Saturday, July 10, 2010

Train Wreck

Earlier this week I made my facebook status:

Train Wreck: a metaphor to describe something disastrous yet inevitable or distasteful yet morbidly fascinating and possibly taking place in Minneapolis this week...

The “train wreck” is a reference to the 219th meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  As the meting of the General Assembly closes this morning I can remove the word “possibility.”

In a variety of actions this week commissioners recommended changes that if approved by a majority of our 173 Presbyteries would:

Remove the “fidelity (within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman) or chastity (in singleness)” requirement for those seeking to be ordained as deacons, elders or pastors.  The intent of this action is to make it possible for sessions and presbyteries to ordain individuals who define themselves as part of the GLBT community.  This recommendation narrowly passed 373-323-4. 

This will be the 5th time in the last 15 years the GA has asked the church to remove this requirement.  It's not that they haven’t heard our answer on the previous occasions – they simply haven’t liked our answer, so they keep asking.

Approve a new Form of Government (nFOG) that is intended to be more flexible than our current Book of Order.  The commissioners overwhelmingly approved the nFOG 468 – 204 – 6.

Add to our Book of Confessions the Belhar Confession written in South Africa in 1986 as a call to resist injustice, specifically racism. 

The commissioners also took actions that do not require the approval of our Presbyteries.  Of particular interest they:

Asked the Board of Pensions to extend health benefits to same-gender domestic partners and their children.  The commissioners also rejected a proposal that the Board of Pensions no longer provide coverage for abortions (expect when necessary to protect the life of the mother).

Asked for a retranslation of the Heidelberg Catechism specifically to address a condemnation of homosexuality, which appears in the current translation but apparently not in the original German.

Approved a controversial Middle East Report after lot of changes to remove what many consider to be a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli bias.  The report did retain language denouncing Caterpillar for continuing to sell products (i.e. bulldozers) to Israel.   The commissioners always stop short of divesting from Caterpillar – perhaps because the denomination has $12M invested in Caterpillar stock.  Commissioners also aren’t pleased with Motorola, ITT, United Technologies and Hewlett-Packard but Caterpillar always gets singled out (probably because bulldozers knocking things over makes better video that checking email on a HP laptop). Maybe we should also denounce 3M because the Taliban uses Post-It notes… just saying.

Some of the most troubling actions surrounded the work of a committee on civil union and marriage.  After rejecting three overtures that asked to reaffirm a Biblical and historic understanding of marriage the commissioners voted to send us two reports expressing differing views on marriage.  Essentially one report holds marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, the other as a covenant between two people.

By approving both reports and commending them to the church for study the commissioners “side-stepped” debates on:
  • Changing the definition of marriage from “between a woman and a man” to “two people”
  • Allowing pastors to perform and sessions to approve same-gender unions in states where they are permitted. 
It was a brilliant parliamentarian move – but it wasn’t easy.   The vote to set aside debate on redefining marriage was extremely close (348-324).  The result is, as of today our constitution still defines marriage as a between “a woman and a man” but we are split on whether or not that “works for us” so we are studying.

Bottom line:
  • We will again be voting on removing standards for ordination that were placed in our constitution in 1996 and affirmed four times.
  • We will continue to provide health coverage for induced abortions.
  • We will extend health coverage (for non-ordained staff covered by the Board of Pensions) to same-gender domestic partners and
  • We are gong to spend some time thinking about what it means to be married.
That’s what happened in Minneapolis this week.

It was disastrous yet probably inevitable.
It was distasteful yet somehow morbidly fascinating.

It was a train wreck.

btw – The PC (USA)’s GA web site is a great place to read details about each of these items.  Another good source is the Presbyterian Outlook.

If you want a slightly irreverent but hilarious perspective check out the blog by Grace elder and GA Commissioner Doug Gleditsch, Chief Among Sinners or his Twitter feed presbyoptic.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. ....and they expect or want membership to grow...

  3. I am surprised that members of the GBLA are so adament about becoming religious leaders. Why join the Presbyterian faith, which has clearly defined where it stands on marriage and the definition of marriage following biblical definitions, and try to manipulate God's written word and to force the rest of us to do so as well? I'm having trouble accepting the idea that someone who does not adhere to the written word would want to lead an entire congregation in the study of it. Is this a case of "do as I say, not as I do?"

