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Appointments Made for Way Forward Commission, 2020 Vision Team

By Toya Richards, Office of the General Assembly.

Appointments have been made for two General Assembly created bodies charged with helping the Presbyterian Church (USA) chart a way forward as a denomination.

Twelve people have been named to the Way Forward Commission and fifteen individuals have been named to the 2020 Vision Team, both of which were actions of the 222nd General Assembly (2016). The appointments for the 2020 Vision Team were made by the Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly (2016). The Co-Moderators serve ex-officio on the 2020 Vision Team. Appointments to the Way Forward Commission were made by the Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) and the Moderator and Vice Moderator of the 221st General Assembly (2014).

Selections for both the commission and the vision team were made in consultation with the General Assembly Nominating Committee and the General Assembly Committee on Representation.

“We are pleased that these individuals have accepted the invitation to help the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) discern what God is calling it to be in the future,” said Co-Moderators Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston. “We are confident that each person will work to innovatively and creatively help guide the church where it needs to be.”

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Members of the 2020 Vision Team include:

  1. Bernadette Coffee, Co-Moderator, Tres Rios Presbytery
  2. DèAnn Cunningham, Charlotte Presbytery
  3. Michael Fagans, San Joaquin Presbytery
  4. Chris McCain, Greater Atlanta Presbytery
  5. Joshua Narcisse, New York City Presbytery
  6. Salvador D. Gavalda Corchado, San Juan Presbytery
  7. Joshua T. Andrzejewski, The James Presbytery
  8. Deborah G. Foster, Foothills Presbytery
  9. Don Lee, Eastern Korean Presbytery
  10. Jerrod B. Lowry Utah Presbytery
  11. Lisa Juica Perkins, Co-Moderator, Grace Presbytery
  12. Karen Sapio, San Gabriel Presbytery
  13. Justin Botejue, Inland Northwest Presbytery
  14. Sabrina Slater, Inland Northwest Presbytery
  15. Rebecca Snedeker-Meier, Maumee Valley Presbytery
    (More information on the members can be found here.)

 

Members of the Way Forward Commission include:

  1. Samuel L. Bonner, New Brunswick Presbytery
  2. Emily Marie Williams, Grace Presbytery
  3. Raymond (Cliff) Lyda, St. Augustine Presbytery
  4. Eliana Maxim, Seattle Presbytery
  5. Eileen W. Lindner, Palisades Presbytery
  6. Josephene (Jo) Stewart, Charlotte Presbytery
  7. Sara Dingman, Missouri River Valley Presbytery
  8. Julie L. Cox, New Harmony Presbytery
  9. Mathew Eardley, Boise Presbytery
  10. Mark Hostetter, Moderator, New York City Presbytery
  11. Adan A. Mairena, Philadelphia Presbytery
  12. Patricia Rarumangkay, National Capital Presbytery
    (More information on the members can be found here.)
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Interfaith Ignorance in Excelsis

By Mateen Elass, on his personal blog.

Due to ongoing reverberations from the June 2016 PCUSA General Assembly where a “Muslim partner” led the gathered Presbyterians in a prayer to Allah seeking their conversion to Islam, newly appointed Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, Jr. has published a defense of the denomination’s position on interfaith relations, particularly with Islam.

Entitled “Remembering a Biblical Narrative That Shapes Our Interfaith Commitments: Building Bridges Through Interfaith Work“, this 1400 word document seeks to justify the PCUSA approach of linking together arm in arm with non-Christian (indeed anti-Christian) religions and marching buoyantly into a utopian future where all is love and beliefs don’t matter.

Nelson begins by greeting readers “…in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” But that hopeful start is lost in all that follows. We are led by the title to hope that Nelson will give us a biblical narrative showing how to navigate the minefields of interfaith relations. Instead, we are told to ignore beliefs that rightly separate us and lift instead a common “ethic of love.”

The only biblical text Nelson cites in defense of his view is one he has to misquote in order to justify his stance. In Mark 9:38-41, Jesus’ disciples report to him they had come across a man not of their group who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They had ordered him to stop since he was not of the twelve chosen by Jesus. When Jesus hears this, he upbraids them, saying, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me,  for whoever is not against us is for us.” Nelson is keen to show that the key for Jesus is commonality of purpose, not being part of his immediate group. Apparently for Nelson all interfaith groups seemingly have the same purpose, and so are acceptable to Jesus, and should be acceptable to us. Though the biblical text makes clear that the unknown man in question is doing ministry in Jesus’ name, and that Jesus’ rationale for not prohibiting him is that “no one doing ministry in my name can in the next moment badmouth me…,” Nelson incredibly twists this text in order to baptize interfaith cooperation:

“Jesus acknowledges the commonality of purpose between groups of religious leaders other than our own. When the disciples of Jesus reported to him that there were others casting out demons in another name, he responded, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk. 9:39–41).” [Emphases mine.]

