is watching the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other denominations as we engage in highly publicized debates. To be one is not to say that we will be the same, that we will all agree, that there will be no conflict, but as the church listens to Jesus pray, all its members are reminded that the quality of our life together -- our ability to make visible the unique relationship that is ours in Jesus Christ -- is compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.The other issue of major controversy before the Assembly came as a result of a decision by the last Assembly calling for a "process of selective, phased divestment" from corporations doing business with Israel in the occupied territories and contributing to the construction of Israel's security wall and the oppression of Palestinians. Jewish groups went ballistic and demanded we overturn the decision.
The Assembly committee on Peacemaking and International Relations recommended that we replace that action with instructions "to have those financial investments of the Presbyterian Church (USA), as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, be invested in only peaceful pursuits, and affirm that the customary corporate engagement process of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment of our denomination -- in conjunction with appropriate reinvestment of funds where necessary -- is the proper vehicle for achieving this goal." The assembly acknowledged that the 2004 divestment action "caused hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion. We are grieved by the pain that this has caused, accept responsibility for the flaws in our process, and ask for a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue."
Though the divestment language has been replaced, the "customary" process of the church's Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee could still lead to an eventual divestment recommendation. And though the assembly acknowledged Israel's right to build the wall separating Israeli and Palestinian areas, it called on Israel to move sections of the wall from former Palestinian lands to internationally recognized borders established after the 1967 Middle East war.
Much more went on, of course. The Assembly approved the denomination's strongest statement to date on efforts to limit abortion in response to an overture from, among others, our Lake Erie Presbytery. The statement reads in part: "We affirm that the lives of viable unborn babies-those well-developed enough to survive outside the womb if delivered-ought to be preserved and cared for and not aborted. When late-term pregnancies must be terminated, we urge decisions intended to deliver the baby alive. We affirm adoption as a provision for women who deliver children they are not able to care for, and ask our churches to assist in seeking loving, Christian, adoptive families."
The Assembly expressed its support for the human rights work of the Presbyterian Church in Colombia in that violence-wracked country and various PCUSA efforts to support that work, particularly the denomination's accompaniment program there. But the Assembly referred a number of specific requests for more overt action directed at the US government's support of the Colombian government and military to the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program for study.
The Assembly also approved a policy on persons with disabilities entitled "A Vision of Living into the Body of Christ." Our own Sue Montgomery was an impassioned advocate for the measure. The policy calls the church to "prophetic witness regarding issues related to people with disabilities, recognizing that disability concerns are a matter of social justice."
The Assembly encouraged congregations and presbyteries to be engaged in ending homelessness; condemned torture, suicide bombing and all other acts of terrorism by all governments and/or combatants; received from its Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy a major study paper on the effects of economic globalization, especially on the world's poorest nations and peoples; and affirmed its ongoing partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida organization instrumental in improving the lives and working conditions of farm workers in that state. Last year the coalition successfully concluded a boycott against Taco Bell and has just launched a campaign to persuade hamburger giant McDonalds to change its purchasing practices for the benefit of farm workers.
One of the highlights of this Assembly was the celebration of some significant anniversaries in our denominational life together as regards the ministry of women. As we have already noted here in Warren, the church would not be the church without the immense contributions of women. In the PCUSA, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the ordination of women as Deacons, the 75th anniversary of the ordination of women as elders, and the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women as Ministers of Word and Sacrament.
On Monday afternoon, Dr. Catherine Gonzales, now retired after a distinguished career of teaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, received an award for her contributions to Christian Education. In her brief remarks afterward, she said that she had been a seminary student in 1956 when Margaret Towner was ordained, and that for the next 20 years or so, nothing much changed - women in seminary and in ordained ministry were few and far between. But about 30 years ago, things began to change...BIG time. Now, women in seminary are not unusual; in fact, in a number of seminaries, women are in the majority. Women ministers rare? Not any more. Times have changed. Good.
After all, they are a part of that great cloud of witnesses that watch as we run this race. Clarence McCartney noted to a previous generation that the picture in Hebrews is that of a heavenly stadium packed with famous fans, all with voices, cheering us on as we press toward the goal.(3) Yonder they are! Yonder is the gallery of the patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and certainly Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel; and over there are the seats of Jesus' closest friends, Peter and John and Paul, not to mention Mary, his mother, and Mary Magdelene and Dorcas and Lydia. And there is the gallery of the great missionaries, St. Augustine and St. Patrick and David Livingstone and Albert Schweitzer, Amy Carmichael, Donaldina Cameron and Mother Teresa. And over there the great musicians, Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley and Fanny Crosby Frances Ridley Havergal.
But there is yet another section of the stadium that means far more to you and me perhaps than any of the others. It is the gallery where sit our own mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers whose race is already run. They are the witnesses who surround us and inspire us to keep the faith, who see our struggles and rejoice in our victories. And with them all, standing above them all, looking down with twinkling eyes and the warmest smile, is Jesus. He sees what we are up against. He knows we need help and he offers it.
That is God's word to you and me today. "Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."
1. I John 4:7-8
3. Clarence McCartney, "The Sin Which Doth Beset Us," The Greatest Texts of the Bible, (Nashville : Abingdon, 1979), p. 169