Post General Assembly Reflection

from Jack Felch, Ruling Elder Commissioner

The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) met June 14-21, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. It was an honor and privilege to serve as a Ruling Elder Commissioner at this national level of our denomination. This was my second opportunity to serve in this role. My first was in 2002, the year in which the 214th General Assembly, over my objections, voted to shift from annual to biennial meetings. Well, I did not get my way on everything in Detroit either.

My maternal grandfather, Elder Kenneth A. McLean, was a commissioner to the 1925 General Assembly in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It seemed to (foolish) me that the tradition of annual meetings should not be violated. After all, Grandpa McLean and I are traditionalists. I have come to appreciate that General Assembly is not about tradition. It is about several hundred voting commissioners prayerfully seeking and discerning the Will of God for our church in this time. The process is democratic, decent and orderly and, for most votes, a majority wins even by the slimmest of margins. In my ordination vows I promised to be governed by our church’s polity. Whether I voted for “it” or against “it” no longer matters, I shall be governed by “it.”

There were several ‘hot button’ issues on the agenda in Detroit.   Prayerful, committed, Presbyterians showed great passion for their views, often on opposite sides of a particular issue. As much as I wanted to be objective and rational and dispassionate in casting my votes, that was not always possible. I experienced physical discomfort in casting several votes.

In the weeks following the 221st General Assembly it has become clear to me that subtle nuances of wording and thoroughness of debate do not matter to Presbyterians in the pew nor to the public in general. All that matters is which way the vote went and how that result is communicated. Here are my phrasing of some of the highlight decisions.

Book of Confession:

  1. Took the final step to place an improved translation of the Heidelberg Catechism into the Book of Confession.
  2. Took the first step to add the Confession of Belhar and its themes of unity, reconciliation, and racial justice to the Book of Confessions. (116 presbyteries must agree)

Marriage:

  1. Provided immediate discretion/flexibility for pastors and sessions to decide who can be married.
  2. Sent a similar recommendation to the presbyteries to change the Book of Order, while clearly stating that the traditional view of marriage is between a man and a woman. (87 presbyteries must agree)

 

Denominational organization:

  1. Elected a new moderator, Heath Rada, on the first ballot (a rare happening).
  2. Recommended reducing the number of synods to between 10 and 12.
  3. Dissolved one non-geographic Korean presbytery composed of 23 churches.

Middle East:

  1. Reaffirmed the goal of two states for two peoples.
  2. Denounced the overall movement called “BDS.”
  3. Denounced the document “Zionism Unsettled.”
  4. Changed PCUSA investment policy regarding three US companies as a symbolic statement of concern for the plight of Palestinians.

Remember, we are the General Assembly. Try it yourself in 2016. It would be my pleasure to accept an invitation to speak with you individually or in a group and share more details of my experience of eight days in Detroit and the issues themselves.

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