E-pistle June 27

Reflections from the General Assembly

Note:  The General Assembly of the PC(USA) is in its last full day of meeting today.  Many important decisions will be made and I will try to keep you posted on them.  Please remember that the decisions of committee are recommendations to the full Assembly and may not be approved, and that most of the significant decisions of the Assembly must be ratified by the presbyteries between now and the next Assembly in 2010.  The newspapers and television news usually don’t get our process right.

In this post I offer my personal observations on the Assembly as I observed it.  I have added a longer piece online  to describe my particular experience with the General Assembly committee process.

The 700 commissioners to the General Assembly represent 2.2 million Presbyterians, 11,000 congregations and 173 presbyteries.  Church members, congregations, and even presbyteries live in a real world of 365-day years. A General Assembly is a seven days every two years world. It’s not very real.  The General Assembly is a world of downtown hotels, per diem expense accounts, and a constant message of unity (read institutional survival) at all cost.

In 2007, the denomination lost 57,000 members, yet Clifton Kirkpatrick, our soon to be retired stated clerk, tells us that we are at the tipping point of renewal, growth and vitality.  Everything that happens at the GA is designed to reinforce that perception.  One of my friends calls it a “presbyfest.” 

It’s a long way from the coal fields of Western Pennsylvania or the farms of Iowa to the glistening  high tech towers of Silicon Valley; different worlds altogether.  It’s a long way from the Doxology sung in praise to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and a local pastor’s Sunday after Sunday preaching (his sermons too often prepared on the run between calls to the hospital and church committee meetings) to the highly nuanced and deceptively polished words of General Assembly experts and homileticians; different worlds altogether.  The commissioners to the General Assembly are caught between different worlds. 

It’s not quite that the emperor has no clothes, it is that the clothes have grown threadbare and stained.  The emperor himself is overweight and wheezes when he walks.  At the General Assembly they show airbrushed photos of the emperor; he looks well and like the faithful in Castro’s Cuba who somehow believe that the old dictator will live forever, Chairman Mao swimming in the Yangtze, we’re asked to believe that somehow all will be well with the PC(USA).  We’re almost to the tipping point.  Who will speak the truth?

It’s easy to be critical.  It’s difficult to know whether we are visiting the inhospitable village of Luke 10, in which case our Lord admonishes us to kick the dust from our feet, or if we are called Jeremiah-like, to redeem the vineyard because it will again produce fine fruit; nothing is too hard for the Lord (Jeremiah 32:17). 

I have shared in my congregational e-mails the ways that God spoke around the edges of my General Assembly trip – through the voices of old and good friends and the wonder of towering redwoods and ocean breezes, the quiet stillness of a downtown cathedral and the faithful prayers of Korean brothers and sisters.  He is speaking through what happened in the convention center, as well.  I will need to keep listening in order to hear what he is saying.