July 2012


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.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly has just begun the debate over gay marriage. I’ll be live blogging the debate (which you can watch for yourself here), and let you know whether PCUSA is ready to head over the cliff.

UPDATE: The moderator is extolling the Civil Union and Marriage Committee’s ability to “be divided without being divisive.” Whoopee.

UPDATE: First recommendation is to call denomination to “a season of prayer and study” on Christian marriage. The second recommendation is to go ahead and change the Directory on Worship to essentially approve of the use of same sex blessings and marriage liturgies in the PCUSA. Lord save us from irrational compromisers.

UPDATE: First item to be dealt with is Resolution 13-04, which would change PCUSA worship to allow same sex marriage. That, of course, is the primary action. The other item is a sop to evangelicals, and essentially meaningless, except as a way of facilitating denominational propaganda.

UPDATE: Another member of the committee is presenting the minority report, which is to leave things as they are. He makes the point that study and listening is what are needed, not legislation that will do nothing but explode infighting.

UPDATE: A commissioner is asking for a point of order that contends that Res. 13-04 conflicts with the current PCUSA Constitution, and specifically its confessions. Advisory Committee on Constitution responds by separating Book of Confessions from PCUSA government, meaning confessions can be ignored in order to force change through. In other words, PCUSA can ignore its statements of belief at will. ACA guy ends by tossing it back to the leadership, which rules against point of order. The ruling is then appealed to the full GA. Debate follows. So essentially here’s what the Assembly is voting on: to uphold the moderator’s ruling that the Book of Confessions can be ignored as the Assembly desires in order to change polity, even if such changes conflict with the uniform teaching of the Confessions. The vote is to uphold moderator’s ruling by 70-30%.

UPDATE: There’s now a move to limit debate. I don’t know what the motives of the commissioners are, but this is a standard mainline leadership procedure–wait until late in the week of a denominational meeting, in order to limit debate on the most important issues before the body, rather than dealing with the most important or controversial ones first. They get away with it time after time. They did so again, by 344-300.

UPDATE: They have now moved on to main debate, which begins with the question of whether to substitute the minority report that leaves the status quo in place. The debate is about what you’d expect: advocates of the minority report offering dire predictions about the future of the denomination, as well as opposition to same sex marriage; opponents asking that proponents of same sex marriage be allowed to “live into their calling,” and citing individual situations that are supposed to justify institutional change. Director of World Mission offered information to the effect that of almost 100 “mission partners,” 40 said OK, 35 indicated that changes in definition of Christian marriage would damage relationships, 6 would make public statements against such a move, while 17 said they would have to break relationships. (If I were guessing, I’d say that most of the “yeas” were in Europe and North America.)  A Korean pastor in California sought to reinforce this message. And then the feed from Pittsburgh cut out. More shortly.

UPDATE: Feed back. Apparently while I was away, a lesbian Young Adult Advisory Delegate emoted. Twitter feed goes wild. Yawn. A teaching elder from New York, an “out lesbian,” essentially says it doesn’t matter what the GA does; she has done and will continue to do it anyway.

UPDATE: After a minute of silence in which commissioners were invited to listen to see if the Holy Spirit will contradict Himself regarding the nature of Christian marriage revealed in Scripture, they are now going into small groups to share what they “heard.” We will soon find out if God has indeed changed His mind because some judges and state legislatures in the United States have persuaded Him to Do The Right Thing. I appreciate the desire to be prayerful in business sessions, but there is no point to praying for discernment about this–the truth is already out there, and does not have to be sought, as if God has been trying make up His mind about this since the Stonewall Riots made Him notice that maybe He’s been wrong all these years.

UPDATE: Debate has ended on whether to substitute the minority report. Young Adult Advisory Delegates (whose votes are only “advisory,” and thus don’t count for the actual action) voted 28-105 no, Theological Students Advisory Delegates voted 1-17 no. Tells you a lot about the future leadership of the denomination, no? Anyway, here’s the vote that counts:  Anyway, here’s the vote that counts: 323-346-3. The minority report is defeated.

