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July 5, 2008: A Wrap-Up, of sorts

There are plenty of analyses out there regarding the decision of the 218th General Assembly regarding sexuality and ordination standards. I'll get to that at the end.

Some impressions (as they occur to me, not in any particular order):

1. Bruce Reyes-Chow was the best moderator I have seen, bar none. He was not perfect but he was fair. He handled the meeting extraordinarily well. He received challenges to his decisions and rulings with grace. He seemed very comfortable in front of this meeting. I know people were not happy about the process regarding the ordination standards vote -- but I also am convinced that he got the call right and (more importantly) changing the process would not have changed the voting results. The people who were upset about missing the chance to speak should be frustrated with the Assembly, not the Moderator. So, within the confines of the meeting, I thought he served the Assembly well.

After the Assembly? I would not want his job. It will not be an easy road.

2. I am glad that the issue between the GAC and Foundation disappeared from the front pages. You will have to search to find any articles about what happened -- evidence of God's hand at work in the midst to resolve this conflict.

3. The nFoG hangs around despite my best efforts. I still think it is a mistake to try to become missional via polity. We are going to end up arguing about the rules rather than focusing on the mission. That said, it also is fair to conclude I was not persuasive.

4. I am not sure proposed changes to the Heidelberg Catechism or the effort to include the Belhar Confession in our Book of Confessions will ever pass the presbyteries. It will be interesting to see whether Presbyterians can engage the issues involved theologically or if we will simply use these additonal opportunities to batter each other politically. Two ironies: 1) many Presbyterians would not know what is in the Book of Confessions if it were not for some of these controversies; and 2) confessions are issued in the midst of controversies for the purpose of addressing the situation theologically. So, whether the changes should be made and whether Belhar ought to be adopted as ours are appropriate topics for the larger church to consider. Instead of lamenting, we can be thankful for the opportunity to engage in a much deeper study of what our confessional documents teach.

5. The Friday night Assembly dealing with the proposed re-definition of marriage was a completely different group than the afternoon group that voted on ordination standards. It was like someone slammed the brakes on the progressive slide. I wonder what would have happened if the "graciousness in separation" commissioners resolution had come up for a vote before ordination standards had been handled.

6. Our social witness continues to be self-perpetuating; though with one important change. The pattern of having the advocacy committees (ACREC, ACWC, ACSWP) do self-evaluations as their only substantive review has come to an end; there now is in place an external review that will take place. Along with the six agencies of the General Assembly, the advocacy committees will be subject to questions of:

  1. examining the interaction, cooperation between such committees and commissioners, as well as their scope and authority;
  2. the collective role each contribute complementing and implementing the General Assembly's total mission program or directives.

7. PC-Biz was a moderate success. It was not confidence-inspiring, but improved during the course of the week. On the learning curve of such changes, this was a big step forward. Within the context of this meeting, it was not a trustworthy tool. I relied more on the paper copies that were provided than anything I could find on screen; but as time went on, the electronic versions came up faster and more accurately.

8. It is hard to tell what will be the impact of having Gradye Parsons as stated clerk. He is a fan of the "consensus" process; which was a disaster in one of the experimental committees. (So much of a disaster that it was reported several commissioners left and did not return.) As one who is consistently in the minority at Assembly meetings, I would be repeating myself to say I am not a fan. But -- truth be told -- I am not. However, the Stated Clerk's office is much more than consensus process. It is one of the primary centers of power within the denominational structure. With a new hand at the helm, some changes are inevitable.

9. Ordination standards. Sigh. Undoing thirty years of work in one swipe and making a foundational change without consulting the presbyteries was not good.

The followup was not good, either. I was at the press conference where Stated Clerk Kirkpatrick declared that the Constitution had not changed. Hmmm. That's a bit of Orwellian double-speak. Yes, it is true the words in the Constitution have not changed (yet); that is, the amendment has to go through the presbyteries for votes. However, the reality is that ordination standards have been changed completely:

What was never previously allowed is now allowable.

Regardless of the lack of compliance previously, it was understood that self-affirmed, unrepentant, practicing homosexual persons were not eligible for ordination. Not so now. I serve a congregation where there is a split of opinion about whether it would be a good thing to permit the ordination of self-affirmed, unrepentant practicing homosexual persons. They all were disappointed with the decisions of GA. Something about, "Let your yes be yes and your no be no."

A Pivot Point

There is no question that we have reached the pivot point in time that has been expected for quite a while now. For many, the issue of official sanctioning of actively gay ordination signalled the step across the line needed to justify seeking spiritual asylum.

