Hope, Frustration, and A Way Forward: A Tale of Two General Assemblies

Iosso Ali House Bike 6 9 2016There are actually far more than two General Assemblies, if we wanted to be subjective about it. And ironically, two of the “breakaway” Presbyterian Churches held their GA’s this same past week. But the two I compare are the Assembly of hope and the Assembly of frustration. I will say a word about each, and then try to bring them together.

The Assembly of hope was immediately visible in the Moderators election on the first evening, Saturday, June 18. Two co-moderator teams presented their views and answered questions. The pair of women ministers, black and white, won handily, though the male elder/minister pair, Hispanic and white, also acquitted themselves well. These are our first Co-Moderators, on the 60th anniversary of women’s ordination. The new Stated Clerk is also an African-American, J. Herbert Nelson, from the Washington Office of Public Witness. The interim Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency is Elder Tony De La Rosa, Esq., who represents further diversity in our leadership. The Belhar Confession was added to the Book of Confessions.

In addition, the Assembly affirmed a good many good policy statements and studies, but it is here that the frustration may begin, depending on one’s hopes. HRP was one of the 31 presbyteries overturing for swift divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel energy companies by fuel assets. The Assembly re-affirmed a more incremental process of engagement with the corporations proposed by the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI). MRTI had felt its report neglected in its Assembly Committee, but in plenary it was the “Fossil Free” proponents who saw their position not given equal time on the floor. Those who continue to oppose the use of divestment and boycott and sanctions to push for an end of Israel’s occupation were also frustrated. The GA strongly critiqued the chances for any “two state” solution, though it maintained a preference for that option, however feasible. There were 14 items related to racial justice, including anti-racism updated policy and a “repudiation” of The Doctrine of Discovery, to be studied after the fact.

More significant processes of “truth and reconciliation” might have come in response to two calls for apology, one to First Peoples for enforced cultural assimilation as well as material dispossession, and one to LGBTQQ people for past rejection and exclusion. There was frustration in both communities of color and those of non-conventional-binary sexuality, more in the latter as an alternative to apology was made for a more than 40 year process.

Other actions related to social witness policy were simply packed too tightly and could not get full deliberation due to the way business items were distributed among the committees. Reports on human trafficking (modern slavery) and Drug Policy Reform were not given much time, despite their respective calls to end “prohibition” style approaches to prostitution and legal regulation of drugs based on science. From my perspective, the addition of virtually exclusive “nonviolence” language to a Peacemaking report may limit the number of churches that use it, though the Peace Fellowship may claim hope there.

“The Way Forward” was a specific committee given some overtures from a South Carolina presbytery that sought to limit the General Assembly and its social witness (firmly rejected) and the reviews of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly. The hopeful side: no hasty merger of these two bodies, but there is a frustration for those who see more committees appointed without enough theological vision. And while the church is undoubtedly more united (and a bit smaller) than it was, there are still hard choices of how much church-wide culture and program is needed to maintain our identity going forward.

In my own two person office, our online journal, www.justiceUnbound.org, was slated to lose its staff person at the end of this year. The General Assembly renewed funding for the position for 2017-18, giving us hope that we can maintain its unique involvement of readers and writers, perhaps half under 44, that includes over 45,000 individual readers of at least one article so far this year. Many HRP folks have contributed to that journal. We need many more experiments like Unbound in the church.

Chris Iosso, Teaching Elder in Hudson River Presbytery, was pastor to the Scarborough church before moving to Louisville to staff the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. He received his MDiv from Princeton and his PhD from Union Seminary, NY. A fuller picture of GA reports from his office can be found at: http://info.pcusa.org/t/i-333D2DAF6CF0B303

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