212th GA - 2000 - Long Beach, CA PDF Print E-mail

212th GA From the Gallery
Report and Commentary by Presbyterians Pro-Life

Sexuality dominated the agenda of four mainline denominational meetings this year
Abortion
Unorthodox Policy Practices Finally Corrected
Overture Process Will Now Require Consultation With Any G.A. Entity Affected
Extensive Use of the Consent Agenda to Slide Business Through Unexamined
The Addition of Business Well Beyond the Deadline
Women’s Ministry Program Area Review: Business that Never Came to the Floor
Conclusion

Posted August 1, 2000

Sexuality dominated the agenda of four mainline denominational meetings this year
The Presbyterian Church (USA) was one of three mainline Protestant denominations which met this summer and dealt with same sex unions as part of their business. Only occasionally do the three meet the same summer. Methodist General Conferences are held every four years; the Episcopalians meet every three years. In addition, the ELCA Lutherans met last summer in Denver. It was probably not a surprise that all four denominational meetings dealt with what has become a major emphasis of the homosexual movement in both church and public square, the normalization of homosexual relationships as unions intended to be synonymous with marriage. Jane Spahr is a self-proclaimed evangelist for an organization promoting the ordination of those engaged in homosexual practice called That All May Freely Serve. Early in the Assembly she declared publicly that same sex unions "are marriages." "These are weddings. Let’s call them what they are," she told a crowd of demonstrators.

The outcome of the official deliberations for all four denominations was variations on the theme of declaring same sex unions inconsistent with biblical teaching and therefore impossible for the church to bless. For us in the PC(USA) it was a decision with the intent of placing the biblical and confessional teaching explicitly in our Book of Order. That will require the ratification of the wording adopted by the G.A. by a majority of our presbyteries during the next year.

The wording of the proposed amendment to the constitution of the church is exactly as it was sent up to General Assembly by San Joaquin Presbytery (See Committee 13). It cannot be amended now. It can only be voted up or down. Abstention votes have the effect of "no" votes. This is an amendment which needs a majority of "yes" votes. It says,

Shall W-4.9007 be added to the BOO to read as follows:

W-4.9007. "Scripture and our Confessions teach that God’s intention for all people is to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or in chastity in singleness. Church property shall not be used for, and church officers shall not take part in conducting, any ceremony or event that pronounces blessing or gives approval of the church or invokes the blessing of God upon any relationship that is inconsistent with God’s intention as expressed in the preceding sentence."

Recent Permanent Judicial Commission rulings, which have allowed same sex unions, make the adoption of this Book of Order amendment essential.

Abortion (See Committee 10)
Abortion was dealt with in the committee on Theological Issues (10). There were three actions of note by the assembly resulting from the business in that committee. It is the first time in our memory that abortion has been placed in a committee on theological issues rather than being treated as a social and political issue.

Since a new policy on abortion was adopted in 1992 there has been no change in the programming, advocacy or publications of General Assembly offices to reflect the recommendations of the report in which the policy was contained. Overtures calling for implementation of the pro-life aspects of the new policy began coming to the G.A. in 1997. In 1998 the G.A. referred overtures calling for implementation of the policy to the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ASCWP). The G.A. asked for an assessment of the implementation of the policy and recommendations to be reported to the Assembly of 2000.

ACSWP decided to ignore the wording of the overtures and a commissioner resolution that was also referred to them by the G.A. in 1999. Instead they evaluated implementation on the basis of their compilation of G.A. actions over the past two decades. They did that by creating a list of "policy themes" which were tilted decidedly in an abortion supporting direction. They ignored the strong statements on the value of life in the 1992 policy. As a result ACSWP found implementation of the abortion policy mostly just fine. They recommended a few tinkerings which will have no significant impact on programs, advocacy or publications. The General Assembly, largely unfamiliar with the background on this matter, gladly approved what ACSWP handed them. There was virtually no debate in committee or on the floor.

Santa Barbara Presbytery sent up an overture calling for restudy of abortion in a biblical and pastoral framework, apart from the public policy controversies. Their desire was to explore what the church has to offer to her own people as a moral voice and ministry in this area. The overture was quickly rejected with little debate. Perhaps the Assembly which was already being asked to deal with more controversy than it wanted looked for a way not to have to deal with abortion. This overture’s request most certainly ought to come back to another General Assembly. Abortion is treated as a social and political issue in our denomination. It is first of all a moral, spiritual and pastoral issue, and it is on that level that we desperately need to deal with it.