Most of the focus of the analyses I have seen has been on the big picture -- how does this impact the witness and integrity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)? There is not a whole lot more to be said on that front.

There is, however, a word to be said about how the decisions of the 218th General Assembly impact us personally. You see, there is more to the story than simply eliminating the Authoritative Interpretations and allowing "local option." It is likely that within a year or two, people like me will not be ordained or ordainable within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

One of the more under-reported aspects of what was approved is this Authoritative Interpretation in response to the question raised in 04-14, "If a moderator refuses to ordain an individual whom the session has approved for ordination,has this moderator committed an offense as defined by the Rules of Discipline?" The pertinent part of the approved response is this:

Without the concurrence of the session, there is no provision on the basis of conscience for a moderator to refuse to fulfill the functions of the office of moderator in participating in the ordination and installation of duly elected, examined, and approved elders and deacons. That notwithstanding, the request highlights the importance of section “e” of the authoritative interpretation approved by the 217th General Assembly (2006) (Minutes, 2006, Part I, pp. 28–29, 523, Item 06-01), which states, “All parties should endeavor to outdo one another in honoring one another’s decisions, according the presumption of wisdom to ordaining/installing bodies in examining candidates and to the General Assembly, with presbyteries’ approval, in setting standards.” Moreover, the same assembly encouraged all members to exercise their biblical and constitutional responsibilities “to conciliate, mediate, and adjust differences without strife” prayerfully and deliberately (D-1.0103) and to institute administrative or judicial proceedings only when other efforts fail to preserve the purposes and purity of the church.

We encourage all members, and especially officers, to exercise mutual forbearance toward one another, respecting the conscience of those who disagree with the decision of the body. It is equally incumbent on the session to respect the conscience of the moderator and authorize the invitation to another minister to preside, as it is incumbent upon the moderator to fulfill the responsibilities of moderator on behalf of the whole church, and to welcome colleagues in ministry.

Whether the moderator in question would be considered to have committed an offense would be determined by a permanent judicial commission (PJC) relying on the specific facts in the incident referred to it.

In short: we hope it does not come to this; however, if it does, the moderator may be subject to disciplinary action.

Suddenly, we move from local option to mandatory requirement. Remarkably, it cites Kenyon as a model of forebearance. (I'm leaving that short-hand; if you need to know what it means, send me a note.) Unless in my memory is faulty, Walter Kenyon is not ordained within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

As I mentioned earlier, I would not want Bruce's job now. What is the compelling hook to stay in community?

Months ago, Bruce posted a note asking the question, "Can We Agree To Disagree?" I responded, "Why We Can't Agree To Disagree." That's where we are.

The issue is not whether God loves gay people. The issue is whether we submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture. Scripture declares God's sovereignty over all aspects of our lives, including our sexuality. If we endorse sinful behavior, we are declaring rebellion against God. The remarkable thing is that God loves us so much that He sent Christ to die for us while we were yet sinners; while we had taken up rebellion against Him. But the cost of our redemption was high. There's a popular contemporary worship song that has the refrain, "I'll never know how much it cost, to see my sin upon that cross." I am a sinner in daily need of reminder of my redemption. I hold no rights against God, I hold no claim to righteousness without Christ. The only one whose Authoritative Interpretation matters is Jesus Christ; and He has revealed His judgment in Scripture. I do not have the luxury, confidence or desire to face God's questions:

"Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified?"

For now, I am privileged to preach the gospel in my congregation. I cannot guarantee for how much longer that will be the case. It was not the result I hoped to see when I volunteered to be a commissioner to the 218th GA.

Final Word

This is my last post about General Assembly stuff. I am called to serve a local congregation and -- until and unless God calls me otherwise -- I am turning all my focus and attention towards being a faithful shepherd for them. I hope these posts have been helpful. If so, praise God.

 

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June 29, 2008: Home Safe

I drove home yesterday after all the business was completed. I was beat when I started and exhausted by the time I arrived.

This morning at Chula Vista Presbyterian, there were a lot of questions about what the General Assembly decided.

One of the things I have encouraged commissioners in the past -- and therefore am going to try to do myself -- is to take a few days of quiet reflection and prayer before making a final assessment on what the GA experience means. It's one thing to do it in the heat of the moment; but I have discovered that time helps us sort things out and see God's hand in a different way than what we thought was happening at the time. The initial reaction, of course, is that I was disappointed in how we handled ordination standards. I don't expect that to change. However, just how bad or just what it does mean in the bigger picture will take some time to develop.

So, I am planning to do a wrap-up summary. It will probably be Wednesday, though Thursday is entirely possible. It depends on how much sleep I have gotten between now and then.

