The General Assembly Committee on Business Referral has approved the proposed docket for the online General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to be held in June — and the list of business items to be considered during plenary sessions on June 19, 26 and 27.
That list includes items considered “critical and core” for the PC(USA)’s work over the next two years — including such things as approving budgets and confirming the appointments of denominational leaders. But the assembly will be asked to refer overtures and many other items to the General Assembly in 2022 — a recognition that an online assembly conducted on computers needs to operate differently than a week-long, in-person event would have.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the PC(USA) General Assembly is meeting virtually this year, instead of in-person in Baltimore, and the length of the meeting will be abbreviated.
The Business Referral committee met May 5 during the General Assembly Leader Briefing – with the committee’s membership consisting of the moderators and vice moderators of what were to have been the assembly’s other 11 committees.
There was a recognition in that discussion, however, that the assembly itself could vote to consider new business, or take up additional items this year, instead of referring them to the assembly two years from now. The vote to approve the list of business items was 17-3, with a few committee members voicing concern about the assembly not taking on social justice issues this year, such as gun violence or family leave policy.
“What I don’t see is a real enactment of our commitment to social justice that flows out of our faith,” said Megan Acedo, a committee member and commissioner from the Presbytery of Philadelphia.
J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, responded that “we probably have more policy than most denominations” on social justice matters – and Presbyterians will be involved in public policy advocacy over the next two years, even if the 2020 General Assembly doesn’t consider overtures from presbyteries. “We have never stopped doing justice work,” Nelson said.
This will be a “very different and historic General Assembly,” said Cindy Kohlmann, co-moderator with Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri of the 2018 General Assembly, in welcoming participants to an online Leader Briefing May 5. “Everything is different now, and you are still willing to serve in the midst of what has been unexpected and unprecedented.”
Cintrón-Olivieri led the assembly leaders in prayer, praying in Spanish and reading from the 43rd chapter of Isaiah in English, telling the participants of God’s promise: “Do not fear. For I am with you.”
That briefing followed the same format the assembly itself will use: with official participants (for the assembly: commissioners, advisory delegates and corresponding members) logging in with special access, and a video of the proceedings being livestreamed for observers via the General Assembly website and the Spirit of GA Facebook page.
In March, “normal came to a screeching halt” as the COVID-19 pandemic and bans on large gatherings made it clear that an in-person assembly couldn’t happen, said Barbara Gaddis, moderator of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA).
In limiting the business that the 2020 General Assembly will consider, “we were really concerned about bandwidth” technologically and personally if commissioners were asked to consider the full range of business, Gaddis said. “Eight to 10 to 12 hours sitting in a Zoom meeting didn’t seem realistic to us.”
COGA evaluated “every single item of business” being presented to the assembly, every event on the schedule, said COGA vice moderator Stephanie Anthony.
This Leader Briefing also demonstrated some of the potential technological challenges to holding a virtual assembly – with the livestream disappearing for a time, and with the moderator of the committee, Theresa Denton, being unable to sustain a computer connection after intense storms known as a derecho knocked out power in the Nashville, Tennessee area, where she lives.
Nelson also described the revised theme for the assembly – “From Lament to Hope,” acknowledging the disappointment of the Committee on Local Arrangements in Baltimore, which has worked intensely on planning for the last two years.
Even though the assembly won’t meet in Baltimore, “we left our imprint there,” with interns working for the past two years there on community-based projects with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, Nelson said. “We left something there,” and the offering that will be taken at the virtual General Assembly will go to support initiatives involving young people from low-income families in the city, he said.
There may be glitches at this virtual assembly — with technology, something can always go wrong, Nelson said. “This is a test for us, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” – with the denomination serving as sort of a guinea pig to show other denominations what’s possible, he said.
He continued: “God is in the business of liberating us in ways again that we we never could imagine. Who would have thought we could be sitting here in a Leaders Gathering on Zoom? Who even knew two years ago what Zoom was?”