Thoughts by New Jersey Presbyterians on the 221st General Assembly

Hope for Cuba

As someone who’s traveled – legally – to Cuba twice, to meet with and support our fellow Presbyterians in that land, I was much encouraged to witness the Assembly vote to recommend that the U.S. government lift all restrictions on travel to Cuba.

The real surprise was that the vote was unanimously recommended by the Peacemaking and International Relations Committee and approved by the whole Assembly by a simple voice vote, with not a single person rising to speak against it.

The Assembly went on, after some cursory debate, to vote overwhelmingly to recommend that the U.S. government remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

We’ve come a very long way in the dozen years since I last traveled to Cuba. I think most Americans are well aware that our government’s barriers to travel to Cuba, and trade with it, are meaningless remnants of a Cold War long since ended.

Before the Cuban revolution and for a few years after, Cuban Presbyterian churches were part of the old Synod of New Jersey. Cuban Presbyterians were just as much members of our denomination as Puerto Rican Presbyterians now are. Although Cuba now has a national Presbyterian church whose members would never want to return to their former status of being organically related to us, both these votes make me hopeful that the day will soon come when we will both be free to enjoy close ties once again.

It may sound strange for a stated clerk to say this, but there are some situations in which Roberts’ Rules of Order don’t help us very much.

The General Assembly has just voted, 51% to 49% – a difference of a mere 7 votes – to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, because they have profited from selling equipment Israeli security forces routinely use to deny Palestinian civil rights.

Presbyterian investments in these companies are nowhere near large enough for their withdrawal to create any pain for these huge corporations. Everyone knows divestment actions like these are all about witness. Whatever clout such actions have arises from the fact that the General Assembly can be said to represent the views of 1.8 million Presbyterians.

When only 51% of the commissioners vote in favor of such divestment, that claim is hard to justify.

There’s no question that a majority vote – even by the slimmest of margins – is enough to accomplish the action, under Roberts’ Rules. No doubt, Presbyterian investment managers under the authority of the Assembly will duly comply with the Assembly’s instruction.

With respect to what could be called the meta-action – the symbolic witness this divestment decision represents – it’s hard to see that this vote will accomplish very much. I grieve that, personally, because I would very much like to hear the church’s voice ring out resolutely to urge the Israeli government to honor the Palestinian civil rights it has long suppressed in the name of national security.

When the vote totals flashed on the screen here in Detroit, a collective gasp escaped from the assembled commissioners and advisory delegates. Everyone here knows, I think, that such a close vote is not much of a victory for anyone, least of all the long-suffering Palestinians. Sure, there are some evil, violent people living in the Palestinian territories. The heartbreaking reality, though, is that the vast majority of Palestinians, whose fondest desire is simply to live in the land of their ancestors and raise their families in peace, continue to suffer privation with no end in sight.

At the end of the day, passing motions is not going to accomplish much. A far more significant action would be for Presbyterians, in large numbers, to travel to Palestine and Israel, not to fulfill a romantic vision of “walking where Jesus walked,” but rather to listen, learn and advocate for peace and justice – as, indeed, Jesus did in the days when he did walk the earth.

I have a very personal take on the action of the General Assembly to advocate divestment from fossil-fuel companies.

“We will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.” So says the psalmist (Psalm 46:2).

I have seen the earth change – literally. A year ago last October, the Atlantic Ocean cut my parish in half. The site of Hurricane Sandy’s breach of New Jersey’s Barnegat Peninsula, portrayed in news media around the world, is just three miles from my home.

Roughly a quarter of the members of the church I serve, Point Pleasant Presbyterian in Point Pleasant Beach, were displaced from their homes. Some still are.

Before the Army Corps of Engineers mended the ocean breach – through a Herculean, round-the-clock effort involving over 3,400 dump-truck loads of fill – the homes of some of our members were cut off from their church by an impassable body of water.

Those members were not in their homes at the time, because the entire barrier-beach area had been evacuated, just hours before Sandy struck. It was many weeks before those members were even able to survey the damage, due to ruptured natural-gas lines, sinkholes and other hazards.

A tremendous preponderance of scientific evidence demonstrates that extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy are heightened by global warming, which is in turn advanced by over-reliance on fossil fuels.

There was a time when we viewed tobacco companies are benign. I’m convinced future generations will regard fossil-fuel companies as equally culpable in profiting from pain and suffering in human lives. Those future generations, looking back on our historical era from circumstances that are unimaginably more difficult than our own, will wonder why it took us so long to awaken from our complacent slumber and begin the long and arduous task of saving the earth.

The Assembly vigorously debated proposals calling for divestment from fossil-fuel companies – some demanding immediate divestment, others advocating a more measured approach. In the end, the Assembly voted to refer the matter of fossil-fuel divestment to our Mission Responsibility Through Investment office (MRTI), for report back to the next Assembly in 2016.

That action represents progress: not such rapid progress as some want to see, but progress all the same. I know the people of my storm-wracked community of Point Pleasant Beach will be heartened to know that we Presbyterians are making an unmistakable witness in favor of freeing our nation from our deadly addiction to fossil fuels, and seeking more earth-friendly energy sources.

Amidst all the sound and fury of some of the General Assembly’s other actions, a significant statement on interfaith dialogue has not received all the attention it deserves. We’re living in a world in which interfaith understanding is becoming more important every day, so I share it here in the hope that it may be useful in our churches:

An Affirmation of Interreligious Commitment

We believe the Bible proclaims God’s love for all people, that Christ’s Great Commandment sets the standard for all of our relationships: “… ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’” and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, “… ‘love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mt. 22:37, 39).

