I attended the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, the biennial gathering of our beloved Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) denomination where we attempt to faithfully discern the will of God and set direction for the church for the next two years. I used my study leave to be there as an observer and a volunteer reporter for the Presbyterian Outlook.
It was an incredible and exhausting week! The best summary I read that captured my feelings about the week was written by my friend Landon Whitsitt, a synod executive from Kansas: “Presbyterians, again, you were magic. You did amazing things in Portland this week. I am proud to serve you. I am proud to know you. I am proud to be one of you.” That reflects my own experience of the assembly and my feelings. It is a great time in the history of our church to be a Presbyterian!
Narrowing my list of the five most important things to come out of the assembly was difficult, so I encourage you to check out all of the Outlook’s coverage.
- Belhar Confession: In my opinion, the number-one thing this assembly did was to complete the process of adding the Belhar Confession as the twelfth confessional document contained in the Book of Confessions. While this was pretty much a foregone conclusion — since it was tentatively approved at the last assembly and three-fourths of the presbyteries have already given their required assent — still, it is of great historic significance. As Presbyterians, our confessions guide us in what we believe and how we practice our faith. We voted to add a confession from South Africa written during the apartheid era that calls the church to reconciliation and justice. This is significant in so many ways; in addition to the strong language around Christ’s call to reconciliation, we are recognizing that we are a global church, and we have the wisdom and humility to adopt a confession written by a church from the global south. After the positive vote, theologian Allan Boesak of South Africa, one of the authors of the Belhar Confession, addressed the assembly. He ended his remarks saying, “We may not know what tomorrow may bring, but I know this: Tonight, we have overcome. I know this: Because of Jesus, we shall overcome. I know this: Whatever may come in our world, we shall overcome.” In a moving moment, the assembly responded by spontaneously breaking into song, singing — what else? —“We Shall Overcome.” Click on the links here and here to read more about this historic decision and also read the entire text of the Belhar Confession.
- New faces in leadership: The assembly elected Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston (teaching elders from National Capital and Chicago presbyteries, respectively) as its first-ever co-moderators. It is the first time we have elected two women to lead the General Assembly. I know Denise from previous work and got to know Jan over the course of the week. Our church could not be in better hands for the next two years with this dynamic duo leading us as co-moderators. The assembly also elected J. Herbert Nelson as stated clerk. Previously he worked as the director of the church’s “Office of Public Witness” in Washington, D.C. I have worked with J. Herbert for the past four years and couldn’t be more excited about his election and the leadership he will provide. J. Herbert is a powerful orator in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and a change-agent. When accepting his nomination, be boldly proclaimed, “We are not dead, we are reforming and we are alive and well!” He also encouraged us to “move beyond church walls into the streets” and to get involved in creating jobs and feeding the hungry. To read more about these exciting new leaders of the PCUSA click on the links below:
- Fossil fuel debate: After passionate but civil debate, the assembly rejected a call for aggressive divestment of the church’s stock-market holdings in 200 corporations that produce fossil fuels. Instead, the assembly chose a “middle way” to respond to global climate change, fossil fuels and our role as good stewards of God’s creation by engaging fossil fuel companies in dialogue through shareholder resolutions. This topic had the potential to be as divisive as some of the debates at General Assembly two years ago. Instead, the commissioners chose to model healthy, civil dialogue and the outcome responds to our call to care for creation. I covered this particular issue for the Presbyterian Outlook as a reporter, and would love to continue the conversation with anyone who is interested.
- Denominational structures and the future of the Presbyterian Church: The assembly considered a number of overtures related to how we function as a denomination, the role and composition of our denominational structures and national offices and what the future of our denomination should look like. Two years ago, the assembly voted to reduce the number of synods (middle-governing bodies made up of presbyteries.) This year’s assembly reversed that vote. This assembly’s “The Way Forward Committee” considered the role of our national offices and our denominational structures and ministries. The outcome is that we will be entering an intensive two-year process of discernment about what God is calling the Presbyterian denomination to do and be in the future, particularly as it relates to our national offices. There will be an “administrative commission” established to review and explore possibilities for combining some of our national offices and their functions (specifically the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly), and also a “2020 Vision Team” to develop a “guiding statement” for the PC(USA) – putting together a big-thinking team that would be asked to set a new vision for the denomination by 2020.
- Human sexuality issues and the church’s response: The atmosphere at this assembly was far less contentious than the last two I attended. This is largely due to the changes that took place at the last two assemblies, allowing freedom for LGBTQ believers to become ordained pastors, and a similar freedom for pastors and sessions wishing to offer same-sex marriage ceremonies where permitted by civil law. There was an overture to reverse the same-sex marriage decision and to return to the “one man and one woman” language. This was resoundingly defeated by a more than a 4-to-1 margin. Another overture, coming from the opposite end of the theological spectrum, called on the church to formally apologize to LGBTQ Christians who have been marginalized by past church teachings. The assembly declined to apologize, speaking instead of “regret.” This was in order to provide gracious space for those who continue to dissent from the church’s stance on same-sex marriage, honoring their freedom of conscience while still taking a step towards reconciliation with those who have been hurt and excluded by previous church policies related to homosexuality.
There were many other issues that were voted on during the week in Portland. While much of this business will never make headlines, it represents the hard but joyful work of the General Assembly in discerning God’s will and call for the church.
GREG ALLEN-PICKETT serves as the director of global mission at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. Prior to coming to FPC, Greg was the general manager for Presbyterian World Mission of the PC(USA). Greg has an amazing partner in ministry in his wife, Jessica, and a gregarious and compassionate daughter in elementary school, along with a ridiculous lab-beagle mix dog named Luna.