Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday, 9 July

It was a polity wonk’s heaven in the GA plenary on Friday afternoon.

Some of you will remember that at our October 2009 presbytery meeting, we sent a request to the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly asking for an interpretation of G-13.0103r, the provision of the Book of Order concerning the power of the General Assembly to interpret the church’s Constitution in a binding and authoritative manner. We asked that the General Assembly reflect on the nature and limits of the Assembly’s responsibility for authoritative interpretation.

The General Assembly’s Advisory Committee on the Constitution received our request, and in response drafted a statement that I believe will be very helpful to the church in the future. It’s an authoritative interpretation on authoritative interpretations, if you can believe that.

  • It clarifies that an “AI” is a statement that interprets the Constitution in a manner binding on the whole church;
  • It affirms that the General Assembly interprets the Constitution in two ways: by action of the General Assembly when it meets in plenary session, and through a judicial decision rendered by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission.
  • It offers some guidelines to both the GA plenary and the GA PJC to consider as it drafts AIs in the future.

There was a challenge to the “authoritative interpretation on authoritative interpretations,” however. It came from persons who have been unhappy with recent decisions of the GA PJC that have been in some tension with interpretations of ordination standards by the General Assembly plenary. They proposed to add to the statement a requirement that a Constitutional interpretation rendered as part of a GA PJC decision cannot differ from a statement adopted by the General Assembly plenary. They argued that, since the plenary of the GA represents the whole church, it is a more authoritative body than the GA PJC and should therefore have the final word.

At first blush, this would seem an obvious position. But beneath the surface is a serious constitutional problem.

The Book of Order language makes clear that the General Assembly has two “voices” through which it interprets the Constitution. The GA plenary interprets the Constitution in general terms. The GA PJC interprets the Constitution in light of the specific fact pattern of a particular judicial case. But whether it does so through the plenary or the PJC, it is the same General Assembly that does the interpreting. There is no distinction between the voice of the Assembly speaking through plenary or PJC. To suggest, as the challenge did, that one “voice” speaks more loudly or with greater authority than the other is to unbalance our Constitutional system.

In the end, the Assembly retained the statement proposed by the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, and that statement is now an official part of the Constitutional lore of the church. I’ll report the statement to you at the October meeting of the presbytery as a reply to our request, but if you’d like to see the full text, it’s available on, under Committee 5, item 05-21.

Friday, 9 July

Another interesting day.

We began with a motion to reconsider an action taken late Thursday evening on marriage and civil unions. As I noted in a previous post, the Assembly answered with a study paper a number of proposals to amend the definition of marriage and to give pastoral guidance concerning what ministers are to do in response to requests for same-sex marriages. The motion to reconsider was an effort to reopen that debate and answer each of the items individually. The motion to reconsider failed, however, and the matter of marriage is now closed for this Assembly.

The Mideast Peacemaking Committee reported on the conversations between our Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) and the Caterpillar corporation. At issue is Caterpillar’s manufacture of heavy-duty construction equipment used by the Israeli Defense Force to raze houses of Palestinians and build Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and Caterpillar’s refusal to change its practice of selling its equipment for use in these ways. The Assembly voted to “denounce Caterpillar’s continued profit-making from non-peaceful uses of its products” (418 for the motion, 210 against, and 9 abstaining). The Assembly then declined to divest itself of its slightly more than $10 million in stock and bonds invested in Caterpillar, Inc.

Several of the speakers to the two actions argued that denouncement is a way of articulating our church’s criticism of Caterpillar’s practices while at the same time not breaking relationship with Caterpillar. The hope is to “keep the door open” for additional conversations that might ultimately lead to change in the company’s corporate practice. The sense of the discussion seemed to be that divestment would terminate the conversation and eliminate the possibility of participating in constructive change.

The Assembly also took up the report of the Mid-East Study Commission. The report as it entered the Assembly was widely regarded as bearing a pro-Palestinian bias. The Assembly committee amended the language considerably, broadening the testimony from both Palestinian and Israeli experience, re-emphasizing Israel’s right to security within its own borders. The amended version was approved, by a vote of 558 for the motion, 119 against, and 7 abstaining.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Just a personal note: today is the 31st anniversary of my ordination to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament. Our presbytery delegation gathered for a breakfast this morning, and they presented me with a beautiful olive wood celtic cross. Along with it was a card that, among other sentiments, expressed both love and appreciation for my service as your Executive Presbyter and Stated Clerk.

