What are some of the lessons of the 2020 General Assembly? In a debriefing held June 30 following the just-concluded 2020 General Assembly, members of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) shared their thoughts — including favorite moments (for many of them: worship and the election of Elona Street-Stewart and Gregory Bentley as co-moderators), frustrations and suggestions for improvement. Some of the lessons they raised:
- In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is 90% white, that “white supremacy is baked into our denomination.”
- That the assembly rules and procedures are complex — and those time-honored patterns of doing business may not align well with today’s fast-changing world or the way younger people communicate and get things done. One measure of that: Every successive plenary session at this assembly saw decreasing involvement of Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs), and 40 presbyteries did not send YAADs to the assembly at all.
- That the assembly saw examples of both micro- and macroaggressions against people of color, and discussions of those have consumed much of the online conversation since. An example: A statement released June 30 and signed by 16 former assembly moderators and co-moderators says that “what occurred at the 224th General Assembly was nothing short of white supremacy, white privilege, misogyny, and hypocrisy expressed as indifference, apathy, and outright inaction.”
- That “justice work can’t only be done in anti-racist statements or policies from an assembly” — policy statements aren’t enough. The real question is what congregations and mid councils are doing – or not doing – to give those policies traction close to home.
On the technical side, COGA members poured on the praise for the Office of the General Assembly staff and volunteers. “Any time I would throw out a lifeline … people stepped up,” said Julia Henderson, interim director of assembly operations.
When it came to what actually happened at the assembly, however, assessments were mixed — with this first online General Assembly raising some fundamental questions how committed the mostly-white PC(USA) really is to anti-racism work, and how well suited the assembly structure is for today’s fast-moving world.
“There was a lot to celebrate at this assembly,” said COGA’s new moderator, Stephanie Anthony, a pastor from Illinois. “But I think we also had some hard moments,” including in the assembly’s decision not to consider as new business making a statement about injustice experienced by Black women and girls.
“We are in a very frank way seeing the way that white supremacy is baked into our denomination,” Anthony said. “That is laid bare in some really raw and honest ways” — including in COGA’s own decisions in recent weeks about what business to present to this assembly and what to refer to the next assembly, in 2022.
Focus on process
In the run-up to the assembly, COGA probably focused too much on process – such as how to handle a controversy over the status of San Francisco Theological Seminary as a PC(USA) seminary – and not enough on harder conversations on racism and injustice, Anthony said. “I didn’t see that until it was pointed out to me,” she said. “It’s one of the marks of white supremacist culture — that focus on process” as “a way of avoiding the discomfort.”
Under the rules, the vote to bring in as new business a statement on Black women and girls needed a two-thirds “super-majority” vote of the enrolled commissioners; it had to have 326 votes to prevail. The motion to suspend the rules fell short of that, by a vote of 306 to 144.
“We need to think about what values our processes uphold,” Anthony said. A super-majority requirement in a predominantly white system “is rarely going to yield anti-racist results.”
While the PC(USA) has plenty of policy statements asking Presbyterians to stand against racism and oppression, “justice work can’t only be done in anti-racist statements,” she said. “Process is the structure of the institution. … We’ve got to let the structures be examined and changed as well.”
Part of the difficulty was the speed with which things shifted in the months leading up to the assembly — both with the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the move from a week-long in-person assembly in Baltimore to a shortened format online, and protests that filled the streets following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and other persons of color.
“All of our decisions were made in crisis mode,” said COGA member Leanne Masters — but COGA couldn’t keep up with how quickly things were changing, particularly in the street protests. COGA had drafted a statement on racial injustice in late May to present as new business, but by the time the assembly convened “it was already completely out of date and no longer relevant,” leaving the assembly to craft a stronger substitute statement on racism during plenary, she said.
Because of the assembly’s rules, many reports must be submitted in February – months ahead of the assembly – yet “our world is just moving, moving, moving,” she said. This year, “you could feel the Spirit moving into the assembly … pushing us to be bolder and wiser.”
Words versus action
The votes at this assembly revealed that about three-fourths of those who attended “are on the path, are committed to a changed church” when it comes to working to end structural racism and systemic poverty, said COGA member Sam Bonner. But “a full 25% are not.”
As a denomination, “we have to move with the majority of the General Assembly and we have to be bold. … I believe that if this church is not going to die with a potful of money” but few people left in the pews, “we are going to have to make hard decisions about whether we truly are doing something about poverty and racism, right away.”
