While it’s not known exactly what will jump up and try to claim (virtual) center stage when the General Assembly reconvenes June 26, the smart Presbyterian money is betting that something will emerge.
“There is an element of suspense to this assembly,” Kathy Lueckert, the president of the PC(USA), A Corporation, said during an A Corporation board meeting June 22.
“There are some unknowns,” said Kerry Rice, the PC(USA)’s deputy stated clerk, during a separate meeting of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.
And the vituperative debate over the status of San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) keeps boiling up – to the point where COGA discussed June 22 whether something should be said publicly about the level of vitriol in some of the comments on social media.
At least some commissioners – frustrated with an assembly limited to “core and critical” business – want to broaden the debate to include other matters they see as crucial to take up this year and not to defer those to the next assembly, two years from now. The assembly already added an extra plenary session to elect co-moderators June 20 when debate ran beyond the allotted time – so along with more business, more schedule expansions are possible too.
Possibilities for what commissioners might argue to add include:
- Language on racial justice, white supremacy, Black Lives Matter, reparations and police defunding.
- Arecommendation on family leave policy for Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastors;
- Environmental issues;
- Other social justice concerns.
- Who knows what else?
And all this is coming at a time of national unrest and intense financial pressure for the PC(USA) and for congregations – with the assembly being asked to vote on unified budget built around the projection that the COVID-19 pandemic will produce revenue declines of about 25% in 2020 and 2021. As a result, that budget asks for no increase in the General Assembly per capita rate – because of the sense that congregations can’t afford it.
That also will mean pressure for this assembly not to approve recommendations with additional financial implications – acknowledging that most PC(USA) congregations are small, many report that giving is down, and some are struggling to pay the bills and may not be able to survive the financial hit of the pandemic.
Commissioner Megan Acedo, a ruling elder from Philadelphia Presbytery, already made the motion to reconsider an action taken on June 19 – and that matter will be discussed at the beginning of the first business plenary session June 26 (at 1 p.m. EDT).
Late in the evening June 19, the assembly voted 425-39 to approve a list of business referrals (with some items being received by this assembly for information, others for action, and others being referred to the 2022 General Assembly). When that was done, eight commissioners were standing in the virtual line wanting to make amendments to that list – but, even knowing that, the assembly voted to cut off debate and vote on the referral list.
Under Robert’s Rules of Order, a motion to reconsider can only be made by someone who voted on the prevailing side. And if that motion to reconsider were to pass, commissioners then would have to decide what items to add to the business list for this assembly – and how much extra time discussing those items would take.
During the COGA meeting June 22, Warren Lesane, a synod leader and representative to the committee from the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, raised concerns about the tone of discussions percolating around the church regarding a dispute between SFTS and the Committee on Theological Education about whether SFTS still is viewed as – or should be seen as – a PC(USA) seminary. That disagreement emerged following the announcement in 2019 that SFTS was becoming a graduate program of the University of Redlands.
Lesane said that some of “the ruckus, the chatter” is “really not uplifting” – and he has said that directly to some mid council colleagues, raising concerns about the levels of accusation and negativity. “We all know something is wrong with how folks are talking,” Lesane said.
“I am very disappointed in the vitriol,” said COGA moderator Barbara Gaddis.
Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said, “there is a way we can differ” in opinions, but not “when we demonize people.”
And COGA member Eliana Maxim called on those involved to “exude a little bit of grace, grace, and more grace to one another.”
Some on social media also have questioned how much time and energy the assembly is giving the SFTS controversy, given the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment, protests over police killings of Black Americans, climate change and so much more.
Emily Brewer, executive director of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, tweeted:
So what’s on tap when the assembly reconvenes June 26 (with worship at 11 a.m. EDT and business beginning at 1 p.m.)? Potentially all this and more.