This may be an Assembly that’s not so inward-looking — that has things to say about terrorism and international relations as well as about Presbyterian polity. And the business before these commissioners goes from abortion to Zionism.
Some clues as to what will come up?
Four men — the incumbent, Clifton Kirkpatrick, and three evangelical challengers — are in the race for stated clerk, the top ecclesiastical officer of the 2.4-million member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). That election will take place on July 2, the second-to-last day of the Assembly Three others (all white men, as are the stated clerk candidates) are campaigning to be elected moderator. One will be chosen June 26, on the Assembly’s first night.
Homosexuality, that relentlessly divisive issue, will be with the Presbyterians once again. Ditto for abortion. A controversial report on how families are changing — a report that was sent back for more work by last year’s Assembly and has gone through a dizzying number of drafts — will be back for more discussion of out-of-wedlock births and gay couples raising children together.
The special interest groups are alive and busy — advocating publicly and organizing behind the scenes. They’re not hands-off — some are communicating as much as they can with commissioners before the Assembly starts, will hold daily briefings when the meeting gets going, and will try to play a role in writing committee reports if given the chance.
The Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the PC(USA) will be working hard to try to build support for the report it will release to the church next year. It wants every presbytery, and as many congregations as are willing, to create “intentional communities” representing diverse theological views to talk about the kinds of things the task force has dug into over the last few years.
And when these commissioners go home, the Assembly is set to take a hiatus — to take a two-year break, ending a tradition going back to 1779 of meeting annually.
Things kick off in Richmond (think: hot, humid Southern civility) on June 26. Here’s some of what to expect.
The frustration with the PC(USA)’s decline, in membership and authority, is evident. Kirkpatrick is reporting to this Assembly the loss of another 40,000 Presbyterians — continuing the membership decline that’s gone on for decades now (a decline of membership from 4.2 million in 1965 to 2.4 million in 2002, an average loss of more than 48,000 people a year and a rate of loss so significant that if it keeps going the PC(USA) would cease to exist by 2053, an overture from Mackinac Presbytery points out.)
And there is a clear hunger in some of what’s being presented to this Assembly for looking at new ways of doing things. But the push towards “something new” sometimes is matched by a pull back — by the response that something’s too expensive or not the Presbyterian way of doing things. Huntingdon Presbytery, for example, proposes (Overture 61) creating a new, quarterly mission magazine “that would use the powerful voice of American youth” — it would emphasize mission and be totally written by young people. The General Assembly Council responded by saying that would be too costly, and suggesting a twice-a-year, Web-based “e-zine” instead.
Miami Presbytery (Overture 74) wants a plan to fund evangelism for people of color and for those of limited economic means. The PC(USA) has set a goal of having 10 percent racial ethnic membership by 2010, but has no comprehensive funding plan for achieving this, the overture states. And it says reliance on “Euro-American” models of new church development has limited opportunities for those who don’t fit the standard white mold or who aren’t middle class.
Presbyteries working with immigrants “express frustration in trying to maneuver through the system,” the overture states. “Some presbyteries and congregations report that funds for such models as Bible fellowships, cell groups, and other creative ways of carrying out evangelism with non-white, non-middle class persons are often not available,” even though such approaches can be less expensive and, by the time the PC(USA) approach gets organized, “other denominations have already begun and become entrenched in the community.”
Des Moines Presbytery submitted an overture (Overture 41) to give immigrant fellowships voice and vote at presbytery meetings — the result, it stated, of its experience with its ministry over the past five years with Sudanese immigrants, who have a long history of being Presbyterian “but have been impeded by the current requirements for forming congregations and ordaining elders,” the overture states. A second overture from Des Moines (Overture 42) would allow lay leaders from those fellowships to be ordained as elders.
The Advisory Committee on the Constitution recommends disapproval, saying the overture conflicts with the denomination’s historic practice of church governance. But the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns supports the overture, saying it opens the door to leadership for immigrants and can help prepare the PC(USA) for the demographic changes this century will bring.
Central Washington Presbytery (Overture 50) wants to make the communion table open not just to the “baptized faithful,” as is currently the case, but to all who “acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.”
The overture points out churches from some other traditions already do this. “In this day and age, the majority of our new members and visitors to our congregations come from many different denominational and spiritual paths,” the overture states.
“We recognize with the Reformed tradition that the true Church of Jesus Christ is invisible and known only to God. We recognize that often we have Christians attending our worship services who, for a variety of reasons, have not yet been baptized, but may have a full and vital relationship with Jesus Christ and we understand that current Presbyterian polity forces us to deny participation in the Lord’s Supper to these brothers and sisters.”
