The following was shared in worship on June 24, 2018, by Elder Billie Sutter. More information about the business and work of GA can be found online here: https://ga-pcusa.org/general-assembly-news/ and as reported by the Presbyterian Outlook (https://pres-outlook.org/).
Good Morning…I’m here to share with you some of what happened last week during PCUSA’s General Assembly. It’s that every two-year gathering that’s part family reunion, part business meeting, part educational experience and most times a truly exhausting, yet spiritually uplifting event. You’ll find an insert in your bulletin that reports some of the work GA did on your behalf.
In worship last Sunday Elizabeth shared with you some of the basics about GA: 170 presbyteries elect equal numbers of Elder and Clergy commissioners to come together…this year in St. Louis…along with Young Adult, Theological Student, Mission, and Ecumenical Advisory Delegates to collectively worship, make decisions about what ministry the church will support…how the church will do that work, listen to various reports and wrestle with thorny theological and sometimes gut wrenching social justice decisions. Along the way national level officers are elected, installed and begin their work; mission co-workers are commissioned to their ministry stations in far flung parts of the world; old friends reunite; new friends are made; and Commissioners learn more about the issues of their particular committee’s work than they ever thought necessary.
One Commissioner – Jacque Cummings from the Presbytery of South Louisiana, who served on Committee 8, Environmental Issues – said she knew God has a sense of humor, but GA definitely proved it to her. She had thought she’d have some input into the choice of the committee she’d serve, where she would consider resolutions and overtures; however, she discovered that some PCUSA designed computer algorithm assigned Commissioners to Committees according to Commissioner status, geography, age, ethnicity, gender, etc. She quickly became immersed in issues of fossil fuels, climate change and how her decisions on directing denominational investments would impact the lives of Presbyterians for years to come. She agreed that this committee would never have been her first choice, but God obviously knew she needed to be there – to listen, to learn, to pray for discernment and to share what she knew as part of a family filled with chemical and petroleum plant workers. Committee 8 proved to be the most lengthy committee report presented on the plenary floor, when Commissioners returned from committee work to debate and make decisions regarding committee recommendations. The Assembly spent over 4 hours with this report – not counting the time for worship and lunch – before returning to finalize actions. This Committee’s work pointed definitively to the obvious differences in how our denomination thinks we should handle environmental issues. It was a difficult, soul searching conversation ….one that is on-going.
On Tuesday afternoon, putting their bodies and their money visibly into action, Commissioners and others, moved by the hundreds through the sweltering streets of St Louis from the Convention Center to the City Justice Center a mile away to deliver $47,200. This money, collected in the opening worship service and online, was offered to bail out people charged with non-violent crimes who are incarcerated because they cannot make the required cash bail. “Nationwide, 62 percent of people in jail are not serving time,” they’re waiting for their day in court. In this “Hands and Feet’ initiative, Presbyterians made their presence felt in St. Louis and around the country.
The Assembly did some amazing things in its time together this year. It acknowledged the need to confront systemic racism and cultural inequality through its actions that included receiving Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” for denominational study and moving it toward a non-authorative position in our Book of Confessions. The term ‘people of color’ will now be the preferred term to use in reference to those Presbyterian siblings from various racial ethnic backgrounds. Changes have already been made in the names of denominational level committees to reflect that preference.
Middle East issues were quickly voted on in committee and in plenary. There was affirmation that both Palestinians and Israelis have not treated one another with respect and love, and that there is a need for true reconciliation among all parties. An Overture on the current Syrian crisis was unanimously received in committee and moved into the consent agenda, so that no debate on the floor was necessary. Rev. Najla Kasab was overjoyed at that particular Overture’s passage. She is the President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, a minister member of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, and was at GA as an Ecumenical Advisory Delegate. On Wednesday morning, she preached a compelling, prophetic, sermon urging reconciliation in all parts of the world.
All worship services were amazing: the opening worship experience led by an orchestra, organ, liturgical dancers, a reader’s theater presentation of scripture, massed choirs gathered from the entire presbytery, with a sermon preached by outgoing Co-Moderators Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston set the tone for the Assembly’s work, in the spirit of kin-dom living – living out Christ’s kingdom together on here on earth. That tone continued throughout the Assembly as issues of family separation at the border, reconciliation along the entire Korean peninsula, continuing gang related violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the pressing problems in Puerto Rico, and continuing water concerns in Flint, Michigan, were addressed by videos and other presentations, prayer and action. The Assembly also voted to repudiate the “Doctrine of Discovery” first established in European churches, and used by governments to validate colonizing other parts of the world. This includes the US, where large numbers of Native Americans lost their land, their lives….and were systematically traumatized by the policy.
On Thursday, Rev. Floretta Barbee-Watkins, the pastor of The Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, preached during morning worship. Using the analogy of making home-made biscuits, she said that PC(USA), like her mother, had in the past “made some pretty bad biscuits.” However, with “radical confession, radical repentance and radical reconciliation” and a willingness to “deal with the urgent needs of our siblings and the church” Christians are propelled to action. She challenged the Assembly – and PCUSA to “rise up, let’s make some new biscuits.” With that in mind, the Assembly voted to confess the denomination’s failure to listen to survivors of sexual misconduct that has occurred in the church, voted to affirm the humanity of people of all sexual orientations, and voted to establish a task force to address the need for a denomination wide policy on family leave.
A realignment of national governance structures is in the works and final action on that and other studies, reports and task forces will take place at the next GA in Baltimore in 2020. The last vote at the 223rd General Assembly was to set the national per capita rate at $8.95 for 2019 and 2020…an increase of $1.22 per member of PCUSA. This money allows the Office of the General Assembly to do its work and funds part of the work done by the 6 ministry agencies of the denomination.
As your Social Media and live Stream Advisory Delegate, I can tell you this was indeed an extraordinary Assembly. I see a hopeful, spirit-filled, tolerant, reconciling denomination that is ready to get to work in Christ’s kin-dom…I hope you can see it too. May it be so….