The 2020 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) got off to a somewhat turbulent start June 19 — with the first plenary of this first-ever virtual assembly going so long that the election of co-moderators didn’t happen, delayed until June 20 and slated now for a newly-scheduled evening session that wasn’t supposed to be.
That added plenary session – with the election of co-moderators as the only item of business – now is set for 7 p.m. EDT on June 20.
The assembly made the decision to convene the assembly for an extra night, on Saturday, after roughly three hours of debate and consideration of what the work of this assembly ought to be — bearing in mind that it’s being held virtually, on an abbreviated schedule, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) had recommended that the assembly consider only items determined to be “core and critical” – with the criteria for that being threefold, according to COGA vice moderator Stephanie Anthony:
- That the item is so time-sensitive the assembly needs to address it now;
- That not addressing it in 2020 would negatively affect PC(USA) finances;
- That not addressing it would leave important leadership positions vacant.
While COGA made recommendations about what items should be on that list, COGA moderator Barbara Gaddis told the commissioners: “This is your assembly. … It is your call, commissioners, to lead the church in this time.”
Among the issues that commissioners raised:
- Whether the assembly should create an assembly-wide committee to discuss how the PC(USA) will address social justice prior to the next General Assembly, in 2022. (That proposal failed).
- Whether the assembly should address head-on the controversy over whether San Francisco Theological Seminary should be considered a PC(USA) seminary (multiple attempts to put that before the assembly also failed).
- Whether some items that COGA was recommending be referred to the next assembly, in 2022, should instead be considered this year. Only two items were successfully resurrected for consideration this year – the Native American Coordinating Council Report and the Native American Church Property Report.
In arguing that the assembly needed to discuss this year those reports involving Native American ministry, commissioner Nelson Capitan, a ruling elder from of the Presbytery of Santa Fe, argued that a delay would mean further deterioration of Native American church facilities that already need repairs, and that the PC(USA) would continue to push aside concerns “long dismissed,” failing to act on “our commitment to right our past wrongs as a church.”
This assembly began with acknowledgments of lands Presbyterians now occupy that formerly were the homelands of indigenous peoples. “I remind the body that our Native American congregations — many of them are in deplorable conditions,” said commissioner Jose Olagues, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of the Grand Canyon.
Corresponding member Conrad Rocha from the Synod of the Southwest urged the commissioners to “get off our blessed assurances and begin the act of reparation long overdue to our Native American siblings,” to take action on “issues of justice long overdue.”
The assembly voted 285-182 (with 61% voting yes) to consider the Native American Coordinating Council Report and 394-71 to consider the property report at this assembly rather than referring those matters to the assembly in 2022.
But as the discussion ran on, the commissioners effectively ran out of time to debate whether more items ought to be taken off the referral list and also be considered this year.
The moderators for this plenary session were Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and Cindy Kohlmann, co-moderators of the 2018 General Assembly.
Just after 11 p.m. EDT, Kohlmann recognized Theresa Denton, moderator of the assembly Committee on Business Referrals, who made a motion to postpone the election of the co-moderators until 7 p.m. EDT on June 20. Kohlmann reminded the assembly that the election was already two hours behind schedule and was expected to take, along with the installation, at least two hours.
“Oh, the motions are growing – they’re growing,” she said, as commissioners began lining up in the virtual system to speak. Kohlmann said at least four people wanted to call the question – to end debate and move to a vote – while eight others wanted to submit motions, meaning they had other matters they wanted the assembly to consider, such as possibly asking the 2020 General Assembly to discuss the church’s family leave policy or matters involving social justice.
Kohlmann decided to let the assembly decide whether to end debate – and the commissioners voted 382-80 (83% voting yes) to do exactly that, and then voted 425-39 to approve the list of business (with some items being received by this assembly for information, others for action, and others being referred to the 2022 General Assembly).
So a question that was left unresolved was: What were the issues that those standing (virtually) in line felt passionately couldn’t wait another two years – that this assembly really needs to consider?
Earlier in the evening, Michael Casey, a Young Adult Advisory Delegate from Albany Presbytery, had said: “I do believe the PC(USA) needs to address social justice initiatives and the social justice problems that face our society. … Jesus was a social justice warrior.”
But Kerri Allen, a corresponding member and co-moderator of the Task Force on the Predicament of Black Women and Girls, said that while she agrees with that sentiment, “we are in the midst of two pandemics” – COVID-19 and “a pandemic of racism.” An online assembly “creates inequities,” with some who are vulnerable and marginalized not able to participate, Allen said. She urged Presbyterians who care about social justice to “continue doing the work of Jesus Christ” and consider these issues more fully at the assembly in 2022.
Earlier in the night, the assembly had voted to let in two items of new business:
- A recommendation from the assembly Committee on Business Referrals called “On Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” and
- A recommendation from COGA called “On the Church in this Moment in History,” which Anthony said would “give the assembly space to begin in speaking on racial justice and to honor the work of all those who submitted business” on social justice. Anthony said that recommendation reminds Presbyterians that all levels of the church already are empowered to take those “good ideas” that are being referred to the next assembly and to “run with them, even now.
It’s worth noting: The votes to have this assembly consider certain matters only dealt with the issue of whether they should be on the docket. Debate on the merits of the proposals won’t come until plenary sessions June 26 and 27.
Some of the decisions made in this first plenary were nuts and bolts, such as approving a docket and revised rules under which the 2020 General Assembly is being held. One implication of that: Because neither the Book of Order nor the standing rules technically permit an assembly to be held electronically, the General Assembly in 2022 will need to confirm the decisions this assembly makes.
One issue that rose repeatedly through the night was the question of the status of San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) – which in July 2019 became a graduate program of the University of Redlands in Southern California. In an agency summary being presented to this assembly, the Committee on Theological Education (COTE) does not list SFTS as a PC(USA) seminary.
Commissioner Talitha Amadea Aho, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of San Francisco, sought to have SFTS dean Jana Childers seated as a corresponding member for this assembly.
The PC(USA)’s stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, said the Office of the General Assembly relies on COTE to determine which seminaries the denomination is in relationship with and which seminaries are entitled to send representatives as corresponding members. Last year, “the University of Redlands actually purchased the seminary,” Nelson said, and COTE no longer recognizes SFTS as a PC(USA) institution. “They are attempting to work this out, but at this time there is no standing that would allow them to be seated.”
Based on that, Cintrón-Olivieri ruled that Aho’s motion was not in order — a ruling that later was challenged. “Only the General Assembly has the authority to change the institutional status of seminaries,” said commissioner Sue Coller, a teaching elder from Homestead Presbytery.
Nelson reiterated that based on COTE’s recommendation, SFTS “is no longer understood to be a Presbyterian institution,” although “the category is being negotiated now. … That is being worked out.”
The assembly voted 334-133 (72% yes) to sustain Cintrón-Olivieri’s ruling.
And after all that discussion – on SFTS and other matters – the assembly did not have the scheduled co-moderators election – with three teams standing to serve the PC(USA) in that leadership role. Some commissioners wanted to keep going – to push through. But commissioner Tom Stephen, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of Santa Barbara, argued that “we’ve been on Zoom for four hours already. … It’s important that we think clearly about it.”
If the assembly went ahead with the election, the plenary wouldn’t finish until at least 1 a.m. EDT, Kohlmann said. The vote to add a Saturday session: 349-120, with about three-quarters of the commissioners voting yes.