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A host of hot spots

While they have yet to catch a blast of public attention, scattered through the agenda of the 2014 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are overtures and reports with the potential to ignite serious debates on public policy, internal church matters and more — everything from drones to the death penalty to departing churches.

Details of all the business coming before the assembly are available through the PC-Biz website at pc-biz.org.

DEATH PENALTY 

The recent execution-gone-awry of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma is likely to add more urgency to discussion of an overture from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta (Item 09-04), calling for an immediate moratorium on all executions in jurisdictions that impose capital punishment. The overture also asks the assembly and Gradye Parsons, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, to reiterate the denomination’s opposition to the death penalty — with assemblies speaking out on the issue as recently as 2010.

Both state law and public opinion polls reflect divisions in opinion among American adults on the death penalty. In some jurisdictions, the death penalty is either not legal or not utilized — 18 states and the District of Columbia have abolished it; and over the last two years, only nine states, most of them in the South (Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio and Arizona) have actually executed a prisoner, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

While polls show that support for the death penalty has declined in recent decades, a majority of Americans still favor it. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey showed, for example, that 55 percent of adults in the U.S. said they favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder, and 37 percent opposed it. The poll showed that about 64 percent of white mainline Protestants support the death penalty.

There are racial variations in views. Overall, twice as many white Americans favor the death penalty as oppose it (63 percent to 30 percent), while for black Americans the figures nearly reverse (55 percent oppose capital punishment and 36 percent support it).

GUN VIOLENCE 

Some Presbyterians want the denomination to advocate for changes in laws to prevent gun violence.

Both National Capital Presbytery and the Presbytery of Hudson River have sent overtures addressing gun violence (Items 09-01 and 09-07) — with National Capital urging the PC(USA) to work for changes in legislation such as requiring comprehensive background checks for buyers at gun shows and cooling-off periods.

The Hudson River overture also would direct the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to provide models for congregations to explore gun violence in their own communities and to form support and advocacy groups for those who have experienced gun violence in their communities.

The National Capital overture states in its rationale that “the entire nation is mourning the senseless loss of human life in Newtown, Connecticut; in Blacksburg, Virginia; in Portland, Oregon; in Aurora, Colorado; in Tucson, Arizona; in Tulsa, Oklahoma; in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and elsewhere caused by gun violence … As a church, we, the PC(USA), confess that we have not responded strongly enough to the continuing number of killings and repent our failure to demand more of ourselves to ensure that adequate laws are passed to reduce gun violence.”

DRONES 

The Peacemaking and International Issues Committee will consider measures related to the unmanned aerial vehicles known as drones — picking up on the international debate over the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes. The Presbytery of Genesee Valley has sent an overture (Item 11-04) that calls on all countries to stop using unmanned aerial vehicles as weapons of war and requests that its use by peacekeepers be limited to decreasing militarization and protecting civilians.

The committee also will consider a resolution (Item 11-10 from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy that asks the PC(USA) to urge the U.S. Congress to pass legislation governing drone use and suggesting that “targeted killing of suspected terrorists be given more effective judicial and congressional review.” That resolution also encourages the PC(USA) to “lead the public in a robust discussion of the moral use of drones in national security.”

SEXUAL VIOLENCE IN THE U.S. MILITARY 

Together, the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns and the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy are asking the assembly (Item 11-14) to encourage Presbyterians and the denomination’s Office of Public Witness to work to “end the continuing problem of sexual assault within the U.S. military.”

In a comment to the resolution, the Presbyterian Mission Agency stated that the Office of Public Witness has engaged in advocacy to reduce violence against women and girls, but that “in the context of recent congressional debates, PC(USA) General Assembly did not have policy that adequately speaks to the role of the military chain of command in the prosecution of military sexual assault. Consequently, the Office of Public Witness remained silent on the bill. If approved, this resolution would speak to that gap in policy.”

FOSSIL FUEL DIVESTMENT 

Joining forces with a movement aligning faith-based groups with college students and environmentalists, Presbyterians are presenting an overture asking the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation to stop any new investments in fossil fuel companies and to divest within five years assets held in fossil fuel companies. The overture (Item 15-01), sent by the Presbytery of Boston, has concurrences from at least 11 other presbyteries and contends in its rationale that “the realities of climate change require prophetic and strategic action by people of faith seeking to be faithful to the everlasting covenant God has made with us, with every living creature, and with all future generations. If fossil fuel companies simply fulfill their business model, the earth will become irreversibly inhospitable to life as we know it.”

Across the country, fossil fuel divestment initiatives have met with mixed results. In May, the Board of Trustees of Stanford University announced that Stanford will not make direct investments from its $18.7 billion endowment in coal-mining companies — making it the largest and most prestigious college to get on board. Other college administrations, including that of Harvard University, have not approved divestment initiatives. What kind of momentum the Stanford decision may give the fossil fuel divestment movement remains to be seen.

SPECIAL OFFERINGS 

In 2012, a Special Offerings Task Force failed to get recommendations for reconfiguring the denomination’s four special offerings through the General Assembly — and this year, a new task force with somewhat revised recommendations is trying again.

The recommendation (Item 08-13) still sets a goal of raising $20 million a year from the special offerings by 2020 — in part by encouraging congregations to give more, either by increasing the number of special offerings in which they participate or by increasing the amount they give by 10 percent a year.

The proposal also is to make changes in the offerings themselves. Among the recommendations: the Peacemaking Offering would become the Peace and Global Witness Offering, with half the money raised going to the Presbyterian Mission Agency and a quarter each to congregations and presbyteries. The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board would create an advisory committee to clarify how the portions of the Christmas Joy Offering (which now supports racial-ethnic schools) might be used more broadly to support racial ethnic leadership development — for example, potentially to support leadership of the 1,001 New Worshipping Communities.

