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Among those attending you would find some names that you might recognize (even if the face might not match the name). For example, from the Presbytery of Des Moines, there was the Rev. Jan Scott; from Grace Presbytery in Texas elder Kim Warner (a man, by the way); Heartland Presbytery in Kansas City sent Elder Don Spencer; (1) from Santa Fe Presbytery there was the Rev. David Preininger. From Palisades Presbytery in New Jersey there was the Rev. Jeffrey Leininger. Wait a minute. That's my cousin. Hey, Cuz. After more than 30 years in ministry, this was Jeffrey's first General Assembly, and it was something he told me he had been dreaming about since seminary. It was good to be able to spend some time together.
As I have told you in previous years, the first order of business for an Assembly is the election of a Moderator. This year there were four candidates. The winner is generally the one who best handles the traditional question-and-answer time prior to the election and who looks decent on a screen that makes your face 12 feet tall. It worked again. The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, 38-year-old pastor of San Francisco's Mission Bay Community Church and a leader in the "emergent church" movement, was elected on the second ballot. Reyes-Chow is a super-sharp young man, a graduate of San Francisco State University and San Francisco Theological Seminary. He is the grandson of Chinese and Filipino immigrants. The congregation he serves is an innovative new church of San Francisco Presbytery that was recently named winner of a 2007 Sam and Helen Walton Award for outstanding new church development. In his address to the Assembly, he noted that he makes as many pastoral calls by email as by in-person visitation. Such is the future of ministry, he said. Mission Bay has a state-of-the-art Web site and extensive electronic communications among members and participants, which he said is absolutely essential for a congregation that is predominantly under-40.
The election over, it was home to a most welcome bed after hours and hours of travel and then an evening of important business.
Sunday means worship at the Assembly and this year, since there was no one venue that would accommodate us all, two simultaneous services were conducted at buildings a mile apart with a satellite link connecting them and worshipers keeping connected by two large screens at the front of the auditoriums. With only two rehearsals -- and an hour's warm-up before worship -- to prepare for the two-hour experience, the service was lead by two 225-member choirs, two full brass sections and 25 liturgists representing 41 churches in three presbyteries. And it was WONDERFUL!!!
In keeping with tradition, out-going assembly Moderator, the Rev. Joan Gray, was the preacher for the morning. She used the familiar words of John 13:34-35 as her text with Jesus' command that we love one another as he loved us. Not a suggestion, not a wish, not a fond hope, Jesus' COMMAND. Reminding us that this kind of love goes against human nature, she declared that in loving as Jesus did "we are to be engaged in a superhuman enterprise," but noted, "The church is not meant to be an endeavor that is powered by human nature, the church is meant to be a God-powered institution." After referring to the troubled times the church is experiencing, she declared, "God can do it! The question is: Do we want it?" and with that a man from the congregation shouted out, "Yes!" That was enough. Joan replied, "Thanks be to God, and Amen."
Communion followed the sermon. The service concluded as Stated Clerk, Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick recognized dozens chaplains, young adult volunteers and ecumenical guests from around the world and thanked them for their service. New mission co-workers were also commissioned. It was an inspiring morning.
Sunday afternoon was free for everyone. Some went to a reception for the new Moderator where they were greeted by a bright green Chinese lion dancing to drums and cymbals along with a mariachi band.
Others wandered the Exhibit Hall. Lots to see and do...and buy. Some 90 groups had set up there. Organizations related to the work of the denomination were there to explain their mission and offer assistance or answer questions. There were advocacy groups representing every end of the theological and social spectrum plus everything in between. There was a large shopping area that featured fair trade items from the third world. As usual, Cokesbury provided a large and well-stocked book store (everybody knows about preachers and their books).
Some folks even took advantage of celebrity authors signing their books. I did that. I had heard that one of the authors who would be sharing the signing table with me was Archbishop Elias Chacour who wrote Blood Brothers, the single most important book I ever read on the Israeli/Palestinian situation. I took my copy with me to San Jose so I could get him to sign it for me.
He was the preacher Wednesday morning at the Ecumenical Worship Service and called himself "a walking contradiction." He said, "I bear in my identity all the factors that make for war and that make for peace. I am a Palestinian." To ease everyone's mind, he added, "I have no bombs," which prompted laughter across the packed Civic Auditorium. He went on to explain that he is a Palestinian Arab Christian who is also a citizen of the state of Israel. "That complicates the situation," he said. "A Palestinian is supposed to be a Muslim. An Arab is supposed to be bloodthirsty." And when people learn about his Israeli citizenship, they often wonder, "Why doesn't he go home? But," he asked, "where is home for Palestinians?" Good question.
