Tuesday, June 24, 2014

General Assembly (2014) #18

Here is my list of the top eleven actions items approved by this year’s General Assembly. Several of these are incendiary. Several of these are not controversial at all, but deserve our attention. A hyperlink to a document which includes all of these action items is available on the Presbytery of Carlisle homepage. You may also find these actions by the item number under the committee tab in PC-Biz.

Item 04-04: On the Middle East
Item 05-04: On Synods
Item 06-15: The Heidelberg Catechism
Item 08-13: Special Offerings
Item 10-02: On Marriage
Item 10-03: On Marriage
Item 10-07: On Marriage
Item 13-01: Belhar Confession
Item 13-02: Directory for Worship
Item 13-08: On John Knox
Item 14-03: Living Missionally

Friday, June 20, 2014

General Assembly (2014) #17


A constitutional amendment allowing same gender marriage was approved by the General Assembly with a vote of 429 to 175. It will be necessary for our presbytery to vote on this action and for a majority of presbyteries to approve it before it is added to our Book of Order. In my mind, it is crucially important that the sentence copied here was added and approved also. 

"Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God."

The challenge before us is precisely clear. Can we be one church with two definitions of marriage? I believe we can. I will work for this kind of church. Our ability to do this may be a remarkable witness to the world. 

General Assembly (2014) #16

Pastoral Letter:

June 19, 2014

To congregations of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Earlier today, the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved a recommendation from its Assembly Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues allowing for pastoral discretion to perform “any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform,” where legal by state law.

They also approved a recommendation to change language in the Book of Order to indicate that “marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”
Both decisions came with much thought, discussion, and prayer, and clearly the entire body that is the PC(USA) will be interpreting these actions for some time.

Please know that the same triune God in whom we place our hope, faith, and trust in is still in control, and that the assembly’s action today is the result of deep discernment to hear God’s voice and discern God’s will.

We concur with the feelings expressed by Teaching Elder Commissioner Jeffrey Bridgeman, moderator of the Assembly Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues, during his presentation to the assembly.
“The apostle Paul tells us that ours is, in fact, ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ as ‘ambassadors of Christ,’ and he died for us so that we might be reconciled, that we might become reconcilers,” Bridgeman said.

In this season of both happiness and sadness over the assembly’s decisions, we call on you to remember the overflowing grace and love God gifts us with, and to take seriously our charge to bestow the same grace and love on one another.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord,
Ruling Elder Heath K. Rada
Moderator, 221st General Assembly (2014)

The Reverend Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly

Ruling Elder Linda Bryant Valentine
Executive Director, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

General Assembly (2014) #15

Committee Work is finished. The whole General Assembly will convene again today, Wednesday, at 2:00 p.m. The respective committees have:

Approved, by a vote of 49 -18, an amendment to the constitution concerning marriage copied here. If approved by the General Assembly this will come to the presbyteries for vote.

   “If they meet the requirements of the civil jurisdiction in which they intend to marry, a couple may request that a service of Christian marriage be conducted by a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who is authorized, though not required, to act as an agent of the civil jurisdiction in recording the marriage contract. A couple requesting a service of Christian marriage shall receive instruction from the teaching elder, who [shall] [may] agree to the couple’s request only if, in the judgment of the teaching elder, the couple demonstrate sufficient understanding of the nature of the marriage covenant and commitment to living their lives together according to its values. In making this decision, the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church property for a marriage service."

Approved, by a vote of 51 -18, a new Authoritative Interpretation concerning marriage copied here:

Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may conduct a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship, [if]  [so long as it is] approved by the session; or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian worship. In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The authoritative interpretation of this section by the 203rd General Assembly (1991) (Minutes, 1991, Part I, p. 395, paragraphs 21.124–128), and the subsequent authoritative interpretations of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission relying upon it, are withdrawn and replaced with this authoritative interpretation.'

