How to connect faith to the public issues of the day?
The 2018 General Assembly will be asked this question over and over as a small mountain of measures on social justice matters, poverty and racism come to this year’s assembly.
Here’s a quick (but certainly not comprehensive) list of some of the measures coming to the 2018 assembly involving social justice in the U.S.
Autocracy. The Presbytery of Hudson River is asking the assembly to make a declaration regarding “the direction towards autocracy that our country is taking,” with Presbyterians saying “Yes to bridges and No to walls.”
Black women and girls. The Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns is asking the assembly to form a five-person task group to study the research regarding disparities affecting black girls and women. That task group would make recommendations on how the church might “be most effective in impacting this important social issue.”
Candidate endorsements. The Presbytery of Western North Carolina has sent an overture seeking an amendment to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) constitution that would state that no congregation, session, presbytery, synod or national office of the denomination, nor any person acting in an “official capacity” for those institutions, could publicly endorse or oppose a candidate for public office.
The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy supports the proposed amendment, although it recommends adding this exception: No endorsements, “except in cases of extreme danger to the common good, and even then with cautions against extreme partisanship.”
Capital punishment. An overture from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta calls on the 2018 General Assembly to declare its opposition to capital punishment (joining earlier assemblies in doing that) and for “an immediate moratorium on all executions in all jurisdictions that impose capital punishment.”
Civic engagement. The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy is presenting a resolution on “honest patriotism” — encouraging Presbyterians to be involved in civic life, to be open and transparent in decision-making, and to make necessary accommodations, including translating materials into languages other than English, to “ensure the full and active participation of members in the decision-making process of the church.”
Climate change. The assembly will once again consider an overture asking the PC(USA) to divest its holding in fossil fuel companies — and a series of overtures asking the denomination to respond to global warming, but not through divestment. The Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee is asking the assembly to direct MRTI to continue to pursue its corporate engagement process and to approve a set of metrics that MRTI is using to measure progress. Here’s an Outlook backgrounder on climate change issues coming before the assembly.
Doctrine of Discovery. The assembly is being asked to consider 18 recommendations from a group that’s been working to study the history and impact of the Doctrine of Discovery, and make recommendations on ways that congregations and the denomination can support human rights for Native Americans and live into the findings of the report.
The Doctrine of Discoveryis a concept that Pope Alexander VI articulated in the papal bull “Inter Caetera” in 1493 and that became entrenched in international law, providing justification for colonial imperialism, enslavement and the taking of land and rights from indigenous peoples.
The Presbytery of Yukon has sent an overture asking the PC(USA) to expand its response to the Doctrine of Discovery.
And the Presbytery of Grand Canyon wants the assembly to initiate an inventory of the infrastructure needs of Native American churches and chapels, and to create an “ongoing fund for urgent and immediate repairs and improvements” of those facilities.
Drug policy. The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy is presenting a report and recommendations asking the PC(USA) to favor a drug policy that puts healing before punishment. The recommendations are wide-ranging, from helping congregations to respond to addiction needs in their communities to considering disparities in drug sentencing.
One recommendation asks the assembly to recommend “decriminalizing cannabis” and encouraging states to pardon and expunge the records of those who have been arrested for cannabis infractions. Movement towards legalization “generally should take place after publicly funded study of social, educational, crime-related, and medical impacts,” the report states.
Gun violence. The Presbytery of New Castle is asking the assembly to “call upon God to wake us up from seeing gun violence as normal and to grant divine courage to our more than 10,000 churches that we might foster a nationwide conversation on gun violence in every community.” The overture also asks the assembly to “confess that, in spite of fifty years of Presbyterian advocacy to reduce gun violence, we have been paralyzed by fear of the gun and ammunition lobby and our church has not adequately applied the power of God’s love to the issue of gun violence.”
Gospel from St. Louis. Building on the commitments of congregations and pastors in St. Louis, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy is asking the assembly to affirm “the support of the Reformed Christian tradition for public protest, community organizing, and the commitment to social righteousness,” and to learn from the example of Presbyterians in St. Louis and elsewhere who are already involved in such work.
LGBTQ. The 2018 assembly will consider several measures involving sexual orientation and gender identity. New Castle Presbytery has sent two overtures related to this. One asks the assembly to affirm and celebrate the full dignity and humanity of people of all gender identities, and to acknowledge “that the church has fallen short of these commitments and obligations.”
Another asks the assembly to affirm “the gifts of LGBTQ+ people for ministry and celebrates their service in the church and in the world,” and to lament “the ways that the policies and actions of the PC(USA) have caused gifted, faithful, LGBTQ+ Christians to leave the Presbyterian church so that they could find a more welcoming place to serve.”
The 2016 General Assembly took up the denomination’s history with LGBTQ people as well – offering regret and “deep sorrow,” but stopping short of an outright apology.
The Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns also has sent a resolutionasking the assembly to set up a task force to investigate the need for creating an advocacy committee for LGBTQ+ concerns.
#MeToo. The assembly will consider a handful of #MeToo and #ChurchToo recommendations involving sexual abuse policies. That includes a recommendation from the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns that the assembly create a task force to conduct a comprehensive examination of PC(USA) policy, judicial process and rules of discipline regarding sexual misconduct.
Here are two Outlookstories explaining in-depth #MeToo issues coming to the 2018 General Assembly: Read an overview of the #MeToo issue at this assembly. Also, Presbyterian pastor Kris Schondelmeyer, who was sexually abused at a national Presbyterian youth event when he was 17, is supporting a proposal to change policy to give people more time to file disciplinary charges in the PC(USA) system for “instances of gross negligence enabling the sexual abuse of another person.”
Mental illness. Mission Presbytery is asking the assembly to establish a $250,000 grant to develop an action plan and resources that congregations, mid councils and seminaries could use to educate Presbyterians about serious mental illness, and to evaluate actions taken since the 2008 assembly approved. Newton Presbytery is concurring, but suggesting that the fund be $1 million.
Nuclear disarmament. The Presbytery of New Hope is calling on Presbyterians to support nuclear disarmament and to “renounce any policy that threatens the death of millions of God’s children in any land with a single command and a single warhead.” The overture also calls on the U.S. government to start immediately “the process of complete, irreversible, and verifiable nuclear disarmament.”
The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy recommends an alternate resolution: calling for an ecumenical study on global order and national purpose.
People of color. The Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns is asking the assembly to direct all six PC(USA) agencies to begin using the phrase “people of color,” instead of “racial ethnic people.” The advocacy committee would change its name too, to Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC).
Racism and nationalism. The Presbytery of Hudson River is asking the assembly to condemn racist nationalism — “the unjust, racist disparagement of people and entire nations lately, promoted by politicians and government officials at all levels in the mistaken effort to place ‘America First.’ ”
The Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area is suggesting that the assembly adopt Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as a contemporary statement of faith for the PC(USA), although to do so without giving the statement constitutional standing.
New Castle Presbytery wants the assembly to create a task force to write a U.S. letter to accompany the Confession of Belhar, a confession from South African churches which the PC(USA) adopted in 2016. That letter would address the involvement of the PC(USA) and other Reformed churches “in racism in our historical context, building on prior statements of repentance and apology,” the overture states.
The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board is asking the assembly to declare a decade of intercultural transformation from 2020 to 2030, and to “immediately denounce the persistent and demonic presence of racism and the misuse of power and privilege in our individual and institutional lives.”
Religious freedom. The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy is asking the assembly to “stand against any invocation of ‘religious freedom’ that deprives people of their civil and human rights” and to encourage Presbyterians to distinguish between the historical understanding of religious freedom to practice one’s faith and current efforts to discriminate against, exclude, and marginalize vulnerable people in the name of ‘religious freedom.’ ”
And Boise Presbytery has sent an overture asking the assembly to clarify PC(USA) policy on the appropriate limits of religious liberty, including affirming that “religious freedom is not a license for discrimination against any of God’s people … based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”
AROUND THE WORLD, INSIDE THE CHURCH
International. The assembly will also be asked to look at economic, political and human rights concerns from around the world with overtures coming regarding Central America (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, plus socioeconomic and political realities across the region,) and in Yemen, Madagascar, South Sudan and the Korean Peninsula.
Inside the church. Some of the issues the assembly will consider deal more specifically with matters inside the PC(USA). Among them:
- Small church ministry.Grace Presbytery has sent an overture asking that the Presbyterian Mission Agency have a department “dedicated solely to the ministry and mission of the small congregation (defined as having less than fifty adults in attendance at weekly worship).”The overture’s rationale states that 35 percent of PC(USA) congregations have 50 members or fewer, and 59 percent have 100 members or fewer.
- Family leave. The assembly will consider a handful of measures involving the PC(USA)’s family leave policies – several of which seek to make sure that pastors, Christian educators and employees of the national church would be eligible for at least 12 weeks of paid parental leave.
Among the questions likely to pop up during this debate are how much it would cost; whether there should be family leave (for example, to care for aging parents) as well as parental leave; and whether the idea of mandating benefits contradicts the menu-based approach the Board of Pensions has been pursuing, in an effort to offer coverage for more people who work for Presbyterian churches. The assembly’s Church Polity and Ordered Ministry committee will consider the family leave proposals.
And bear in mind: More measures may pop up in commissioners’ resolutions filed as the assembly convenes (new business, filed within 24 hours after the assembly convenes). There’s been discussion on social media, for example, about the possibility of a commissioners’ resolution calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to end the practice of separating children from their parents in detention centers.