A Mixed Bag: the 220th General Assembly

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Commissioners, delegates, and observers of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gathered this past week in Pittsburgh to dedicate themselves to listening to the movement of the Spirit as they discern God’s will for the church. It was an exciting time for us to catch up with old friends, speak to what we know as God’s love, and struggle to understand what it means to be a part of a denomination that often rejects us. It was clear from the first couple of days at the 220th General Assembly that same-sex marriage was going to be put on center stage. With the knowledge that she had signed the marriage license of two women in the District of Columbia, the body elected Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe as Vice-Moderator. Two days later the Assembly gasped as she announced that she was resigningin the face of bullying from those who felt the pastoral care she offered those two women somehow disqualified her from serving as Vice-moderator. The moment of her resignation and the public awareness of the fear tactics which caused it set the tone for the Assembly.

But the discussion around same-gender marriages could not be stopped. The committee that dealt with “Marriage and Civil Union Issues” made two major recommendations to the Assembly: an amendment to change the Book of Order’s definition of marriage to “two people” and a two-year denominational study around same-gender marriages. People spoke passionately from many perspectives as the three-hour debate commenced. Many used the tired arguments of narrow biblical interpretation against us. Others, like our own Rev. Mieke Vandersall, spoke of their ministries as and with LGBTQ people. Mieke told the Assembly, “it would violate too many of my ordination vows to refuse to assist [same-gender couples] in healing their relationship with God and the church.”

                        Mieke speaking of the floor of GA

While many hurtful—and at times hateful—things were said about LGBTQ people, we are so grateful that this discussion happened on the floor of a General Assembly. In the end, the Assembly failed to affirm that God blesses the marriages of same-gender couples, but by an incredibly narrow margin—308-338 or 48%-52%. We are so grateful to all those like Tara, Mieke and others who “came out” in the line of judicial fire to proclaim a God whose love is bigger than our laws. And we look forward to what can happen in only two more years. In the meantime, Mieke and others will continue to follow their hearts and officiate same-gender marriage ceremonies.

Good news came from the Committee on Church Orders and Ministry, which said “Yes” to the inclusive ordination standards of last Assembly’s Amendment 10-A by refusing to repeal it. There is an amendment being sent to presbyteries, which would add “this includes repentance of sin and diligent use of the means of grace.” A new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism was also approved as well as the addition of the Belhar Confession. Belhar goes back to a multi-year process and the other two changes now require ratification by presbyteries.

Just like our denomination, the Assembly was a mixed bag, but we could not be Presbyterians any other way. Though it was clear that homophobia is alive and well in the wake of new steps toward full inclusion, it is also encouraging to see so many brave pastors, ruling elders, and youth stand up for the gospel. Though it was sometimes difficult to see and is not apparent in many of the news reports, there were many moments we recognized as the movement of the Spirit. We saw it when the Assembly applauded after Mieke spoke. We saw it when Brian S. Symonds, one of our Candidates for ordination, spoke as an openly gay man in support of maintaining the current standards of ordination. We saw it when Piper Madison, a Young Adult Advisory Delegate, spoke courageously as a lesbian Presbyterian to remind the church there is no time to wait to do what is right no matter how afraid we are.

All these loving and brave souls keep us hopeful and bolstered for the work we do. For God is not done with God’s church.