We confess

that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has sought to live up to its commitment to

love people of other religious traditions, but many times we have not;

with God’s help we resolve to do better;

that self-serving theologies and goals and triumphalistic attitudes pull us apart;

with God’s help we resolve to do better;

that some of our confessions and the dated perspectives of our religious

heritage have resulted in patterns of unhealthy relationships with people of other religions;

with God’s help we resolve to do better.

We resolve to do better and not perpetuate divisive relationships among our neighbors and ourselves.

God calls us to have loving relationships with people of other religions.

God calls us to approach others in a spirit of openness and trust as we follow Jesus Christ

in respecting and affirming the freedom of others.

God calls us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to work with people of other religions

for peace, justice, and the sustainability of creation.

Guided on our way by the Holy Spirit, we will

meet human needs,

work for social justice,

participate in mission and evangelism,

pursue peace,

strengthen families,

educate for greater understanding,

nurture diverse communities,

value hospitality in our congregations, and

respect one another in our workplaces.

We follow Christ’s call to work for God’s kingdom; we believe that God will complete what we leave incomplete. To God be the glory!

As I write this, we’re well into the 3 day slog from Wednesday afternoon through Saturday morning that will establish the work of this GA. I am feeling pretty optimistic about things. I headed into this stretch after watching a great presentation, a breakfast with the NJ delegation, and some time with friends.

We’ve now approved a new Authoritative Intepretation on marriage, which will mean pastors in my presbytery (and many others) will be able to officiate at marriages of same-sex couples. This sounds pretty sterile, but today my facebook and twitter feed lit up, mostly with excitement by friends and classmates. I have friends who have been waiting for this for twenty years. For my generation of PCUSA pastors, this announcement has generally been greeted with joy. The GA also approved a revision to the Book of Order that would change the definition of marriage, but this must still be approved by two-thirds of presbyteries. 

At the same time, half of those sitting in my row voted against the motion, and likely feel the sort of frustration that often comes after these votes. I’m trying to balance my general enthusiasm with (1) the frustration of those voting the other way, (2) the challenges this poses for commissioners as they return home, and (3) real anxieties about what this change will mean for congregations in the US and for friends abroad. 

Strangely, I also feel grateful. There have been a lot of votes like this before, and it may well be that the enthusiasm felt here will fade as presbyteries take up their work. At the same time, to me it feels like something has shifted. I feel like I’ve really seen something happen. I *hope* that the enthusiasm I feel here continues, and that this strengthens our sense of vision and mission. It’s still early, but for now that’s the feeling I’ll try to stay with.

Moments ago, the General Assembly voted to change the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship as being “between two people,” rather than “between a man and a woman.” A parenthetical gloss was added by amendment from the floor: “(traditionally understood as between a man and a woman).”

A majority of the presbyteries will have to concur, of course. Yet, even if the amendment is not ratified, an authoritative interpretation issued by the Assembly earlier this afternoon preserves the right of individual ministers to perform same-sex marriages in states where that is legally permitted, regardless of whether the old or the new language ultimately prevails.

It is a landmark decision, one of those moments in history those of us here in Detroit will recall the rest of our lives, saying, “I was there.”

I expect we will say this whether or not we agree with the particular decision, and whether or not a majority of the presbyteries concur during the coming year. Nearly everyone realizes, I think, that this is part of a vast and dizzyingly rapid change that will eventually prevail in nearly all of American society and most Protestant churches.

It won’t happen overnight, in other words. Yet, if there is a moment when the tide turned for Presbyterians, this is it.

A well-known quotation of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to mind: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The word “justice” is not the first one that will come to mind for every person, I’m well aware. Nor will everyone agree that this change is more moral than the traditional practice which preceded it. What I’m most interested in is the image of an arc.

Today’s vote is like the highest point in the arc’s trajectory. Because the arc is long, full acceptance of the practice of same-sex marriage in many local congregations will be long in coming. We are entering into a season in which skills of empathy and patient listening will be of great value to our congregations and presbyteries. We will all be grateful for a full measure of divine grace, as together we live into this change.

The words of a hymn the Assembly sang just after taking the vote will be our prayer: “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.”


If you’re the kind of person who wants to follow the actions of the General Assembly, the best way is to watch the live stream and follow along on PC-biz.

If you prefer to hear the pundits, however, you need to follow the conversation on twitter. Follow the official sources like the Presbyterian Outlook (@presoutlook), the Office of the General Assembly (@presbyGA) for the news. And follow the hashtag #GA221 for the commentary. My favorite tweets of the day:

@mayog: When they have to tell the Commissioners to turn on their electronics, who is surprised that there is no child care? #GA221

@salliedmin: #ga221 EPs are planning a filibuster if we get voice.

@LandonWhitsitt: I’ve got a free gift to the first person who clearly refers to Heath Rada as “#ModeRada” on the floor of #ga221.

@miheekimkort: Holy crap I’m way happy and excited that @LarissaLKA is moderating the meeting right now. It’s so fun. #ga221 #comm6

@cmikoski25: Sara B Moseley was the first woman moderator of the PCUS- you go girl! #rolemodel #GA221

@SheRevSEA: If you want to know what your EP/GP or other thinks, ask them. #GA221

@mnewgale: anyone notice that David Gambrell looks a bit like Jon Snow? #GA221 #GoT #watcheronthewalls

BTW, you can follow me @baileyws

%d bloggers like this: