I have been attending PC(USA) General Assemblies (GA), which take place every two years, as a part of the Presbyterians Pro-Life team since it was in San Jose, California in 2008. Thus 2016 marked my fifth GA and my second as a commissioner. I was previously a commissioner in Pittsburgh four years ago and was elected for a second time for this GA. What follows below is a bare sketch of the change that I have witnessed over these last eight years.
First of all it is important to recognize that PC(USA) GAs tend to follow a pattern of a radical GA followed by a status quo GA. The status quo GA is conservative only insofar as it neither reverses the radical GA’s actions nor does it adopt the most radical positions presented to it. Take two issues as an illustration — homosexual behavior and divestment. It was in 2010 at the 219th GA that the Book of Order changes allowing those openly practicing homosexual behavior to be ordained were approved (and subsequently ratified by the presbyteries). It was a radical GA. Then in 2012, when I was previously a commissioner, the 220th GA refused to reverse course on this front but also refused to redefine marriage to two people (rather than man and a woman) in the Book of Order. The 220th GA was a status quo GA. However, in 2014 the 221st GA redefined marriage in the Book of Order through an Authoritative Interpretation of it and proposed the redefinition to the actual language to the presbyteries (which then subsequently ratified the same). Thus the 221st GA was another radical GA. So it was no surprise that the 222nd GA refused to reverse course on marriage but also refused to approve a radical apology and so preserved the status quo. The most amazing thing about this debate at the 222nd GA was that those who wanted to keep the present liberal status quo only had two people (if memory serves, it certainly wasn’t many) to speak against reversing course on the issue. Therefore, the GA moderator serving at the moment sought out someone to call the question after two speeches for and against since there were no more prepared to speak against reversing course (although I had lined up several others to speak for marriage as between a man and a woman including one commissioner who was going to speak in Korean with the help of a translator). If I could briefly add the divestment illustration of this pattern: the 220th GA barely approved positive investment in Palestinian companies rather than divesting from certain companies doing business with Israel, the 221st GA divested from these companies, and the 222nd GA refused to reverse course on that divestment but also refused to divest from fossil fuel companies. In any case, these patterns show that one GA is likely to be considered radical on more than one issue while the following GA is likely to be a status quo GA.
However, simply noting the pattern does not guarantee what will happen in 2018. The pattern would suggest that it may very well be that the next GA will both divest from fossil fuel companies and approve a radical apology sought by the fringe left regarding the denomination’s past beliefs on homosexual behavior. Then again, the pattern may just have been irrevocably broken because of the seeming irreversible course on sexuality issues and Israel/Palestine divestment issues. That is, it may be that because these two issues have finally gained a majority that all future GAs may simply seek to preserve the status quo rather than to go further. The only way to know whether the pattern will continue or if it was broken will be to see what happens in 2018. In other words, I offer up those observations not to predict the outcome of future GAs so much as an explanation of how we got to the present.
Nevertheless, I would like to make some comments about the new status quo in the PC(USA) that may very well portend a bleak future. First of all, I would note that the crowds were gone and the booths in the Exhibit Hall were sparse. It was striking how empty the seats for observers were at this GA and it was striking how few ‘outside’ groups maintained a presence in the Exhibit Hall. At first I was thinking that maybe it was just the location being on the west coast rather than in the midwest or the east. However, that would not explain San Jose. There is no way to miss the trend from previous GAs to the new status quo — once those promoting divestment and same sex marriage had prevailed the crowds dispersed. Most remarkable of these trends is the absence of Evangelical voices. Only two Evangelical organizations had booths at the GA in 2016: Presbyterians Pro-Life (PPL) and the Fellowship Community. Thankfully, One by One (started by PPL a number of years ago) had volunteers that worked with the PPL team, organized people for testimony on one overture before a committee, and hosted a luncheon. Moreover, the scaled-back Presbyterian Coalition continued to have nightly meetings and even some lunch gatherings to support commissioners and were a blessing. Yet the overall numbers of Evangelicals (some now preferring the term Orthodox) present at the GA this year were incredibly small. This also was reflected among the commissioners for in past GAs we could reliably and consistently count on about 30-33% Orthodox Evangelicals but this GA those numbers for the first time dropped to about 19-20%. Thus the number of Evangelical commissioners reduced from about a third to a fifth. Surely this also reflects the growing number of Evangelical churches fleeing the denomination for ECO and the EPC.
And despite knowing how unpopular my position is in the Twitter universe regarding the change from Mister or Madam Moderator to simply saying Moderator…that change contributed to the sense that the status quo for the GA of the PC(USA) is further to the left than the Democratic Party Convention. For a denomination that when I was ordained over ten years ago was right-of-center (even though the GAs were consistently further left), I think this too has changed and the denomination is at least left-of-center. All this leaves me wondering how much longer the PC(USA) will even continue to be a viable as a denomination. At the very least, the powers-that-be need to start thinking about smaller venues for future GAs.
From my perspective the signs of hope include that the Commissioner’s Resolution that I proposed to have us pull out of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) did better than the 19-20% at 23%. The vote on this issue in plenary was better than the vote on the sacraments and the vote on marriage. I think that a continued effort to pull out of RCRC is necessary in future GAs until it passes. Also, I nominated Mika Rangel, a YAAD from East Iowa, for someone that gives me hope for the church with something like the following rationale: “she spoke truth to power about the sacraments and marriage from Scripture.” Of course, the moderator at the time read aloud only the bit about her speaking truth to power before stopping. But I’m at a loss to think of any other hints of hope except the only one that matters: Jesus is Lord. Indeed, we put our hope not in other people or ourselves or in political maneuvering or any of the rest, but in Jesus alone. Someone influential in these Evangelical circles made the comment somewhere that maybe one of the few of us left could lead the Evangelical movement in the PC(USA) into the future and I was on the short list of those mentioned. I’m not sure what that could even look like, but Jesus is Lord.