MID COUNCIL COMMISSION 

This is another case where the independent-thinking 2012 General Assembly did not approve what a task force or commission recommended. That assembly voted down a proposal that synods be ended “as ecclesiastical bodies” — authorizing a new commission to study the role and function of synods in the denomination.

After a year and a half of discussion and discernment, that new commission is recommending (Item 05-04) that the PC(USA) decrease the number of synods from 16 to eight by 2016, and that they be “eight larger regional synods, each with an emerging sense of purpose, partnership, context and call.”

SEXUAL ABUSE 

Some recommendations come to this assembly out of the PC(USA)’s struggles over allegations of sexual abuse — particularly the lessons learned in the case of Jeff Peterson-Davis, a former teaching elder who renounced the denomination’s jurisdiction when facing trial in a church court involving allegations by several young men that he had sexually abused them in congregations he had served.

In response to the difficult lessons learned in that case, both the presbyteries of Greater Atlanta and Western Reserve — places where Peterson-Davis had been a member — are bringing overtures to try to tighten the rules to prevent future cases of abuse.

Two overtures (Item 06-03 and Item 06-05) would prohibit former teaching elders who had renounced jurisdiction in the midst of a judicial proceeding from working for a PC(USA) congregation, either for pay or as a volunteer. The Advisory Committee on the Constitution recommends disapproval of both, saying in part that “this proposed amendment appears to be punitive … ”

Another overture (Item 06-04) would require a pastor nominating committee to conduct a criminal background check and a check of civil court judgments before issuing a call to a teaching elder. The rationale for that overture, presented by Greater Atlanta Presbytery, states that “background checks are commonplace at every level of our society: volunteer coaches, teachers, church custodians, etc. Almost every other mainline denomination requires background checks for its pastors. It is time for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to take the simple but effective step to strengthen our requirements to protect those under our care.”

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution also recommends disapproval of that overture, stating it’s not the proper vehicle to provide the desired protection and that it “may raise the potential of increased exposure to liability issues.”

INTERRELIGIOUS RELATIONS 

The General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations is recommending that the assembly approve a new paper (Item 07-02) outlining a proposed “Interreligious Stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

The paper was crafted following a consultation in September 2013 of more than 60 church leaders, seminary professors and interreligious leaders at Stony Point Center. It affirms the PC(USA)’s commitment “to work for the common good in society” along with those of other faith traditions and urges the denomination to strengthen its interreligious relationships.

Among its recommendations: that the denomination’s Book of Order be amended to include language that the PC(USA) “at all levels will be open to opportunities for respectful dialogue and mutual relationships with religious entities and persons outside the Christian tradition. It does this in the faith that the church of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit, is a sign and means of God’s intention for the wholeness of all humankind and all creation.”

BELHAR CONFESSION 

A special committee is once again asking that the Belhar Confession (Item 13-01) — which South African Christians wrote in 1986, a treatise on unity, forgiveness and reconciliation written in the context of apartheid — be added to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions.

There’s a history to this recommendation: the 2010 assembly approved adding Belhar as a confession, but that proposal fell a little short of the two-thirds approval vote of presbyteries needed to make the change. Belhar also came before the 2012 assembly for consideration, with the assembly voting to create a special committee to study the confession, and with that committee now recommending that the 2014 assembly vote to add Belhar to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions. If that happens, another vote by the presbyteries also would be required.

The committee also is asking the assembly to consider an accompanying letter, which specifically speaks to challenges facing the Presbyterians; to the denomination’s own experience with division and racism; and to its commitments to justice and reconciliation.

SOCIAL JUSTICE 

Presbyteries have sent an array of overtures on a range of social justice and peacemaking issues, both in the U.S. and internationally — covering everything from U.S. relations with Cuba and sectarian violence in Egypt to immigration, political reform and food sovereignty.

RACIAL ETHNIC MINISTRIES 

The National Racial Ethnic Ministries Task Force is asking the assembly to consider several recommendations (Item 09-14). Among them: that the PC(USA) hold a churchwide conference on race, ethnicity and ethnocentricity in 2015; and that the church hold a national consultation in 2015 on developing regional racial ethnic ministries.

YOUTH DELEGATES 

The Synod of the Covenant has sent an overture (Item 03-03) seeking an amendment to the PC(USA) constitution to give young adult advisory delegates votes during plenary sessions of General Assembly. Young adult delegates currently have full vote in committee meetings, but only advisory votes during plenary sessions.

The overture proposes that each presbytery would send to the assembly one young adult commissioner, ages 18 to 25. It does not specify that they must be either ruling or teaching elders — and that’s one reason why the Advisory Committee on the Constitution recommends disapproval of the overture.

CHURCHWIDE INITATIVES 

The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board is proposing two new churchwide initiatives intended to unite Presbyterians in serving the world.

One, “Educate a Child, Transform the World,” (Item 14-02) would rally Presbyterians to improve the quality of education for at least one million children in the U.S. and internationally over the next four years.

The other, “Living Missionally,” (Item 14-03), encourages Presbyterians “to go beyond the walls of their congregations and increase their engagement in service to their communities and the world.”

DENOMINATIONAL LEADERS 

The assembly will be asked to confirm the election of three church leaders: the re-election of Linda Valentine (Item 08-16) as executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, for a third four-year term; the re-election of Tom Taylor (Item 12-07) as president of the Presbyterian Foundation, to a second four-year term; and the election of Frank Spencer (Item 12-11) as the new president of the Board of Pensions.

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