The last General Assembly was marked by the body’s rejection of two major recommendations from its own committees. The full General Assembly rejected an effort to divest from several companies related to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and voted against a move to change the definition of marriage to allow same-gender marriages. In so doing, the plenum overruled the work of its committees. As we prepare for another General Assembly next summer, perhaps we can learn some lessons from what happened in Pittsburgh.
To me, this is a polity, not a partisan, issue. Personally, I was pleased with the outcome of the divestment vote and displeased with the decision not to approve same-gender marriages in the PC(USA). The issue isn’t who wins and loses. The issue is how we go about making decisions in ways that emphasize fairness and give equal opportunity for competing viewpoints to present their case.
For example, in The Middle East Peacemaking Committee of the 220th GA that I observed, the committee spent almost all of its time listening to advocates for divestment. As a result, committee members, many of whom were understandably uninformed about the complex issues surrounding boycotts and divestment, had little information to counter the pro-divestment recommendation coming from MRTI and supported by several standing committees of our denomination.
At the opening session of the committee on Sunday evening, the committee heard 40 minutes of introductory comments, including comments from the chair of MRTI, all of which were uniformly supportive of the MRTI recommendation to divest. They heard nothing from the opponents of divestment. The next day, advocates for divestment including MRTI and proponents of several overtures supporting divestment were given hours of time to present their case. Proponents of three overtures supporting and three overtures opposing divestment were given five minutes each to make their case. The next hour was devoted to two minute statements equally divided between advocates and opponents of divestment.
Therefore, before the committee began its own debate of the issues, the opponents of divestment had been given 45 minutes of time (15 minutes by overture advocates and 30 minutes in two-minute statements) while the supporters of divestment had been given literally hours to make their case. Is it any wonder the committee voted to support divestment?
In contrast, on the floor of the General Assembly, the committee was given a brief amount of time to make its case for divestment and then the debate moved into the traditional “one for, one against” format with debate among the commissioners. The floor debate was heated and filled with much more diversity of opinion than had the debate been in committee. The effort to divest was defeated by the smallest of margins.
I do not blame the committee leadership or members for the imbalance of presentations in Pittsburgh because they were following a format given to them. However, commissioners to any GA need to remember that while GA staff can recommend an agenda, every committee has the right to set its own agenda and allocate “floor time” to different voices. In some cases it may make perfect sense for a committee to allocate time for informational presentations without time for rebuttal, particularly if the issues discussed are not controversial. In the case of controversial issues with clearly defined, opposing viewpoints, fairness and “equal time,” policy becomes essential.
Although the players will change in Detroit, the results will be the same if we don’t find a more balanced way to debate controversial issues in GA committees. Committees have the power to mirror the balanced debates that take place on the GA plenary floor. Time can be balanced between the proponents and opponents of any given issue. If some permanent entity of the GA is given one hour to make a proposal, people with other views need to be given one hour to express their views. How balanced or unbalanced presentations are in a committee depends on what committee members demand.
Again, fair distribution of time in committee deliberations and hearings isn’t a liberal or conservative issue. It is a matter of process to help future GA committees hear balanced presentations on the issues before they vote.
John Wimberly retired last year after serving as pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. He is a member of the board of directors of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace and a church consultant. He also is a former board member of the Presbyterian Outlook Foundation, Inc.