Imagine for a moment the General Assembly that wasn’t.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is preparing to launch into a virtual General Assembly this June, with a pared-back list of “critical and core” business. The rest of what was supposed to come to this year’s General Assembly – stacks of business on everything from gun control to climate change to international issues – is being referred to the General Assembly in 2022. Who knows what the world will look like then?
Some Presbyterians are pushing hard — saying the General Assembly is compelled, at such a precarious time, to respond to urgent concerns in the world, particularly regarding social justice. And it’s possible commissioners to this virtual assembly could try to add to the docket particular items they feel can’t wait — although with only two days of plenary on June 26 and 27, after the docket is approved, adding something more will make for a tight squeeze.
Whatever happens, the business list from the assembly that wasn’t reflects some of what has been on the hearts of Presbyterians this year —
the kinds of issues they want their church to be talking about at the highest levels, and the justice issues some will keep working on, regardless of what this General Assembly does.
Here’s some (but certainly not all) of what was heading to the assembly in Baltimore in June, before COVID-19 turned everything upside down.
Gun violence prevention. At schools and in stores, at concerts and in bars, mass shootings – with their pain and death and devastation – have become part of the soundtrack of American life.
In response, mid councils sent overtures to the 2020 General Assembly addressing gun violence —
including one from the Synod of the Covenant, drafted partly in response to a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, in August 2019, in which nine people died and 27 were wounded. That overture asks the assembly to push Congress to require background checks for firearm purchases and to ban the sale and ownership of assault rifles and large-capacity ammunition magazines.
An overture from the Presbytery of Chicago commends congregations, families, students and corporations that have called for action to end gun violence. It asks congregations to prayerfully consider what actions they can take. And it requests that a 2010 General Assembly policy be updated to reflect current statistics, the “sinful, historical intersection between guns and race” and “the impact of gun violence on women
Climate change. Divest now from fossil fuel companies or attempt corporate engagement first — that’s a continuing debate among Presbyterians over how to respond to global warming.
The PC(USA)’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) is recommending that the PC(USA) divest from three companies it contends aren’t making enough progress in responding to climate change — Exxon Mobil, Marathon Petroleum and Valero Energy, which have fallen into the “red” or least acceptable zone using MRTI’s system of metrics.
Others want the church to move more quickly. An overture from the Presbytery of Monmouth that seeks to call on the PC(USA) to divest from the fossil fuel industry and instead to invest in companies focused on renewable energy and energy efficiency has concurrences from 24 presbyteries. Another proposal, from the Presbytery of Arkansas, asks the assembly to instruct MRTI to add companies on the Carbon Underground 200 and the S&P Global Industry Classification Standard’s list to the PC(USA)’s divestment list.
Seattle Presbytery has sent an overture asking the PC(USA) to commit its support for the Paris Agreement on climate change from which President Trump has said the U.S. will withdraw.
Other overtures focus on the PC(USA)’s own impact on the environment – with the Presbytery of Des Moines in calling on the PC(USA) to reduce its carbon footprint by 25% in the next four years and the Presbytery of Scioto Valley asking the assembly to direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency to develop a carbon offset program for church-related travel – with money that program generates being used to support a Presbyterian Tree Fund.
If the 2020 General Assembly doesn’t act on any of these, that likely means PC(USA) climate-related divestment won’t happen for another two years — and MRTI will continue interacting with the companies on its engagement list, trying to push them towards a stronger track record on climate change and environmental racism.
LGBTQIA+ advocacy. A task force is recommending the creation of a new permanent General Assembly advocacy committee (similar to the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee and Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns) for LGBTQIA+ concerns.
“The General Assembly has recognized the need for those who have been silenced or ignored by the power structure to be given direct access to decision-making tables through committees specifically called to focus on justice and equity for particular marginalized constituencies,” the rationale for that recommendation states. “These committees are tasked with amplifying those voices that have so often been silenced and ignored, calling the church and society to be a better reflection of the beloved community and kindom to which God calls us. What the church is recognizing today is that among these silenced and ignored voices are those of the LGBTQIA+ community.”
Family leave. The Family Leave Policy Task Force is recommending a proposed amendment to the PC(USA) constitution, to say that the terms of call for a minister should include provision for 12 weeks paid medical leave. Family leave would include leave following the birth or adoption of a child; leave to provide care for an ill or disabled family member; and “leave to heal following a loss or tragic event.”
While the proposed amendment would only provide leave for ministers, the rationale for the recommendation states that “the task force would urge the adoption of this same provision of care for all PC(USA) workers.”
An overture from the Presbytery of Hudson River calls for a similar constitutional amendment.
So much more. That’s just a small part of a very long list.
Other business had to do with the PC(USA) itself and its financial future — for example, recommendations from the Moving Forward Implementation Commission; the 2020 Vision Team; and a special committee on per capita and financial sustainability.
And there were recommendations on serious concerns of the world: including immigration; mental health ministry; racism; violence and harassment against women; anti-Semitism and Islamophobia; and calls for work for peace and to end suffering around the globe, from Korea to Colombia.
The intangibles. Perhaps most importantly, what’s missing from this General Assembly is human interaction: the new connections made, the coffee and drinks and catching up, the hugs from old friends in the hall. For many who attend the assembly – from first-time commissioners to polity wonks who never miss a year – what matters most is being together, in companionship, discernment and particularly in worship.
For many, the church at General Assembly looks different than it does at home: bigger, with the presence of ecumenical partners and the full diversity of the church. The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly is exploring ways that commissioners might continue to gather in small groups following the assembly, perhaps in the spring of 2021, to discuss matters of concern to the church.
But while Presbyterians know that an in-person assembly is not possible at this time, and that the new approaches might provide creative and cost-efficient ways of doing business going forward, there’s a grieving too for what is being missed — for the assembly in Baltimore that wasn’t.