The problem is, this man is acting in the name and under the authority of Jesus, not from some competing religious stance. Jesus affirms his ministry because it is being done in his name, not in the name of some other religious authority. To use this text for support of interfaith relations, particularly with regard to Islam, a religion that denies the gospel significance of the name of Jesus, is to abuse Scripture in pursuit of a personal agenda.

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PCUSA Presbyteries Prepare to Vote on 16 Amendments to the Constitution

vote noPresbyterian Church (USA) presbyteries will be voting to ratify 16 amendments to the denomination’s constitution which were approved by the 222nd General Assembly that met this past June in Portland, Ore.

The most controversial issue is the General Assembly’s decision to decouple baptism from the Lord’s Supper by removing the requirement of baptism for admission to the table. This will come before the presbyteries in two different amendments.

The first is “16-G. Access to the Lord’s Table, on amending W-2.3011a. and b.” (called Item 14-03 at the assembly).

The proposed amendment would change W-2.4011a. and b to read:

“Theology of the Lord’s Supper

“a. The opportunity to eat and drink with Christ is not a right bestowed upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance, and love. All who come to the table are offered the bread and cup, regardless of their age or understanding. If some of those who come have not yet been baptized, an invitation to baptismal preparation and Baptism should be graciously extended.

“Worshipers prepare themselves to celebrate the Lord’s Supper by putting their trust in Christ, confessing their sin, and seeking reconciliation with God and one another. Even those who doubt may come to the table in order to be assured of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ.

“Welcoming to the Table

“b. In cases where baptized children who have not yet begun to participate in the Lord’s Supper express a desire to receive the Sacrament, the session should provide an occasion to welcome them to the table in public worship. Their introduction to the Lord’s Supper should include ongoing instruction or formation in the meaning and mystery of the Sacraments.”

The language actually comes directly from another amendment to the constitution that presbyteries will be voting on – the revised Directory of Worship.

The proposed revised Directory of Worship has been streamlined with 9,000 fewer words and a total of five chapters instead of the seven chapters found in the current Directory.

Minister of Word and Sacrament

Presbyteries are also being asked to ratify the decision of the General Assembly to change the term “teaching elder” back to “minister of Word and Sacrament.” There are eight amendments proposed to change the terms in different sections of the Book of Order.

In 2012, the General Assembly approved, and presbyteries ratified the decision to call pastors “teaching elders.” The Presbytery of Great Rivers asked the 2016 assembly — with five other presbyteries concurring – to change the title back to “Ministers of Word and Sacrament.”

Other amendments

16.A. Child and Youth Protection Policy—On Amending G-3.0106: This proposed amendment would add the word “youth” to G-3.0106 of the Book of Order which requires all councils to “adopt and implement a sexual misconduct policy and a child and youth protection policy.

16.B. Parity in Committees—On Amending G-3.0109: The proposed amendment strikes the requirement in G-3.0109 that specifies committees have “at least one half being members of congregations” and inserts new language so that it would read “A committee shall study and recommend action or carry out decisions already made by a council. It shall make a full report to the council that created it, and its recommendations shall require action by that body. Committees of councils higher than the session shall consist of both teaching elders and members of congregations, in numbers as nearly equal as possible.”

16-D: Both 16D.1 and 16D.2 deal with pastors who have renounced the jurisdiction of the church while in the disciplinary process. Both amendments work to create a way that the former pastor “may publicly face accusations that he or she had evaded before, as a step towards possible reinstatement to be able to work in the church (at least in some capacity).”

16-D.1. Relationship to the PCUSA of a Person Who Has Renounced Jurisdiction of the Church—On Amending G-2.0509. The change proposed to G-2.0509 would add a phrase to the end of the fourth paragraph so that it reads:

Whenever a former teaching elder has renounced jurisdiction in the midst of a disciplinary proceeding as the accused, that former teaching elder shall not be permitted to perform any work, paid or volunteer, in any congregation or entity under the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (USA) unless and until the person rejoins the church, comes forward and resubmits to the disciplinary process.”

