Friday, June 23, 2006

One Last Letter from Birmingham

Lest I be accused, accurately, of providing only my own narrow view of things from Birmingham, this final letter from the assembly comes from the moderator of the 217th General Assembly and from the denomination's stated clerk. This, then, is the official view from Birmingham.
A Message to Congregations from the Office of the General Assembly Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
June 25, 2006
To Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations
Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The Lectionary Psalm for today is Psalm 133: How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
As the 217th General Assembly met together in Birmingham, it was remarkable to see Presbyterians from north, south, east, and west gathered together to discern the mind of Christ for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We witnessed the work of the Spirit in and through the assembly, giving us a glimpse of our visible oneness in Jesus Christ. We give thanks that the assembly theme, “So Great a Cloud of Witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) permeated the community of faith within the convention center.
In this meeting, we saw commissioners and advisory delegates living out in word and deed their deep commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, their passion to be living expressions of Christ’s love to the world, and their eagerness to be a part of the future God intends for the PC(USA). We experienced the Presbyterian process of doing things at its best. We observed people working fairly and treating each other graciously.
This assembly dealt with hundreds of items, and a few made headlines across the country. Most likely, you have read or will read about the assembly’s actions from a number of sources over the next many days and weeks, but we want you to hear about this important gathering directly from the General Assembly. That is why we are writing this letter to you.
We know of three particular decisions that made immediate headlines. Here is what the assembly did with each of them:
--Israel/Palestine issues: This General Assembly acknowledged that the actions of the 2004 assembly caused hurt and misunderstanding among some Presbyterians and our Jewish neighbors. However, this assembly did not rescind the previous action on divestment. Divestment is still an option, but not the goal. Instead, this assembly broadened the focus to corporate engagement to ensure that the church’s financial investments do not support violence of any kind in the region.
--Report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church: With the approval of this report, the assembly did not alter our historic standards for ordination. However, it did make clear that more responsibility is to be exercised by sessions and presbyteries regarding the examination of candidates for ordination. By an overwhelming majority, the assembly also affirmed our covenantal partnership, our common theological roots, and the need for prayer in Christian communities as we make decisions.
--The Trinity: The assembly received a paper that affirms “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as the church’s primary language for the Trinity. The paper also lifts up other biblical images of the Trinity for study and use in worship.
We hope, over the months ahead, you will hear about the other items that did not make headlines: new church development, Christian education, evangelism, older adult ministries, homelessness, globalization, international mission, multicultural issues, disability awareness, and military chaplains, to name a few.
It was obvious to us that this assembly, like the church, had deep differences on a number of issues. But, the longer we were together, the more we realized how much we have in common in Jesus Christ and the more we realized we need one another.
The unity we seek for the church and the unity we experienced at the assembly is not just about coming to an agreement. It is also about being with each other in the healthy struggle to discern God’s will. It was that healthy struggle we witnessed at the assembly, and in that struggle we were blessed. God’s Spirit was with us. Not everyone will like what the commissioners did, but the spirit coming out of the assembly was something we think will be a blessing to the whole church.
Indeed, we are convinced that God has a future for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We invite you to join us as we move with renewed enthusiasm to doing God’s work in the world.
Yours in Christ,
The Reverend Joan S. Gray
Moderator of the 217th General Assembly (2006) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Surely I don't see everything eye-to-eye with the moderator or the clerk, but their letter does capture the spirit of this assembly. Some are calling it the "nobody was happy" assembly, and surely no one left completely satisfied with where we are. But I left full of hope, convinced that God is still speaking to us and through us to the world.
As I said earlier, despite the fact that it appeared to us all that we were gathered in Birmingham, I think the space we occupied was more that of Montgomery following the bus boycott of the mid-1950s. That work did not change the constitution nor the statutes of Alabama or of the nation, but it did create a fundamentally new social space and altered forever the relationship of white folks and black folks.
I believe we have altered the ecclesiastical space. I hope that someday we look back on what the 217th General Assembly did and say, "that gathering was the beginning of the end of the homophobic, patriarchal church."

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Letter from the Brimingham Convention Center, cont.

I was out running this morning, trying to clear my head and enjoying the thick Alabama humidity when I heard church bells ringing. They were playing Ode to Joy. I looked around to see where they were coming from. It was an Episcopal church.
Our Anglican sisters and brothers are in the midst of their own divisions right now over the selection of a woman as presiding bishop, yet their bells ring out joyfully. Perhaps it's because they are experiencing a new way of being together as church, a new day in the life of the communion.
I did take a moment's unholy pride in being a Presbyterian as we celebrate the anniversaries of women's ordinations at this assembly: 100 years of ordaining women as deacons; about 75 years of ordaining women as elders; about 50 years of ordaining women as ministers of word and sacrament. We selected a woman as moderator of this 217th General Assembly without a ripple.
Of course, a moderator is not a presiding bishop, for which I am also glad, for today the church gathered in Assembly charted a new direction for our denomination by passing virtually unamended the final report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church.
The report has been before the church for almost a year now, and there remains much doubt about how its passage will change us. I am hopeful that it will be a creative third way the moves us beyond the debate mode of the past 30 years of dispute about ordination and sexuality.
It does not answer the root questions, but it may provide space for being together as church and moving closer to that day when we are celebrating the anniveraries of the ordinations of queer folk -- so let a few church bells ring today.

Monday, June 19, 2006

A good friend and colleague of mine from camp counseling days some 20+ years ago when our hair was darker and thicker. I had not seen him since our now 15-year-old was an infant. In the end, relationships trump issues and connections in the body of Christ are more important than victories at GA. As much as I hope for strides toward justice this week, the joyous surprise of catching up with Pat will be the best thing that happens here this week for me no matter what happens. And hey, he made the Presby news, too, looking every bit as happy to be here!

