COVID, the General Assembly in 2024, and who should make apologies? 

COGA meets on April 20. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Full steam ahead.

A COVID advisory team has given a thumbs up – at least for now – for plans to move forward with a hybrid General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The plan is to have committee meetings in-person on a staggered schedule in Louisville, and most plenary sessions online, from June 18 to July 9 and following this schedule.

“It actually is fantastic news from the COVID advisory team,” Julia Henderson, director of General Assembly operations, reported to the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) on April 20, the final day of COGA’s April hybrid meeting.

The protocol will require participants to:

  • Comply with a vaccine mandate, with all attending in-person required to present proof of having received any vaccines or boosters needed to be considered up-to-date by Centers for Disease Control guidelines. According to Henderson, a second booster for those age 50 or older is currently considered optional – “it’s your choice” for that one.
  • Wear “high-quality” masks while in the meeting space.
  • Have staggered meal and break times, to reduce congestion in common areas.
  • Take a COVID test if they show symptoms of illness or have been exposed to COVID-19, either before coming to the assembly or after arriving.
Stephanie Anthony serves as COGA’s moderator. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

The COVID advisory team is tracking caseloads and emerging variants of the virus and will continue meeting — so if conditions require, the protocols could change again, Henderson said. A FAQ on the assembly webpage includes more information.

Other updates on the assembly itself:

  • A Juneteenth service will be held (both in-person in Louisville and livestreamed) at 11 a.m. EDT on June 19, with J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, preaching. Following that service, Presbyterians will be encouraged to attend Juneteenth events in their own communities.
  • A Hands and Feet event focused on ending cash bail will be held online at 6 p.m. EDT on July 7.
  • Worship services will continue the emphasis that Elona Street-Stewart and Gregory Bentley, co-moderators of the 2020 General Assembly, have placed on decolonization. Street-Stewart said preachers have been invited to participate who “have much to contribute,” but might not have been included in the past — including two Indigenous women. The theme will be “From Lament to Hope,” and “we really want this to be transformational,” she said.

2024 General Assembly. COGA also discussed ways to bring up the question of where and how to hold the 2024 General Assembly as a matter of business at this year’s assembly. That’s a little tricky because the 2018 General Assembly already voted to hold the assembly in Salt Lake City in 2024. Given all that’s happened since then, with the pandemic and the learnings of online meetings, COGA has prepared four possible scenarios for the assembly to consider for 2024 — ranging from in-person to hybrid options to totally online, with cost implications for each. (See that report here.)

COGA wants this year’s assembly to discuss those possibilities and make a decision about the best location and format for the 2024 assembly. The difficult part: finding a way, in proper parliamentary fashion, to bring the issue before this assembly for discussion without COGA recommending one approach over the others.

“I want the assembly to act on this,” said COGA member Andy James, a mid council leader from North Carolina. “I don’t want COGA to be seen as the actor.”

J. Herbert Nelson.

Eliana Maxim, COGA’s vice-moderator, said her preference also is for “for the assembly to make that decision” about what to do in 2024.

So COGA voted to approve the report laying out possible options and associated costs – from $1.2 million for an online assembly to $3.6 million for a traditional, in-person one – while not expressing a preference. The next step: to submit that report as an item of business that will be assigned for an assembly committee to consider.

Comments on General Assembly business. COGA voted to approve a series of comments on items of business coming to this year’s assembly — that’s part of the routine process many agencies and groups undertake.

One of the most significant comments: COGA is supporting a recommendation from the Special Committee on Per Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability that the assembly create a commission to “oversee and facilitate” the unification of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). During discussion earlier in its meeting, COGA members discussed how essential questions of the future and funding of the church are at the heart of these technical questions.

“The unification of these two agencies will align the missional and ecclesial expressions of the national church into one body with unified strategies, priorities, and leadership,” that comment states in part. “The current structure and its related funding system hinder the work of the ecclesial agency, the Office of the General Assembly, and threaten its ability to fulfill its mission by restricting its financial support to only a portion of the per capita that is paid by presbyteries without any other major funding streams it can leverage to supplement that income.”

Another comment deals with an overture from the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy calling on the PC(USA) to “offer an apology to African Americans for the sin of slavery and its legacy.”

Julia Henderson. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

The comment states that COGA supports the overture. But it raises concerns about how an apology would be delivered — specifically questioning whether Nelson, who is Black, would be expected to deliver the apology as stated clerk on behalf of the denomination.

The comment states that COGA “would ask the Assembly handling this overture to work creatively to find other ways for these apologies to be shared and offered. Our current Stated Clerk who would be directed by this overture is African-American, and to ask him to personally do this work would be added trauma for a person of color who was raised in and is part of this denomination. It might be appropriate for an equivalent White leader or leaders to offer these apologies on behalf of the General Assembly. We would ask the Assembly to find ways for persons of color, even those who hold elected office, not to have to engage in public apologies for a White-dominant denomination.”

COGA member Sam Bonner asked whether COGA was trying to set a precedent — that “if an African American becomes a leader of an organization that in the past has done some bad things, that person would not be an appropriate person to apologize?”

Nelson responded that in 2017, a delegation from the PC(USA) traveled to Utqiaġvik, Alaska, to apologize to Native Americans in Alaska, at the direction of the 2016 General Assembly. Nelson was present and participated in discussions about reparations during a three-day renewal and healing event. But his predecessor as stated clerk, Gradye Parsons, who is White, stood before the crowd at an elementary school and read the formal apology — Nelson did not.

“Where does the blame really lie?” Nelson asked.

“I did not think it was quite fair frankly for African American people who were actually being enslaved at the same time to have a responsibility to go and lift up the racially-charged piece,” he said. In terms of racist treatment, “We were in the same situation that the Native Americans were.”

In the apology to the Indigenous people in Alaska, “there was no question the blame and the conversations we were having were about the White Presbyterian church.”

Sam Bonner. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Given that, if a Black person apologizes, “what does the apology mean in its optics? What does it mean in its reality?”

Bonner responded that “it’s a curious situation. In the rarified air of high leadership, there may not be an equivalent White man or White woman” to the position of stated clerk. “To see a person of color address these issues, the leader of the group that did those bad things” — that’s happened in some situations in government or civic settings, he said. “It demonstrates the change, to me” — that increasingly, people of color do hold positions of authority.

But Bonner said “I’m OK with it either way. I want you to acknowledge you set a protocol here. …. That may come into question” somewhere down the line.

The situation has to be viewed in context, Nelson said. In Alaska, during the period of time when the church helped send Native children to White-run boarding schools, “my people …  weren’t able to have the freedom” to have power. “So who are we apologizing for?”