For today, let me just say thank you to all of you who prayed for me during the week. I have written some notes back to people who had contacted me, but want to publicly thank everyone -- many of whom I do not know. I can only tell you that in a very personal and profound way, I experienced the blessing of people praying for me. Although I am not thrilled by some of the votes, God's hand was at work in many ways that will never make the news.

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June 27, 2008: The Levees Have Broken

This morning I was watching the news. It is somewhat disconcerting to see real life in the midst of the bubble of a General Assembly. Even so, there was a spiritual resonance with the levees breaking.

Earlier this week, I described this Assembly as a 55:45 progressive leaning Assembly. Yesterday, as the day went on, we watched the voting percentages move to 60:40, then 65:35; and later to almost 70:30. It is difficult to say what is the driving force behind the shift. Perhaps it was the Fred Phelps idiot protesters outside the Marriott, perhaps it was something inside.

By and large, committee reports are going through as recommended. There was one interesting phenomenon yesterday: after the nFoG vote (to refer and keep it alive for a couple more years until the next Assembly), there seemed to be a collective desire to not handle anything controversial. The Assembly spent almost four hours (including a dinner break to try to sort things out) arguing over an amendment regarding Church Extension Funds. Then we spent another hour or so talking about sunset clauses for non-geographic language-specific presbyteries. Thus, we never got to the issue of the definition of marriage. That gets added to todays list.

Given the shift in voting, today promises to be a long, long day. I have a spiritual picture of the levee breaking. Abortion, ordination standards, marriage, Israel/Palestine, Iraq are all on the docket. It is my expectation that we will see a series of decisions likely to flood the larger church with anxiety and frustration; that is: authoritative interpretations to G-6.0106b that make Fidelity & Chastity optional (the John Knox overture, which does not need presbytery approval), another overture to delete G-6.0106b, the condemnations of Israel and companies doing business with Israel. and the like. The only question is whether the Assembly will overturn the committee recommendation to not re-define marriage. The mood on the floor suggests is possible.

This will be it for me in San Jose. It is unlikely we will be completed with business until late in the night and I'll spend tomorrow driving. I hope these updates and reflections have been helpful to you. God bless you and thanks for reading.

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June 26, 2008: Thursday in San Jose

Yesterday was like the start of the Indianapolis 500. The cars do a parade lap, then off they go to a flying start. Now, today, we're in the middle of the race where everyone around the country takes a commercial break to get something from the kitchen. We're still going 220 mph while you are checking the refrigerator.

It is much like that because we have to stay focused. Once a piece of business is handled, we move on. There is not time to reflect, "Was that wise? Did we handle that in the best way?" Doing that makes you miss the next, then the next, then the next item of business. We actually moved faster than some of the electronic equipment last night. A commissioner had to make a motion to reconsider Item 07-02 (which then had to be re-made by a commissioner who had voted in favor of the original piece of business) because the podim monitors did not display the fact she was at a microphone with a motion. When the Item was introduced, she was ready but the moderator did not see her and the Assembly gave a voice vote approval. We were already through several more items before the error could be identified; even then, the Assembly voted to not go back.

I have found it interesting to feel the mood of the floor shift and change. There is a personality to this Assembly. We were not happy about the amendments being offered to the curriculum recommended by Committee 12 yesterday. As we dealt with the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations material last night, the floor was struggling to try to get it right. There were times of laughter and -- to this point -- there is generally a good spirit. It has been my experience that people tend to get cranky and irritable as they get more tired; it would be my prayer that we would be able to endure with joy.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.  

Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Psalm 46)

Thanks for your prayers today.

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June 25, 2008: Evening, Wednesday

Plenary began this afternoon. And it moved fast. We completed all the business from committees 7, 12, 15, and 17.

First impressions:

Bruce Reyes-Chow may be the best fresh-out-of-the-box brand new moderator I have seen. He had a sense of the floor, he engaged with people well, and he kept control. It was not perfect, but he had a command and presence. I say that as the only guy I know who could lose a "motion to recess" made after 10:00 p.m. (In fairness, Committee 17 Youth had just completed its business, I knew the maker of a minority report from Committee 13 who had walked out to be seated on the podium, and there was some confusion about what was coming next. So I made the motion which received enthusiastic murmurs of approval from the floor -- until the Assembly was informed that the only business they wanted to conduct was the recognition of seminary presidents and the installation of one of them.They had to vote no on my motion in order to allow that to proceed. It could happen to anyone.)

PC-Biz is spotty. During committees, I was aware of a few problems in our room, but they seemed minor and temporary. Now that we are back in plenary (the whole Assembly acting together) the business is being produced on paper and distributed to the tables. Even so, there have been several complaints when amendments have been made -- they finally show up on PC-Biz after the vote had been taken and we had moved on to something else.

The theme thus far is "peace." The commissioners seem to value peace. They want to pursue peace. Whether that will continue remains to be seen.

I think my assessment of the leanings of this Assembly were fairly accurate. If you read the early business, it would not seem that they were accurate; however, the results do not necessarily tell the whole story. Most of the amendments regarding sexuality curriculum were turned down because: 1) the amendments proposed were long and cumbersome; and, 2) it felt like the commissioners proposing the amendments were pitching for a fight commissioners weren't ready to engage. So, the votes skewed much heavier "progressive." Tonight, however, it seemed to bounce the other way. The middle seems subject to persuasion.

Apparently there are were some demonstrators outside one of the Assembly hotels, shouting Fred Phelps-esque kinds of taunts at Assembly go-ers. Beyond right-wing fundamentalist kinds of language was how it was described to me. Fortunately, my hotel is connected to the convention center and I have missed all that.

Tomorrow: well, tomorrow morning are some elections, the Theological Issues and Institutions (Heidelberg Catechism and Belhar), and the Mission Coordination and Budgets (GAC/Foundation; Six Agency Review, Advocacy Committe reviews). Tomorrow afternoon: Committee 6, nFoG; Committee 16 Worship and Spiritual Renewal (report on the disastrous consensus process); and Commitee 3 General Assembly Procedures (per capita, e-Link).

That's it. I need to get some sleep. We start early tomorrow morning. I'll try to keep posting; but we'll see.

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June 25, 2008: Plenary begins

Not that things have been going slowly, but now business begins to move very fast. It is like a lazy river flowing along narrows dramatically -- rapids. All of the business that was distributed among the 17 committees comes back to be handled by everyone.

While the energy level is high right now in anticipation of the plenary action, some of the weight of "Tuesday Night At The Assembly" is lifted. The new morning reminds us that God is sovereign, that His plans will not be thwarted, that "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Yes, many people who were in the minority in their committees are grieved by the recommendations, but the Assembly has not yet acted. And, in the light of morning, it also comes to mind that the votes of Advisory Delegates -- which are counted in committee -- are now truly advisory. It changes the dynamics.

My impression is that the Assembly commissioners lean 55:45 progressive:conservative. That said, I am not sure that's even the best measuring tool. It seems as if there are a substantial number of people in the middle block -- not automatic votes one way or the other. The swing votes are there.

Like all evaluations and predictions at this point, my perceptions may be way off. (Also, I realize that I have imposed a political analysis on a spiritual gathering; dangerous in the best of times, damaging in the worst. If I could figure out a better way to provide a quick shorthand analysis, I would use it. So, please read it in a "for what it's worth" kind of tone.)

Plenary begins in a little while. Pray for us. More tonight.

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June 24, 2008: End of Committees

We had a great committee. We saw God move in our midst. I served on Committee 8, Mission Coordination and Budgets. One of the big issues of this Assembly was the item we handled today, which involved a major disagreement between two agencies of the General Assembly. The dispute was an eight month old stalemate between the General Assembly Council and the Presbyterian Foundation.

For our purposes here, it is not worth going into the details. What made this day amazing was watching the committee work. It was a thing of beauty. The leadership was strong, commissioners and advisory delegates worked well together, and by the end of the day the dispute was resolved. And not just because the committee made a recommendation -- it was resolved to the extent that the representatives of both the GAC and Foundation were pleased with the result. (Now, to be clear, the committee's action is not final -- and attempts to amend it could be made on the plenary floor. However, I think that the committee will strongly defend its action if challenged, and I suspect that it would be bolstered by support from the leadership of both the GAC and Foundation.) I am hoping that the Assembly can celebrate -- and, yes, I mean celebrate -- the reconciliation and way forward that was effected in our final recommendation to the Assembly regarding 08-21.

Other recommendations are being reported by Presbyweb and on the Presbyterian News Service, The Outlook, and the Layman.

June 24, 2008: The Day of Despair

Tuesday of Assembly week is often the day of despair. "How can people who love Jesus vote that way?!" I am not trying to minimize the spiritual impact of seeing a deeply held conviction voted down by people in the church; rather, I am pointing out what happens every Assembly when we start making decisions.