Approved the Confession of Belhar to be included in our Book of Confessions. The committee vote was 46 to 0. This is a constitutional issue. If approved by the whole General Assembly this will come to the presbyteries for vote. 

Amended and approved the Mid Council Report, with a vote of 65 to 1, which will initiate the restructuring of our Synods. An important section of the recommendation is copied here: 

 Direct that a new configuration of synod boundaries be established [based on an emerging sense of purpose, partnership, context, and call through a collaborative process] between the synods and presbyteries [resulting in no more than 10-12 synods]. resulting in no more than eight [twelve] larger regional synods, each with an emerging sense of purpose, partnership, context, and call. The synods shall report to the 222nd General Assembly (2016).

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

General Assembly (2014) #14

Living Missionally

The Congregation Vitality committee approved by a vote of 44 - 0 a recommendation from the General Assembly Mission Agency titled "Living Missionally." I was at the Committee discussion and vote on this recommendation. There was a remarkable, positive spirit and enthusiasm. After the comments from the staff of the Mission Agency, various committee members expressed support. It is this spirit of unity and vision which is another important aspect of this General Assembly. All the publicity and media attention, including mention in the New York Times yesterday, is focused on our divisions and conflict. But there is also conversation, including this recommendation to Live Missionally, around which the General Assembly conversation is united and energized. As I wrote earlier, I believe this is the most important recommendation coming out of this year's General Assembly. This is not a top-down, mandated, new program. This is simply an invitation to a conversation about what Jesus is calling us to be and do together.  

The recommendation is:

1.    Acknowledge the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s historic commitment to joining Christ’s mission in local and global communities.
2.    Encourage congregations, mid councils, and the Presbyterian Mission Agency to join intentionally in God’s mission to transform our world and address root causes of societal injustices by following Christ’s example of service through faith, hope, love, and witness.
3.    Launch a churchwide initiative that will inspire, equip, and connect Presbyterians to continue to go beyond the walls of their congregations and increase their engagement in service to their communities and the world.
4.    Direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency to develop tangible metrics to determine success and impact and report back to the 222nd General Assembly (2016), sharing progress made and identifying strategies for deeper engagement in 2016–18.

The Committee's comment on this recommendation is copied here:
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a historical commitment to joining Christ’s mission in local and global communities and many have discussed and written about the concept of the missional church in recent years. The Presbyterian Mission Agency, in its 2013–2016 Mission Work Plan, has made engaging young adults through mission and volunteer service a priority and believes shaping multigenerational, faith-based relationships dedicated to service in local communities and the world will help the church better follow Christ’s mission. For nearly 200 years, the Presbyterian church has served as one of the greatest forces for mission in the world. The church is called to minister to the immediate needs and hurts of people. The Book of Order states: “In the life of the congregation, individual believers are equipped for the ministry of witness to the love and grace of God in and for the world. The congregation reaches out to people, communities, and the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ, to gather for worship to offer care and nurture to God’s children, to speak for social justice and righteousness, and to bear witness to the truth and to the reign of God that is coming into the world” (G-1.0101). Presbyterians have sought to be a mission-centered church from their inception and have a strong, unwavering belief that there is no other way truly to be the church. Many have discussed and written about the concept of the missional church in recent years. One Presbyterian scholar, Darrell Guder, has written on this vital topic for the church today. In his book, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Guder and his colleagues provide key insights into the recent missional church movement. Guder and his colleagues discuss three themes that are important to this proposal: the shift the church must make, the purpose of the church, and the role of denominational structures. Guder argues that to be missional the church must “move from church with mission to missional church.” Most churches articulate a commitment to mission and have a mission program. If they are large enough, they likely will have a specific pastor devoted to mission. Many churches support several overseas missionaries and are probably contributing money and service to a local mission, homeless shelter, or food bank. In this construct, mission is seen as one of the many activities and programs of the church. The purpose of the local church is not to be what Guder calls “vendors of religious services and goods,” with mission merely being one of a myriad of programs. Rather, doing mission is central to what it means to be the church. This is the shift that the church must make. The second major theme in Guder’s work challenges the very definition of what it means to be the church. Guder argues that it is “a new understanding of the church as a body of people sent on a mission.” The church is thus not only a body that gathers for a worship service. The church is also a group of people organizing together so they can serve the community around them most effectively. The purpose of gathering is to be sent. Guder states, “The public worship of the mission community always leads to the pivotal act of sending. The community that is called together is the community that is sent. Every occasion of public worship is a sending event.” To a missional church, worship is driven more by what must happen after the service. What it truly means to be the church, according to Guder, is “the people of God who are called and sent to re-present the reign of God. This vocation is rooted in the good news, the gospel: in Jesus Christ the reign of God is at hand and is now breaking in.” For Guder, the focus of the staff and the commitment of the resources are directed toward helping people to re-present Christ to their neighbors in their everyday lives.

