The 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is in the books, and I’ve got to say its been an eventful week. It started off looking like it was going to be a disaster for evangelicals, supporters of traditional marriage, and supporters of Israel, but in the end the lemmings managed for once to step away from the edge of the cliff.
First, on traditional marriage: the good news is that the Assembly refused, by a 52%-48% margin, to change the way marriage is defined and practiced in the PCUSA. “One man and one woman” remains the standard. It continues to be the case that those who perform ceremonies that are represented as solemnizing marriages will be in violation of their ordination vows and subject to presbyterial discipline (though the latter is very much a hit-or-miss proposition).
The bad news is that for the next couple of years, the denomination will engage in a “season of study and prayer,” which will essentially mean people continuing to shout at one another, the Louisville headquarters putting together propaganda for gay marriage, and more evangelicals leaving because they know the issue is going to come back at them relentlessly every other year. In addition, as more and more presbyteries decide that it goes against the local ideology, or because they can’t afford it, or simply because it’s too much trouble, there will be fewer and fewer judicatories that will take the prohibition on same-sex marriage rites seriously. That, in turn, will speed up the exit of evangelicals as they see the problem is no longer just with the national church, but with their next-town-over neighbors, and the refusal of their presbytery to do anything about it. I don’t know whether the tipping point will come in the next Assembly (I thought it would be this one, and was obviously wrong), but it will come. For now, the lemmings stand at the edge and look over, and contemplate what it would be like to take that last step.
On another homosexuality-related matter, the Assembly revisited the subject of ordination of sexually active gays, and refused to send to the presbyteries a constitutional amendment that would have restored the status quo ante that existed before the “fidelity in marriage, chastity in singleness” requirement was deleted last year. In a discussion so ridiculous that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, a proposal to add the phrase “repentance of sin and diligent use of the means of grace” to the qualifications and manner of life expected of ordained persons turned out to be very controversial. James Berkley of the Layman Online reports on the discussion:
One teaching elder dramatically called the introduction of repentance “redundant, unnecessary, and possibly confusing.”
To that, teaching elder Pat Thompson from Central Washington Presbytery asked questions he had asked in committee. “Why wouldn’t we want the phrase ‘repentance of sin’ or the use of ‘means of grace’?” he asked incredulously. “What is wrong with the repentance of sin? If you are against the repentance of sin, then vote against it. If you’re against Jesus dying on the cross, then vote against it.”
In the end only 46% of the commissioners thought calling for a life of repentance on the part of the ordained was “redundant, unnecessary, and possibly confusing.” They did decide, however, to pass a resolution that declared, “We decline to take an action that would have the effect of imposing on the whole Presbyterian Church (USA) one interpretation of Scripture in this matter” of homosexual behavior. Berkley said that this amounted to “declar[ing] formally that Scripture is too confusing, too subject to varied interpretations to unite around to decide matters of same-sex sexual morality.”
The other matter that was especially controversial had to do with Israel. The Israel Palestine Mission Network and its various non-Presbyterian, non-Christian, and far-left allies sought to enlist the PCUSA in their single-minded crusade to boycott and divest from companies doing business in Israel, as a way of indicating their belief that Israel is the focus of evil in the world. (No similar efforts were made with regard to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Iran, or any of the other murderous and totalitarian regimes that blight our planet. Israel alone is apparently worthy of being so condemned and treated.) After tortured debate that included a full-court press on the General Assembly Twitter feed (which got so bad that some pro-divestment commissioners were calling on the activists to knock it off), the Assembly finally decided by a 30 vote margin to not authorize divestment, but rather to support investment in the Palestinian territories. One commissioner memorably complained about “parliamentary sleight of hand,” simply because her side lost. As it turned out, she was engaged in a whopping piece of projection.
She and her allies tried every parliamentary trick in the book to bring divestment back for another vote. They tried to amend other resolutions to tack it on, they tried to claim they’d been denied a fair vote, one even claimed that she’d voted the wrong way in order to get the divestment resolution reconsidered (there was no way for her to prove this claim, since individual votes aren’t recorded, but the moderator allowed to to make the motion anyway–it lost, in part because of people getting frustrated with the tactics of the activists).
The activists also tried–again–to get the Assembly on record as believing that the Israeli occupation constitutes “apartheid.” This is a claim that has no relationship to reality–one commissioner, who described himself as a “fifth generation South African,” said so, not that it mattered to the True Believers–but is very important for those looking to demonize Israel, in the same way that certain segments of American society find that the most effective way to ostracize someone they don’t like is to call them a racist. Despite the fact that the Israel Palestine Mission Network and at least some of its allies have no problem associating with Holocaust deniers and other anti-Semites, they are fanatical is trying to label Israel “racist.” They failed, badly.
In the end, the anti-Israel forces had to settle for a meaningless boycott of Israeli companies using products made in the settlements or using resources found on Palestinian lands (even when willingly sold to those companies by Palestinians themselves). It’s meaningless because 1) a year from now fewer than 1 in 100 Presbyterians will know anything about it; 2) many who do know will not participate; and 3) many don’t even have access to the products in question. So what it amounts to is that the activists, who are already boycotting, will continue to do so, and a handful of others may join them. The practical effect: zero. But that’s not what this is about, of course. It’s being able to say, “see, even the PCUSA thinks the Israelis are evil, rotten, racist no-goodniks!” I’ll let you judge whether they succeeded in that or not.
So there you have it: the PCUSA stays on the edge of the cliff, small pieces of it continuing to break off underneath its feet. It will have another opportunity, two years from now, to decide whether to step back from the crumbling precipice, or to boldly jump over the side. I know what my money will be on, even if I hope I’ll be wrong again.