  4. While the new language about ordination does remove language that specifically identifies homosexual relationship as an immediate block to ordination, the new language requires that candidates be examined based on calling, gifts, preparation and suitability. Governing bodies, guided by Scripture and the confessions, would also be required to determine candidates’ ability and commitment to fulfilling requirements stated in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation. So, if our Scripture and the confessions, proscribe homosexual behavior, the new language does too. It also means that we are instructed to look at the "whole package" - not just focus on one thing - in determining if someone is called to ordained ministry in the PCUSA.

    I think this is a good thing - not a train wreck. In my experience we have lots of problems in ministry resulting from arrogance, heterosexual lust, greed, misuse of power, and many other personal problems and attitudes. Choosing just one as the single problem that will result in utter chaos is probably not reliable fire insurance.

    Remember that the GA is a completely new group of folks EVERY TIME the Assembly meets. So it's not exactly that "we" keep telling "them" what "we" think and that "they" just don't get it. It's that over and over and over new gatherings of 700+ committed Presbyterians sincerely believe that we (as in "all of us") have not settled this issue definitively. While they may not agree on how to solve it, they obviously agree to discuss it. Also remember that ALL of the discussion about this topic at this GA resulted from overtures submitted to the Assembly by individual presbyteries (that's "us," right?).

  5. Lucy you I dont believe you are familiar with how these delegates are chosen. It is the same group of people that go each time and are selected by Presbyteries to represent the views of "their" kind. This is the same group of folks not giving up and continually focusing on one area.

  6. Dear Elder,

    Actually I am familiar with the election process. Please check the list of commissioners (not "delegates") which can be found online. The names are different every time. Most Presbyteries have a practice of rotating GA service among their congregations and ministers. The Presbyteries do indeed elect them - ALL Presbyterians are part of a presbytery. That means there are all "kinds." (Supposedly Presbyterians are proud of the diversity within their denomination.) Because there are people with differing views, few issues receive 100% of the vote. Many observers and support staff do go each time, but they cannot vote.

  7. Lucy and Elder both make good points. I’ve attended a few General Assemblies as an observer and once as an advisory delegate (TSAD actually – we actually have both delegates and commissioners in attendance). Each time I am reminded that the commissioners (and delegates) are indeed “us.”

    And Lucy is absolutely correct that it is a completely different group of commissioners each time. That may actually be part of the problem.

    There was a time in which the Presbyterian Church sent the same commissioners to General Assembly year after year. Those commissioners became experts on polity and the workings of the GA, got to know one another and actually accomplished quite a lot. Then somewhere along the way we decided that wasn’t fair. So now each year 700+ “newbie” commissioners attend GA. In the months prior they are overwhelmed with materials and then thrust into an insanely busy week and tasked with making important decisions for the church. They arrive to find lots of “assistance” on making those decisions from who are there year after year, staff from the OGA and the advocates of a variety of issues. It’s those who are working outside that I might suggest are the "they."

    "They" are also contributors to many of the overtures that come before the GA. It would be great to believe they are all “grassroot” responses from local churches or presbyteries but many are the work of the advocates of issues. Visit the web sites of special interest groups on BOTH side and you can usually find a draft overture with all the “whereas” and “therefores” already completed. Individual presbyteries are indeed sending each overture but usually with lots of outside assistance. I’ve wondered if all the advocacy groups ceased to exist how many overtures might actually be generated.

    Presbyterian PJC’s have suggested that if the church desires to make “fidelity and chastity” a requirement for ordination then it needs to be in the constitution. PJC’s have similarly suggested that if the church wants to permit the ordination of individuals who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, then it needs to remove the requirement of “fidelity and chastity.” That's why we keep voting.

    What Lucy gets absolutely correct is that the real problems we face are the result of arrogance, heterosexual lust, greed and the misuse of power. I’m convinced that heterosexual misuse of the gift of sex is far greater and far more damaging the homosexual misuse. But one being the bigger problem doesn’t make the other right. What I love about the current language of our ordination standards is that is doesn’t specifically address homosexuality but simply requires anyone called to ordained leadership to use God’s gift of sex only within the covenant of a marriage between a man or a woman or chastity in singledness. That creates expectations for both hetero and homosexuals.

    Our constitution reminds us that the great ends of the church are:

    • the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.
    • the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.
    service. When we forget this in our assembly debates we forget what we are about.
    • the maintenance of divine worship.
    • the preservation of the truth.
    • the promotion of social righteousness.
    • and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.
    May God’s grace empower us to accomplish these ends.

    To His glory!

  8. Doug, I really appreciate your willingness to be bold and to stand for truth. I miss that. Thank you!