Speaking of the Middle East, the Assembly weighed in of the problems over there and endorsed the "Amman Call," which includes affirmation of the United Nations resolutions that are the basis of a projected "two-state" solution, a shared Jerusalem, guarantees of the human rights of refugees and occupied peoples, and a call to resist extremism and push for reconciliation. The Assembly affirmed the efforts of all those who are seeking peace in Iraq, but stopped short of calling for immediate U.S. withdrawal of troops from that country. And the Assembly voted to oppose preemptive military action against Iran.
Again this year, in a continuing 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 "PC-Biz." Everybody had laptops - if not their own, one that the Assembly provided. There were a few glitches, as is always the case with anything like this, even in Silicon Valley, but all in all, it was a most worthwhile effort.
As I have told you before, an old adage has it that "To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a committee." Nonetheless, Sunday evening, all day Monday and Tuesday and, for some, Wednesday morning found the Assembly working in its 16 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. Much of the business is routine and easily dealt with, but much is not as well. Those issues will be debated fully by the entire Assembly after the committees have done the preliminary wrestling. In general, it is an efficient mechanism.
By the way, just as Senators Obama and McCain will have to do soon, our Moderator must choose a Vice Moderator who fills in for him during the assembly and joins him in representing the church over the next two years. The Moderator chose the Rev. Byron Wade, pastor of Davie Street Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC. Wade is African-American, Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow is Asian-American. Together, the two represent a "huge change," as Wade says, in the national life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Both are around 40 years old, one just under, the other just over. The church is changing...as it must.
Back to business. This year, for the first time in my memory, there was a General Assembly Committee on Youth putting flesh on the bones of our continual insistence on the importance of youth to the church's future. One directive from the group was for the Assembly's Office of Ministry with Youth to provide, for congregational use, each presbytery with a copy of a new documentary DVD, Soul Searching: A Movie About Teenagers and God. Funded by a Lilly Foundation grant, this film for youth workers, parents or anyone else interested in the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers is drawn from the findings of a seven-year scientific study of youth which notes that teens are rarely asked to talk about their religious beliefs and practices. Youth workers, parents and interested adults may find watching this film with teens a great way to start a conversation about religious and spiritual matters. The committee also directed that, beginning with the next General Assembly in 2010, Youth Advisory Delegates be known as Young Adult Advisory Delegates.
A resolution "On Calling for Tolerance and Peaceful Relations Between the Christian and Muslim Communities" was overwhelmingly approved. We acknowledge that Christians, Jews and Muslims may hold different understandings of how God has been revealed to humankind, but all three groups are called to love God and neighbor and care for the poor. That means Presbyterians ought to be in conversation with Jews and Muslims, celebrate religious holidays together and even set aside days to worship together -- all to promote understanding, respect and goodwill.
One of the issues that generated a good deal of talk going into the Assembly (at least among church professionals) was a proposed revision to our Presbyterian Form of Government. In recent years our Book of Order, part II of our Constitution, has grown into more of a Manual of Operations than a Constitution, so two years ago a task force was appointed to revise it, slim it down, and report back to this Assembly. They did. Their work was not adopted but will now go to the presbyteries for two more years of study.
So far, everything smooth and quiet. But we all know that is too good to last. The first heat came from a debate on what one would think could be boring in the extreme - the translation of a 400-year-old catechism. Heidelberg, to be exact, the one that begins "What is your only comfort in life and in death?" As you know, the Heidelberg Catechism is in our Book of Confessions (part I of our PCUSA Constitution) and an overture had come to the Assembly asking that corrections to the text be made in five specific places. It turns out that the text we have in our book is a translation that was done in 1962 (with one of the principal translators being Dr. Eugene Osterhaven, my father's seminary classmate and for whom I was given the middle name Eugene) and it seems that some unauthorized additions were made to the final version which went unnoticed.
Easily correctable, right? WRONG! One of the unauthorized additions turns out to be about one of the perpetual hot buttons of the church, homosexuality. Question 87: "Can those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful, impenitent life be saved?" The current text of the answer reads: "Certainly not! Scripture says, 'Surely you know that the unjust will never come into possession of the kingdom of God. Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.'"