But the Advisory Committee on the Constitution recommends disapproval — raising a number of concerns about the implications of this approach. “The proponents seek to substitute an “acknowledgement” for the sacrament of baptism,” the committee wrote. “If such an acknowledgement is anything more than a personal and private “feeling”; what would be the meaning of membership in the community?”
RELIGIOUS PLURALISM and ESSENTIAL TENETS
The reality that the United States is an increasingly pluralistic place, and that Presbyterians need to learn how to communicate their faith within that context, seems to be one theme of the business before this Assembly.
Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery, for example, has sent an overture (Overture 54) asking for a task force to be created to write a denominational policy “consistent with the religious pluralism reality” around the world.
The Assembly also is being asked to develop study resources that congregations could use to help Presbyterians better articulate their faith in settings where people come from different religions.
“Many Presbyterians confess that they do not know how to talk about their faith with persons outside the church community,” the report recommending those resources states. “Consequently, their choices are limited — to avoid relationships with persons of other faiths; to meet persons of other religions without talking about faith matters; or to engage with neighbors who are followers of other religions, repeating ‘churchy’ language that conveys little meaning to others. Presbyterians may even be adopting relativistic theological positions about religion simply because they are not articulate” about what they really do believe.
And there probably should be some discussion about “unfamiliarity with central affirmations of Christian faith,” the report states — about what Presbyterians mean when they talk about salvation, for one.
How firmly Presbyterians should be required to adhere to certain doctrinal views — and whether the denomination should have a list of “essential tenets” — is another point of tension.
An overture from John Calvin Presbytery (Overture 3) seeks to pin down those central Presbyterian beliefs — seeking to reorganize a portion of the denomination’s Constitution so that it will list “essential tenets” of the PC(USA). That overture states that certain passages in the Constitution do a good job of summarizing the “essence” or “core substance” of the Reformed faith, but said the PC(USA)’s repeated reluctance to specifically list reform tenets “leaves the impression that we are unwilling or unable to express our faith.”
Some of the disputes within the PC(USA) may be clouded by confusion over ths issue, the overture suggests. If those disagreements are over “important” matters of faith rather than “essential tenets” (in other words, not belonging to the core substance of the faith) they should not cause schism, the overture states.
But the Advisory Committee on the Constitution recommends that the Assembly disapprove this overture, saying that the PC(USA) has over many years “chosen not to approve a discrete list of `essential tenets’ or to take a subscriptionist approach” to the questions asked of candidates for ordination. That doesn’t reflect an unwillingness or inability to express faith, the committee wrote, “but rather is an unwillingness to minimize the rich content of the extraordinary collection of documents in the Book of Confessions with such an inadequate list.”
The way things stand now, presbyteries and sessions have the power to interpret the confessions when considering candidates for ordination, the committee wrote, adding: “The proposed amendment would appear to preclude presbyteries and sessions from adopting essential tenets different from or more stringent than those proposed here.”
Hudson River Presbytery is suggesting a much different approach — asking the Assembly (Overture 52) to confirm the freedom of candidates for ordination to follow their own consciences in interpreting the Book of Confessions, and of presbyteries not to be required to use particular lists of “fundamentals” or “essentials” that would supercede either the confessions or the Bible itself.
The Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations also will consider an overture from Hudson River Presbytery (Overture 68) that’s related to a controversial new church development in Philadelphia Presbytery — a Messianic congregation, Avodat Yisrael, started with $145,000 in financial support from Philadelphia Presbytery, plus $40,000 from Trinity Synod and $75,000 from a General Assembly Council committee. The overture asks denominational officials to re-examine the relationship between Christians and Jews and the implications of that relationship for evangelism and new church development, and to refrain from funding any more Messianic congregations until that study was completed and a policy for funding such programs was approved.
NATIONAL and INTERNATIONAL ISSUES
For those who don’t want to make homosexuality this Assembly’s top priority, there are so many other options — and so many chances for Presbyterians to speak out about the issues of the world.
Commissioners will be asked to think about Israel and Palestine — calling on Isreal to stop building a wall to separate Israel from the Palestinians, and for support of the Geneva Accord.
They will discuss U.S. policy towards Iraq; a report on violence, religion and terrorism; the difficulties of working for peace in Colombia. They will talk about Taiwan, AIDS in Africa, human rights and global population growth.