UPDATE: There is a second minority report. This one reaffirms the current definition, and does so via what’s called an “Authoritative Interpretation” of the <i>Book of Order</i>, which would state in unambiguous language exactly what the definition of marriage is. Given the vote on the previous item, I don’t see this one passes, but they’ll debate it nonetheless. At this point, my suspicion is that the PCUSA is about to throw itself headlong over a cliff. They’re in recess for five minutes. Back shortly.

UPDATE: Debate now on substituting second minority report. Began with the Ecumenical Advisory Delegate from the Presbyterian Church of Guatemala, who suggested that if the Assembly cares about its ecumenical partners, it will actually listen to them and consider their opposition to re-defining Christian marriage. A later commissioner basically told the Guatemalan delegate to pound salt, since other partners think same-sex marriage is hunky-dory. Commissioner says adoption of minority report will “only continue intimidation and bullying” of homosexuals in the PCUSA. Thanks for that. A theological student from South Louisiana claims that he’s a “conservative,” but that he stands for “social justice,” and redefining marriage. Right. So here’s the vote on this possible substitution: 266-397-2, the substitution being defeated.

UPDATE: So now they go to the original motion from the committee, which will change the understanding of marriage embodied in the Directory of Worship. This debate also went essentially the way you would expect–lots of “shellfish” arguments, lots of Scripture quoted, not all of it helpfully, worries about the future of the church, recitations of personal anecdotes, etc. To cut to the chase, here’s the vote: 308-338-2. They backed away from the cliff!

I missed this yesterday, but it seems Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk (highest executive official) in the Presbyterian Church (USA) took to the pages of the Washington Post on Wednesday to try to influence his General Assembly to support the divestment resolutions. He wrote:

After initially identifying five corporations involved in the above practices and six years of corporate engagement and dialogue, the MRTI has recommended divesting from three of the companies that we believe profit from non-peaceful activities – Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s investing agencies hold stock in companies that do business in Israel and Palestine, including for example Intel, Oracle, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, IBM, Microsoft, McDonald’s and American Express. The MRTI’s dialogue has been focused, as the General Assembly has repeatedly directed, on companies it feels are engaged, in particular, in roadblocks to peace, profiting from non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine. Therefore, the General Assembly is not, nor has it ever been, asked to divest from all companies doing business in Israel and/or Palestine.

The recommendation to divest comes out of a strong faithfulness to the principles of socially responsible investing and a deep commitment to peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians alike.

So in the PCUSA, the chief executive is also a policy-maker, who does not just seek to carry out the directives of the denomination’s highest policy-making body, the General Assembly, but seeks to get the GA to do what he wants it to do. Pity they didn’t listen to you and your buddies at the Israel Palestine Mission Network, eh, Gradye?

The PCUSA messed me up yesterday. My intention was to live blog the debate over the Middle East resolution on divestment and boycott, and they kept pushing them back so that I had to miss them. (I was out all evening.) Well, this morning it appears they’ve given my a second chance.

Last night, by a vote of 333-331-2, the General Assembly voted to substitute a positive alternative to invest in Palestine for the original motion to divest from Israel. The Assembly then voted by over 55% to pass that. This morning, claiming that she’d pushed the wrong button on the first vote, a commissioner asked to reconsider the whole thing. That’s what they’re doing now, so I’ll give it to you as it happens. Then they’ll be considering the other Middle East resolutions, and I’ll have them as well.

UPDATE: 62% voted not to reconsider last night’s action. So the PCUSA has avoided falling off the cliff on divestment. But that doesn’t mean that the anti-Israel forces are done. A commissioner immediately took the microphone to make a speech asking commissioner to stand in silence “against oppression,” etc. The usual stuff.

UPDATE: The chair of the MIddle East committee has proposed that all of the pro-divestment resolutions that were going to be placed before the Assembly be answered by the action previously taken. The first response from the floor was a motion to have the Assembly take up each of those resolutions separately. The effect of that action, if approved, would be to leave the Assembly either wasting a lot of time on stuff that will inevitably be defeated, or in hopeless contradiction to itself if any of them are passed. Gotta love it. The Assembly then voted on the motion, and voted not to by 15%-85%. I suspect even some pro-divestment folks are getting tired of the relentless inability of their colleagues to accept that they’ve lost.

