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Committee affirms that Stated Clerk may speak for the PC(USA)

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) on Feb. 9 released a statement responding to questions raised about controversial comments that J. Herbert Nelson, the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), made criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people. The COGA statement does not respond directly to the content of Nelson’s remarks, but addresses his authority to speak publicly on behalf of the denomination.

Nelson has been criticized in recent weeks for two public statements he made characterizing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands as “21st century slavery.”

J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, is the chief ecumenical officer of the denomination.

Nelson released his first statement on Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and his second on Jan. 24.

Both Jewish groups and some Presbyterians have called Nelson’s statements antisemitic, damaging to local interfaith work, and particularly unwise in their proximity to a violent incident in which a gunman held a rabbi and three congregants hostage for hours in a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.

Other Presbyterians have supported Nelson, with some saying on social media they thought he accurately described the conditions in Israel-Palestine, and with some citing a recent Amnesty International report which compares Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid.

On Feb. 9, after meeting in closed session, COGA released a statement in response to questions that some Presbyterians have raised about whether Nelson – the PC(USA)’s chief ecclesial officer – was authorized to make such statements on behalf of the denomination. COGA did not discuss Nelson’s statements in open session.

Here is the text of the COGA statement.

In response to questions and comments members of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly have received about the Stated Clerk’s statement on the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we offer our understanding of the authorities and responsibilities given to the Clerk and COGA by the General Assembly.

  1. According to the Organization for Mission adopted by the 223rd General Assembly (2018), “[t]he Stated Clerk is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s chief ecumenical officer and its primary representative in national and international interchurch and interfaith organizations and speaks to and for the church in matters of faith and practice in accord with the beliefs, policies, and actions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” (Organization for Mission IV.B.2.a.)
  2. There are no specified procedures in the Organization for Mission or any other denominational documents that direct when, how, or with what consultation statements are made. The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly trusts the Stated Clerk’s role and responsibility to make statements of this nature as the Clerk sees fit. The Clerk may choose to consult with mission partners in crafting statements, but there is no standard policy that requires this practice.
  3. The Organization for Mission empowers the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly “to carry out the assembly’s oversight of the Stated Clerk and the Office of the General Assembly; to assure the accountability of the Stated Clerk to the General Assembly during the interim between sessions of the assembly” (Organization for Mission IV.C.2.a.). COGA does not have the authority to manage the work of the Stated Clerk as they carry out responsibilities entrusted to them by the General Assembly.