An assembly defined chiefly by what it decided not to do

What will be the fallout from the 2012 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)? This seemed to be an assembly that left almost no one particularly satisfied and produced no big winners.

Some went home heaving huge sighs of relief. The issues they feared might explode in their faces did not blow up. The assembly did not voice approval of same-gender marriage. It did not vote to divest from certain companies whose business operations in Israel were deemed to be “nonpeaceful.” It did not endorse nongeographic presbyteries.

But none of these feels much like a victory, even to folks who basically agree with the decisions. Those who oppose same-gender marriage are certain the issue will rise again before the next assembly — and that, over the next two years, some Presbyterian pastors will, as an act of conscience and civil disobedience, perform same-gender weddings in defiance of the restrictions imposed by of the PC(USA).

This assembly was not shy about rejecting what it didn’t like. It did not, however, set a particularly clear direction for a denomination already preoccupied with the departures of evangelicals; with its aging, nondiverse demographics; and with the recognition that many Americans are rejecting the institutional church — nearly one in five, according to a recent report from the Pew Center for the People and the Press (see p. 6).

Moving forward, here’s some of what seems to lie ahead.

What will evangelicals do? ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, the new denomination created earlier this year, will hold two gatherings in August, one in Colorado Springs, Colo., and one in Atlanta. Leaving the PC(USA) to join ECO, or affiliating with the Fellowship of Presbyterians, are among the choices conservative Presbyterians are considering as they decide whether to remain in a denomination with which many have serious differences over theology and sexual ethics.

Coming into the assembly, evangelicals said they would carefully monitor decisions regarding same-gender marriage. The assembly voted 338-308 not to change the definition of Christian marriage in the denomination’s constitution from being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.”

This, however, is one of those wins that for evangelicals don’t necessarily feel like victories.

If the definition of marriage had changed last Monday, a whole bunch of churches would have applied for gracious dismissal,” and the decision “would have been catastrophic,” said Mary Holder Naegeli, executive director of the Presbyterian Coalition.

That didn’t happen, but Naegeli suspects some progressives emerged from the assembly committed to the idea of civil disobedience. Some pastors “announced in plenary that they’d already done same-sex marriages and ‘don’t see anything wrong with it, so come sue me,’” Naegeli said.

In the days ahead, evangelicals will have decisions to make — whether to stick it out in the PC(USA) or go somewhere else.

I don’t know how many people told me this is their last assembly,” Naegeli said.

Even though the assembly did not vote to change the definition of Christian marriage, or to permit Presbyterian pastors to perform same-gender weddings, “it’s not over,” she said. “It’s a very unsettled feeling. It’s like uh-oh. There are some folks who said ‘I wish they’d just gone ahead and done it. Then my way would be clear, it would have taken all the ambiguity out of the picture.’ That didn’t happen. What did happen in some ways was worse.”

Some progressives say pastors may feel compelled out of conscience to perform same-gender weddings.

Eight states and D.C. (the District of Columbia) have made gay marriage legal,” General Assembly commissioner Timothy Simpson, a teaching elder from St. Augustine Presbytery, wrote in a blog. “Pastors in those jurisdictions are being asked by their people to marry them NOW, and they aren’t going to wait until the next GA. There is no way that pastors can tell their own flock that they can’t do this without sacrificing their credibility with the people whom they serve.”

In the months to come, Simpson wrote, “we are likely to see a rash of judicial cases in which pastors who do these services are targeted for punishment. And as the number of jurisdictions increases where marriage equality is the law, the more Presbyterian pastors are going to be called on to lead these services.

So this isn’t like the ordination debate at all.  The ground is shifting beneath our feet and the states aren’t going to wait until the next GA gathers to take up the can we just kicked down the road.”

Risk-averse. Some read this assembly as clinging to the status quo — reluctant to take risks. Some commissioners may have feared the denomination couldn’t take any more churning right now — particularly since the PC(USA) is still feeling the fallout from its decisions a year ago to adopt a new, more flexible Form of Government (changing many of the familiar rules) and to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians who aren’t celibate.

Tod Bolsinger, moderator of the Mid Councils Commission — whose recommendations were mostly voted down, after two years of work — wrote in a blog post more than a year ago that “our system is perfectly designed to safeguard the status quo.”

And John Vest, a pastor from Chicago and a member of the commission, wrote in his blog of feeling discouraged that the commission’s report was “gutted and mostly rejected.” A new commission will work over the next two years to consider a possible reconfiguration of the denomination’s synods — an approach the assembly favored over discontinuing synods altogether as ecclesiastical bodies.

I just don’t think the church is ready for the kind of changes we recommended,” Vest wrote in his blog. “I suppose that after the major changes … that happened over the past two years, an institution as big and as change averse as the PC(USA) needs time before taking more risks.”

What’s unclear is where this leaves efforts to push the denomination to try new, innovative, experimental approaches to ministry. Some spoke at the assembly about the difficulty new immigrant congregations face navigating the PC(USA)’s requirements. Others asked about bivocational ministry, about planting new churches, about communities of faith that meet outside of church buildings or not on Sunday mornings, about what could make people of color and young adults interested in a denomination that’s mostly white and aging.

Speaking during worship one morning, author Brian McLaren had this message for the PC(USA): “Unsustainability,” McLaren said, “has a great way of stimulating creativity.”