16-D.2. Relationship to the PCUSA of a Person Who Has Renounced Jurisdiction of the Church—On Amending D-10.0401. The proposed amendment would add section “d” to D-10.0401 and it reads:

“d. For instances where a former teaching elder comes forward in self-accusation to undergo a disciplinary process to regain permission to perform work under the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (G-2.0509), no time limit from the time of the commission of the alleged offense to the filing of charges shall apply. Charges based on all accusations that had been made by the time that the former teaching elder had renounced jurisdiction may be brought regardless of the date on which any such offense is alleged to have occurred.”

16-E. Certified Service Requirements—On Amending G-2.1101. The amendment would change G-2.1101, so that certification requirements are not required to be in a “handbook,” but can be posted online or in other electronic formats.

16-F. The Ministry of Members—On Amending G-1.0304. The proposed amendment would add “caring for God’s creation” to the list of involvement cited in G-1.0304 – The Ministry of Members.

Presbyteries are asked to report their votes to the Office of the General Assembly no later than June 25, 2017. A list of the amendments can be found here.

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Belhar in Practice: Blaming Israel Alone

By Alan F.H. Wisdom, The Layman

belharconfessionPerhaps the most significant action of the 2016 Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly was final approval of the Belhar Confession for inclusion in the denomination’s Book of Confessions. The 1980s liberation theology manifesto exercised an influence that was already apparent in the Portland assembly’s other business—especially its discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Belhar was cited repeatedly by advocates of a PCUSA report blaming Israel alone for stalled peace talks with the Palestinians. Belhar’s binary mode of social analysis—dividing the world between “the oppressed” and “the oppressors” and demanding that the church always support the former against the latter—prevailed as the report passed by an overwhelming majority.

We can expect to see this mode of analysis multiply as the denomination lives into its new confession and applies it to other issues. Belhar’s binary thinking fits well in a church and society where groups strive to assert a claim to victim status. Once secured, that victim status then becomes a trump card to be used against political opponents, as the pro-Palestinian advocates at the assembly used it to win their case against Israel.

 

One-Sided Criticism, Theologically Justified

The report at issue in Portland, entitled “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace,” came from the denomination’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP). The 36-page report was ACSWP’s response to the 2014 assembly’s request for “a recommendation about whether the General Assembly should continue to call for a two-state solution in Israel Palestine, or take a neutral stance.” A “two-state solution” would involve Israel co-existing with a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. A “neutral stance” would have opened the PCUSA to the possibility, favored by many Palestinian activists, of a single Arab-majority state ruling over the entire land, including its Jewish communities.

The ACSWP report concludes pessimistically that “the door to a viable Palestinian state is closing rapidly.” It cites Israelis and Palestinians who doubt that any peace agreement is possible under current conditions. Nevertheless, ACSWP wishes “[t]o keep open the option of a two-state solution” in the absence of better alternatives.

For this impasse, the report casts blame upon Israel. It laments: “Israel’s policy trajectory of continued [Jewish] settlements and brutal occupation [in the Palestinian-majority West Bank] is deeply troubling. Not only does it make a two-state solution increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, but the emerging, de facto single state’s systematic violation of Palestinian rights and democratic values is eroding Israel’s moral legitimacy.” By contrast, ACSWP finds little fault with the other party to the conflict: the Palestinian Authority leadership.

The final vote approving the report was 429-129. Attempts to soften the report’s harsh criticisms of Israel were largely unsuccessful. The ACSWP report was the most prominent of several anti-Israel measures passed by the assembly.

Doug Tilton, a member of the ACSWP writing team, presented its report to the assembly. “The report is deeply rooted in Reformed theology,” Tilton said at the start. He then turned to attacking Israel: “The Netanyahu administration has presided over one of the most rapid periods of illegal settlement expansion in Israeli history…. Israeli, Palestinian, and international experts have long held that settlement expansion diminishes the possibility of two states. The report makes concrete recommendations designed to help stem the expansion of illegal settlements and the loss of Palestinian territory.” Tilton voiced no reservations about Palestinian policies.

“Friends,” Tilton addressed the commissioners, “our newest confession [Belhar] affirms our belief that God is ‘in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged.’” He commended the ACSWP report, with its pro-Palestinian slant, as an expression of that theological conviction.

