Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
Following the General Assembly meeting in Detroit last month we provided two reports on the actions taken there.
- The first was a brief bulletin insert prepared by the Presbyterian Outlook. It can be downloaded here 2014 GA Summary by Outlook (2-up) .
- The second, longer report, was prepared by our own Laura Lupton (Mission Coordinator for the West Community) who attended the Assembly on my behalf along with our eight voting commissioners and one Young Adult Advisory Delegate. You can read Laura’s report here
The Presbytery of Greater Atlanta has collected a very complete and helpful set of materials about the GA’s actions. Click here to see their material.
http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs118/1011272361012/archive/1117741473107.html OR the short link is http://goo.gl/uy3knT
Since those materials went out, I have been asked by several congregations about reports that they have received through the news media or in social media postings. The two questions that have been posed several times are:
- Why did the General Assembly divest from Israel?
- Why did the General Assembly change the Book of Order’s definition of marriage?
Both of these questions merit discussion.
As Presbyterians we have long tradition of not profiting from commercial activities that we do not believe are in keeping with our moral traditions. For many years the General Assembly’s investment portfolios have not included investments in such legal businesses as alcohol, tobacco, and gambling. After nearly a decade of efforts to work with three large American companies (Motorola, Caterpillar, and Hewlett Packard) whose products assist the Israeli government in the establishment of settlements within the Palestinian West Bank and in the control of Palestinians within the West Bank and Gaza, the General Assembly agreed (by a very narrow vote) to no longer profit from the sales of this equipment to Israel. (At the previous General Assembly a similar recommendation failed by another close vote.)
It has been reported that the PC(USA) has withdrawn all its investments in Israel or has voted to boycott Israel. This is not the case.
We have many investments in Israel and in Palestine. In fact, the 2012 General Assembly urged greater investment in both Israel and Palestine in order to develop an even better chance for peace within the two-state solution that has been the American foreign policy for the last 40+ years. Click here for more details: http://goo.gl/wO7NwV
The General Assembly took two different actions about marriage.
On the one hand the commissioners approved by a 61% margin an authoritative interpretation (AI) that allowed pastors who minister in states where same-sex marriage is legal to participate in marriage services for their same-sex members if they feel called to do so. (No one – pastor or session – can be forced to permit a same-sex marriage in their church (session) or to perform a same-sex marriage (pastor). The reason given for this authoritative interpretation was to allow those sessions and pastors who felt led to allow or officiate at a same-sex wedding to do so without the fear of judicial charges being filed against them. The effect of the authoritative interpretation is to set aside the 2008 ruling of the General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission that barred PC(USA) ministers from performing same-sex marriages.
By an even greater vote (71%) the Assembly voted to send an amendment to the Directory of Worship (W-4.900) to change the definition of marriage from “between one man and one woman” to “between two persons, traditionally a man and a woman.” The proposed amendment has been sent to the 172 presbyteries for action. If a majority of the presbyteries approve of the amendment the new language will become part of the Directory of Worship. Read the full text of the amendment here:
FAQ on Marriage Issues w Cover Letter
The difference in the votes about the authoritative interpretation (61%) and the amendment process (71%) and the discussion around the authoritative interpretation point to division over the correct process to follow in granting pastors in states where same-sex marriage is legal the choice to take part in such weddings without fear of being dismissed from ministry. But it also suggests (to me) that the Assembly was not fully comfortable with “changing the rules” in an arbitrary fashion. While many of us would have been more comfortable with allowing the amendment process to go forward, it appears that the Assembly felt compelled to allow pastors to offer pastoral care to their same-sex members of their congregations by officiating at their weddings where this is now legal.
So what do we make of what happened and what does it mean for us?
First, many of these changes will not have a direct effect on this presbytery for the time being.
Second, I remind you that we as a presbytery have been struggling with the same gender questions for nearly two generations. These changes are a result of a long and contentious conversation.
My own hope is these decisions will allow us as a presbytery to shift our focus from internal disagreements to the critical need for Christ’s message and mission in our world. One of the great strengths of Coastal Carolina is, and I hope will continue to be, its broad spectrum of voices and positions in our life and witness. We are not a one-issue presbytery or a one-agenda driven group, but we seek to be faithful to the ongoing activity of Jesus Christ in our midst wherever we may fall on the more peripheral issues that challenge us. We trust that just as in Christ there is no Greek or Jew, male or female, free or bond-servant, so we stick together as his people amidst the ambiguities, disagreements, and messes that are part of life in Christian community.
In that vein, the 221st General Assembly endorsed a recommendation to direct denominational leadership to “establish a way to bring reconciliation to the church.” Following the apostle Paul, we are called to pursue and seek to live together in the reconciliation that has already been established by Jesus Christ, even when we disagree. We mutually forbear with one another, even when, especially when we are at odds. That means that we refrain from wounding each other by characterizing our opponents as bigots on one side or unbiblical hedonists on the other. It means that we refrain from being patronizing to one another when our side has prevailed and others have not.
In Christ, Colossians 3:17 reminds us, all things hold together. That is our firm foundation and hope in life and in death. In Jesus Christ all things hold together. Ultimately Jesus Christ will come to reign in our life together and shape us into the people of God intended from all eternity.
I urge all of us to review what the General Assembly actually did – and not just brief reports of its action in the general media and to keep an open mind as each of us has the opportunity to engage in these questions in the months ahead. The Commissioners to the General Assembly will be reporting to the October meeting of the Presbytery and are available (as time permits) to visit with sessions and congregations to help us all understand what the GA did and why. I am also available to visit with you as time permits.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understand, guard your hearts and yours minds in Christ Jesus!
Bill Reinhold, General Presbyter