GA 2010: Understandings with Muslims, Jews stumble ahead

MINNEAPOLIS — Commissioners to the 219th General Assembly voted overwhelmingly today (July 8) to approve a document outlining theological understandings between Christians and Muslims, but they referred back to committee a document aiming to bring greater understanding between Christians and Jews.

“Christians and Jews:  People of God”

“This is a paper that has been under development and consideration for many years by the Office of Theology and Worship. It states clearly important matters about how we think theologically about Jews and about the religion of Judaism,” declared Cynthia Campbell, president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.  Campbell was not a member of the committee that prepared the document nor a commissioner to the Assembly, but as a seminary president she does have opportunity to speak to business before the GA.

The paper “helps to place our historical commitments of understanding, the unity of both testaments and God’s continuing covenant relationship with the Jewish people [with respect to] our life in the modern world,” she added. “This is an important paper.  The church needs it, and I think it is time for it to come out to the church for study and resourcing.”

            Nevertheless, the assembly committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations took exception to the fact that, while those preparing the report had consulted with Jewish scholars, they had not engaged in any significant discussion with Palestinian Christians, who are the most affected by the implications of the paper. Michael Livingston, assembly committee chairperson explained, “In the mind of the committee it was simply the absence at the table — when the paper was developed — of Middle Eastern Presbyterian voices, and that is why the committee recommended that this paper be referred back for further work.”

            The assembly committee recommended to send the paper back to the original authors, the Office of Theology and Worship and the Office of Interfaith Relations, with instructions to consult with the National Middle East Presbyterian Caucus, the denomination’s partner churches and agencies in the Middle East, related mission networks of the PC(USA), the Advocacy Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns, and the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. They were directed to bring the final product to the 2012 General Assembly

            The referral was supported by a vote of 529 yes, 135 no, and 9 abstaining..

“Toward an Understanding of Christian-Muslim Relations”

On the other hand, the General Assembly did approve a paper outlining the theological beliefs of Muslims, highlighting doctrines held in common and other doctrines with which Christians differ.

            When this paper was first introduced months ago, a wave of criticism arose in response to the suggestion that Presbyterians and Muslims should find opportunities to “celebrate religious holidays together, setting aside days of worship during which there can be congregational suppers, and dialogue groups.”

The assembly committee deleted that language. It retained other language, calling Presbyterians to “come to know and befriend their Muslim neighbors, and to talk in-depth with them about matters of shared concern, life and faith, and the questions each has about the other.”  It also added the call “to implement a program of shared community experiences that might include sharing meals, cultural events, and activities in mosques and churches together, and to develop an educational program that includes inviting a Muslim leader to offer instruction in a church and a Christian leader to offer instruction in a mosque.”

            That controversy resolved, there was little debate in the plenary session.  Final vote was 548 in favor, 129 opposed, and 4 abstaining.

            The Assembly also affirmed the report of a committee that had investigated allegations of church-stealing by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church denomination.  While identifying some inappropriate fleecing by a few individuals, the denomination itself was found to be innocent of those claims.  The commissioners voted to invite the other denomination to engage in common confession of our inclination toward “separation, demonization of those with whom we disagree, and a captivity to insistence on our own rightness.”  They also directed PC(USA) leadership to pursue bilateral dialogue with the EPC and to report their progress at the 2014 and 2016 General Assemblies.

            The GA also committed to become a full participant of Christian Churches Together, the broadest collection of denominations in the US, which includes Roman Catholic, Orthodox, historic African-American, Evangelical, and mainline Protestants.  Father Leo Walsh, representative of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, brought greetings from CCT, assuring that it is not another council of churches but “a forum for many Christian families of faith to address issues of common concern.”  The commissioners voted its support unanimously.