Dissenters Appeal for Reconciliation, ‘Regardless of Who Threw the First Stone’

A minority report from the assembly’s Middle East Committee challenged the ACSWP proposal as “a pugnaciously flawed document.” The committee minority asked the Presbyterian Mission Agency to revise ACSWP’s document to “remove rhetorical structure” that may “harm interreligious dialogue” with the Jewish community. The minority also wanted the mission agency to “add content that acknowledges and offers a corrective to the ways anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism complicate global discourse about the Israeli Palestinian conflict.”

Israel and Palestine flag puzzle with the pieces separated on an isolated white background with a clipping path

Israel and Palestine flag puzzle with the pieces separated on an isolated white background with a clipping path

Speaking for the minority, Teaching Elder Commissioner Brian Paulson from Chicago Presbytery argued: “For this crucial work we need to keep and expand our circle of allies in Israel-Palestine and around the world. Unfortunately, the tone of this document—even more than any one specific flaw …—is repeatedly dismissive and often acerbic and as such does not rise to the level of discourse required in a document that is being offered in the name of the whole church.” Neither Paulson nor any of his allies cited specific passages to substantiate their general critique of the ACSWP report.

Young Adult Advisory Delegate Nivin Lee from Southern Kansas Presbytery made a passionate appeal on behalf of the minority. Lee drew from New Testament passages about reconciliation to sketch a theological vision at odds with Belhar’s partisan approach. “We are called to tear down this wall of division and hostility,” Lee said. “It’s high time we raise our voices and bring peace, justice, unity, and reconciliation to all—regardless of political identity, nationality, or language, regardless of who threw the first stone, who threw the last stone, or who threw the most stones—and most importantly, regardless of which side of the wall they are on.”

Ruling Elder Karen Beshears from Great Rivers Presbytery in Illinois urged her fellow commissioners to “look very seriously at the Confession of 1967.” She quoted that confession as teaching that “the members of the church are emissaries of peace and seek the good of all in cooperation with powers and authorities in politics, culture, and economics.” (9.25) Beshears added, “I would like us to do that by approving the minority report.” But C-67, now almost a half-century old, was not the confession that gained the ear of this year’s commissioners.

Critics of the ACSWP report won minor changes in the document. A comment was inserted stating, “As disciples of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, of the people of Abraham and the lineage of David, we stand with the people of Israel, affirming their right to exist as a sovereign nation, and we stand with the Palestinian people, affirming their right to exist as a sovereign nation.” The comment also stressed the assembly’s “preference for a two-state solution.” The dissidents, however, were unable to alter the overall anti-Israel tenor of the document. Their minority report was defeated on a 140-405 vote.

Belhar as ‘the Foundation of Our Actions’

Sam Jones of the ACSWP writing team was the strongest advocate for its proposal. Jones defended the one-sided criticism of Israel. “The balance in suffering and power of Palestinians and Israelis … simply does not exist,” Jones told the commissioners. “The number of deaths, acres of land taken, demolitions of houses and infrastructure, children arrested, and other human rights violations are disproportionately Palestinian….  And there is no balance of power between an occupying power with one of the world’s strongest militaries and the occupied population.”

Commissioners favoring the ACSWP report applied the logic of Belhar: Israel is more powerful and the Palestinians weaker. Therefore, Israel must be the oppressor while Palestinians are the oppressed. Consequently, the church should side with the Palestinians against the Jewish state. It should always blame the Israeli government, never the Palestinian Authority.

Ruling Elder Bill Plitt from National Capital Presbytery explained his thinking: “I borrow from our new Belhar Confession as the foundation of our actions” in approving the ACSWP report. He pointed to  passages in Belhar declaring that “the church as a possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice, with the wronged,” and that “in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.” Plitt clearly judged Israelis to be among “the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests.”

Ruling Elder Guy Moody from Baltimore Presbytery also turned to Belhar. Moody quoted from the confession: “Therefore, we reject any ideology which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the Gospel.” The commissioner closed by stating that “Israel is occupying Palestinian territory,” which for him was an injustice compelling him to resist any motions that might convey sympathy or understanding for Israel’s position.

Teaching Elder Matt Drumheller from Charlotte Presbytery did not refer specifically to Belhar, but he spoke its language. “We are called by God to be a prophetic people,” he insisted. “Being prophetic means speaking truth to power. Speaking truth to power means saying some difficult things. When that power is oppressing another people, God calls us to speak out on behalf of the oppressed.”  Drumheller opposed any delay in issuing the ACSWP report, because “Palestinians are being oppressed and killed now.”

