General Assembly co-moderators will convene discussions in dispute over status of San Francisco Theological Seminary; will engage mediator if needed

The co-moderators of the 2020 General Assembly, Gregory Bentley and Elona Street-Stewart, have decided to intervene in the simmering, sometimes caustic dispute between San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) and the Committee on Theological Education (COTE).

Bentley told the assembly June 27 – just as some items potentially related to SFTS were about to come up on the agenda – that he and Street-Stewart will call the parties together “as soon as possible” after the assembly concludes to try to settle the disagreement. If needed, they will bring in a mediator to help, Bentley said.

That announcement averted a potential floor fight at the 2020 General Assembly over the relationship of San Francisco Theological Seminary to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – essentially, the question of whether SFTS, which became a graduate program of the University of Redlands in 2019, is still a PC(USA) seminary.

Gregory Bentley addressed the assembly

Bentley told the assembly that “this is not a clear item of business that allows us to address the core questions in the dispute. Nor is there adequate capacity among commissioners to fully discuss, understand and make a decision. There are many issues the church is facing today. And we do not think that this assembly wants to be defined by this conflict in this time and place when so much of the world is in pain and yearning for a word of hope.”

Here is the text of what Bentley said to the assembly on this issue:

“As you know, there has been some discord among us related to the relationship that the University of Redlands Graduate School of Theology-San Francisco Theological Seminary has to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). This is an important issue and we do not want to diminish it in any way. However, in our judgment it is nor possible for this assembly to settle the dispute between URGST, the University of Redlands Graduate School of Theology and San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Committee on Theological Education. This is not a clear item of business that allows us to address the core questions in the dispute. Nor is there adequate capacity among commissioners to fully discuss, understand and make a decision. There are many issues the church is facing today And we do not think that this assembly wants to be defined by this conflict in this time and place when so much of the world is in pain and yearning for a word of hope.

“Further, as is public knowledge, there is a remedial case before the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission that is attempting to adjudicate the very questions at the heart of the disagreement between the committee on Theological Education and the University of Redlands Graduate School of Theology-San Francisco Theological Seminary. Therefore, Elona and I are committing ourselves and the office that we now hold to call both parties together as soon as possible after this assembly to continue conversations in earnest in an attempt to settle their dispute. If need be, we will engage a mediator to assist us. We trust that all parties will engage this process in good faith and enter with no preconditions. We do this in the interest of justice, in the interest o reconciliation, and the interest of the work we are called to do together at this assembly.  Thank you. God bless you.”

Making that announcement resulted in the assembly stepping back from conflict on two items of business that related indirectly to the dispute — approving a list of trustees elected by PC(USA)-related seminaries and granting permission to PC(USA) Theological Institutions to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

Howard Boswell, a teaching elder from Shenandoah Presbytery, tried to make a motion to include SFTS on the list of seminaries that could celebrate the Lord’s Supper — saying that “come to the table” is a central message of the church, and when conflict exists, “we are urged to sit down to hash things out.”

Bentley ruled Boswell out of order, because of the announcement he had already made about the pending discussions involving SFTS.

Most of the rest of the business during this second-to-last plenary session June 27 flowed relatively smoothly. Among the items the assembly approved:

  • Confirmed the election of David Crawford as the 11th president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.
  • Approved a revision of the bylaws of the PC(USA), A Corporation Board to change the size of the board from 11 voting members to 13 (with the denomination’s stated clerk serving as an ex-officio 14th member, without vote). That expansion adds another at-large member and a representative from the Board of Pensions.
  • Approved a report from an administrative commission formed to address disorder in the Synod of the Covenant.
  • Extending the terms of a series of special committees, teams and task forces. Those committees can continue working virtually, although not meeting in person, and will have no budgets beyond what’s needed for their leadership to report to the General Assembly in 2022. Another result: The Moving Forward Implementation Commission has now become a committee, without the power of a commission to act on its own between General Assemblies.

The assembly also voted to approve a slate of nominees presented to the General Assembly Nominating Committee to serve on a variety of PC(USA) entities. Commissioners raised questions periodically through the proceedings about whether the membership of particular committees was sufficiently balanced – and Lindsey Anderson, the moderator of the nominating committee, said that committee “shares the concern about diversity and representation.”

But in some cases, the number of applicants for seats on a particular entity was equal to or even less than the number of open seats – limiting the choices of the nominating committee, she said. The more diverse the pool of applicants, the broader is the group from which the nominating committee can make recommendations, Anderson said.

“Would you feel called to serve? Please apply,” Armstrong told commissioners, young adult advisory delegates and those watching the livestream. She also asked Presbyterians to encourage people of color to apply and to work to nurture the leadership skills of people who could make good candidates.

Some commissioners pushed back on the idea that special committees and task forces can’t meet in person — saying those face-to-face interactions can be crucial in doing the work.

Deputy stated clerk Kerry Rice said PC(USA) leaders don’t know when the travel ban for the denomination’s national staff will be lifted, but probably that won’t happen until a coronavirus vaccine is available and there’s been sufficient time for people to receive the vaccine. Looking ahead, Rice said, “we just don’t know when that time might be.”

The co-moderators of the 2020 General Assembly avoided a floor flight June 27 regarding the status of San Francisco Theological Seminary as a PC(USA) seminary by saying they will bring the parties together soon to try to resolve the dispute – using a mediator if necessary. Said co-moderator Gregory Bentley: “We do not think that this assembly wants to be defined by this conflict in this time and place when so much of the world is in pain and yearning for a word of hope.”

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