After years of internecine warfare within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — mostly over sexuality issues, but other things as well — there was a different atmosphere in Columbus, and it was obvious from the beginning.
At first, it came across as a lack of energy; there just didn’t seem to be the same vigor that had filled the air in Louisville or Long Beach or Fort Worth or others. There wasn’t the same “buzz” in the Exhibit Hall, and even the opening worship service didn’t quite reach the heights we have come to expect at GA (except for outgoing moderator Jack Rogers’ sermon.)
But as the eight days went on, it became clearer that it wasn’t a lack of energy, but a lack of disagreement, that was in the air.
• More than 70 percent of the final votes were by a 70 percent to 30 percent or higher tally. That doesn’t even count the scores of voice or hand votes and the high number of the “seeing-no-objection-it-is-so-ordered” variety.
• No committee recommendation was rejected, although there was some tweaking here and there.
• No minority report, even on ones that generated long lines at the microphones, was adopted.
• In committee, half of the votes on final action were unanimous and 83 percent won with 90 percent or better of the vote.
Even the close votes weren’t close.
Take for example the long-running argument over the denomination’s sexuality curriculum, “God’s Gift of Sexuality.”
After hours of public hearings and debate, the Assembly Committee on Christian Education and Publishing voted 40-9 (82 percent to 18 percent) to give Congregational Ministries Publishing two more years to produce a “library of resources” on sexuality. The committee added the previously ordered review and revision of the curriculum to the library, although it said the review could occur in the normal course of business.
As expected, a minority report was presented that sought to end completely publication and distribution of the curriculum — which conservatives object to as permissive and non-biblical.
When time for debate came, long lines immediately appeared at the microphones — mainly youth advisory delegates who appeared well-organized and well-schooled and heavily against the curriculum. (A position, by the way, that was not reflected in the final vote.)
And, since debate is always structured so speeches alternate between pro and con, the discussion went on for some time and necessarily seemed to reflect a fairly even division.
But when the vote came, the minority report was rejected 307-200 — 61 percent to 39 percent. The committee’s recommendation was then accepted 375-136 — 73 percent to 27 percent.
There were some close votes; the closest was a one-vote margin on a proposed amendment to minority report recommendations on an overture from Shenango Presbytery seeking to force Northern New England Presbytery to be more aggressive in correcting a small, recalcitrant church.
While the amendment passed, the whole minority report was rejected 349-157, or 69 percent to 31 percent, with the committee’s recommendation to reject the Shenango overture without comment eventually passing 388-112 — 78 percent to 22 percent
The closest final vote came on Greater Atlanta Presbytery’s request that the denomination endorse creation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace. Commissioners agreed to the endorsement by a scant two votes, 253-251.
Another close vote was the 272-224 acceptance of a committee recommendation that commissioners turn down a request to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage as only the “union of a man and a woman.”
Heading into Columbus, the other issue which appeared potentially divisive was the denomination’s stance on salvation.
Some evangelicals blasted the 2001 Assembly for, in their view, being wishy-washy on Christology. They insisted that this year’s Assembly would have to speak definitively about Jesus and salvation or risk the possibility of schism.
In the end, observers of all stripes generally seemed to think the statements on Christology approved in Columbus hit exactly the right tone.
“I celebrate what they did on Christology,” said Bob Dooling, a Colorado pastor who was among those pushing for a stronger witness.
Dooling said that when he goes back home, “I’m going to sell it hard that they need to see that as a great victory for our denomination . . . . Absent that, we’d be in very big trouble right now.”
People watching the Assembly were encouraged first by what the Confessions and Christology committee did — affirming “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” a statement written by the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship, and also citing as a “comment” language from the paper that stresses two Reformed teachings: that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone, and God’s freedom in relation to salvation, i.e., that God’s power to act cannot be limited or even understood by humans.