‘Very Insulting’ to Speak of Jesus as Jewish

 The debate took an odd turn when two speakers objected to a phrase in the comment added to the ACSWP report. The comment is “fundamentally flawed,” charged Teaching Elder Brian Camara of Prospect Hill Presbytery in Iowa/Nebraska, “because it identifies Jesus as ‘of the lineage of David,’ which implicitly identifies him with the Jewish people.” Camara contended: “Jesus was also a member of an oppressed religious minority in an occupied territory. He also is a Palestinian in that sense.”

Ruling Elder Michael Gizzi of Great Rivers replied quickly: “I’m sorry, but Jesus was Jewish. He was a Jew. I don’t understand the argument.”

Yet Camarra’s grievance resurfaced later. Rafaat Zaki, the Arab-American executive of the Synod of the Covenant and chair of the denomination’s Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, intervened in the debate.  “[O]ne of the amendments has language that says, ‘As disciples of Jesus Christ, people of Abraham and lineage of David,’” Zaki complained. “I don’t know whom we are referring to. I do not come from the lineage of David and I do not belong to the people of Abraham.” He characterized the passing reference to Jesus’ Jewish ethnicity as “a very insulting statement.”

Zaki apparently forgot the apostle Paul’s proclamation, in the letter to the Galatians, that “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:29). Just as all—Jew and non-Jew alike—are “imprisoned under sin” and unable to justify themselves by their own righteousness, so “the promise by faith in Jesus Christ” is available to all “those who believe” (3:22). Biblically and according to classic Reformed confessions, all persons and groups stand on level ground before God. All are accountable to God’s commandments, all must admit they violate those commandments, and all find forgiveness and reconciliation and hope only in the grace of Christ Jesus.

But this was not the perspective that dominated the Portland assembly’s discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead it was the Belhar template was applied: There are groups like the Palestinians, identified as “the oppressed,” who stand in a position of social righteousness, immune from criticism for any wrongdoing. On the other hand, there are groups like the Israeli Jews, identified as “the oppressors,” who by their social position among “the powerful and privileged” merit relentless condemnation for all their actions.

A Wider Application of Belhar?

Some may question whether Belhar, as the PCUSA’s twelfth confession, would have any more influence than the denomination’s previous eleven confessions. In 2012 and 2014 the General Assembly upheld its moderator in ruling that the Book of Confessions is not “a rule book” that determines the denomination’s practices. The assemblies in those years felt free to consider (and ultimately adopt) Book of Order amendments that contradicted confessional teaching on marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Similarly, a 2012 Permanent Judicial Commission decision affirmed that the existence of “thoughtful disagreement among reasonable and faithful Presbyterians” regarding sexuality vitiated the authority of the confessions to determine ordination decisions.

Yet these considerations do not lessen the impact of Belhar, as demonstrated in Portland. Commissioners at the assembly turned to Belhar more as an inspiration than as a rule book. They found it inspirational because it was the PCUSA’s latest word, summoning and validating the spirit of the times among denominational leaders. Earlier confessions, viewed as fossilized remnants of earlier times, could never have the same force or application to today’s issues. Moreover, in matters of social justice such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, commissioners are not restrained by the same “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has largely silenced confessional (and biblical) texts regarding sexuality. Regarding putative causes of the oppressed, on the contrary, there is an eagerness to claim confessional and biblical inspiration.

Of course, there is much oppression in the world outside the narrow confines of Israel-Palestine. There are many groups besides the Palestinians that can be numbered among the oppressed. At the 2016 General Assembly, the application of the Belhar Confession was focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There was no similar binary analysis of any other conflict, even in the war-torn Middle East. Perhaps we shall see the new confession applied more broadly in the coming years.

 

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The PCUSA’s Obsession with Israel

Institutional Anti-Semitism becomes to apparent to ignore.

By Joseph Puder, FrontPage Magazine.

Israel and Palestine flag puzzle with the pieces separated on an isolated white background with a clipping path

The Presbyterian Church (USA) assembled in Portland, Oregon for its 222 General Assembly, lasting from June 18-25.  Once again, latent anti-Semitism in the form of controversial resolutions on divestment from Israel became a major issue in the proceedings.  Delegates from 171 PCUSA presbyteries, representing the 1.57 million members, along with other participants and observers from around the world, gathered in Portland for the biennial General Assembly (GA).

Elements from within the PCUSA displayed their unrestrained prejudice against the Jewish state when according to the former Vice President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Alan Wisdom, only one resolution about the Middle East entailed “anything besides the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” He described the PCUSA GA as an “onslaught of anti-Israel legislation.”