I am writing this before most of the reports come in about recommendations of the various committees -- so I am not referring to any one committee here, just the phenomenon that occurs at this point in every Assembly. The novelty of being here has worn off, the energy of the moderator election seems a long time ago, and all the good feelings from worship are a memory. You feel like you have gone from Palm Sunday to betrayal very quickly. I have engaged in this several times over the years. The conclusion of committees usually coincides with a collective exhale from everyone involved: sometimes exhaustion, sometimes exasperation, sometimes it feels like a punch in the gut.

When you consider the kinds of issues that are being debated, it is no wonder that any given decision will cause spiritual crisis for at least some one. We do not spend much time on the things about which we agree. The majority of the debate time is spent on things that matter to people and on which there is not agreement. Yes, I know, that's a "forest for the trees" kind of observation. However, our normal lives are not often punctuated with multiple decisions regarding a number of issues on the same day. If you have a friend with whom you disagree about an issue, it can have no impact on your friendship for years as long as it does not come up. But if that issue comes to place of a decision between you, how does that impact your friendship? The same goes for the Assembly.

What kinds of issues are going to have recommendations today? Well, here's a quick incomplete list:

Committee 4: Marriage
Committee 5: Ordination Standards, authoritative interpretations and PUP
Committee 6: nFoG
Committee 7: Do Muslims, Jews and Christians pray to the same God?
Committee 8: GAC and the Foundation
Committee 9: Gun control, public education, homelessness, equal rights, social creed, election reform, immigration, labor relations
Committee 10: Abortion
Committee 11: Israel/Palestine (including divestment issues), Iraq, Colombia
Committee 12: Sexuality curriculum
Committee 13: Heidelberg and Belhar confessions, Trinity
and who knows what is coming from Committees 16 and 17?

The halls around the Assembly rooms will sound like popcorn as the decisions begin to be reported out. If you were to stand next to the wall, you could watch the "whisper down the lane" in action. You can actually see the news move from one end to the other.

It is at this time during the Assembly that I am grateful for Sunday School teachers who required us to memorize Scripture:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Would you take a few moments to pray for commissioners and advisory delegates here, that we would experience the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guarding our heartsand minds in Christ Jesus.

More later.

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June 23, 2008: Monday comes to a conclusion

We have gone through most of our business today. I ducked out today for awhile to speak to the nFoG committee. In one of those moments you never really expect to happen, the guy who spoke immediately before me used almost the exact illustration I was going to use. Ah, well. Time to adapt. (What's worse, I think he said it better than I would have....)

Not much else to report out of committees today. The spirit in here is pretty high, but the energy low. We spent a while this afternoon messing around with the language of an amendment and it drained everyone a little bit.

Tomorrow is the big issue: the GAC and Foundation.

That's it for tonight.

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June 23, 2008: Committee Work Begins

This morning, we began the real work of the committees. Next to the Moderator's election, this is the time when the energy is the highest: the game has begun. All of the language of togetherness and loving one another gets put to the test beginning this morning.

Here's what my committee looks like (now that we convened):

Committee tables (my black coffee cup at the empty chair)

committee tables

Whole room

committee room

So, my morning is not going to be a survey of what happened across the Assembly; rather, I'm only going to reflect on what we heard.

Aside from the approval of minutes and financial reviews (yeah, that would make exciting reading for you), we were presented with Item 08-20, "An Invitation To Expanding Partnership in God's Mission." The initial description reminded me of the legend of the Septuagent -- here, 68 people came up with one statement in one try.

The difficulty for something like this is that it is not controversial. If the committee does not debate it, if the Assembly does not really engage it, it becomes a sign-on document. My experience with sign-on documents is that people agree and are really glad that someone, somewhere, is somehow doing mission on our behalf. "We're real glad people are doing it...." and we excuse ourselves from participating.

The presentation is complete -- the question is posed, "This is like Motherhood and Apple Pie, what will this mean in practicality and financially?" Hunter Farrell talked about the need to do mission "interdependently." It will mean coordinating together. It prevents the confusion of having different groups arriving in the same place and overlapping efforts. Questions followed about how the substance of that effort would be worked out and how much it would cost.

Our first questioner was correct: "Motherhood and apple pie." Blessings as they try to make it substantive.

The rest of the morning was spent dealing with some "inside baseball" kinds of things having to do with designated and restricted giving. I made an amendment that was approved; so, a good morning.

June 23, 2008: Defending the Moderator

Regarding the headline of Jack Adam's piece in the Layman, "Is risk-taker moderator a risk for denomination?"

One of my favorite movie moments is in Apollo 13. Ground Control in Houston is preparing for re-entry, and a public relations person is trying to get an answer to tell the President about the chances. They review the problems and the things that have been improvised to get the astronauts home. One of the executives says in a hushed voice, "This could be the biggest disaster in NASA history." Overhearing, the Flight Director interrupts and says, "Sir, with all due respect, I believe this is going to be our finest hour."

