A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
General Assembly Wrap-Up
June 26, 2014
The 221st General Assembly is history, and now we move forward with some new marching orders. Some of the Assembly’s actions have been prominent in the media, which often miss the nuances of positions taken by the Assembly, as well as the tone of its conversations – and nuances and tone really do matter! So in today’s letter I want to tell you about tone and nuance rather than reciting a laundry list of GA actions. A broad synopsis of its actions is available in the form of a letter written to the church by GA leaders, and a more detailed pamphlet entitled “Assembly in Brief” will soon be available on the General Assembly’s website.
Setting the Tone
The daily worship services at this Assembly each were truly outstanding events of strong biblical preaching, wonderful music, deep prayer, and celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Videos of the worship services (as well as plenary business sessions) are posted on the GA website.
Before moving to debate and vote on the most controversial issues, Moderator Heath Rada used the whole of Thursday morning for discernment work. First, commissioners heard brief presentations from varying perspectives on the marriage and Middle East issues. Then he convened the commissioners in small groups of up to eight persons to discuss what they heard. Finally, they prayed together for the Spirit’s guidance on these matters. You ought to know that the most difficult items before this Assembly were approached first by setting aside a season for intentional listening to each other and to the voice of the Spirit. Only later did the body engage in debate and voting.
The Moderator and Vice-Moderator led the Assembly with gentleness, kindness, and self-deprecating humor. Even though they did not railroad anything, they kept the pace of the Assembly moving crisply forward. This was no doubt one reason that this was the least anxiety-laden GA I have ever attended.
In my daily Assembly briefings I tried to capture not only the content, but also the tone of the day’s proceedings. I encourage you to review those briefings to get a feel for the spirit of the Assembly.
The Office of the General Assembly has prepared a Middle East FAQ page on the actions taken by the Assembly on the Middle East. The page includes the full text of the divestment resolution. Several features of GA’s actions on the Middle East are not always reported in the news: 1. The Assembly reaffirmed our church’s commitment to a secure sovereign state of Israel and a similar state for Palestinians. 2. The Assembly adopted a resolution disavowing any alignment with the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement against Israel. 3. The Assembly declared that it is not disinvesting from Israel, only from three American corporations whose products are being sold to Israel for non-peaceful purposes. It encouraged further investment in both Israeli and Palestinian companies engaged in peaceful pursuits. 4. The Assembly identified the positions advocated in the recently published study “Zionism Unsettled” as being contrary to the views of the PCUSA. 5. The Assembly rejected a proposal that Israel be identified as an apartheid state. Finally, the Assembly’s vote on divestment succeeded by just seven votes, out of the more than 600 votes cast; at the last GA, a similar measure failed by just two votes, so the vote swing was just nine votes out of more than 600. While the Assembly was in broad agreement that the plight of the Palestinians must be alleviated, it was deeply divided over the best way to achieve that goal.
On the question of same-gender marriage, the Assembly made clear that every congregation and pastor remains fully free to marry or not to marry as they believe the Holy Spirit is leading them. No church or pastor is susceptible to civil or ecclesiastical reprisal for deciding which weddings to celebrate. GA acknowledged that its decisions would bring joy to some and sorrow to others, and therefore refrained from any actions of celebration or vilification, urging the church everywhere to do the same. Stated Clerk Jeff Tindall and I offer our presbytery a Marriage FAQ page that includes the full text of the two main marriage resolutions, as well as questions and answers about the impact of these actions here in Pittsburgh.
I close today’s letter with a quote from my GA letter on Thursday, June 19:
One of the challenges now before us is whether we are able to bear with brothers and sisters who differ from us on matters that generate much heated debate and polarized division in the world around us. Can we show a more excellent way by remaining together in love and forbearance amid our differences? As we receive news of these GA actions, can we model the way of living that Scripture calls us to embrace: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) – even those who feel very differently about these GA decisions than we do?
Yours in our shared calling,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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