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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

General Assembly
Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Detroit Dispatch Five

And so we have come to the main event! Earlier committee deliberations and decisions were important, some even dramatic, but they quickly fade from memory as we begin the principal work of the assembly in plenary session. It meets in a cavernous room, large enough to seat comfortably at tables something like 1,000 delegates and official observers, with a gallery seating many hundreds more. Sometimes the atmosphere is electric.

Moderator Heath Rada is leading the meeting with wonderful good humor. He disarms many anxieties, and that itself is a wonderful gift to the body. Another gift is his generous distribution of Heath bars – bet you wish you were here! If you’d like to see plenary deliberations as they happen, you can follow them live here. On the first day of the plenary, there were nearly 20,000 people watching live online at any given time – and we haven’t yet hit any of the controversial matters!

Have you noticed that sometimes our business meetings – whether as congregations or as a presbytery – turn in unanticipated directions when something unexpectedly becomes a matter for vigorous debate, while other things we think may be contested just sail on through? The same thing happens at General Assembly. One thing some folk thought would be a major battleground was the discussion of whether to ask presbyteries once again to vote on including the “Belhar Confession” in our Book of Confessions. Presbyteries engaged in nation-wide vigorous debate when its adoption was proposed by GA four years ago, ultimately voting by a narrow margin to reject GA’s proposal. This Wednesday, Belhar once again was brought before the assembly, and to the surprise of many the body voted quickly and overwhelmingly to approve re-sending it to presbyteries for confirmation.

Meanwhile, the assembly spent more time on a sleeper proposal than anyone had imagined, that we provide child care for General Assembly. The proposal that GA provide childcare became the catalyst for a lengthy, vigorous debate about how much we are willing to do to welcome young adults into the life of the church. I must confess I feel some stake in this – my 11-month-old grandson can still be toted around to various presbytery events by his parents, but soon he’ll no longer be content to sit on their laps during long presbytery meetings. GA bounced this one item back and forth for nearly an hour, as it raised broader concerns: Can we keep adding meeting expenses when our ledger is already in the red? Can we afford not to have young people at our events because there is no child care? Two of the church’s primary crises at this time are the aging of its population and the diminishment of its resources. When those concerns clash, we spend a lot of floor time at GA talking about a relatively small and non-controversial initiative. After an unforeseeably lengthy debate, the assembly voted to do the quintessentially Presbyterian thing – refer it to a committee for further study. Smile!

One of Wednesday evening’s great joys was to hear “our own” Craig Barnes – beard and all! – speaking to the assembly at the time he was being confirmed by the body as President of Princeton Theological Seminary. Immediately thereafter another of “our own,” Bill Carl, was recognized with accolades for his stellar service as President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a post from which he will retire before GA next convenes. What an honor for those of us in Pittsburgh Presbytery to count these wonderful servants of God as colleagues and friends!

General Assembly’s unpredictability should be no surprise to people in the Reformed tradition who emphasize God’s absolute freedom to lead us into places we’d never imagine, let alone seek out. This is God’s church, not yours or mine or Louisville’s or General Assembly’s church. Nothing the church does at General Assembly, or at Presbytery, or on Sunday mornings, lies beyond God’s gracious purview. Whatever transpires at GA does so under the watchful eye and sure hand of the One who has promised never to fail or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6; Matthew 28:20). We can count on it!

Trusting God’s faithfulness,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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