Both sides got some of what they wanted and needed. No one drew a line in the sand and insisted that particular words must be used or the statement would be unacceptable. And, behind the scenes, people who are in sharp disagreement over the ordination question were in conversation with each other, a more deliberate and extensive effort at communication — even at becoming friends — than has sometimes previously been possible.
So, where did all this agreement come from? The divisive issues the denomination has grappled with certainly haven’t disappeared or been resolved.
But one important thing has happened as a result of what once looked like a rush to schism: moderate leaders of all camps are talking to each other.
As suggested above, unlikely friendships and respect have been built as some on each side have come to know some on the other. It’s harder to demonize personal friends.
As a result, this year both sides gave a little and didn’t push a lot.
There was also a general desire to let the Theological Task Force on Peace, Purity and Unity do its work with as little surrounding noise as possible. Where it goes from here is up for grabs.
Some speculated that this year’s Assembly might well have reflected the much-discussed “middle” of the PC(USA) — that both conservatives and liberals pushed hard in 2001 to get commissioners from their camps sent to the 213th General Assembly, where crucial votes were taken involving sexuality and ordination, so those groups had fewer strings left to pull when commissioners were selected this time around.
Some also see the mellow tone as a sign that affinity groups — whose loyalists include some of the Presbyterians most deeply concerned about the divisive issues — may be planning to focus some of their efforts outside the Assembly, waging war in the PC(USA) judicial system, for example, or in the court of public opinion.
Another manifestation of that may be the vote on biennial Assemblies, which seemed to acknowledge both the financial savings that could result from meeting less often and the possibility that presbyteries and congregations, tired of feeling dragged through the mud over controversial issues, are looking for ways to tone down the skirmishing among the affinity groups.
For example, after voting overwhelmingly to approve the new $40 million Mission Initiative — a fundraising drive for international mission and church growth — the Assembly also came up with the idea of asking synods, presbyteries, exhibitors and affinity groups to take the money they would save from not going to the Assembly every year and donate that to the Mission Initiative.
“I think it reflects a huge hunger for unity and for moving forward in mission,” said Cliff Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk. While the idea of a “sea change” may be too strong a term for what happened this year, Kirkpatrick said, he sees “the flow of the church through our governing bodies rising up” to say that Presbyterians should not keep focusing on what divides them.
At the same time, however, people are realistic. They do not expect peace to roll down like a river anytime soon. Indeed, the reaction to the Assembly’s vote on the Shenango overture was sharp and pointed.
“Simply dismissing Shenango says ‘Mind your own business’ or ‘Take us to court’” when a congregation or presbytery is seen as defying the Constitution, said Bob Davis of the Presbyterian Forum.
In recent weeks, some evangelicals have distanced themselves from Paul Rolf Jensen, a Virginia lawyer who’s made a flurry of accusations against Presbyterians he says have violated the Constitution.
But Jim Tony, a pastor from Palos Park, Ill., said the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, in its advice on the Shenango overture, made it clear that remedial or disciplinary cases are the way to go if people suspect the Constitution is being violated. “The double message will be heard,” Tony said. “On the one hand, we don’t like Paul Jensen. On the other hand, if you don’t like what we’re doing, sue us.”
“The Prozac Assembly?” Isn’t Prozac an effective medication that can help people cope with life?
“The Do-No-Harm Assembly?” Isn’t that the dictum doctors are expected to follow first when treating patients?
It may be that history will show Columbus to have been the “Transitional” Assembly, where the PC(USA) began to regain its focus on outward mission instead of inward squabbles.
Or it could be the “Biding-Their-Time” Assembly, where the armed camps spent time consolidating and preparing for the next stage in the fight.
But one thing’s for sure. If there were a vote on what label to use, the committee recommendation would pass by a 70-30 tally.
John A. Bolt is a Presbyterian elder and wire service bureau chief from Charleston, W.Va.
Leslie Scanlon is The Outlook’s national reporter located in Louisville.
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