The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) makes headlines when the big votes roll around — on gay marriage, on divestment, on ordaining gays and lesbians. In between General Assemblies, though, Presbyterians live into the implications of those votes — figuring out how complicated issues translate in real life and reverberate in their own backyards.
For example, the 2014 assembly voted to add to the PC(USA) Book of Confessions the Belhar Confession — a confession from South Africa addressing justice and reconciliation. This spring, as the denomination’s 171 presbyteries were voting whether to approve that amendment (the amendment passed by vote of the presbyteries, but the 2016 General Assembly still needs to give its approval in order for Belhar to be added to the Book of Confessions), people all across the country were watching the video of police officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back in South Carolina.
Reconciliation involves hard, ongoing work. Even after the votes are over, Presbyterians have much to talk about. Here are some of the ongoing reverberations of key issues that have recently been up for General Assembly or presbytery votes.
The PC(USA) now permits, but does not require, its ministers to perform same-gender marriages in jurisdictions where those marriages are legal. That’s the result of an authoritative interpretation passed by the 2014 General Assembly. Also, an amendment to the PC(USA) constitution will take effect June 21, a year after the close of the 2014 General Assembly, changing the definition of Christian marriage in the denomination’s Directory for Worship to say marriage involves “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”
U.S. Supreme Court: The nation’s highest court is considering four cases on same-gender marriage — cases from Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky. In hearing those cases, the nation’s top court is considering two main questions: whether the U.S. Constitution requires states to allow same-sex couples to marry and whether it requires states to recognize legal same-sex marriages that were performed in another state. Oral arguments were heard April 28; a ruling is expected this summer.
State law: At the state level, the shift in policy has been swift and dramatic: Same-sex marriage is now legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia (as of late April). It’s banned in 13 states and disputed in Alabama. Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage — in 2004, more than a decade ago.
Public opinion: According to survey data from 2014, more than half of American adults now say they support legalizing same-sex marriage, although some still vehemently oppose it, and there are significant regional differences in views. The General Social Survey has found public support among American adults for same-sex marriage rising from 30 percent in 2004 to 56 percent in 2014.
Next up: Opponents of same-sex marriage are looking ahead to what they will do if the Supreme Court rules that same-sex marriage is indeed a national right. One expected focus: looking for ways to protect the views of religious or government officials (such as county clerks who issue marriage licenses or magistrates who perform civil marriages) or businesses (such as florists or reception venues) who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds and don’t want to provide services for same-sex couples.
Some Presbyterians see the church’s votes on same-sex marriage as a door into other, broader conversations. Among them: How can congregations help people think about what makes a good marriage or help people who are struggling with the inevitable difficulties in marriage or within families? What does a covenant relationship look like? What are the conversations the church needs to have with those who aren’t married — including those who never marry, those who are widowed or divorced and partners who live together but choose not to marry? What is the value of “families of choice?” For those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered, what do they most want the church to do and be?
The PC(USA) is in the process of deciding whether to add the Belhar Confession — which emerged from the struggle over apartheid in South Africa — to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions. Several levels of approval are required. The 2014 General Assembly voted in favor of adding Belhar. This spring, the change won the required approval from at least two-thirds of the presbyteries (meaning a “yes” vote was needed from at least 114 of the 171 presbyteries). For Belhar to go into the Book of Confessions, the 2016 General Assembly, meeting in Portland, also would need to approve its inclusion — that’s the last required step.
Police violence: Public unrest about the deaths of people of color at the hands of the police continues to be an explosive issue across the country — with people taking to the streets after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Michael Brown in Ferguson and more. “Black Lives Matter” has become a rallying cry on social media and in public protests.
Inequities: Statistics reveal racial disparities in many areas in the U.S.: in rates of incarceration; for those living in poverty and not having enough to eat; in testing scores and dropout rates and readiness for kindergarten; in rates of attending and graduating from college; in home ownership and quality of housing; in unemployment rates, and much more.
Racial reconciliation: Communities struggle with how to have honest and deep conversations about injustice, white privilege and race relations. The PC(USA), with a membership that’s more than 90 percent white, faces its own challenges — which was not helped when the marketing campaign for the 2015 Special Offerings had to be withdrawn in January after criticism broke out that the campaign perpetuated racist stereotypes.
Some Presbyterians are involved in advocacy work being done in their communities about policing, education reform, the death penalty, gun violence, and other issues involving justice and reconciliation. Many congregations work to assist those in need — including refugees, the homeless and those with mental illness.
During a presentation at the NEXT Church conference in March, consultants Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman of Richmond, Virginia, said a conversation on diversity can’t take place unless all the voices are at the table — a conversation about poverty needs to include the voices of people who are poor, Freeman said. Jana called on Presbyterians to expand their contacts with people who come from backgrounds different from their own —with different being broadly defined, including race and ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic groups, geography, age and sexual orientation. “Be a little bit uncomfortable,” Jana said, “and find yourself in situations where you can build relationships.”
In a highly-controversial decision, the 2014 General Assembly voted to divest from three companies it determined were involved in non-peaceful activities in Israel-Palestine: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.
Two-state solution: The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy has named five people to the “Study Team on Prospects for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine.” That study team is to report to the 2016 General Assembly regarding the feasibility of a two-state solution to the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.
Jewish relations: The PC(USA)’s relationship with Jewish leaders has been contentious in recent years — in part because of the divestment issue. Heath Rada, moderator of the 2014 General Assembly, told the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board in April that he and Rick Jacobs, a rabbi who is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, plan to hold a consultation with a group of about 30 Jewish and Presbyterian leaders to talk about “how to mend a broken relationship.”
The 2014 General Assembly voted to refer to the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee a proposal for fossil fuel divestment. The Presbytery of Boston, with significant support from other presbyteries, sent the 2014 assembly an overture instructing the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation to immediately stop such investment and liquidate any holdings within five years. The assembly instead sent the matter MRTI “for action and discernment” — following the procedure MRTI has in place for engaging with individual corporations.
Climate change: The effects of climate change continue to be felt around the globe — with drought in California; with 2014 being the warmest year on record globally; with the rate of species extinction accelerating. The United Nations Climate Change Conference will be held in Paris in December — negotiations are expected there towards reaching an international climate change agreement.
Green congregations: Some congregations are continuing to explore ways to be more environmentally responsible, including following steps to become Earth Care congregations through a PC(USA) program. The Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program (PILP) and the Presbyterian Foundation are working together to create a “green initiative” through which church loan funds could be used to help congregations reduce their carbon emissions and become more energy efficient. More information on that is expected when the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meets again in September.