The final item on abortion came from the Advisory Committee on Litigation. That committee had wanted Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick to file an amicus brief in support of partial birth abortion when the matter came before the Supreme Court this spring. A brief was prepared and Kirkpatrick’s office sent it to Baltimore Presbytery in hopes the presbytery would sign onto it. The issue became quite controversial. Baltimore Presbytery’s vote prevented them from signing the brief and the Stated Clerk withdrew it after a storm of media attention.

The Advisory Committee then took a request to the General Assembly to ask ACSWP to look into the matter of late term abortions and advise the Assembly in 2001. The Assembly agreed to the referral. The General Assembly of 1997 acted to express its "grave moral concern" about partial birth abortions and said the procedure should be considered only "if the mother’s physical life is endangered by the pregnancy."

Some General Assembly offices look for justification for their agenda in their interpretation of some action by a General Assembly at some time in the church’s history. They often ignore recent Assembly decisions and resort to some obscure statement from decades past if it serves their purposes. That has been particularly true of abortion.

There is a difference between a policy and a resolution according to the stated process for developing social witness policy. Policy development is much more complicated and involved than a resolution. Resolutions are single actions of G.A.’s intended to aid the implementation of a policy. ACSWP blurred the distinction and declared that actions of G.A.’s over time constitute the policy. They have a large book called the Social Policy Compilation. You will not find "abortion" in the table of contents. Before this G.A., if you wanted to see what the policy on that subject was you would have to do a search of the index and take a guess based on the results of your search. Therefore, it was literally anybody’s guess what the policy on any social issue was. That gave staff a free hand to implement their interpretation.

Unorthodox Policy Practices Finally Corrected
Donegal Presbytery sent an overture to this assembly asking that the G. A. rules state that the most recent policy statement adopted by a General Assembly using the G.A.-approved process for policy development shall be the only policy in effect unless and until changed by a subsequent G.A. (See Committee 7). The G.A. adopted the overture. It was one of the most important actions this Assembly took and it created a furor of opposition from those who want to make up their own policies.

Overture Process Will Now Require Consultation With Any G.A. Entity Affected (See Committee 2)
One of the actions of this G.A. affects the rights of lower governing bodies to bring about needed reforms to our structure. The Office of the General Assembly recommended a rule change which requires that any overture that "affects the work or budget of a General Assembly entity(ies) shall submit evidence that the affected entity(ies) has (have) been consulted." The wording is ambiguous since it does not stipulate what constitutes a "consultation" or "evidence." Furthermore, as one writer noted, churches and presbyteries often understand very well what they want to see changed, but have scant information about which G.A. office is responsible. This action appears designed to put significant limits on overtures and to frustrate the intent of churches and presbyteries. Overtures are the means provided by our system of government to bring about change. The action will allow General Assembly entities to lobby against overtures while they are still being considered by lower governing bodies.

As it is now, G.A. entities are permitted to comment on any overture coming to a G.A. and their comments are included with the business in the reports sent to commissioners. When an overture is referred, the comment goes with it. Rule changes can be proposed by lower governing bodies.

Extensive Use of the Consent Agenda to Slide Business Through Unexamined
This year significant use was made of a consent agenda that went only to plenary and was not referred to a committee for review! There were 237 such items.

3
75
159

237
   

"actions"
"referrals in progress"
"final response to referral"

TOTAL

The 3 "actions" may be justifiable (approve committee structure, recommendations from GANC of proposed nominees, Stated Clerk review committee recommendation to approve Kirkpatrick for second 4-year term as Stated Clerk)

The 75 "referrals in progress" gave no information at all on what exactly is being done with the referral. They have no references to these items in this year’s Reports to General Assembly (RGA). There is only the business reference from a previous GA and the reference in the minutes from that previous GA that initiated the referral. Each GA has a right and responsibility to know what is being done so it can make a mid-course correction if indicated. This is especially important when roughly 80% of commissioners each year are attending their first Assembly and have little knowledge of the actions of prior Assemblies.