I will treasure them both, but even more, I treasure the opportunity to serve the Presbytery of St. Augustine. As I talk with my colleagues in other presbyteries, I am often struck at the tensions and divisions they face. We have every bit the diversity of other presbyteries, but almost none of the rancor that seems to characterize their internal relationships. I am deeply grateful for that, and it makes serving in your midst a pleasure.

Report of Committee 7

The second major issue that the 219th GA faced was the report of Committee 7, the Form of Government Revision, which came to the floor after supper on Wednesday. As many of you know, I've been part of the Form of Government Task Force, formed in 2006 and renewed in 2008, that has drafted the proposal to the 2010 Assembly. That task force has created two new documents, the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity and a new, shorter Form of Government. Since I was instrumental in the process of writing both, I can't claim a disinterested perspective on this.

I thought the debate was lively, although not as lively as things are likely to become on other issues. The main discussion came when a motion to receive the report of the Task Force was offered as a substitute motion to the committee's recommendation to adopt and send it to the presbyteries. Motions to receive a document or report are assembly-speak for "kill this before it multiplies," so I did not regard this substitute as a helpful action.

In dealing with substitute motions, a deliberative body essentially lays them alongside each other, asks for amendments to "perfect" the original (or "main") motion and the substitute, and then votes whether the substitute will become the main motion. Committee 7 had already amended the document in more than 30 places (most of them very wise and helpful), but there were several more (in my opinion, less helpful) amendments proposed as part of the "perfecting" process. None of these latter proposals were adopted, so that, in the end, the Assembly had a choice to adopt the proposed Form (the main motion) or dispense with it (the substitute). The vote was was quite clearly in favor of the main motion.

As a final step, then, the Assembly had to vote to adopt the proposed Foundations and Form and send them to the presbyteries for affirmative or negative vote. There was additional pro and con debate on the motion, but in the end the Assembly voted 464 in favor of adopting and sending the proposal, 204 against, and with 5 abstentions. From my perspective, the vote represents a clear affirmation of our work and a call for chage in the style of our polity.

Our presbytery will discuss this proposal at our winter stated meeting in February, 2011. We will also try to have some informational gatherings about it and other items arising from the Assembly during the fall, so watch for the announcements More later.

Theological Issues and Institutions

Well, we're off. After three days of being spread out into eighteen committee meetings, the General Assembly is gathered again under a single roof and faced in the same direction.

Moderator Cindy Bolbach began the meeting with a test of the voting machine system. There had been problems on Saturday night and in the intervening days, GA staff conducted tests to be sure that the system would be reliable. So far, so good.

The Assembly's first significant debate came with the report of Committee 16 on Theological Issues and Institutions. The committee had two proposals that will have continuing importance for the church. One was a proposal to continue the process of preparing a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism, to replace the current one in our Book of Confessions. Since the translation is not yet finalized, there was no document to send to the presbyteries, and so the Assembly concurred in the request to continue the discussion for another two years before voting on whether to send the new translation to the presbyteries.

The other was the Assembly decision to go ahead with presbytery votes on whether to include the Belhar Confession in our Book of Confessions. Belhar was written in South Africa in 1972 in the Reformed Church there, and has continued to be one of the most important theological statements on the sinfulness of racism. If included in the Book of Confessions, it would be the only statement representing the southern hemisphere. The vote to send the Belhar Confession to the presbyteries was not close, and the document will be before our presbytery for vote in the coming year.

Adopting a change in the Book of Confessions is a more demanding process than amending the Book of Order. It requires the approval of a general assembly (in this case, already accomplished), then the approval of two-thirds of the presbyteries, and finally the approval of a second general assembly (in this case, the 220th GA in 2012). More from the Assembly floor later.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sunday, 4 July 2010, Minneapolis, MN.

Worship on Sunday at the General Assembly is always a stupendous event. Three thousand Presbyterians in one great hall, all singing "Every Time I Feel The Spirit" is not to be missed. Liturgy is wonderful, preaching is challenging, spectacle is in the air. I wouldn't miss it.

Today was no exception. Worship opened with a call to worship that had us face in the four cardinal directions of the compass, and welcome the Spirit of God. Following that was a liturgical dance procession that re-enacted Genesis 1 and God's creation of the world. Chills ran down my spine when above my head there fluttered a bright red and yellow streamer, held aloft on a long flexible pole and whisked above the congregation. I was sure I felt the breath of the Creator, blowing across the face of chaos, bringing order and possibility in my soul.

