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Accomplishments of the 214th General Assembly

In advance of the meeting of the 214th General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, conventional wisdom held that there would be very little real work to be done since virtually all matters relating to human sexuality were off the table this time around.

As it turned out, though, commissioners not only did real and important work, they even dealt effectively with a few sexuality related issues.

For example, commissioners called for a year of prayer throughout the church instead of declaring a moratorium regarding proposed constitutional changes and judicial actions relating to ordination standards; also, the Assembly’s decisive rejection of the proposal that the GA insert itself into the ongoing judicial process regarding a New England congregation’s outspoken dissent from the ordination requirements now in our Constitution. That congregation gave a little, the GA affirmed the necessity of compliance with the standards, but at the same time left it in the hands of regional judicial bodies to monitor — at least for the present time.

Perhaps a third exception was the Assembly’s order that work on the revision of the PC(USA) sexuality curriculum for young people continue, at the same time authorizing the development of a larger “library” of available resources that, it is hoped, will more nearly meet the needs of all our churches.

But the really important actions — and accomplishments of the 214th GA — lay in other areas — touching upon our mission as a denomination, our faith and our order.

The enthusiastic approval of the five-year $40 million Mission Initiative carefully developed by the General Assembly Council in advance was a highly significant action. Following upon the positive outcome of this Assembly this effort shows great promise for success.

The overwhelmingly enthusiastic approval of the statement, “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” was the Assembly’s inspired response to the deep concerns of many in the church that the PC(USA) had lost its faith and its nerve in proclaiming the gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord. Other suggestions for greater specificity were graciously turned aside, but it was clear that this GA said through this statement what all Presbyterians can sincerely affirm and must affirm as followers of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Credit for this extremely important outcome must go to Joe Small and the staff of the Office of Theology and Worship, which has again and again over the past decade of turmoil produced for the church carefully crafted and nuanced theological statements that say what we mean and enable us to mean what we say about all-important theological issues. The statement was issued last September at a time when serious questions were still being raised about the church’s commitment to its own faith, following the 213th General Assembly; and since its issuance there has been a remarkable calming of the waters.

Third, the Assembly’s surprise approval of biennial meetings the General Assembly following the 2004 GA in Richmond, Va., has enormous potential for good. It will save the whole church millions of dollars; it will enable the Assembly staff to be more faithful in its response to GA directives with less time spent on the mechanics of the annual preparations for the GA; it will mean some breathing room between churchwide votes on controversial issues; it will provide for other opportunities for Presbyterian gatherings — regionally or nationally — for fellowship, nurture and mission emphases; it will provide less time and space for the many struggle groups across the spectrum for whom the annual meeting of the GA has been a focal point of activity.

A fourth significant change was the amendment of the Standing Rules to allow confirmation of the moderator’s appointments to the GA Nominating Committee by the GA. If the struggle groups politicize this process as some fear, the change will not be positive; on the other hand, it prevents an outgoing moderator from having a totally free hand in selecting and packing the committee with persons not representative of the whole church. This could turn out to be an important means of creating a more stable environment at the General Assembly level.

Fifth, the review of the longstand-ing abortion polity of the PC(USA), with specific reference to late-term abortions, was helpful. Those with the strongest feelings about the outcome will not be totally satisfied, but the essence of the action is an affirmation of the church’s slightly (or very moderately) pro-choice position, which has been in place, with occasional clarifications, since 1993.

Sixth, there were some actions that the Assembly chose NOT to take at this time, most important, sending to the presbyteries any of the overtures for amending the Book of Order so as to require supermajorities or to place other limitations on the amending process. These overtures came as a reaction to the interminable polity wars over ordination and related sexuality matters which have had such a negative effect on the church’s mission. With a cooling-down period apparently under way, the commissioners wisely took a wait-and-see attitude as to the necessity of such a radical step.

Seventh, in their election of the immigrant son of Palestinian Christians as moderator, and a rousing affirmation of Muslim-Christian dialogue, the commissioners got the PC(USA) out of the swamp of the endless cycle of sexuality debates and into the forefront of a life-and-death crisis in the Middle East.
Moderator Abu-Akel made no bones about the importance of a firm affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ in the public square of the world. At the same time he argued passionately and effectively that the world with its 6 billion inhabitants of many faiths is rapidly shrinking, and that dialogue with people of other faiths is imperative.

The way in which that witness and dialogue are to be conducted has been the subject of intense discussion in the PC(USA) for some time. Our moderator will have opportunity to share with us Christ-like ways in which we can share our faith in Christ with people of other faiths, and with people of no faith: our prime responsibility as Christian disciples and the church.

In sum, the 214th General Assembly, in its actions and in its spirit, was truly one of the most important Assemblies held in many years and will, we hope, be a model for Assemblies in the years to come!


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