On June 19 at the opening plenary of the 224th General Assembly, stated clerk J. Herbert Nelson shared an opening address with simultaneous pastoral and prophetic tones.
He started by saying, “We’re not here by accident; we are here in this place, this time, and this moment as a witness to the broader reach of faith.”
Nelson went on to lament that the General Assembly was not gathering in person in Baltimore, as planned. He reflected on the ministry of Eugene Carson Blake, stated clerk of the PCUSA and the United Presbyterian Church in the 1950s and 1960s. Nelson showed a photo of Blake with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders marching down Constitution Avenue with linked arms during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
Nelson acknowledged that the assembly could not meet in Baltimore because of the coronavirus pandemic, but said that the church must still speak and act prophetically like Blake because this is a time of disturbance and unrest in the nation’s streets. He remembered Breonna Taylor in Louisville, George Floyd in Minnesota and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia — all African Americans who were wrongfully murdered in recent weeks.
Nelson went on to say, “We have to remember that this did not start yesterday … we have to get off of our blessed assurance to do something about this.”
Nelson went on to name other important events also happening in June — reflecting on Pride Month and the need for full inclusion. He stated that the PC(USA) has made strides towards inclusion, “but still, there are those who struggle with what it means to come out, or tell their families they want to come out.”
Nelson reflected theologically on the assembly and why it gathers, and stated: “God reminds us that we gather not because we have to have a reason, but because we love the Lord and heard an outcry. … This time God has chosen us, the PC(USA), to be the one that will lead the way. We are not deserving of this, but God chose us by grace. That’s why we’re here. … We are called by God to be the church of Jesus Christ in the world. And the world needs a sign now more than ever. … We are called to be the ambassadors of Christ, to be the body of Christ in the world.”
Nelson said that despite the fact that Presbyterians cannot gather in person this year, they are gathered in spirit. He offered a charge to the commissioners of the 224th General Assembly: “Your charge is to represent the church of Jesus Christ in a time a great loss, sadness and fear as well as great opportunity, love and hope. Our hope is great because it is hope that comes from the great one. Grace has been bestowed upon you in Jesus Christ and it is sufficient grace so that you can walk by faith, not by sight.”
He then had the commissioners stand and asked the commissioning questions. Following that he invited all non-commissioners who were gathered to stand and asked them, “Do we accept these commissioners, chosen by God through the voice of the church to guide us in the way of Jesus Christ?”
Nelson closed with a prayer referencing the waters of baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit — with a call to walk in faith, hope and love and be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. “We pray that you would give them courage to face the challenges of today. Give them creativity and compassion to respond to all who are suffering and conviction to witness to your truth. Help these, your servants, to welcome your guidance and in their deliberation bring about what is best for all of us and all your people. Let the Holy Spirit work through them … let the people of God say amen.”
Nelson closed saying, “You are now commissioned to be the commissioners of the 224th GA. Whatever you do in word or in deed, do everything in the name of Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God through him.”