Presbyterians discuss aftershocks to Stated Clerk’s Israel comments, possibilities for 2024 General Assembly

The aftershocks continue from a controversial statement that J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), made earlier this year describing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands as “21st-century slavery.”

A conversation on March 17 grew testy at times when Nelson spoke to the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) about the fallout from a series of statements he’s made on that issue, with Nelson saying “I felt really abandoned in this whole process.”

Nelson said the comments he has made reflect policy statements that PC(USA) General Assemblies have adopted — making them the official policy of the denomination. “I have not known any individuals before me in this role (as stated clerk) that have had to go back and to in any way apologize for the policies approved by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church. … The policy is the policy of the church. That is what I have stood for.”

Nelson said he has been asked repeatedly to essentially apologize for his remarks. When it comes to General Assembly policy, “I don’t do that,” he said. “The statement was made. It was in line with the policy. And at the end of the day, although others may be offended by it, outside of our denomination and even some in, it is the policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)”

COGA member Sallie Watson responded that “I understand the need not to apologize, but isn’t there a way to have the conversations and say ‘Where can we connect, even when we know that we disagree?’ … I hope that we can have dialogue even when we don’t agree and even without apologizing.”

Nelson spoke of some comments regarding his statement that were made on social media which he said were hostile.

Stephanie Anthony, COGA’s moderator, said COGA has not asked Nelson to make an apology. “We have not asked you to apologize or retract a statement,” but have discussed “making sure there are lines of communication with appropriate folks,” perhaps through the PC(USA)’s office of ecumenical relations.

Nelson said, “there are ongoing conversations” with ecumenical partners, and “it’s not a chopped-up kind of ecumenical witness that we have,” but based on longstanding relationships. But he said he’s not willing to have conversations with people “who are hostile, who are calling names,” who threaten him.

Anthony responded that COGA is “not asking you to have conversations with folks who are being inappropriately violent, vulgar, threatening in any way.” But she does hear a hope for conversations regarding this subject with people or organizations with whom the PC(USA) has a history of relationship and “who could hear and listen and share back their own experiences as well. I do think that’s something this group has asked for and hoped for.”

Here are some other issues that came up in COGA’s monthly Zoom meeting. (A link to a video recording of the meeting can be found here.)

Hands and Feet. Nelson said Hands and Feet social justice initiatives at the 2022 General Assembly will focus on the issue of ending cash bail, which has been a point of emphasis for the denomination for several years and is a hot issue in Kentucky, where the hybrid assembly will hold its opening plenary and committee meetings.

2024 General Assembly. COGA is working to put together possibilities for this year’s General Assembly to consider for how and where the assembly will be held in 2024. A previous assembly voted to hold the 2024 assembly in Salt Lake City, but given all that’s happened with the COVID-19 pandemic and with the denomination’s ongoing financial challenges, the assembly this year will be asked to revisit that decision.

At its April 18-20 meeting, COGA expects to approve a report to the church on possible formats for the 2024 assembly — complete with the values each would uphold, possible drawbacks and cost estimates. Later this spring, COGA will hold a series of conversations with mid council leaders and others to gather feedback.

A preliminary version of that report states that “the areas of concern that rise to the top include fiscal responsibility, earth stewardship. the reality of declining membership, technological advances, a fresh passion for long-standing values such as equity, inclusion, and accessibility, and reclaiming the meaning of the Church.”

That preliminary report lists four possibilities for the 2024 assembly:

  • Committees in-person in Salt Lake City, plenaries online. Approximate cost: $2.5 million.
  • Committees online, plenaries in person. Approximate cost: $2.8 million.
  • Traditional assembly, all in-person. Approximate cost: $3.6 million.
  • Everything online. Approximate cost $587,000, although that doesn’t include penalties for canceling contracts the PC(USA) has already signed.

COVID concerns. Denominational officials are keeping their eyes on the BA.2 omicron subvariant, which is already hitting Europe and may push the number of COVID-19 cases back up in the United States in the next several weeks.

Julia Henderson, director of assembly operation, said a COVID advisory team is continuing to meet, but will not be able to provide guidance on what specific protocols will be needed for this summer’s assembly any sooner than 60 days before the opening plenary, scheduled for June 18.