UPDATE: A great example of that inability. A commissioner from the DC area accused…someone…of “parliamentary sleight of hand” because the Assembly voted to substitute a minority for a majority report. Can you say, “sore loser”? I know you can.

UPDATE: Pathetic. Now the same commissioner (a pastor, no less) who claimed she mis-voted last night gets up and says she doesn’t know much about these issues, but that the Assembly should “trust the committee” and take up and pass each (pro-divestment) resolution that was passed in committee individually. These people have no shame.

UPDATE: So now we have the vote on whether to answer the divestment resolutions with last night’s action. Approval given by 75%.

UPDATE: The Assembly is now considering a resolution to boycott Ahava Labs and Hadiklaim date growers, as well as any other Israeli companies that use products made or grown on the Palestinian territories, particularly by settler communities. One commissioner tried to amend this to bring the divestment issue back in, and got booed (as well as ruled out of order) for her trouble. On this resolution, the vote is 457-130-3. A meaningless action (how many Presbyterians will even hear about this, much less follow through, much less have access to the products in question?) has now allowed the GA to say it’s taken the side of the angels. Good for them.

UPDATE: The Assembly is now taking up the resolution to label Israel an “apartheid state.” This didn’t even pass the committee, which recommended disapproval. An ecumenical delegate from Lebanon claims to speak for all 15 million Arab Christians in favor of the apartheid designation. She also claims that they are following the Assembly and that they are terribly disappointed at the divestment votes. It must be nice to be able to read so many minds at so much distance so quickly. Another commissioner says he comes from the “moderate middle” of the PCUSA, but that the PCUSA must “speak the truth to a friend.” Some moderate, huh? A pastor who is from South Africa assures the Assembly that he knows apartheid, and the situation in the territories ain’t it. This wrapped up by defeating the effort to defame Israel by a vote of 463-175-2.

UPDATE: One final item had to do with Syria, specifically a call to pray, to ask the U.S. government to support negotiations, and to refrain from military action, while seeking UN non-military intervention to bring about a cessation of violence. Interestingly enough, this one included no specific condemnation of the Syrian government for slaughtering civilians–that is reserved for Israel. This one passed overwhelmingly and without debate.

That wraps up the Middle East issues debate. Supporters of Israel won all the way around, those seeking to single out Israel as uniquely evil and worthy of Presbyterian attention lost and showed themselves sore losers, and Jewish-Presbyterian relations were permitted to continue without break for another couple of years.

Oops, they aren’t done. The sore losers have moved to have the denomination’s Board of Pensions to come up with a “relief of conscience” program that will allow anti-Israel advocates to sleep at night knowing that some of their money is going to Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard. BoP will have two years to come up with such a balm. This one passed without debate 355-257-16. A representative of the BoP, for some reason, waited until after the vote to inform the Assembly that because of the way the Board works, it’s impossible to put the proposal into effect. The Moderator then asked the BoP to try to find a way to do the impossible. And then they moved on to worship.

Not wanting to be accused of dealing only with the weighty issues of the day, the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly has decided that corporal punishment is evil, and should be disapproved of by all right-thinking Presbyterians. Seriously. This was just passed by a vote of 334-306-9:

1. The Presbyterian Church (USA)

a. encourages its members to adopt discipline methods at home, in schools, pediatric facilities, and institutions (e.g. hospitals, orphanages, clinics, state institutions) and child-care facilities that do not include corporal punishment of children, and

b. encourages congregations to offer opportunities for dialogue and education on effective discipline of children.

2. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) calls upon all states to enact licensing laws prohibiting corporal punishment in schools and day and residential childcare facilities.

You are duly advised–no spanking!

Having settled this earth-shaking matter, the General Assembly is now going to go to Middle East affairs. Go figure.

As one of the “ecumenical greeters” at the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly this morning, Rabbi Gil Rosenthal of the National Council of Synagogues took the opportunity to warn the Presbys that they were endangering ecumenical relationships if they plunged ahead on divestment. The Layman Online reports:

“It will embattle Israel and embolden those who would like to delegitimize it and destroy it,” Rosenthal said, adding, “Make no mistake that is the goal of many in that region,” referring to a passage from the Hamas Charter that states, “We want to destroy the Zionist entity.”

