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As usual, the first official action of the group is to elect 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 the Rev. Susan Andrews, pastor of the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD, and a dear friend who is one of the sixteen of us who gather in January each year to go over the lectionary texts for the coming twelve months. Needless to say, I was biased in this election, but the majority of commissioners also thought she was best, and she was elected on the second ballot.
For the next several days, commissioners are assigned work in committees - 13 of them this year - to which all Assembly business goes prior to action by the full body. Plenary sessions resume on Wednesday afternoon.
Even though the full group has not had the chance to act, that does not mean there is no news early in the week. For example, Tuesday morning, as I read the paper at breakfast, I saw a headline in the Denver Post declaring "Presbyterian Panel OK's Gay Ordination." Uh-oh. I thought this is precisely the reason I come to these assemblies every year - some committee might have said something like this, but the Assembly has not. I had no need of hot sauce on my eggs. More on that issue later.
Once the full Assembly reconvened, a number of issues were dealt with, some even important. For example, the Assembly Committee on Peacemaking recommended and the Assembly approved a resolution calling upon Israel to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories and urging Palestinians to end terrorist attacks upon Israel. The resolution seeks a negotiated settlement of the conflict and the creation of a Palestinian state generally along the lines of the Bush administration's "road map." The Assembly also approved a joint statement on peace and reunification of Korea developed by the PC(USA), the Presbyterian Church in Korea and the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea. The Assembly also adopted a statement, "Iraq and Beyond," urging the U.S. to stay the course in rebuilding Iraq and underlining the importance of the United Nations in the reconstruction of Iraq.
The Assembly approved a resolution from its Committee on Global Ministries to, in the words of committee moderator Jean Cooley of Tampa Bay Presbytery, "rekindle our interest and renew our engagement in Africa." The resolution contains a host of recommendations around such Africa-related issues as health and the diseases of poverty, educational opportunities for African students, exploitation of women and children, human rights and trade policies that perpetuate poverty in Africa to the benefit of multinational corporations. It calls for U.S. Presbyterians to study Africa and become directly involved through mission trips and support of mission personnel and the church's Africa-aid programs and for closer cooperation between the PC(USA) and its ecumenical and indigenous partners in Africa. The Assembly also approved most of an overture from Santa Fe Presbytery calling for the easing travel and food and medical aid restrictions against Cuba and urging efforts to get pension payments to Cuban Presbyterian pastors who have been denied them since the Castro revolution. The Assembly rejected a provision of the overture that would have called for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba and the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between the two countries.
After 45 minutes of quiet, civil debate Thursday evening, the Assembly adopted a statement on post-viability abortion. By a vote of about 4-1, the body affirmed the action taken by last year's Assembly and added three sentences: "The church...affirms the value of children and the importance of nurturing, protecting and advocating their well being. The church, therefore, appreciates the challenge each woman and family face when issues of personal well-being arise in the later stages of a pregnancy...When it is deemed necessary to end a pregnancy to protect the mother's life or health in the later months of pregnancy when the baby may be able to live outside the womb, a procedure should be considered which gives both the mother and the child the opportunity to live." The statement preserves language stipulating four circumstances under which post-viability abortion can be an acceptable moral choice: "when necessary to save the life of the woman, to preserve the woman's health in circumstances of a serious risk to the woman's health, to avoid fetal suffering as a result of untreatable life threatening medical anomalies, or in cases of incest or rape."
The biggie this year...and almost every year in recent memory, concerned the place of gays and lesbians in the church. Early in the week, an Assembly Committee had voted to send a proposal to the presbyteries for the third time in six years asking that language in the Book of Order that would prevent the ordination to church office of practicing homosexuals be deleted. That was the Denver Post story I read on Tuesday with my eggs. The full Assembly decided no. Instead, the Assembly voted to let the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church which has been dealing with the issue for two years already continue to do its work and make its report in 2006. The vote on the motion was 431-92. Significant. Folks are tired of fighting about it.
Truth be told, as I have told you before, this is an issue that will not go away. These sexuality questions are with us as a church because they continue to be with us as a society. In my view, no matter what we say or refuse to say is going to end the discussion, no matter how tired we are of it or how much we wish it would disappear.
I was intrigued at the text that served as the theme for the week. The wonderful phrase, "a house of prayer for all peoples" comes from a time in Israel's history that follows the nation's return from exile, some 500 years before the birth of Christ. It was a hopeful time, and one that would re-establish their identity as a people. Note how inclusive this nation is called to be. Even those who were previously EXcluded are now welcome. Even eunuchs. For whatever reason, eunuchs - these men who were sexually different - had been excluded from acceptance in the nation up till now. But no longer.
This is what the LORD says: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant - to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off."My house shall be a house of prayer for ALL peoples." Can God be any clearer in these sexuality issues that bedevil us year after year?
The 215th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is over. Thanks be to God. But it's message is with us still. "My house shall be a house of prayer for ALL peoples."