Because, at least this time around, a small flotilla of special committees and task forces, which the General Assembly created in 2008 and will be reporting back to the next assembly in 2010, are churning with work — trying to figure out what the church should say about climate change, marriage and civil unions, the Middle East, and more.
It’s way too early to say what these committees will recommend. But the 2010 assembly will be unusual for having their reports to consider in addition to the mountain of business that will pour in from other sources, and the almost dead-certainty that the next assembly will be asked to take a stand on gay ordination.
There’s a task force hard at work on a proposed revision of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Form of Government – an issue the 2008 assembly considered, decided it needed more time to think about, and sent back for more work. (For more on the FOG issue, see page 23.)
Two of the task forces were created because they involve possible changes to the denomination’s The Book of Confessions, and part of that process involves creating a task force that will report back to the next assembly.
The PC(USA) hasn’t changed The Book of Confessions since the Brief Statement of Faith was added in 1991. But this year, two committees are considering possible changes to the confessional standards, a proposal that the PC(USA) add the Belhar Confession, written by South African Christians in response to the racism of apartheid; and a proposal to correct translation problems in the Heidelberg Catechism.
“This was the third time an overture had come before the assembly to correct or re-translate the Heidelberg Catechism,” said Charles Wiley, of the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship. Up for discussion is language referring to “homosexual perversion.” But the problem is that “in the original German and Latin texts, there were no words that could be translated ‘homosexual perversion,’ ” Wiley said.
Neal Presa, pastor of Middlesex Church from New Jersey, is chairperson of the committee considering the Heidelberg translation (see page 26).
Why all this discussion now, in the 21st century, about a catechism from the 1500s? “We are a covenantal and confessional Church,” Presa said in an e-mail interview from Switzerland. “The historic confessions of the ecumenical and Reformed faith express what we hold in common in terms of what we understand God’s revelation to us and the world is, and how the Church responds to that revelation in witness, mission and its very life. …
“This matters to us as Presbyterians and to all Christians because we care deeply about the faith that has been passed down to us, and the faith which we pass on to our children. After all, that is why the Heidelberg Catechism was written — to pass down the faith to children and families.”
Other committees are considering the church’s stance on a range of public issues – from civil unions to global warming.
So why so many committees and task forces? “I don’t know,” said Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the 218th General Assembly — the assembly that created all the committees — laughing at his own perplexity.
But Reyes-Chow does have some concerns about the process. “I’m not a big fan of the task forces, only because with this many, it puts an inordinate amount of responsibility and pressure on the moderator,” he said. “In some ways it focuses too much influence and authority in one office,” with the moderator selecting the members for each committee.
Some high-profile task forces have been created with two or three former moderators. But this time, Reyes-Chow single-handedly appointed more than 100 people to the committees and said, “I’m not convinced it’s a positive precedent we set,” although he tried in his appointments to mix veterans of national church service with younger adults.
The plethora of special committees also raises questions of how and why the Presbyterian church speaks out on matters of public policy, and who really pays attention to the pronouncements of mainline denominations?
“Sometimes I think we think our voice matters a lot more than it probably does,” Reyes-Chow said. “There is validity for us to be a little more humble when we make grand statements about global issues. We need to understand that to much extent, our influence has dwindled. At the same time, it’s important for the church to examine and struggle with these issues. If nothing else, we go through the process of discerning how God wants us to move together. The process is just as important as the outcome in many cases.”
The committees may also be a sign that the assembly took seriously the overtures that came to it, and wanted more time to go in-depth with particular issues.
Ron Shive, pastor of First Church in Burlington, N.C., leads the Committee on Israel-Palestine, which will travel as a group in August to the Middle East, to visit four countries.
Why a special committee on this?
“Our mandate from the General Assembly was really to do a comprehensive study of the Middle East and particularly with regard to the Israel-Palestine issue,” Shive said. The PC(USA)’s last major study on the Middle East came 12 years ago, and “in that 12 years situations have changed dramatically,” including a significant decline in the Christian presence in the region. “It really is time for a fresh study.”
Integrating faith with public issues ‘is what keeps the church relevant,” said Diane Givens Moffett, who is pastor of St. James Church in Greensboro, N.C., and will lead the Climate Change task force. Jesus “was very much engaged with the issues of the day. That’s what got him crucified. To think we can do any less is a farce.”