Wisdom further explained that “of the six items placed before the assembly’s Middle East Issues Committee, five aimed harsh criticism at Israel.” Only one issue raised gently concerned itself with the threats to Middle Eastern Christians.  That resolution does not even bother to identify the threat as being Islam and Muslim radicalism and jihadism.  Instead, it qualified the threat coming from “unnamed religiously based actors in the region.”

The multiple anti-Israel resolutions proposed divesting from companies doing business in the Jewish state, with one specifically called the PCUSA, to prayerfully consider Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against the State of Israel.  Israel alone was singled out.  The only vibrant democracy in the Middle East where religious freedom exists and is flourishing, where human and civil rights are sacrosanct, was vilified.  Yet, Arab Palestinian Muslim terrorism, authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, incitement against Israelis and Jews, and denial of human rights and religious freedom has been ignored.

There were no “overtures,” i.e. resolutions against the most notorious dictatorships in the Middle East including the Islamic Republic of Iran, which tramples on basic human rights, denies religious freedom to Christians, Jews, or Baha’is, hangs youthful dissidents, gays and lesbians, and oppresses its minority Kurdish, Baluchi, and Ahwazi people.  The hypocrisy and glaring bias displayed by the PCUSA General Assembly was obvious when the worst human rights offenders in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Assad of Syria, and a host of other Middle East Muslim states did not get mentioned, let alone subjected to BDS.

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Efforts to Address Climate Change Intensify Following GA222

By Eva Stimson, Office of the General Assembly.

working oil pumps silhouette against sun

One of the most closely watched debates at the last two Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assemblies concerned whether or not the church should stop investing in fossil fuel companies. In June the 222nd General Assembly (2016) rejected an overture calling for immediate divestment, voting instead to continue a process of corporate engagement with energy companies for at least two more years.

The engagement process could lead to selective, phased divestment from companies that do not show significant progress in adopting environmentally responsible practices between now and the 223rd General Assembly (2018).

As the dust settled from the debate, leaders of PC(USA) bodies overseeing the denomination’s corporate engagement activities and financial investments were busy pursuing strategies to leverage church financial holdings to address environmental concerns.

“Our role is to influence big-picture change,” said Rob Fohr, mission associate for Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), just before boarding a plane to New York City in mid-July to meet with a group of investors working on engaging corporations on environmental responsibility. Getting companies to make care for the environment a priority in their strategic planning is a primary goal of MRTI, he said.

Fohr was headed for a meeting organized by Ceres, an organization that mobilizes networks of companies, investors, and public interest groups to improve strategies on environmental and social challenges across the global economy. Together, the organizations represented by Ceres represent some $24 trillion in investments—a number large enough to get the attention of major corporations.

MRTI also works in partnership with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of nearly 300 organizations seeking to promote sustainable practices and leverage their investments as catalysts for social change.

“We have more clout working with a community of faith-based and values-based investors,” Fohr explained.

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Confessing & White Supremacy: The Misuse of Confession, the Misuse of Language

By Viola Larson, Naming His Grace.

Illustration depicting cutout printed letters arranged to form the word confession.

Presbyterian Church (USA) Co-Moderator, T. Denise Anderson, in her article, “Confession time: How white supremacy hurts white people,” on the Presbyterian Outlook web-site, calls on individual white people to personally confess their individual racism.

Anderson insists that all white people in the United States are involved in racism and white supremacy because the founders of America were colonialist and involved in slavery. Referencing Kelly Brown Douglas, Anderson writes, that the puritans contributed to white supremacy believing themselves to be “the pure remnant of the freedom-loving and exceptionally moral Anglo-Saxons.”

Anderson continues, “The idea of American exceptionalism is intrinsically linked to not only faith, but Germanic (and Norse) heritage. That exceptionalism necessarily excludes those not of that heritage.” She also writes:

“Let me be very clear: One does not have to be malicious or hateful to be racist. One needn’t even be intentional about it. White supremacy is so pervasive, insidious and thoroughly woven into the fabric of our society that it is quite easy to be racist. In fact, it’s difficult to not be racist.”

I was troubled by Anderson’s essay for at least three reasons.

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PCUSA Co-Moderator: How White Supremacy Hurts White People

By T. Denise Anderson, The Presbyterian Outlook.

denise-anderson-blm

T. Denise Anderson, co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

Last week after we’d learned about a second extrajudicial killing of an African-American man, I put the following plea on social media to white friends who were in lament and wanted to know how much longer we’d have to hear these stories: “White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don’t talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism.” Many friends and colleagues took the plea to heart, and others bristled. Some took exception to the terms “racism” and “white supremacy” and the suggestion that they apply to the terms to themselves. I think it’s worth examining what we mean when we say “racism” and “white supremacy.”

