Before handing him a folder filled with postcards asking for the Assembly to be summoned back, Metherell asked Abu-Akel to “do everything in your power to call this meeting to convene before the end of March.” But Abu-Akel and the Office of the General Assembly have said the commissioners must be given a 120-day notice – not 60 days, as Metherell contends – and, if that interpretation holds, the Assembly couldn’t be called back until shortly before the 215th General Assembly is supposed to open in Denver on May 24.
Exactly what Metherell wants the Assembly to do once it reconvenes is also not completely clear, although his petition lists three reasons for calling the Assembly back into session:
o To continue oversight of the constitutional compliance of Christ Church in Burlington, Vermont, a congregation which contends that the PC(USA) Constitution does not forbid the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians;
o To “respond to the growing defiance of, delinquency, and enforcement of the Constitution” regarding ordination standards and the performance of holy union ceremonies; and
o To “exercise all necessary powers authorized to the General Assembly under the Constitution to propose and adopt directives to officers, agencies and governing bodies in order to deal with all matters” relating to those issues.Metherell is definitely concerned about constitutional defiance, but there is no specific wording yet of any measure on which the commissioners would be asked to vote. And there’s no telling what the mood of the Assembly will be – Metherell needed 50 votes, out of 554 commissioners, to bring the Assembly back, and he got more than enough; whether the group as a whole will support him or not remains to be seen.
Calling the Assembly back will cost money, at a time when the denomination is cutting its budget, both for this year and next. Some commissioners might be enthusiastic; some might be angry.
In an interview, Metherell said it’s not his intention to present the Assembly with a specific resolution on which to vote. Instead, he hopes the Assembly could meet for three or four days, preferably in a large church such as his own to save money, with at least the first day dedicated completely to discussion of defiance – he hopes there would be no voting at all on that day. Then, after intensive discussion, the commissioners could decide what measures to propose.
“My hope is that the Assembly maybe for the first time in 200 years will be able to meet and have legitimate debate with all the commissioners,” Metherell said. The Assembly would have no other business to deal with; there would be no committee meetings to attend; and the advisory delegates would not be called back – so his hope is that the Assembly could focus specifically and intensively on the question of constitutional defiance and what it means to be a connectional church.
“I’m hoping it will be a watershed meeting, a kairos moment for the denomination,” Metherell said. “We’re dealing with a huge, huge problem in the denomination,” with people in governing bodies not being willing to enforce the Constitution. The language in the PC(USA) Constitution is clear, Metherell believes – it limits ordination to those who practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single. But “a huge number of governing bodies are absolutely ignoring it,” he said, and unless something is done quickly, “the denomination will simply disintegrate.”
In arguing that Abu-Akel only needs to give commissioners 60 days’ notice, Metherell seems to be indicating that none of the business that would emerge would require any Book of Order changes, although in the interview he said a General Assembly is free to propose whatever changes it wants. Last fall, aware of Metherell’s efforts, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly released a letter stating that “the Book of Order requires that a request for a special meeting of the General Assembly must specify exactly the items of business to be considered, and all proposals for changes to, or interpretations of, the Book of Order would still require a 120-day deadline before the session of the General Assembly could begin.” It also estimated that it would cost more than $400,000 to hold such a session, requiring “a special per capita assessment to the presbyteries or other extraordinary means.”
Metherell said “there are many things we can do that don’t necessarily involve amending the Constitution or even interpreting it,” but he also said “the 120-day rule only applies to the lower governing bodies,” such as presbyteries, and that the General Assembly, in the course of its work, often suggests new constitutional language or proposes measures that would require constitutional interpretation.
There also are questions about what role the General Assembly has in enforcing the Constitution. If people want to find a way to compel sessions and individuals to comply with the ordination standards, can that be achieved through a General Assembly vote? “The General Assembly I don’t believe will enforce, that’s not its role,” Metherell said. “I’m not concerned about specific instances. I’m concerned about the underlying pathology.”
He added for a while last fall, he was “very pessimistic” about getting the signatures he needed, particularly when some evangelicals publicly opposed it. His own pastor, John A. Huffman Jr. of St. Andrews church in Newport Beach, wrote that calling the Assembly back was “not only unwise but could be counterproductive to our constitutional procedures.”
What got him the signatures he needed, Metherell said, was “the almost daily and certainly weekly examples of continuing defiance.”
He also praised Paul Rolf Jensen, the lawyer from Virginia – and also a member of St. Andrews – who has filed allegations of constitutional violations in more than 20 cases. “Paul has done us a great service,” Metherell said. “By filing all these accusations, he has eloquently demonstrated the extent to which the underlying pathology permeates the denomination.”
Under the rules, Metherell needed signatures from 25 elders and 25 ministers who were commissioners to last summer’s General Assembly in Columbus, representing at least 15 presbyteries from at least five synods. Presbyteries will have to verify those signatures, but Metherell told Abu-Akel that he had signatures from 26 ministers and 31 elders, representing 46 presbyteries and all 16 synods.
Metherell has been close for weeks to getting the signatures he needed. Out of necessity, the denominational staff has been making preliminary inquiries – scouting out, for example, prospective meeting spaces and blocks of hotel rooms. From the moment he appeared in the room Tuesday – a hotel meeting room in Louisville where the executive committee of the General Assembly Council and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly were meeting in joint session – it was clear why he was there.
Metherell was given a chance to address the meeting. Abu-Akel shook Metherell’s hand and received the signatures politely – but it’s clear that leaders of the denomination are not thrilled by the prospect of calling back the Assembly, and they immediately began huddling in the hotel hallways to talk about what to do next.
Abu-Akel later said that “it is with a heavy heart that I received the petition today asking me to call a special session.” He said he has instructed the Office of the General Assembly to begin the process of asking the stated clerks of presbyteries to verify the status of those who signed the petition, and “to verify the current desire of those commissioners to have a special called General Assembly, in light of the provision of our Constitution which requires that it be held no sooner than 120 days from today.”
In closing, Abu-Akel asked for prayer.
In a related matter, Giddings Lovejoy Presbytery will reportedly act this month on an overture from Webster Groves (Mo.) church that would require one fourth of the elder and one fourth of the minister commissioners from 15 presbyteries and five synods to call a special meeting of a General Assembly. The presbytery’s bills and overtures committee supports the overture.