There are two ways of looking at risk. One is to avoid it at all costs. That keeps us in the status quo, which will keep us headed in the same direction. The other is to understand the risk and embrace the opportunity.

The 218th General Assembly (2008) elected Bruce Reyes-Chow to be its moderator. Yes, it is a risk for the denomination; but being the church involves risk. Being witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth involves risk. The Book of Order calls the church to risk, "The Church is called to present the claims of Jesus Christ, leading persons to repentance, acceptance of him as Savior and Lord, and new life as his disciples." (G-3.0300b) "The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ." (G-3.0400).

Look, I do not agree with the Moderator regarding ordination standards. I do not think we can go forward simply agreeing to disagree. However, I am in complete agreement with him regarding the need to reach people for Jesus, for the need for transparency, that we need to be held together by more than property.

I do not know Bruce well. I have been a frequent visitor to his blog. His assigned seat was right in front of me in the plenary hall and we had only a few moments to laugh and commiserate about PC-Biz (he was more creative: he solved the problem for himself by getting elected). I am going to take him at his word that he is "excruciatingly fair." He does embody a younger generation's approach to ministry. It will be uncomfortable and -- I am sure -- he will do things that will drive me crazy. Then again, so do most of my friends -- just as this post is likely to drive them crazy.

As a commissioner to the 218th General Assembly, I am committed to work with Bruce, to pray for him, and to support him to the best of my ability. Sometimes that support will come in the guise of loyal opposition. Supporting the Moderator does not have to involve compromising any of my convictions.

Theology is important. The Lordship of Christ and the sovereignty of God are real. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom and we need to take heed. But we also remember that this is God's church: not mine, not Bruce's, not ours. We can go through a whole list of problems and lament our imminent demise -- or -- we could pray, with all due respect, that this would be our finest hour.

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June 22, 2008: PC-Biz

Stated Clerk nomination speeches were made tonight. I've spent enough time complaining about the process.

The speeches are being ignored as commissioners and advisory delegates continue to struggle with PC-Biz. In short, the volume is killing the server. You can hear the same question being asked over and over, "You on?" "Yes...wait, no. I was a minute ago..." Whole sections of the plenary floor suddenly read:

Server Application Unavailable.

The web application you are attemption to access on this web server is currently unavailable. Please hit the "Refresh" button in your web browser to retry your request.

Administrator Note: An error message detailing the cause of this specific request failure can be found in the application event log of the web server. Please review this log entry to discover what caused this error to occur.

This was one of my top ten issues identified before the Assembly. I don't want to say, "I told you so...," but I'm not above it. None of the business we have handled thus far has been substantively impacted. That's fortunate.

The clock is ticking, though. Solutions have been evasive thus far and there are no particularly good alternative solutions. To get through the items from the Business Referral Committee, papers were produced and placed on all the tables. Many commissioners did not bring notebooks or other organization kinds of resources in order to handle a paper assembly.

(I wasn't going to cover anything about the nomination speeches, but we have just heard our second "For such a time as this..." line.)

We are beginning to get to know the names of the resource people working on computers. In one sense, it is nice to be able to converse with the people who are serving the Assembly. On the other hand, it is like getting to get to know the name of your car mechanic -- rarely does that happen because you are happy.

Committees begin tonight.

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June 21, 2008 Evening: The Moderator Election: Bruce Reyes-Chow Elected on Second Ballot

The Moderator's Election is one of the highlights of any assembly. It is a unifying event for the assembly -- it is the first thing of substance that commissioners will do together. This person becomes the face of the assembly, he (all candidates are male) will be the personality of the assembly, and will have a significant impact on the direction of the denomination. Joan Gray, Moderator of the 217th General Assembly (2006) has been a tremendous ambassador for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The Process

All four candidates are nominated with five minute speeches. Then, the candidates speak for five minutes. This is followed by an hour of Question and Answer time -- fifteen minutes per candidate (4 x 15 = 60). The candidates rotate order in answering questions. A question is asked, answered by candidate #1, then #2, then #3, and finally #4. The next question is asked, answered by #2, #3, #4, and finally #1. After the hour is complete, the vote is taken. The moderator is selected when any candidate receives a majority of the votes (50% + 1). If no candidate receives a majority, the Assembly moves immediately to a second ballot. All candidates remain eligible to receive votes until the election is decided.

