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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

ga summary and analysis

Note: This was written for my congregation in the church newsletter; it assumes their general theological position and anticipates their particular questions.

What Happened?

A. Elections
Bruce Reyes-Chow was elected as moderator for a two-year term. Bruce was the youngest candidate at 39 (by 20 years), is a self-described progressive, but also highly committed to everyone interested getting a seat at the table. He demonstrated himself to be a fair and even-handed moderator. Gradye Parsons was elected to a four-year term as stated clerk. He has served as assistant stated clerk for a number of years. There is concern that he will continue previous policy and style, but it remains to be seen if he will distinguish himself from his predecessor.

B. Human Sexuality (this is where MOST of the controversy falls)
There has been an interlocking “web” of support for biblical standards on the subject of practicing homosexuals serving in church leadership. This Assembly spoke and acted on a number of these support statements to remove all denomination-wide barriers to ordination of practicing homosexuals. All previous “authoritative interpretations” and “definitive guidance” were removed. A portion of the catechism was re-translated (needs 2/3 presbytery approval). The only significant barrier to such ordination is the now infamous G-6.0106b (requiring "fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness" for ordained people), which the Assembly voted to remove, but which a majority of presbyteries must also approve. Nonetheless, however that Presbytery vote goes, authority to determine essential belief and practice is now assigned to presbyteries rather than a national standard. The Assembly did deny an overture to change the definition of marriage to allow for homosexual marriage. Formation of a task force to study the implications of “civil union” was approved, to report to the 2010 Assembly.

C. Focus on Mission (good intent; questionable implementation)
One of the significant emphases throughout the church today is that of mission. Our own lighthouse/searchlight emphasis is in line with this. This emphasis was clearly seen in a number of overtures to the Assembly. I see this as a good intention, though the means of achieving it varied from questionable to confusing to irrelevant. For example, many hours went into a suggested overhaul of our Book of Order. This “New Form of Government” was intended to provide a more missional constitution, but many found it too complicated a change and others argued that the current Book of Order was not what was keeping us from being mission-focused. The “new FOG” got little support for immediate implementation; it was sent back for two years of further study and development. Easier to understand, but seemingly only a name change, the executive council of the denomination, the General Assembly Council got a new name: the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC). We’ll see if the reality follows the name change. A significant mission focus entitled “Grow God’s Church Deep and Wide” was approved, focusing on evangelism and discipleship.

D. Getting Along with Religious Neighbors Near and Far
There was great potential for controversy here, but the Assembly modified or voted down the most controversial approaches. An overture stating that Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God (of Abraham) was amended to note the “different understandings of God” and focused rather on calling the monotheistic faiths to work together for humanitarian aid, peace, and similar endeavors. Closer to home, several overtures tried to hinder the reality of PCUSA churches leaving for the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church). Nonetheless, the Assembly amended or defeated these overtures, and finally affirmed my own resolution calling presbyteries away from lawsuits against churches leaving.

E. Numerous Calls for Social Action
It was mind-boggling how many overtures had to do with one or another social issues. There are at least two denominational committees whose full-time job it is to generate these overtures. Any one of the overtures comes with 30+ pages of background and rationale. To expect commissioners to comprehend as many as 25 of these study papers is unrealistic, and yet, they did. What is surprising is that the Assembly came to as balanced a position as it did on issues like Israel/Palestine (though many would still say the "Amman Call" is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel), reporting relief of conscience dues stream for pastors’ medical/pension fund; the Iraq war; and more. In most of these cases, the initial overtures were radically progressive, but the committees and Assembly moderated them down to something that balanced out the disparity of views. More info. is available on specific topics.

What is Next?

In the coming weeks, I will be exploring the implications of this Assembly with our session, with other pastors and elders in our presbytery, and with leaders of the national renewal organizations.

One option is to be functionally independent – hunker down, put blinders on, and be the best local church we can be. This is not an option for me, and is not a long-term solution.

Another option is to begin considering departure to another denomination. There is great cost to this – including consuming a church’s focus for at least two years. There is also great potential to split the congregation. This is an absolute last resort for me and not where I believe us to be.

A third option involves some combination of finding a way to be both a change agent and faithful in ministry and mission within the PCUSA. For numerous reasons, I believe this to be my own calling and the journey Good Shepherd is on. In the coming weeks I will share more of my rationale, both corporately and in smaller settings. In many ways, this is the hardest path, but it is one I believe God has left open before us. I believe we are in a unique position to be an effective witness for Christ within the PCUSA while we continue our vital ministry in the neighborhood and to the world. I also believe that God used me in a specific and Spirit-directed way at the Assembly and I look forward to sharing that with you in more detail.

You’ll see variations of these positions from various churches and renewal groups. I’m including a link HERE if you want to read more about the Assembly or a particular renewal group.

Readers are invited and welcome to contact me for clarification or further conversation at robert@gspc.net.


Patrick said...

Thanks for the analysis Robert. I do feel that the interfaith resolution is perhaps more crucial than the sexuality issues. I am glad it was toned down, although it still calls us "to celebrate religious holidays together, setting aside days of worship during which there can be congregational suppers, and dialogue groups." In my mind common worship comes pretty close to syncretism. It dilutes Christian identity and borders on idolatry. It seems like this particular item got lost in the concern to remove the language about worshiping a common god.

My favorite social justice call is the encouragement for all good Presbyterians to "reduce consumption of meat because the production of grain fed to most livestock is fossil fuel-intensive and their waste emits methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas."

I guess since our family buys grass fed beef (instead of grain fed) from a local farmer we can stay Presbyterians for a while longer...provided, that is, we don't mind fasting this year during Ramadan.

Anonymous said...

hey robert!

this is tim from tennessee. i agree with your 3rd option being the one for me. would be interested in being part of the conversation in how to go about it, should you need another voice at whatever table you happen to be at.

hope you enjoy CLC - don't think i'm going to make it. maybe we'll catch up again one of these days and play some music together.


Bill Teng said...

I'm only 54, Robert ~ not that old yet ;-)

robert austell said...

Sorry, Bill... can I claim I was averaging the others ages?

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