Letter from the Birmingham Convention Center, cont.

I walked into a deli at lunch time today and wound up in line in front of a past moderator of GA. He served as moderator of the 1978 GA which passed what became the definitive guidance to the church on homosexuality.
He expressed a profound hope that the PUP report, if passed in its entirety, might help the church twist free from the reified opposition in which we've been locked these past 30 years.
I share that hope, even though I long for a day of justice upon which true peace is built; a day of equality upon which unity is based; a day of compassion of unsurpassed purity. The PUP report is not the end which many of us desire -- the final removal of G-6.0106b from the Book of Order. Still, it may just be a means toward that end.
Being in Birmingham, many of us are reaching to the Civil Rights Movements for historical analogies. With respect to the rights of GLBT folks we are not yet in Birmingham. We are closer to Montgomery and the bus boycott. That movement laid claim to an ultimate aim of ending racial discrimination, but it did not ask for the end of all legal discrimination. Rather, it asked initially for a simple change in the relationship, in the social arrangements between black folks and white folks in the Jim Crow South. Literally, it asked for a new way of being together on the bus.
The PUP report does not ask for the end of legal discrimination in the church, but it does ask for a new way of being together as church. Just as Montgomery did more to change social space than it did to change legal space, the PUP report could do more to change ecclesiastical space than it does to change constitutional space in church orders. It's a slim reed, indeed, but it's the only one to grasp at right now.
As we stood in line in the deli, I noticed that many of the folks around us wore red bagdes that read "juror." They were on their own lunch break from trials in the nearby justice center. Somewhere in that complex, I think, is the Birmingham City jail from which Dr. King wrote his famous letter. At one table in the deli, three young African-American women wearing the juror badges were enjoying their lunch. In 1963, when King was jailed here, jurors who judged any case in Alabama were always all white. (Indeed, they were also all men, because it was against the law for women to serve on juries in Alabama in 1963, too.) Defenders of the Jim Crow South grounded their positions in scripture (as did those who opposed recognizing the rights of women).
But today, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery claim their places in the history of an expanding dream of justice and equality. The beloved community is as yet unrealized. Racism, homophobia, patricarchy remain facts of life here and around the world. Nevertheless, the simple act of standing in line in a downtown deli in Birmingham today gives me hope that the justice arc bends ever closer to that day when black folks and white folks, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Gentiles, women and men, straight and gay can gather together around one table -- and please, make it a New York deli instead of a Birmingham one! Oy!
Whether or not PUP emerges will likely be determined tomorrow. It escaped unscathed from committee but was chased by a minority report that will haunt us in the morning. For an extended report, see the GA news. We are sure to enjoy a long day of parliamentary procedures. Robert's Rules do not the kingdom usher in, I am certain.
The Spirit of Pentecost is not decent and in order. Maybe tomorrow the church of Jesus Christ will not be either.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Letter from the Birmingham Convention Center, cont.

I experienced a foretaste of the kingdom this morning, in a beautiful worship at a local UCC congregation. We sang and prayed and broke bread together with joy, and all God's children, white folk and black folk, men and women, young and old, straight and gay were there. The sermons -- I am overly churched for sure this week -- focused on the kingdom and its radically inclusive nature. Like the bush that grows from the tiny seed and gives a home for the birds -- the mustard weed that grows uncontrollably. Hm, down here perhaps the kingdom of God is like kudzu.
It is not, however, like a bus. Or, better, the bus is not the kingdom. Some folks were lingering a bit long following worship and we were having a conversation on the bus about whether it was welcoming and hospitable to abandon them if they didn't hurry up. The kingdom may wait, but you're either on the bus or you're not!
Lots of folks in our pews are not on the bus. That seems to be the message in the ecclesiology committee, where the parsing of the PUP report has begun in earnest and the long knives are out. I just left their meeting where they were in an interminable debate about a motion to refer the critical parts of the report to the presbyteries for discernment.
Seems some folks feel like they haven't had time, even though the process has been underway with interim reports and guidance for half a decade. A five years that comes at the end of 30 years of discussion and debate about ordination. At a certain point, ignorance of an issue is a choice for which the rest of us cannot be responsible. You're either on the bus or you're not.
Of course, the report calls for precisely a season of discernment, but a season guided by and conducted under a different understanding of our polity. I am not a fan of the report because I am not patient with more discernment on the issue of ordination. You don't need to read far in this blog to know that.
Nevertheless, I do believe this report presents the church with an opportunity to twist free of the paralyzing polarization within which we have been locked for more than two decades. The delaying tactics -- oops, I mean the "motion to refer" aims to put us right back into our well-established divisions, locked in a stagnant non-relationship that is going absolutely nowhere.
This report does not do justice for queer folk, but it changes the terrain and, perhaps, opens a space in which we may stride toward that justice. I may be mistaken in that hope, but it is the only hope before the assembly right now.
Of course, they have talked it to death this afternoon, so I'm off to get some much-needed exercise. I've been on the bus too long today.

wake me when it's over

Your faithful blogger, toiling in the fields of the Lord, bringing in the kingdom in the committee on mission priorities and budgets. Do I look happy to be here or what?! Actually, it has been a good committee doing necessary -- if less than scintillating -- work. The hot-button issues are moving -- or not, as the case may be -- in other committees, and you can get an update on the site or wait till after church for commentary from this site. (All the photos from the assembly are from Presbyterian News Service unless otherwise noted.)