Observations

One of the unwritten -- but ironclad -- rules is for candidates to appear at the Outlook dinner prior to the election. It is the Presbyterian equivalent of appearing on The Daily Show. It is a lighter venue, a chance to show some personality. Often times the one making the best showing in the Outlook dinner gets elected. If that is any indication (I'm writing this as the nominating speeches are being given), Bruce Reyes-Chow will be our moderator. He spoke first, was winsome and engaging. The next two candidates both made reference to his speech; an indication that he made a strong impression.

There was a "for such a time as this" nominating speech. Sigh.

Here's a look at the candidates during their speeches:

Bruce Reyes-Chow

bruce campaign

Carl Mazza

carl campaign

Bill Teng

bill campaign

Roger Shoemaker

roger campaign

 

Questions and Answers

In addition to the Outlook dinner, another element of the conventional wisdom is that the first person to give a good laugh to the Assembly gets a huge lead. Again, going first, Bruce got off the first laugh line. Advantage Reyes-Chow.

In other Assemblies, I seem to remember an ebb and flow of momentum during the Q&A time. My impression -- mine only -- was that this became a two-man race quickly: Bruce Reyes-Chow and Bill Teng. The ordination standard question was probably the defining one on the floor. Bill Teng answered well; but when Bruce finished speaking, I heard a number of people around me say, "wow." A quick glance showed that the speakers were on both sides of the issue.

The Results?

Ballot 1

Advisory Delegates (numbers in parenthesis are raw votes)

YAD's: Mazza 14% (23); Reyes-Chow 66% (107); Shoemaker 6% (10); Teng 14% (23)
TSAD's: Mazza 16% (4); Reyes-Chow 64% (16); Shoemaker 0 (0); Teng 20% (5)
MAD's (Missionary Advisory Delegates) Mazza 29% (2); Reyes-Chow 43% (3) Shoemaker 0 (0); Teng 29% (2)
EAD's (Ecumenical Advisory Delegates) Mazza 0 (0); Reyes-Chow 66%(2); Shoemaker 0 (0); Teng 33%(1)

Commissioners

Mazza: 14% (102)
Reyes-Chow: 48% (341)
Shoemaker: 2% (14)
Teng: 35% (250)

Ballot 2

Advisory Delegates

YAD's: Mazza 8% (13); Reyes-Chow 71% (111); Shoemaker 3% (5); Teng 18% (28)
TSAD's: Mazza 13% (3); Reyes-Chow 67% (16); Shoemaker 0 (0); Teng 20% (5)
MAD's (Missionary Advisory Delegates) Mazza 17% (1); Reyes-Chow 50% (3) Shoemaker 0 (0); Teng 29% (2)
EAD's (Ecumenical Advisory Delegates) Mazza 0 (0); Reyes-Chow 66%(2); Shoemaker 0 (0); Teng 33%(1)

Commissioners

Mazza: 7% (52)
Reyes-Chow: 55% (390)
Shoemaker: 1% (7)
Teng: 36% (255)

vote graph

Analysis

Bruce was articulate as the voice of a new generation of leadership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). How can I say he is part of a new generation? (Look at the picture. No tie.) Well, that and the message emphasizing the importance of relational ministry -- and that's what connected with many on the plenary floor. "Contextual ministry" was a phrase he used several times. Some of the charisma attributed to Barack Obama is evident in Bruce. He seemed very comfortable leading -- even during the election process. He was personable, direct, and had a command of the stage. I can't tell what the read will be in the church outside of San Jose, but commissioners are likely to enjoy their week with Bruce at the helm.

Now, let me give you the standard post-election litany: the election of a moderator tells you only a limited amount about what this Assembly will and will not do. Assemblies have voted with their moderator, assemblies have voted against their moderator. It is not a great predicter. The example we often cite is the 208th General Assembly (1996), which elected John Buchanan moderator, approved Amendment B (now G-6.0106b). Moderator Buchanan was one of the co-founders of the Covenant Network seeking to undo what was done during the assembly over which he presided.

That said, it is interesting to see how the votes broke out between the two ballots. Looking at the raw votes, it seems as if the Carl voters jumped to Bruce, the Roger voters jumped to Bill. The difficulty is reading how strong the progressive vote is within the Bruce majority. My impression is that some traditionally conservative voters were won over to Bruce as a moderator -- voting for him without necessarily committing to vote progressive throughout the rest of the assembly. It is too early to put numbers like 62:37 as the vote margin expected for a progressive leaning Assembly. Nonetheless, it also is not reasonable to assume that 13% (roughly 100 commissioners) were stray-away conservatives.

