Some Perspective on the 220th PCUSA General Assembly
The 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is written in the Book of Life. I was present in a far different way than I envisioned, as my husband’s sudden health problems and multiple surgeries meant resignation as a commissioner (he is recovering nicely—THANKS for your prayers!). However, since GA was in my hometown, I was able to attend some committee meetings and the events held by More Light Presbyterians. I also watched the assembly on its live internet streaming, particularly when it took up the recommendations of the Civil Union and Marriage Committee.
The votes on the competing actions over marriage give us considerable food for thought. When the various actions came before a committee of elders–pastors and congregational leaders—these folks voted in favor of expanding our recognition of marriage to include same-sex couples. However, when this measure to expand the church’s recognition of marriage went to the full assembly, it failed by only 30 out of almost 700 votes—48% to 52%. Though disheartening overall, it lifted my spirits to witness the future of our church: The vast majority of the Young Adult Advisory Delegates and Theological Seminary Advisory Delegates voted in favor of the measure.
The debates preceding all these votes were both predictable and amazing. It was the first time that the PCUSA General Assembly discussed the possibility of including same-sex couples within the church’s understanding of marriage. Of course, the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the eyes of God and in the church has been debated for a whole generation. Many of the very familiar arguments against LGBT people, based on reading the Bible in a certain way, were raised again. On the other hand, one commissioner after another spoke in favor of the PCUSA recognizing the fruits of the Holy Spirit manifest in LGBT people, and God’s clear blessing upon LGBT couples and their families that is the heart of marriage. Courageous church leaders came out as gay or shared that they have presided at marriages of two men or two women and will continue to offer that pastoral care to LGBT couples.
A story told by Rev. Katie Ricks, the first out lesbian to be ordained as a minister after the PCUSA began allowing the ordination of LGBT members, in her sermon at the More Light Presbyterians worship service, captured the destination that is now appearing over the horizon for the church and society. She spoke of how the recent practice of the assembly organizers is to place the booths of groups with opposing viewpoints in the same area of the exhibition hall. This year they were put directly facing one another along one row—for instance, the More Light Presbyterians’ booth was facing Presbyterians Pro-Life. Of course, each booth had materials, trinkets and some kind of candy for folks to take and enjoy.
Katie described for us how she and her 5-year-old daughter walked down that aisle, taking a few pieces of candy from the different booths. “You just have to ask my daughter to know that the candy is equally good on both sides,” Katie said to a roomful of smiles and laughter.
My takeaway from Katie’s wonderful story was this: We are catching up with the Truth that God sees all of us as equally sweet children, adopted through the Grace of Jesus Christ. We are grasping that the heart of marriage is the love and commitment between the partners, the covenant made before our loving God and loving witnesses among whom is the church.
Where we are going is as clear as it has ever been, as is, also, how we are going to get there. We are on a rough road. While voting down any action this year, the 220th General Assembly did exactly what the 219th General Assembly did in 2010: It asked the whole church to study the nature of marriage until the next assembly in 2014. Some of the comments condemning LGBT people in the debate give a measure of what will be said by some in this study. And the backlash against Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe when she was standing for, and then elected as, Vice-Moderator of the assembly, indicate what kinds of things some church people say. Moderator Neal Presa called it “Pernicious poison.”
I got a slight whiff of it the week after the assembly when I received in the mail two plain white letters, both neatly addressed, one hand printed, the other in cursive writing, without return addresses. One was unsigned, but it did say he or she was praying for me…and also condemned me to hell for what I say. The other was signed, “Satin”—I think we can assume the writer meant Satan for it spoke as if it was delivered from hell and that “Satin” anticipated greeting me there.
I so wish the writer had signed a name and given me a way to write back. The assembly asked us in the PCUSA to join in “prayerful and reconnecting ways of listening to one another.” Yes. This is what usually happens in the committees of the General Assembly of the PCUSA every two years. This is why assemblies so often act in such spirit-filled, surprising ways. Statements that are a one-way street like these letters to me can not participate in that kind of prayerful, inspiring interaction.
I hope the writer of these letters sees this and accepts my invitation to actually engage in a conversation. Thousands of earnest conversations have brought the church to this moment and will carry us to the destination of God’s love we can see now down the road. The 220th General Assembly moved us a good way forward.
And forward is the only way to go.
Below is the full video of Katie’s sermon at the More Light Presbyterians worship service.
If you would like to watch more videos from the General Assembly, More Light Presbyterians has posted a number of them. You can find links to these videos below:
July 6 Plenary (Civil Unions & Marriage; Church Orders & Ministry):
July 4 Plenary (Confessions):
July 2 & 3 Committees
Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe resignation