Louisville, Kentucky — In the opening worship on July 8, GA commissioners, advisory delegates and observers heard from Mark A. Lomax, founding pastor of First Afrikan Church, Lithonia, Georgia, on Jeremiah 29:3-9. In his message, “Seek the welfare of the community,” he pointed out that God was doing a new thing. The exiles were encouraged to be faithful where they were and seek the welfare of the city they were in. This was a new way of being in a relationship with God that was not dependent on location. Following Lomax’s sermon, the video “A Testimony of Lament to Hope” told the story of Knox Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati, Ohio, and their efforts to repent and offer restoration after confessing systemic racism in their church. The pastor, Adam Fronczek, discussed how the church has dealt with a financial gift that had racist conditions and their ongoing commitment to a racial justice ministry.
As Plenary 12 began, everyone was aware that the assembly was now significantly behind schedule. The work would start with the remainder of the Rules of Discipline Committee report from Thursday and then would take up the Health, Safety, and Benefits Committee (HSB) report which was moved from Wednesday night. When the HSB report was finished they would move on to the International Engagement Committee.
The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly J. Herbert Nelson, spoke to the concerns about the schedule and encouraged the commissioners and delegates in their work. He told them to stay grounded, to walk by faith and not by sight. Also, he said, “Let us be stewards of our time today.”
Co-Moderator Ruth Santana-Grace thanked everyone for being companions on this journey to which they are all called. She noted that there are very important items to consider and that disagreement would happen. Co-Moderator Shavon Starling-Louis added “we will trust through, not rush through” the work. Santana-Grace emphasized that they did not want to squelch debate, but to lean into the work you have called us to do. She said, “We ask that you trust us and allow us the space to move forward.”
Returning to the report of the Rules of Discipline Committee, the assembly still had three items to be acted upon, including three more sections of the proposed Rules of Discipline — to be renamed Principles of Church Discipline. The assembly efficiently moved through chapters 8, 9, and 10 of recommendation 1 of ROD-03: “On Replacing the Current Rules of Discipline Section with a New Church Discipline Section.” There were no questions, comments or amendments to these chapters from the commissioners and advisory delegates. The assembly easily approved recommendation 1 on a vote of 354-9 and it will be sent to the presbyteries for their concurrence.
Recommendation 2 of ROD-03 provided a process to handle existing authoritative interpretations of the current Rules of Discipline. The recommendation stated that the Advisory Committee on the Constitution would “determine the continuation and application” of existing authoritative interpretations. It was noted that this was not consistent with the committee’s advisory status, so it was amended and approved so the advisory committee would “recommend” to the next General Assembly what would happen to existing interpretations.
Finally, the assembly agreed to have item ROD-02, “Remove Time Limits for Filing Allegations in All Disciplinary Cases,” be answered by the new Principles of Church Discipline in ROD-03.
With that, the Rules of Discipline Committee report concluded with gratitude from and for the committee.
The Health, Safety, and Benefits Committee report was next. Seven of their ten items of business were already approved on the consent agenda leaving items on family leave, sexual misconduct policies and procedures, and reproductive justice.
Beginning with HSB-06: “On Amending G-2.0804 and Recommendations Regarding a Family Leave Policy,” the committee acknowledged that the recommended language was not as strong as the original overture. But, because HSB-06 is a Book of Order amendment and, therefore, needs to be approved by presbyteries, the committee decided to keep new wording. They judged it would be more likely to be approved by the presbyteries.
Virginia Bairby, a commissioner from Santa Fe Presbytery moved to amend the item to require 12 weeks of family medical leave. During the committee meetings the approved length – which was later removed – was eight weeks, so this was an increase from the committee’s original language. In her comments, Bairby said she trusted the committee’s work and understood that as a General Assembly we don’t always want to tell presbyteries what to do. She continued saying that pastors of small churches like herself need this. She concluded by saying “We can do this as a church. I think this is who we are.”
With little discussion, this amendment was approved and shortly after item HSB-06 was approved.
The assembly then began working through HSB-05, recommendations from the Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Task Force. Chair of the Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Task Force Carol Howard Merritt was invited to speak, and she briefly discussed task force’s purpose of strengthening the church’s response to sexual misconduct reports. She asked that Kristopher Schondelmeyer, a member of the task force, also be recognized and he shared his story of sexual abuse by a church leader at a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) national event and the long-term trauma that it has left in his life.
The recommendations in HSB-05 that were not part of the consent agenda were then considered individually. Recommendations 2, 3 and 4 regarding constitutional requirements for boundary training for inquirers and candidates, commissioned ruling elders and certified Christian educators respectively, were approved with little discussion and limited objections. On recommendation 1 the commissioners and advisory delegates agreed with the advice of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution. Advisory committee member Judy Woods said that while well-meaning, the transfer of discipline from the congregation to the presbytery for inquirers and candidates was contrary to the structure of the church and the congregational covenant of love and trust found in G-1.0102, even as limited by the changes the committee had made. The assembly amended the item to keep the discipline with the session in all cases, but the session shall report sexual misconduct matters to the presbytery. Recommendation 1, as amended, was approved 324-46.
Recommendation 6 would have moved all disciplinary matters related to sexual abuse from a congregation to the presbytery. The assembly agreed with the committee that recommendation 6 be disapproved, completing item HSB-05.
The final and most contentious item in the report was HSB-11, a commissioner resolution regarding reproductive justice. Committee member Lindsay Jacaruso, a commissioner from Minnesota Valleys Presbytery, spoke first, sharing about her current pregnancy and how only God is the Lord of our conscience. “God has made me a moral agent to make decisions for my own body,” she emphasized.
An amendment was proposed by Peter Smith, a commissioner from Peaks Presbytery that would add language at the beginning of section one on the “complexity and seriousness of issues concerning abortion.” However, his concluding sentence in that section that “Any decision should be made with care, compassion, prayer, and understanding” was not well received. In particular, Rebecca DePoe, a commissioner from Pittsburgh Presbytery, said she found this to be “extremely patronizing,” implying that women are not taking the possibility of abortion seriously. There was an amendment to the amendment to strike that last line and the assembly agreed. The assembly then agreed to the rest of Smith’s language.
A couple of other amendments were proposed. One added more references to contraceptives. It was approved. Another amendment was made to strike the statement “Reject attempts at all levels of government to reduce, limit, or eliminate access to contraceptive and abortion care.” It was disapproved.
With that, the assembly was ready to proceed. They approved HSB-11 on reproductive justice by 348-38. This concluded the report of the Health, Safety, and Benefits Committee, and the committee and resource people were thanked for their hard work. The assembly was also thanked for their attentiveness to these serious and personal issues.
At this point, the assembly had used almost all of their scheduled time for the morning session. After a meal break, they would hear the report of the International Engagement Committee.