He could also have been speaking of the PCUSA’s Israel Palestine Mission Network, which has the same goal.

Rosenthal said that, like Presbyterians, there are many things that both unite and divide Jews. However, he added, that the vast majority share a “devotion to and love for the state of Israel and concern for its safety” in a dangerous time. He also added that most Jews favor a two-state option for Israel and Palestine.

Most Jews do. Not the ones that the GA’s Middle East Committee has been listening to, and that the denominational leadership support, but most. The latter have an almost pathological hatred of the Jewish state, and have been doing everything in their power to get the General Assembly to validate their hate, as Viola Larson documents in her blog post “The 220th GA’s Middle East and Peacemaking Issues committee and too many controls” this morning.

Rather than being the only mainline church to support divestment, Rosenthal instead encouraged the PCUSA to “encourage both parties to come to the table and work hard.”

“People who don’t speak to one another, do unspeakable things to one another,” he said.

Rosenthal urged commissioners to follow Isaiah 1:18 as the divestment overture comes to the floor: “Come now and let us reason together.”

“I fear sincerely that divestment would cast a pall and fracture relationships — perhaps irreparably [between Jews and the PCUSA],” Rosenthal warned.

“Do not undo all we have accomplished so beautifully together,” he added.

One tweeter, in response to Rabbi Rosenthal, wrote, “Can scarcely believe the disrespectful use of an interfaith greeting to lobby on an issue pending in today’s business.” Yeah, that really was rude of him. How dare he address the single biggest issue threatening to fracture Jewish-PCUSA relations! He should have done in the committee meeting, like all the anti-Israel activists, and on the #ga220 Twitter feed, which has nearly as many anti-Israel tweets on it as it does stuff about the Assembly. How dare he speak truth to power in a setting where the power actually has to listen to him!

The Layman Online is reporting that the just elected vice-moderator of the General Assembly, Tara Spuhler McCabe, has resigned. There are no details available yet, but I’ll bring them to you as soon as they are.

UPDATE: McCabe jumped the gun, recently performing a same-sex marriage even before her denomination could vote on approving them. That’s what’s behind her resignation, according to the Presbyterian News Service:

Surrounded by controversy since it was learned she had recently signed a same-gender wedding license in Washington, D.C., 220th General Assembly vice moderator Tara Spuhler McCabe stood down from that office today (July 4). The news was greeted with a chorus of “no!” and a standing ovation from most of the commissioners as she concluded her statement.

McCabe told the Assembly that “the amount of conversation in person and comments online indicate that my confirmation (Sunday) touched a nerve. During the question-and-answer session during the moderatorial election Saturday night, the Rev. Neal D. Presa, 220th GA moderator, acknowledged that he and McCabe disagreed on the issue of same-gender marriage but their friendship outweighed their disagreement.

When Presa placed McCabe’s name in nomination as vice moderator Sunday, questions were raised on the floor and her confirmation was approved by a 55-44 percent vote.

“It was with deep sadness that the stated clerk and I received this news,” Presa told the Assembly. “But as I listened to her, I was struck by her pastoral heart and her deep love for this church and General Assembly.“

He continued, “It is clear that there are parties within the church who would not let her split confirmation vote rest, who questioned her integrity and even the authenticity and veracity of our eleven-and-a-half year friendship. I absorbed those attacks and still stand by her while this pernicious poison reared its ugly head.”

I don’t know what he’s referring to, but I think legitimate questions can be asked about a person who deliberately ignores the denomination’s Book of Order when it gets in the way of her ideological commitments. What would have actually been an act of integrity would have been to refuse nomination and election, combined with a statement that she couldn’t lead a denomination that was still practicing an injustice. But I suspect she wanted the office so she could use it to lobby the church as a whole to change its definition of marriage.

“And I have an even more steely determination to seek unity in the bonds of peace. I will deeply miss what could have been but am even more determined to seek the peace and unity of our Presbyterian family,” he concluded.

“I am a pastor. That’s who God has called me to be,” McCabe told the stunned Assembly. “I think I embody the reality of a growing number of pastors who find themselves caught … between being pastors … and having a polity that restricts us from living out our pastoral calling.”

There’s always the UCC, Pastor.

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