Last week, I had the honor/burden of being a commissioner to the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. It is truly an honor to be chosen to serve, as not everyone gets to, given that we now do assemblies every other year rather than annually as we used to. But it is also a burden, both because of the butt-numbing tedium of much of the process, as well as having to be subjected to the political machinations of the various interested parties, some of whom have a no-holds-barred approach towards winning. In what follows, I will give my thoughts on the aspects of this GA, much of which I found extremely painful.
I. The Election of the Vice-Moderator
On Saturday night, June 30th, the Assembly elected, on the fourth ballot, the Rev. Dr. Neal Presa to be our Moderator for the next two years. This was a very exciting process, listening to statements by the four candidates and then an hour of questions from the floor, followed by a close election. Presa’s parents had flown 8000 miles from Guam to be present that evening, and they proceeded with him and his wife and children to the platform to witness his installation accompanied by thunderous applause. When Presa’s two little boys stepped to the mic to read a scripture and offer the installation prayer for their “Daddy,” as they referred to him, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the building. At least there wasn’t anywhere near where I was sitting.
The next morning, however, the bloom was off the rose, as we moved to elect the Vice-Moderator. Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe had run on a “ticket” with Presa, so while she didn’t have to run against any other Vice-Moderatorial candidates, she still had to be elected in an up-or-down vote by the Assembly, which is usually a formality. Presa had told the Assembly the night before what had already been widely reported in the denominational press, which was that McCabe had, months before, presided over a same sex marriage in D.C. where such marriages are legal and where her church was located (she is no longer at that church). Some commissioners rose to object to her serving as Vice Moderator and made an attempt to unseat her, which to my knowledge is unprecedented. This attempt was defeated, however, and McCabe was elected by roughly a 60-40% margin. This was very disturbing to many of us, but we thought that the matter was settled.
It wasn’t. On Wednesday, after several days of working in our committees, the Assembly gathered again for it’s first plenary session after the election on Sunday. As the first item of business, McCabe resigned, saying that she did not want her election to derail the Assembly. Weeping openly, she said that since her election she had been subjected to numerous and sustained attacks on the Internet and by email, some of which threatened to disrupt the Assembly in order to force her ouster. She said she loved the church and didnt want her election to get in the way of the Assembly doing its work. The sound of the collective groan that went up from the Assembly was as shocking as the words of resignation themselves. We were stunned. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen in our church; we pride ourselves in transparency (everyone knew what she had done before electing her) and the ability to be gracious in both winning and losing.
I was a Presa-McCabe supporter from the very beginning. I went to the Assembly planning on voting for them and was even campaigning for them at dinner not ten minutes before the Sunday evening vote to my fellow commissioners seated with me who didn’t know either Presa or McCabe. It is difficult to describe the bad feeling this resignation left in many of us. If Presa and McCabe would’ve never been elected, we would’ve simply shrugged our shoulders, gotten behind whomever did win, and moved on. But to have won, fair and square, by a wide margin, no less, and then to be driven from office 72 hours later due to cyberbullying was something difficult to grasp. We would’ve never thought anything like this possible in our church. Thus, the taint of this event hung the dark cloud of illegitimacy over everything else that happened at the Assembly. Even the Moderator said he could feel it, according to my wife, who attended a Town Hall-style meeting led by Presa and McCabe Thursday evening. The new Vice Moderator, Tom Trinidad, seemed like a nice enough fellow and did a great job in his shifts as the moderator of the Assembly. But there was no way to cover over what had happened.
(Tomorrow: Part 2:The Committee on Confessions)
This was my first experience of how the conservatives would use parliamentary maneuvers to block what was shaping up to be a progressive assembly by proposing study after study, utilizing minority reports and substitute motions designed to keep the Assembly from making decisions or even hearing about some important issues for as long as possible, if at all.
When the Committee on Middle East Peace finally made its motion to divest–you guessed it– a substitute motion was made, not divest but rather to invest in the Occupied West Bank. This was a masterstroke of polity, but a completely ridiculous proposal of policy. Presbyterians suffer from congenital niceness, which is the main reason that it had taken us eight years even to get to the point where we could make the least confrontational action possible on the issue, selling our own stocks and bonds.
The conservatives did what they had to do to win. They ran out the clock, wore people down, kept their troops in line, and ultimately prevailed thereby. Not letting the Assembly debate the issue of the Authoritative Interpretation, however, is going to be a costly mistake. My sense is that commissioners thought that this is something like the ordination question that we debated for so many years. People could get only so far in one Assembly on that issue, but would reach an impasse, whereupon folks would realize that it would just have to wait until the next Assembly to get to the next step. But marriage is very different from ordination. Councils of the church perform ordinations, so you have to get a group of people to agree to move forward. Marriages, however, are performed by individual pastors. And the emotion surrounding a marriage is way higher than any ordination.
I’m a liberal, but I don’t want to be in a liberal church, because liberals unchecked are prone to do stupid things. And I think the same holds true for conservatives that want to make a ghetto for themselves on the right. These would be terrible developments for the church to split ourselves the way some on the right are advocating. In the kingdom of God, the church will have every ideological stripe.