Then there was the moment when we baptized a baby. This was a first; no General Assembly has, at least in my knowledge, ever celebrated the sacrament of baptism. But the pastor of Kwanzaa Community Church in Minneapolis, Alika Galloway, baptized little Alexis Rene Sanders, while the whole Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) accepted the obligation to be the church for her. I wonder whether, in thirty or forty years, a grown-up Alexis will find her way to another General Assembly as an elder or a minister, and bring that promise to completion.

But the moment that literally brought me to tears - and does even now, as I think about it - was the minister necrology. Every Assembly does this in some form: remembers and gives thanks for the ministers of the Word and Sacrament who have died since the last GA. This year, the names were displayed in slides on great screens above the hall - the name of the minister, followed by that of his or her final presbytery of membership. I found myself looking for the names of those we've lost from our own Presbytery of St. Augustine, and as they appeared, a discovered I was saying them aloud, even as their faces materialized in my memory and their voices echoed in my ears: Pat Cadwallader. Neil Howard. Graham Hardy. Ed Montgomery.

But I wasn't the only one doing this. A row ahead of me, I saw one of my colleague executives from another presbytery saying the names of her ministers, and then over a few rows in the next section, another doing so, as well. It suddenly dawned on me that somewhere in that hall, probably there was someone saying the name of every person on the necrology, and remembering, and giving thanks. And my friend Ted Wardlaw, sitting next to me, said just then, "You know, it's almost like they're sitting above us, looking down on us from a sort of balcony."

The writer of Hebrews spoke of a "great cloud of witnesses." That's what the names on those screens were to me this morning: a great cloud of people who were not in the room, but who were very much with us. Their witness was not to what we were doing in worship, but to what God in Jesus Christ has done through their ministries and is doing and will yet do through ours. It was a powerful moment. I realized that we had an audience called the communion of the saints, and I could distinguish some of their faces.

When you worship in your own sanctuary next, think about the people who are watching you from the balconies of your memory. Remember them, and give thanks.

Sunday, 4 July 2010: Minneapolis, MN

It's been a little more than 23 hours since the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) elected its new moderator, Elder Cynthia Bolbach of National Capital Presbytery (Washington DC area). I couldn't be more delighted with the choice.

I've reached the age where GA moderators are more often my contemporaries than my seniors. That's a shift that comes with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it means I'm getting older - perhaps not the most pleasant prospect to contemplate. On the other, it means that, more and more, the people who come to this office are my friends.

Certainly this is the case with Cindy Bolbach. Just two weeks shy of four years ago, I met Cindy in a hotel in Louisville, KY. She and I and ten others had just been appointed as the Form of Government Task Force, charged by the 217th GA (2006) to create a revised Form of Government for the church. The moderator for the task force hadn't been selected. But of the people gathered around the conference table, it was clear that one - a corporate lawyer named Cindy Bolbach - had all the skills for the job: a good grasp of the church's life, a fine sense of the Book of Order, a patient way of listening to argument, a quick mind for assessing personalities, and a wonderful, wry, self-deprecating sense of humor that sparkled in the corner of her eye and hinted that she wasn't quite telling you everything she was thinking. We elected her co-moderator that day, and she holds the job even now. There has not been a single day in the last four years that I have regretted that choice.

What I saw four years ago, the General Assembly saw last evening. Cindy was one of a near-record SIX candidates for moderator (the most I can ever recall before is four), but she was alone and without real peer. Her answers to questions were kind, humble, and at the same time sharp and incisive. One commissioner asked her about her views on changing the definition of marriage from "one man and one woman" to "two people." Cindy affirmed her sense that the church was not ready to make that change. But then she said, "I wonder, who does more damage: Larry King, whose been married to seven women and divorced from them all, or [a gay man she knew] who's been with the same partner for sixty-two years?" She didn't need to say more; she'd raised and illustrated the dilemma we are facing as a church and as a society perfectly.

I hope to be able to get Cindy to be a speaker and preacher for our presbytery. I hope you'll be able to benefit first hand from her gentle wisdom and cleverness. But mostly, I hope you'll be able to see what I saw in her four years ago: the definition of what it means to be an elder in the Presbyterian Church.

More to come tomorrow.