The new moderator is commissioned immediately after the election. There are two ceremonial items: the cross and the stole.

moderator cross

moderator stole

 

The Moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008)
Bruce Reyes-Chow

new moderator

 

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Tomorrow: worship, the Stated Clerk nominating speeches, and the commissioner committees orientation meetings. There will not be much to report; except the commissioners resolutions.

(A special word of commendation to Don Lincoln, who worked the podium during the election. For those who were there, you know why.)

 

June 21, 2008: Convening

"Would the Assembly come to order?" With that Moderator Joan Gray convened the 218th General Assembly (2008). This morning is a lot of orientation and basic reports. The big item for today is the election of the Moderator tonight.

moderator joan gray

Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick welcomed his last General Assembly.

clifton kirkpatrick

I mentioned yesterday that I had a great seat. I sit almost directly behind Bruce Reyes-Chow (striped shirt).

bruce reyes chow

Bill Teng is across the aisle about two people in.

beill teng

The election is tonight, so there is a 50/50 (2 out of 4) chance that this will be the last day I see one of them in these seats.

Thus far, I have not seen anyone playing solitaire. The resource people have been incredibly diligent and busy getting everyone logged into the PC-Biz. It can look like a bit of an auction, with people raising hands to get help connected. It is wise to have commissioners watching orientation videos while the tech people are working through bugs. There is nothing for IT people like dealing with excited people in the midst of anxiety.

The Moderator, Vice-Moderator, Chair of the GAC and Vice-Chair of the GAC all reported and brought greetings.

Think of the annual meeting of the congregation -- lots of reports and information coming from the podium. There is no way around firehosing information.

Afternoon

More orientation. The reality is that many commissioners are trying to figure out PC-Biz. It is intermittent -- connections come and then quickly go. We have not needed it for any of the business yet, but the anxiety of commissioners is beginning to show.

Ah, now we have. At 4:30, we tried to deal with some of the basic beginning business from B&O. It has to do with dockets and business referrals. Nothing too dramatic. (For those who have been following, if there had been a hue and cry to suspend the Standing Rules for the Stated Clerk race, this would have been the time for that motion to have been raised. I floated the idea, did not get any response enthusiastically joining me in the idea, and decided this was not a hill to die on. Now, I am chuckling thinking about how despised I would have been had I done it in the midst of people not being able to see what is going on.)

The discussion from the floor has been about the inability to access the PC-Biz system. Although this is an issue this afternoon, it may not be all that big a deal -- that is, it will not be a big deal if it is fixed before plenary resumes acting on business on Wednesday. Even so, there is a palpable concern by many commissioners about the impact of relying on electronics.

More tonight.

June 20, 2008: Impressions, initial sights and insights

The first thing that has to be said is San Jose is tremendous. It was easy to get here. It was easy to find the hotel, easy to get registered, easy to get settled in. That has not always been the case.

The convention center area is the best of the ten I have seen -- Albuquerque, Syracuse, Charlotte, Ft. Worth, Long Beach, Louisville, Columbus, Denver, and Richmond. Everything is very close, it is well organized, and things have been very smooth.

There is the growing hum and buzz of excitement that precedes an Assembly. Nervous energy abounds. It also is a lot of fun spotting friends that I have not seen in quite a long time. Anyway, at the risk of boring you with the GA equivalent of family vacation slides, here are some pictures. I thought these might be helpful to get some idea of what it all looks like:

plenary hall

This is the plenary hall. I shot this from the far back. The blue curtain in the center aisle separates "observers" from denominational officials and governing body executives. If you look a little farther up, you can see a black curtain. That's where commissioners will sit.

plenary floor back

Note the black curtain. Everyone in front is a commissioner or advisory delegate. My assigned seat is on the aisle, right side, just in front of microphone #8. Great seat. I could not have picked a better one. (That's serious, in case anyone thinks I am complaining -- I really could not have asked for a better seat.)

plenary floor front

This is what the Moderator will see. Note the microphones 2, 5, 8. This was shot with a wide-angle lense, and it still does not get everyone. I spotted nine microphones total, but they were still setting up.

Here's my view of the platform, the voting box, and what my desk will look like:

my view

voting box

my desk

 

At the back of the hall are mailboxes for commissioners. First, the one of the tables (there are four of them). Then, my mailbox.

mailboxes

my mailbox

Note how there is already material in it.

In previous posts, I have mentioned that committees will be meeting Sunday night, Monday, and Tuesday. Here's my committee's room:

committee room

committee front

Many committees will hold public hearings. In order to be eligible to speak, you have to sign up:

signups

There's a whole lot more -- including the Exhibit Hall. That can wait until tomorrow. I also hope to get some faces of the Assembly for you.

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