According to the overture, two phrases in that answer that were supplied by the 1962 translators do not appear in the original text or in any translations produced prior to 1962. The primary phrase in dispute is "homosexual perversion." Neither the original German nor Latin translations contain text corresponding to this phrase, nor "Surely you know that the unjust will never come into possession of the kingdom of God. Make no mistake..." If approved, the corrected text would read: "Certainly not; for as Scripture says no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, greedy person, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or anyone like that shall inherit the kingdom of God." The other four responses to the catechism questions would also be amended in a way that makes them more accurate and faithful to the original text.
What is next? A special committee will be appointed by the Assembly Moderator to study the issue and bring back a proposal to the next Assembly in 2010. If that Assembly approves the proposal, it will be sent to the presbyteries for approval. If two-thirds of the presbyteries vote to adopt the amendments to the catechism, it will return to the following Assembly in 2012. If that Assembly approves the changes, then the corrected Heidelberg Catechism will replace the current version in the Book of Confessions. Whew!
During the course of the catechism debate, one of the commissioners noted that this was about more than a textual correction, it was about "an elephant in the room," and he was right - the issue of the place of gays and lesbians in both church and society. That came to the fore again in the report of the Committee on Church Orders and Ministry. An overture had come to the Assembly asking for the removal of a passage in the Book of Order that had been inserted in 1995 which reads
Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament. (2)After much discussion and by a relatively close vote, the Assembly concurred with the overture and voted to remove the paragraph and include new language:
Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation, pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation establishes the candidate's sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.That action will now go to the presbyteries for an up or down vote. If a majority of the presbyteries agree (which is really rather doubtful), then the original wording will be stricken and the new language added.
Friday morning saw the election of a new Stated Clerk, the chief administrative officer of the denomination. For the past twelve years that job has been handled masterfully by our friend, Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick who chose not to stand for election to a fourth four-year term. A search committee was formed last year which chose to recommend the Rev. Gradye Parsons, associate stated clerk and director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly (OGA), Cliff's right-hand man. Three others chose to stand for election as well, but Gradye won handily on the first ballot. A down-to-earth sort of fellow, his first words at the podium following his installation were "Hi Mom."
A week-and-a-half ago, as I was preparing to leave for San Jose, I was reading the current issue of Newsweek and a column by a man named Jimmy Doyle entitled, "Let Me Worship as I Am." Jimmy is a gay man, formerly Roman Catholic, now an Episcopalian, who changed because he felt more welcome in that church than the church in which he grew up. He says, From a young age I felt called to follow Christ. But as a gay man, I took a long time to find my spiritual home." What he had to say further was disquieting to say the least. He reflected,
The very word "Christian" makes me wish I'd had a Druid spiritual awakening. In today's lexicon, Christian is equated with fanatics who need God to be as human as can be: male, full of pride and hate, war-loving and with a voting record that can only be described as shortsighted. For me to have found the answer to my spiritual hunger in the teachings of Jesus was at best highly inconvenient. (3)Inconvenient? What a sad conclusion to reach. Of course, this is not the fault of Jesus, just Jesus' "followers."
True, the Presbyterian Church (USA) still has a way to go as regards being fully inclusive, but that day will come, at least according to Dr. John Buchanan, who spoke on Monday. It was while Buchanan was General Assembly Moderator that the Book of Order saw the inclusion of that passage that was voted out this week. It is a section that would have "disqualified everyone I know" from ordained office, Buchanan said as he offered a litany of sins, from lewd glances to premarital sex, that the Confessions call sin and would prevent ordination, but he pointed out that only one group was affected by the amendment - the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered. They were the target. Buchanan, however, offered hope to that group which he called "marginalized by their church." Saying that the PC(USA) would become inclusive, Buchanan said, "We're going to get there, brothers and sisters, because our children are already there." When Buchanan added, "California is already there," he received applause from the audience, recognizing that California recently legalized gay marriage. He said that inclusion will come in the PC(USA) because "the arc of the gospel is inclusion...Change will happen because it's his church not ours -- the church of Jesus Christ."
Do Justice...Love Kindness...A Humble Walk with God. A Micah kind of church. The Presbyterian kind of church. My kind of church. Yours too, I hope. We're not there yet, but, by the grace of God, we're on the way. Precious Lord, take our hand...Lead us home.
1. These are names of FPC members and a former pastor.
2. Book of Order, G-6.0106b
3. Newsweek, 6/23/08, p. 18