A few weeks ago, the 222nd General Assembly adopted a revision of the PCUSA’s anti-racism policy, which in part reads:

“Through colonization and slavery, the United States of America helped to create and embrace a system of valuing and devaluing people based on skin color and ethnic identity. The name for this system is white supremacy. This system deliberately subjugated groups of people for the purpose of material, political, and social advantage. Racism is the continuing legacy of white supremacy. Racism is a lie about our fellow human beings, for it says that some are less than others. It is also a lie about God, for it falsely claims that God favors parts of creation over the entirety of creation.”

Our anti-racism policy reminds us that racism cannot be understood apart from white supremacy. I think it’s helpful for us to disabuse ourselves of what might be our classic understandings of white supremacy. White supremacy is not relegated to fringe hate groups. It is not limited to white hoods and sheets or shorn heads. Hate groups are certainly a familiar face of white supremacy, but white supremacy most times isn’t nearly so overt.

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Presbyterian Evangelism? Maybe $50 Bills in Every Bulletin Would Work

Fifty dollar banknote isolated on white background

It was the last day of the 222nd General Assembly meeting of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and for the first time the word “evangelism” came up. It was quickly shot down. Commissioners argued that “evangelism is hard for us,” and “evangelism means something different in every community and you can’t teach that.” Emily Williams, a  Young Adult Advisory delegate said, “we’re not supposed to preach outside the church,” and “our resources are better spent on deeds not words.”  She then concluded, “if we’re worried about filling pews, just put a $50 bill in every bulletin.”

It is no secret that the PCUSA has suffered a precipitous decline in membership from a height of 4.5 million members in its two predecessor denominations prior to Reunion, to just over 1.5 million today. Projections are of another 400,000 member loss by 2020. So one might imagine that evangelism strategies would top the list of agenda items for the General Assembly but one would be wrong.

Was the assembly being asked to do something new for the church? Quite the contrary. The assembly was being asked to affirm the first Great End of the Church as articulated in the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity (F-1.0304), namely: the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.  25 years ago the 1991 General Assembly was able to approve and issue a church-wide call to evangelism. They adopted a document called “Turn to the Living God” and in 2016 the document was updated and posted on the denomination’s website in a 25th anniversary edition.  The 2016 GA was not able to affirm nor commend the same.

The motion before the assembly required no amendment to the Constitution, no new resources, and had no financial implications as the document is already on the denomination’s website. The action simply asked that the document be recognized and commended for study and action.  Further, no mandates were made in the proposal to PCUSA related seminaries. The language of encouragement was used. But in the end, the assembly eschewed any and all evangelism in a vote of 270-279.

Here’s how it went down:

The ill-fated evangelism overture known as item 06-02 arrived at the assembly floor with a 38-18 committee recommendation for disapproval. Commissioner Gale Watkins of Grand Canyon Presbytery moved to amend the motion to disapprove with comment.

Comment:

The 222nd General Assembly (2016):

1. Recognizes the 25th anniversary of General Assembly approval of Turn to the Living God: A Call to Evangelism in Jesus Christ’s Way, and commends this outstanding resource, which is still relevant and is easily accessible on the denomination’s website, to the whole church for study and action.

2. Encourages all of our theological institutions to do all they can to prepare their students to be faithful and effective in the communication of the gospel in our swiftly-changing world, fulfilling the call to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5), learning from the best practices of their counterparts both within and beyond the Presbyterian Church (USA).

In presenting the amendment Watkins cited II Corinthians 5 and highlighted the sermon the assembly had heard earlier the same day from Rev. Dr. Jerry Andrews about being reconciled to God now.  Watkins appealed to the assembly to encourage the members of the PCUSA to share the life-changing good news of Jesus Christ.  A sufficient majority of his fellow commissioners were not convinced. In fact, many were openly opposed to the idea.  

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Such Is the Value of Life in the PCUSA

justin-marple

Justin Marple waits to be recognized by the moderator to speak on the issue.

Shall the Presbyterian Church (USA) continue its membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice? That was the question and it came to the 222nd General Assembly meeting in Portland, Ore., in the form of a Commissioner’s Resolution (CR).