And domestically, the business runs from immigration reform to Social Security and Medicare to the Patriot Act to the sexual abuse of children.
HOMOSEXUALITY and CONSTITUTIONAL COMPLIANCE
What does anyone expect?
Homosexuality is a burning issue before the nation, from California to Massachusetts, as gay and lesbian couples apply for marriage licenses and say their vows before family and friends, and as the granting of those licenses is challenged in court.
It’s an issue before the world, as Christian leaders in Africa, Latin America and Asia are voicing their condemnation of the idea of ordaining homosexuals.
It will certainly be an issue again this year before the Presbyterian church — although how much fervor it will generate this time around, it’s too soon to tell.
Santa Barbara Presbytery (Overture 70) is asking the PC(USA) to endorse the “A Christian Declaration of Marriage,” which defines marriage as “a holy union of one man and one woman.”
Some would like to wait until the Theological Task Force makes its report next year before the PC(USA) tries again to answer the question of whether it should ordain gays and lesbians who are not celibate. But others obviously disagree — and this Assembly will be asked, as the question is presented every year, to remove the current requirement in the denomination’s Constitution, which limits ordination of ministers, elders and deacons to those who practice fidelity if they’re married or chastity if they are single.
Some want to take “fidelity and chastity” off the books. Western New York Presbytery (Overture 1) is proposing new language — to live in chastity if single or in fidelity within “a covenanted relationship between two persons where a lifetime commitment is intended.”
And some overtures call for the removal of “authoritative interpretation” regarding homosexuality. Even before “fidelity and chastity” was added to the Constitution in 1996, the General Assembly had adopted an authoritative interpretation, which says, in part, that “homosexuality is not God’s wish for humanity” and that “for the church to ordain a self-affirming, practicing homosexual person to ministry would be to act in contradiction to its charter and calling in Scripture, setting in motion both within the church and society serious contradictions to the will of Christ.” Several overtures ask that the authoritative interpretation be abandoned.
And the question of whether the denomination is complying adequately with the Constitution as it’s written now definitely will be asked. That can be complicated — the ins and outs of specific cases that have been brought in the church courts can be hard even for devotees of such things to keep track of. But the short version is this: some folks are good and mad, saying that the church’s rules are clear, but that some refuse to follow them and that not enough is being done to bring them firmly in check. Others contend that things aren’t nearly so cut-and-dried as that and that there is room for interpretation.
Constitutional compliance definitely will be a major chord in the stated clerk’s election, in which incumbent Clifton Kirkpatrick, who’s seeking his third four-year term, has three challengers: Bob Davis, a pastor and lawyer from Escondido, Calif.; Linn “Rus” Howard, a pastor from Venetia, Penn.; and Alex Metherell, a physician, engineer, and elder from Laguna Beach, Calif.
And it will pop up in other places too. An overture from Mississippi Presbytery (Overture 51) asks than an Assembly committee on administrative review be created, to conduct reviews to determine whether there has been adequate compliance with decisions of permanent judicial commissions. “We can’t deny that we live in an age of conflict within our church, much of which revolves around ordination standards,” the rationale for that overture states. “Unless there is a clear method in place of bringing resolution to these conflicts, they will fester, producing more strife and resentment. And unless the church has a method of making sure its governing bodies are in compliance with the Constitution, disobedience and thus disunity will only increase.”
The Advisory Committee on the Constitution, however, is recommending that the overture be referred to it for consideration. “A healthy and comprehensive plan needs to be articulated if compliance is to be achieved,” that advice states, adding that the overture as written conflicts with the rules of discipline and that there might be a temptation “that some commissioners might seek to re-try the case and substitute their judgment for that of the permanent judicial commission.”
Then there are the young people, who will be around when most of the Presbyterians running things today are long gone.
The National Presbyterian Youth Ministry Council will be passing out stickers and buttons at the Assembly that say, “I’m enthusiastic about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”
They’ve ordered 5,000 pins and 5,000 stickers and will pass them out at the Presbyterian Youth Connection booth. To get a sticker, one has to actually talk to a young person.
What are they excited about? According to an e-mail from organizers of the project, here’s part of the list. Presbyterians in Arkansas worked together to send rice to hungry people in Liberia. Presbyterian churches have gone to court to provide homeless people a place to sleep. Some congregations offer enthusiastic worship and are growing. And they think lots of people at the Assembly will have stories of their own. “May it all be to the glory of God,” wrote J. Tyler Ward II, a college student and elder who’s collecting money to pay for the stickers.