Monday, June 16, 2014

General Assembly (2014) #11

Social Witness Policy:

In a previous era, before the internet, when information was shared in very different ways and in different forms than today the Presbyterian Church's social witness policy documents were often influential and widely read. The Presbyterian Church has a long heritage of speaking to public issues with a theological depth and academic rigor that was often widely studied and appreciated. There was a day when policy papers on social issues were themselves important discussions at the General Assembly. Times have changed, academic rigor within the church has decreased, and the attention span and interest of Presbyterians in theological reflection on social issues has diminished. Nonetheless the General Assembly continues this good work, and several important social witness policy papers are among the actions items at this year's General Assembly.  

For example: 
The Power to Change - U.S. Energy Policy and Global Warming
Available on PC-Biz under Committee 15 "Immigration and Environmental Issues." (https://www.pcusa.org/resource/power-change-us-energy-policy-global-warming/)

Tax Justice: A Christian Response to the New Gilded Age
Available on PC-Biz under Committee 09, "Social Justice Issues", 09-16 (https://www.pc-biz.org/PC biz.WebApp_deploy/(S(xnlblfk1p2ip2t3fhju5a3mj))/Committee2.aspx).

General Assembly (2014) #10

The Launching of the “Fellowship Community”:
There will be a significant institutional restructuring of the evangelical voice within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The "Fellowship of Presbyterians" and "Presbyterians for Renewal" are merging their organizations to form the "Fellowship Community". The Fellowship of Presbyterians was a gathering of evangelical Presbyterians out of which the new ECO denomination emerged. The new Fellowship Community will not have any formal connection with ECO.
This note is copied from the Presbyterians for Renewal website:
It is with great joy and anticipation that we celebrate the launch of a new movement as the Fellowship of Presbyterians and Presbyterians for Renewal (PFR) join together to nurture and connect gospel-centered PC(USA) congregations and expand relationships with our counterparts in other mainline traditions.
The Fellowship Community is not an “association” to join. We are building a new community around Christ-centered mission, accountability, theological integrity, and cultural engagement. We are following the Holy Spirit’s leading into a new season of mission and ministry, shaping an evangelical witness and actively participating in God’s mission in the context of our 21st century church and culture.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

General Assembly (2014) #9

Celebrate World Mission

The General Assembly celebrated and commissioned a huge new class of mission co-workers. Including spouses this is a group of 49 mission co-workers, from Hugh and Teena Anderson from Cascades Presbytery to serve in China to Claire Zuhosky from Shenango Presbytery to serve in Niger. This is a remarkable group of gifted people with amazing gifts going out all around the world to serve in partnership with partner churches, schools and medical facilities on our behalf. Is this not one of the most important expressions of ministry that we do together as a church? 

Can the Presbytery of Carlisle start a simple but transforming campaign to insure that each our congregations is connected, aware and supportive of our ministry in World Mission? Can every congregation learn about and engage with the ministry of at least one mission co-worker? 

General Assembly (2014) #8

Heath Rada was elected Moderator.

Special congratulations and special thanks to all the leaders and participants in the NEXT conference. All three of the candidates for Moderator mentioned their involvement in the NEXT conversation. The elected Moderator, Heath Rada, mentioned that he was recruited to consider running for Moderator by participants at the NEXT conference. We should be paying attention to the energy and vision emerging in the NEXT conversation.  

See http://nextchurch.net/

General Assembly (2014) #7

Claiming some church history today:

The computer program PC-Biz is used to track all the action items coming forward to the General Assembly. There is a Resources tab within PC-Biz which, I was surprised to learn today, includes now a copy of the famous Swearingen Commission report from 1925. The Special Commission of 1925 was created by the General Assembly then to respond to the conflict in the church being caused by what is now referred to as the Fundamentalist and Modernist Controversy. For students of Presbyterian history (like me) this Report is an important response to one of the most difficult times of conflict in the church. The balanced, fair, and thoughtful report went a long way toward easing the conflict. The Special Commission of 1925 lifted up what they called a "principle of toleration" which, I believe, is still very relevant and appropriate as we live through our season of discord and disagreement. A paragraph on the "principle of toleration" from the Special Commission of 1925 is copied here:

The principle of toleration when rightly conceived and frankly and fairly applied 
is as truly a part of our constitution as are any of the doctrines stated in that instrument. 
Not only is the principle expressed in definite terms, but its place and authority as a part 
of our organic law is further indicated in a number of articles by clear and necessary 
implication. Furthermore, it is recognized through unbroken practice in the 
administration of our form of government and our discipline. 

 Toleration as a principle applicable within the Presbyterian Church refers to an 
attitude and a practice according to which the status of a minister or other ordained 
officer, is acknowledged and fellowship is extended to him, even though he may hold 
some views that are individual on points not regarded as essential to the system of faith 
which the Church professes. Presbyterianism is a great body of belief, but it is more than 
a belief; it is also a tradition, a controlling sentiment. The ties which bind us to it are not 
of the mind only; they are ties of the heart as well. There are people who, despite variant 
opinions, can never be at home in any other communion. They were born into the 
Presbyterian Church. They love its name, its order and its great distinctive teachings. In its fellowship they have a previous inheritance from their forbears. Their hearts bow at 
its altars and cherish a just pride in its noble history. Attitudes and sentiments like these 
are treasures which should not be undervalued hastily nor cast aside lightly. A sound 
policy of constitutional toleration is designed to conserve such assets whenever it is 
possible to do so without endangering the basic positions of the Church.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

General Assembly (2014) #6

In my opinion, the most important action item coming before this year's General Assembly is 14 - 03 from the Congregational Vitality committee. This is a recommendation from the Mission Agency:

The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board recommends that the 221st General Assembly (2014):

1.    Acknowledge the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s historic commitment to joining Christ’s mission in local and global communities.

2.    Encourage congregations, mid councils, and the Presbyterian Mission Agency to join intentionally in God’s mission to transform our world and address root causes of societal injustices by following Christ’s example of service through faith, hope, love, and witness.

3.    Launch a churchwide initiative that will inspire, equip, and connect Presbyterians to continue to go beyond the walls of their congregations and increase their engagement in service to their communities and the world.

4.    Direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency to develop tangible metrics to determine success and impact and report back to the 222nd General Assembly (2016), sharing progress made and identifying strategies for deeper engagement in 2016–18.

This is what I would like to be about in our Presbytery. I am particularly interested in the the concept of "tangible metrics". How do we measure the vitality and effectiveness of our congregations and our presbytery. Why are we too often content with mediocrity and a complete lack of growth? Are these not the concerns and issues we should be discussing? 

Friday, June 13, 2014

General Assembly (2014) #5

As we begin our week together for the meeting of the General Assembly in Detroit it seems from my casual conversation with our commissioners and many friends around the Exhibit Hall here that the Israel and Palestinian issue is the hottest issue. A long news article about our General Assembly in the Detroit Free Press was headlined with this issue. (http://www.freep.com/article/20140613/NEWS05/306130023/presbyterians-convention-divest-israel.) Our Commissioners told me that they received more response on this issue in preparation for the Assembly than any other issue. Our debate about divestment from Israel is now also associated with recent divestment action by the United Methodist Church and the Gates Foundation. Also, as we have heard before, a number of Jewish organizations around the nation have already publicly criticized the Presbyterian Church for even considering divestment.

This is not a debate I want to join or about which I have a passionate commitment. In many ways, from my perspective, the Presbyterian Church is fragile. I fully understand the importance of public witness and social justice. But I also understand the stress that burdens many small congregations, and the stress that burdens many of our pastors and church leaders. The contentious heat, the divisiveness, and the polarizing debate around this intractable, international issue does not build us up. Most of all, I am very concerned that many people simply disengage from these church conversations cynical and apathetic. 

I know the importance of Presbyterian social and political engagement. I know the stellar history of our social witness. In this changed culture, in this fragile church how do we engage social  issues and witness publicly in ways that lifts us up and makes us proud to be Presbyterian? In my mind, these contentious debates which will be decided by extremely narrow voting margins are not the proper means of social witness for today's church. Certainly Presbyterians should consider and debate and engage the Israeli and Palestinian issue. But should this issue be the primary issue, the dominant issue and the headline issue for our General Assembly?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

General Assembly (2014) #4

Constitutional Question:
An Amendment to the Book of Confessions:

Coming to the General Assembly this year is a recommendation to add the Confession of Belhar to our Book of Confessions. Since the Book of Confessions is part of our church's constitution this question is a constitutional issue. This means that if the question is approved by the General Assembly, it will then also be considered by the presbyteries. Thus if this question is approved, we will be considering and voting on this question at our presbytery. There is a good website prepared where the text of the Confession of Belhar may be reviewed along with a supportive and background information: www.pcusa.org/belhar.

General Assembly (2014) #3

This litany is suggested for the opening session of each General Assembly Standing Committee: 

Litany of Hope for the 221st General Assembly

Eternal and gracious God, as we gather for the 221st

General Assembly of the Presbyterian
Church (USA), we offer you thanks and praise.

We give you thanks for

our faith in your sovereign love,
guiding and grounding our prayers and deliberations,
and this opportunity for new and renewed friendships,
confessing that we are the body of Christ together.
our out your Holy Spirit anew we pray, that
our common life this week reflects the mind of Christ,
seeking God’s guidance through our worship, prayer, discernment and action,
and our engagement with each other demonstrates the transforming love of God,
enabling us to discern God’s will together.

Lead us beyond our private concerns and petty perspectives,

that our experience together centers on
learning from Presbyterians and many others across the United States and around the world,
discovering God’s presence through worship, devotions, hallway prayers and Christ-centered conversations,
witnessing with joy and thanksgiving the emergence of new leaders for the church,
making decisions through contemplation, prayer and heartfelt sharing,
centered on the call of Christ,
and growing in our personal and church wide understanding of God’s will and ways.

In our life together during the days ahead, give us the courage

to participate in discussion, deliberation and discernment
in ways that are fair and honest and open,
to be quick to listen and not so quick to speak,
to engage with one another in love, humility and grace,
and to proclaim with clarity and determination
the great good news of the Gospel.

Through our time together this week, grant anew that

this meeting may represent the bond of union, community and mission
among all the congregations and councils of our church
to the end that the whole church becomes
a community of faith, hope, love and witness,  to the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen.

General Assembly (2014) #2

In this week before the meeting of General Assembly convenes, (the Assembly meets from June 14 to 21; I leave for Detroit this Friday), I am reviewing the action items that are coming forward:

Marriage: Of course, anyone paying attention to this conversation is aware of the proposals concerning the definition of marriage. This issue will be the focus of the secular media’s reporting from the Assembly. If you are following this debate, it is important that you understand the difference between a Constitutional Amendment and an Authoritative Interpretation. These are very different types of action. There are proposals coming forward in both forms.