The CR on the proposed withdrawal of the PCUSA from the RCRC came to committee #10 as business item 10-16. The commissioner who submitted the resolution, Justin Marple, was serving on another committee and the timing of item 10-16 was moved around the docket several times which ultimately prevented him from being able to speak to his own CR until after debate had already taken place.

In committee open hearing, arguments in favor of ending the denomination’s relationship with the RCRC included that of the Rev. Tara Thompson, teaching elder from Tampa Bay Presbytery:

I want to tell you a story of a young woman who wasn’t ready to be a parent, a mother who abandoned her child more than once. But it’s also a story of two lives deeply intertwined; it’s MY story.

As a child I didn’t understand and pleaded with my mom to stay. For years I was angry, but later felt compelled to track her down. To honor her not because she was a great mother, but simply because she was MY mother. I wish I could tell you we lived happily ever after, but even in adulthood, we had seasons of difficulty.

But at the end of her life, she asked for my forgiveness. Weeping she told me she almost had an abortion, but the thing she was most proud of in her life was me, that she knew she’d done something right. TWO lives which testify to the good news of God’s redeeming grace.

I ask you to approve CR10-16 because it underscores the PCUSA’s commitment to affirming the nuances involved in abortion decisions. RCRC policies don’t.  

Others offered equally powerful witness on behalf of life.

Jack Sharpe, a well known Presbyterian Pro Life advocate, reminded the committee of the words of Jesus in John 10:10, “A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.” He then said that he favors withdrawal from the “RCRC because it stands against life. It always takes a position in favor of abortion.  Walk in my shoes.  How would those of you who support abortion think if the PCUSA were part of the National Pro-Life Alliance?”

Others reminded the commissioners of the denomination’s own policy statements like the “Problem Pregnancies and Abortion 1992 Social Witness Policy.”  That document says Presbyterians substantially agree that:

“a.  Church ought to be able to maintain within its fellowship . . . those who come to diverse conclusions and actions.” Continued participation in RCRC effectively aligns the denomination with a pro-abortion access position.

Dr. Patty June also testified, saying, “RCRC advocacy and PCUSA policy are different. We say the lives of viable unborn babies who could survive outside the womb if delivered — ought to be preserved, cared for and not aborted Conversely, RCRC opposes both bans on abortions after fetal viability and even laws requiring care for babies born alive after abortion procedures. Our policy says abortion should be the choice of last resort — after consultation between a woman and her physician and prayerful consideration but RCRC opposes letting women see an ultrasound and getting full information. RCRC opposes even a 1-2 day waiting period that allows a woman time to prayerfully consider the information she’s read.”

The arguments made in favor of RCRC — and therefore against the CR — centered on the service RCRC provides to pastors through its “all options clergy counseling training” and it was argued that the CR mischaracterized the RCRC’s policies.

One of the reasons the CR arose was that the United Methodist Church recently withdrew from the RCRC because they no longer experienced it as a place where a pro-life voice was effectively heard. Those arguing for the RCRC vehemently argued against the PCUSA’s alignment with the UMC.

One commissioner argued that to compare the PCUSA and the UMC was to “compare apples to oranges.” He said, “we do not look to organizations that are culturally or structurally not the same as us.  The UMC is a global church,” noting that their cultural diversity “encumbers their decisions” related to women’s reproductive rights.  He concluded that the “the PCUSA is a national church with global partners and serves the reality of the culture of women in the US.”

That argument was echoed by Noelle from Seattle who said, “We do not need to follow in the path of the UMC.” Concluding that “choice” is “one of the reasons I’m Presbyterian and proud to be Presbyterian.”

Mike Smith of Tucson, Arizona heralded PARO, Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options, a part of the denomination’s Health, Education and Welfare ministry.  “We’ve been a pro-choice church for over 40 years.  It makes sense for us to join with other churches and faith groups through RCRC because RCRC is an ally with the same mission: pro-choice and wants to strengthen a woman’s right to choose.”

Donna Riley also said the PCUSA takes a “pro-choice position that trusts women to discern God’s will.” She noted that being in the RCRC is an “efficient and wise use of our limited resources.” She concluded that “as a woman of reproductive age in SW Virginia, my healthcare options are limited, I’m glad my church has my back on this.”

The notion of withdrawing from the RCRC was characterized as “a regressive step in terms of respect for women” and a “stigmatization of access to reproductive resources.”

In the end the CR was voted down in committee by a vote of 65-5. It failed as well on the floor of the Assembly 431-132.  Such is the status of life in the PCUSA.

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