The 159 "final response to referrals" does give a brief response of what was done in this year’s RGA. However, since these were not referred to a committee for review, they received no scrutiny. There is absolutely no accountability with this kind of system. Someone would have to know of a problem ahead of time and get it pulled from the consent agenda in plenary to even get it referred to a committee to be discussed. If the responses are well-written and appropriate, they should breeze through a committee with no problem. But not to refer them to a committee abdicates this GA’s responsibility to ensure that the instructions of previous GAs were faithfully carried out.

A few years ago ALL actions had to go through a committee which gave a recommendation for action by plenary. Several years ago OGA initiated the rules change to allow several "tracks" for business so it no longer needs to go through a committee. This appears to be the first year OGA has made extensive use of that option. If no one responds negatively, it is bound to be justified as increasing the efficiency of the Assembly process and we’ll see more of it in the future.

The Addition of Business Well Beyond the Deadline
Even though there is a deadline for business coming to the GA, this year many additional items ("addendum") were accepted late (e.g. business originating at the July GAC meeting). The Women’s Ministry Program Review Response addendum was stapled to Report 1 from B&O. There is no provision in the rules to allow a late addendum to a report. Late additions of business, especially business as important as that review was, affects negatively the right and responsibility of the GA to carefully review the business before it. There is a provision for Commissioner Resolutions initiated in the first 24 hours after convening, but those are quick reads, not reports. If reports miss the stated deadlines for submission as business, they should have to wait until the next year. That is exactly how business in the form of overtures from lower governing bodies is treated, and the OGA has made no exceptions to that rule.

Women’s Ministry Program Area Review: Business that Never Came to the Floor
Commissioners may be largely unaware that one of the controversial items of business was kept from coming to the floor of the Assembly for a vote. The G.A. of 1999 ordered a review of the Women’s Ministries Program Area for their conformance to biblical and constitutional standards and stipulated a report back to the G.A. in 2000. The work was still going on long after reports were due in February, and apparently those in charge decided that only a summary of the review was required to be reported out of the General Assembly Council (GAC). The item was approved in committee by forty-eight of the 558 commissioners. Only the vote in committee was reported to the floor.

Nothing in the referral of that business to the committee authorized the committee to take final action on the WMPA review.. Other items referred in the same way in the same report came back to plenary for action by the whole Assembly. Furthermore, unlike all the other items in all the other committee reports which summarized the action as well as listing their reference numbers in the reports, this action on the review did not even have the topic listed (see attached page from the floor report of Committee 7). Commissioners would not have been aware of what the subject of the business was when it came to plenary reported "for information only" unless they looked up the reference numbers in their materials. It is important to note that the General Assembly itself did not act on the issues raised by the commissioner’s resolution that called for this review which was referred to the GAC last year.

Conclusion
This Assembly had a difficult task before them in dealing with same sex unions, obviously the most crucial decision they had to make. As a body they did not seem to want to make any other decision that would raise the stakes in the discussions about the tenuous nature of our unity. That may explain why they stuck very close to the advice of church bureaucrats on most items of business.

We have many reasons to give thanks to God for the outcomes of the General Assembly of 2000 on sexuality matters. We also need to be mindful that no single assembly can determine the future of the Presbyterian Church, even though each Assembly is important in its own right. We are in a long, sustained struggle for the restoration of biblical faithfulness in the Church. It is a struggle worthy of whatever price we are asked to pay.

Think of those three young men in the book of Daniel who were only asked to make a single gesture toward the false god. They didn’t have to really believe in him, just bow a little to please the king. Their refusal can seem to be almost a fanatical stubbornness and a foolish risking of their lives. And yet their Savior walked with them, and God brought them out unscathed, and led the king to give God glory. That is the nature of the times we are in.

So now, exercising the best of our Presbyterian polity, we need to do at least the following:

1. Commissioners will need to be alert to how the actions they took are followed up by staff and committees of the General Assembly; and we all need to

2. be sure our voting delegates to presbytery are well informed about the amendments proposed to the constitution and prepared to be present and vote faithfully;

3. be active in seeing that faithful men and women are elected as commissioners from our presbyteries to the next General Assembly, which will deal once again with the question of the ordination of those engaged in homosexual practice; and

4. send overtures to the General Assembly that give the Assembly opportunity for faithful actions that will help restore our denomination’s integrity.

And we need to pray for the Church.
Terry Schlossberg and Carol Shanholtzer

Click for PPL's report on some of the 2000 GA actions, by committee
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