Middle East: There are contentious action items coming forward concerning the church’s response to the Middle East and specifically the ongoing tension and conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This debate is confounded by the larger question about the role and purpose of social justice ministry in the church today.

Synods: At the 2012 General Assembly a bold and innovative proposal, (which I appreciated and supported), came forward concerning the restructuring of our middle governing bodies. That proposal was defeated but the question itself was moved forward. Now a much smaller and less innovative proposal is coming forward to reduce, in two years, our current synods into eight new synods. But this proposal faces strong opposition from the Synod executives themselves who have a written response. This will be a contentious, internal issue for the church.

Gun Violence: There a social witness policy paper coming forward on gun violence. This is a topic I wish our presbytery would debate. This is a difficult and divisive national issue. Our presbytery, from urban Harrisburg to rural Juniata and Fulton Counties, includes the whole spectrum of convictions on this question. Should we not be discussing this?

In my mind, two important issues which may not be highlighted in the news media should also be discussed and considered in our presbytery:

1001 Worshipping Communities: There continues to be strong and growing support for this movement to create new worshipping communities. This is becoming a strategic focus of our church. Every presbytery is challenged to engage this conversation. I am seeking a congregation that will host this conversation in our presbytery.

The Mission Agency fundraisers: You should know the meeting of the General Assembly and all our constitutional concerns are the responsibility of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). Nonetheless the other side of the General Assembly structure, the Mission Agency, reports to this meeting. In the report of the Mission Agency’s Special Offerings Taskforce there is a recommendation to continue the special fundraising efforts which have been initiated. This includes the hiring and expansion of the professional fundraising staff within the Mission Agency. A goal has been set to stop the decline in the One Great Hour of Sharing special offering and grow it to $20 million by 2020. For a Presbytery like ours, which has a strong commitment to Shared Mission Giving, this new emphasis on professional fundraising undermines our whole financial system and changes our traditional understanding of connectionalism. Our presbytery should be aware of and pondering a robust response to this new day of church finances. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

General Assembly (2014) #1

Introduction to the General Assembly

            The 221st General Assembly (2014) is scheduled for this June 14 to 21 in Detroit. We are grateful for our team of commissioners who are already preparing for this important service to our Church. Jim Speedy and I will also attend the gathering; please watch for my updates and reflections which will be regularly posted on my blog. 
            Already all the action items that will be coming forward to this General Assembly can be studied and reviewed electronically. The website, with lots of background information on the Assembly, is at https://www.pcusa.org/events/24273/221st-general-assembly-2014/ or simply Google on PC(USA) General Assembly. At the Assembly all the action is considered using a special program named PC-Biz. You may find this program at https://www.pc-biz.org/ or simply Google on PC-Biz. Within the PC-Biz program you may click on the “Resources” tab to find a list of all the “Business” and all the “Overtures” coming to this Assembly. You may click on the “Committees” tab to see all the fifteen committees of Assembly; clicking on any particular committee will bring up all the action items which are on that committee’s agenda.
            Action items to the General Assembly come forward in three distinct paths. There are, of course, many “Communications.” For example, the World Council of Churches brings their greetings. There are also “Recommendations” from other agencies within the Church to the Assembly. For example, there is a list of Recommendations coming to the Assembly from the General Assembly Mission Agency. But most important are the “Overtures.” Overtures are action items to be considered by the Assembly that have been approved by presbyteries. Overtures typically originate with an individual session, are approved by that session’s presbytery and sent forward to the Assembly. Almost all of the controversial issues facing the Assembly come forward as Overtures. This is very important. Thus the most important items coming before the Assembly originate with a particular session within a particular congregation. This reflects the connectional nature of our Church. Our Church is individual congregations connected together into a system of governance and mission. Our General Assembly, and the actions it considers, is driven from the grassroots of the Church. Overtures are initiated by particular sessions.

            Please pay attention to this year’s General Assembly. Let us engage together the many important issues facing us.