While the PC(USA) has plenty of policy statements opposing racism and oppression, Presbyterians also need to think honestly about their commitment to living out those policies, Bentley said.
“How do we take these fantastic statements that we make and that we publish, and how do we make them come alive in our congregations and our presbyteries?” Bentley asked.
Sometimes Presbyterians have “an inordinate amount of intensity about saying the right thing and not necessarily doing the right thing,” he said.
“In a way, it’s a very American challenge of being more obsessed with our rights than our responsibilities” — of wanting the right to speak, but not necessarily the responsibility to translate those words into actions, Bentley said. “How do we make this come alive on the ground?”
No matter how hard Presbyterians work to come up with the right words, “that doesn’t mean anything to our neighbors. What our neighbors want to see is solidary. How do we come alongside people who are suffering, and join with them in creating a better world?”
While commissioners received training on voting procedures and use of the Zoom platform, Shannan Vance-Ocampo, a presbytery executive who is vice chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and that board’s representative on COGA, said more training is needed — as it was the “the human stuff that was problematic,” not the technology.
During an 8-minute, 46-second silent vigil June 27 to allow prayer and reflection about the police killing this year of George Floyd, one commissioner changed his Zoom name to “pre-born lives matter,” Vance-Ocampo said. And another commissioner spoke to Bentley in a discussion about celebrating the Lord’s Supper at San Francisco Theological Seminary in a way that was inappropriate and disrespectful to the office and “as a white man addressing a black man,” she said.
The online Zoom platform creates an artificial intimacy — “we feel we’re in each other’s homes,” catching a glimpse of the kitchens and bookshelves and pets of participants, said COGA vice moderator Eliana Maxim. “It also offers the camouflage of anonymity” — with people willing to say and do things they might not do in person.
“I personally left the assembly feeling very discouraged and defeated,” Maxim said. “There was a significant amount of woundedness that this assembly inflicted on many people,” particularly those of color. “The assembly was littered with micro- and macroaggressions. It would have been gospel work to name them in that moment so we could all learn and be transformed by that.”
“We have set up a system that is incredibly complex,” said COGA member Andy James. “We operate by a book that is 700 pages long, and then we add our own 70-page document on top of that. … Our in-person process rewards and encourages complexity,” a system in which those with deep connections and procedural knowledge are more likely to get what they want, said the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson — and in which newcomers feel overwhelmed.
While YAADs have both voice and vote in assembly committees, their votes in plenary sessions are only advisory — and this year’s assembly, shortened and held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, did not have committees. Over the course of the assembly, the young adult participation kept dropping, and “that’s deeply disappointing,” James said. COGA needs to find a better way to involve young people — “the church deserves that and so do they,” said COGA member Luis Jose Ocasio Torres.
Nelson has said repeatedly that the General Assembly can’t go back to its old way of doing business. And in this debriefing he spoke of making changes that recognize generational differences, make the process less intimidating to newcomers, make the assembly simpler (and perhaps shorter) and give Presbyterians a way to say more directly and less arcanely what the church is trying to say.
“The complexity of our procedure rules out a lot of people,” Nelson said, adding that this assembly had some passion to speak out about the oppression of Black women and girls, “but that passion met the law,” and nothing happened.
During the proceedings, “I can see young people checking out” of the floor debate, but making their views known on Twitter, he said. The YAADs might not have had a vote in plenary, but on Twitter “they commissioned themselves.”
The PC(USA) has detailed rules for conducting assemblies at a time in society “where there are people who quite frankly en masse don’t feel like going through all these gyrations” – in a world where “everything is quick and fast … we are in a heavy-duty deliberative process” that sometimes intimidates those who are new and rewards those with prior connections.
Too often, commissioners said, “This is my first General Assembly, and I’m not really sure what’s going on,” Street-Stewart said.
“Is there a way we can think through simplifying a General Assembly?” Nelson asked. “I’m not saying dumb things down — I don’t want you to hear that at all.”
But people who aren’t General Assembly insiders have issues they want to talk about that don’t get heard, such as addressing the high cost of educational debts for students.
This year, with protesters in the streets, the General Assembly couldn’t find a way to talk about the oppression of Black women and girls. A clear message is that “women have been treated like they walked in the back door since the beginning of history,” Nelson said. “Women are trying to say, ‘Treat me as though I’m free.’ ”
Timing was also a difference, and possibly a learning curve. Traditionally, a General Assembly debates serious matters late into the night — often wrestling slowly and at length with issues and wording.
Young people today, Nelson said, communicate in a way that “it’s quick and its fast and it moves.”