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Sharply divided but civil: a letter from the PC(USA) general assembly.

Liturgical dancers waving long rainbow streamers welcomed commissioners to the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Pittsburgh. Their carefully choreographed celebration at opening worship on June 30 concluded with the banners being placed over a large white cross. It was a symbolic reminder of what has roiled our sister denomination since enough presbyteries endorsed last year's Amendment WA to open ordained ministry to non-celibate gays and lesbians. Waving rainbow banners and placing them on the communion table and the cross was seen by some as deeply provocative and offensive, but to others it was a joyful vindication of a 35-year struggle for their full inclusion in the life and witness of the denomination.

The American assembly begins with the election of a moderator and this year there were four candidates. To a Canadian observer, the campaigning seemed to echo American political life but fortunately without the rancor. Each candidate was anxious to demonstrate commitment to unity and mutual forbearance. In speeches, two spoke of their pain as congregations left their presbyteries with "gracious dismissal." Nominee Robert Austell spoke of the prospect of 12 churches leaving his Charlotte presbytery, the third largest in the denomination. That presbytery's staff has been reduced from 10 to two, with the possibility of costly litigation and wrenching separations.

The final choice for moderator (after four ballots) was Neal Presa, a man of Filipino descent, born in Guam and a pastor in New Jersey. He has an upbeat personality, a radiant smile, and provides (as he said in his speech) "a non-anxious presence."

His choice as vice-moderator was Tara Spuhler McCabe, who dramatically resigned two days later, citing controversy over revelations that she had performed a same-sex ceremony in April. A replacement was chosen by Presa but McCabe's announcement was a moment of high drama.

Two main issues dominated this assembly. The first was the definition of marriage which determined whether clergy could legally solemnize same-sex unions. By a vote of 28 to 24, the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee recommended a change in the definition of marriage in the Book of Order from "between a man and a woman" to "between two people." There was a challenge as to whether a change could be made in the Book of Order if it was at odds with the Book of Confessions. A constitutional adviser ruled that, "The confessions are deliberately broad and allow us to draw different ecclesiological conclusions on the basis of our theology."

All through the final afternoon the debate went on. An impassioned speech from the Guatemalan delegate reminded the commissioners of the serious implications for the Church's relationships with overseas partners should the recommendation pass. There are, it is estimated, 92 million Christians globally as a result of the denomination's "foreign" missionary enterprise since 1837. Already the Mexican Presbyterian Church, now larger numerically than its parent, has severed all links as a result of Amendment 10A. So have the Ghanaian and Mezo (North East India) Presbyterian churches.

At 5:20 the question was called. As is customary, the advisory delegates voted first: 80 per cent of theological student advisory delegates voted in favour, as did 75 per cent of the youth advisory delegates. The ecumenical visitors were split down the middle. The missionary advisory delegates were overwhelmingly opposed.

When the final vote of commissioners was announced, 52 per cent voted against changing the definition of marriage with 48 per cent in favour. It would appear that many commissioners had looked into the abyss (it was estimated that as many as 350,000 members might leave the denomination) and decided not to jump. It had been a searing moment for everyone. One teaching elder, as he had told assembly earlier, will not be able to perform a ceremony for his son and his partner. Pain was everywhere.

The Covenant Network of Presbyterians, having won the battle for gay ordination, lost the struggle for "marriage equality."

The executive director of the Covenant Network, Brian Ellison, also heads up the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee.

"The church should not profit from investing in companies whose actions conflict with church values," Ellison stated. Divestment of the church's stock holdings in companies implicated in Israeli repression of Palestinians has been a controversial topic among American Presbyterians for more than a decade. Three companies were targeted: Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar. A 38-year Caterpillar employee and Peoria, Illinois, ruling elder, spoke passionately against the recommendation. As a Canadian recalling the recent shut down of Electro-Motive Co. in London, Ont., I had some sympathy when Caterpillar's ethics were questioned.

This second major issue before the assembly dominated the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for two mornings. A rabbi, bringing "ecumenical" greetings the morning the divestment debate was scheduled, caused howls of protest when he used the occasion to denounce the divestment recommendation. Commissioners worried about Jewish-Presbyterian relations. Others sought justice for Palestinians. The final vote was 333 to 331 against divestment with two abstentions. There was an audible gasp as the numbers were announced.

The two votes on marriage and divestment showed a church deeply divided. Two overtures asked that the "property clause" of the Book of Order be amended to place property in the hands of the congregation. The Policy Commission's recommendation to turn it down was affirmed. In that debate, a minister from Michigan cited Canada's 1925 Church Union--the only mention of Canada the entire 10 days--as a warning about what he described as resulting litigation and ill-will that had lasted for generations. A ruling elder from Tampa presbytery referred to a congregation that was decimated by "an egregious act of unfaithfulness."

In contrast, the assembly asked the Board of Pensions to determine whether there could be a shared benefits program with two seceding groups: the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. Again, the vote was close (319-311 with 8 abstentions) but it was gratifying to see that commissioners realized the importance of grace to pastors and churches leaving the denomination.

At the conclusion of the debate on divestment, Moderator Presa held a press conference and was quoted positively as stating the often bitter debate was conducted "with civility." Much of this had to do with his gracious chairing of the meetings. But it has also to do with a recognition that the mainline churches in the United States, once so powerful, have had to learn humility. Last year membership in the PC(USA) dipped below two million. Fifty years ago its two constituent denominations totalled 4.3 million. In spite of efforts announced to found 1,000 new congregations, the future is not promising. Commissioners left aware of great challenges ahead in a sharply divided and deeply dissatisfied church.

Rev. A. Donald MacLeod is research professor of church history at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Toronto. You can follow him at
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Title Annotation:Presbyterian Church (USA)
Author:MacLeod, Donald
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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