Theological Reflections on 221st General Assembly

Dear Sisters and Brothers

After the 10am worship service this Sunday I am moderating a Town Hall Meeting to report on the recent General Assembly of the PC(USA). We will meet in Fellowship Hall and enjoy some light lunch as we dialogue around important issues before us. I hope you can be in worship and in the Town Hall on Sunday.

This is a difficult time for American society and for the PC(USA). Presbyterians have been at the center of every major conflict in the history of America from the 17th century to the present. Often troubling issues have divided us. From biblical interpretation, to theological controversies, to burning spiritual, political, racial, and social issues we Presbyterians have helped shape the larger national debates and struggles. Now in the years of rapid social change and shifting cultural values the church finds itself pressed to study, to do biblical and theological reflection, and to discern together our response to race, human sexuality, Middle Eastern peace, evangelism, world mission, schism, and church growth. It is always good to remember that the General Assembly speaks to the church and not for the church. Each member of the church has the right to agree or to disagree with what is said and done.

Freedom of conscience is a major constitutional principle.

The General Assembly meets every other year. Since our church government is a representative democracy each Assembly has a different cast of voting commissioners. All of our 172 presbyteries elect an equal number of teaching elders (pastors) and ruling elders (lay persons). Our own Los Ranchos Presbytery sent 6 voting commissioners, clergy and lay, to seek to know and to do God’s will in all the business before the national church. I was not one of those voting commissioners.

I attended this GA as one of 15 members of the Belhar Confession committee.

This committee was appointed in 2012 to study Belhar and to recommend to the 2014 GA whether or not this particular confession be sent to all 172 presbyteries for their “yes” or “no” in adding it to our Book of Confessions. The Belhar Confession cannot be added without a two-thirds approval vote by the presbyteries. If it does receive such approval, the 2016 General Assembly will once again need to approve its inclusion. The Belhar Confession was approved by 86% of the vote at this GA.

Over the next year the presbyteries will be acting.

Some say this approval of the Confession of Belhar was the most important work of the 221st General Assembly.

Certainly, the hot button issue of the Detroit Assembly was same gender marriage. Since the 1960’s General Assemblies have struggled with what the Confession of 1967 named as “heterosexual sexual anarchy” in the western world. In the 1970’s the issue related to homosexuality came to the 1978 Assembly from the Presbytery of New York City. Since then the larger church has argued about ordination standards and now same gender marriage within the church.

In the last decade the opinions of the American population have rapidly changed. Inevitably, attitudinal changes have appeared in congregations across the country. My guess is that few churches, whatever some may say, are not dealing with these issues among their members. Being a church at the center of Laguna Beach we all know that we are interested in this subject and our personal and collective opinions. So, I will be talking about this in the Town Hall meeting.

The other issue before this Assembly is the PCUSA’s actions in regard to Middle East peace between the State of Israel and the Palestinians. Since 2004 Assemblies have debated economic divestment of church resources in American companies who provide instruments used by Israel for occupation of the West Bank Palestinian communities, many of whom are Christians and our mission partners.

The media has reported that this Assembly voted to divest from the State of Israel. This is not true.

Just the opposite! The PC(USA) has since 1948 advocated for the security and peace of the Jewish State of Israel. Our issue is that we have mission partnerships with brothers and sisters on the West Bank of the Jordan River who have had their villages bulldozed and their olive orchards pulled up by machines manufactured by American companies and sold to the State of Israel. Behind the scene Presbyterian missionaries and policy makers have been seeking to make peace and to advocate for justice for both Jews and Arabs. We long to see a two state solution to this complex division.

After a decade of seeking to have a dialogue with Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola, without success, this Assembly voted by a narrow margin to divest of church stocks in those companies. It was largely a symbolic action and a cry for a conversation. This Sunday we will talk about this.

Many important issues were before the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA). I wish we had time to study and to discuss them all. The one’s noted above have received the most press and interest. These three issues were enough to stir controversy in the church. After several decades of debating the slavery of Africans, the General Assembly of 1836 resolved that there would be no more debate over slavery. The debate was not only destroying the country but also the church. Finally, in 1861 when the southern states left the Union, we Presbyterians divided between north and south and a Civil War was fought in which 750,000 of our fellow citizens died and much of the country was razed. It was not until 1983 that northern and southern Presbyterians reunited as one church, the PC(USA). Now in 2014 the unity of the church is being threatened.

We will try to discuss some of this Sunday at the Town Hall, if there is time, and if we are able.

The Sunday sermon worship text will be Paul’s visit to Athens (Acts 17). The gospel he preached divided his listeners and conflict resulted. There has never been a time in the church’s history that it has not had to deal with both internal and external challenge and conflict.

May God give to us his grace during this season of crisis and opportunity!

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Jerry Tankersley

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