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GA 219 commissioners face weighty agenda

Major reports on Middle East, marriage/unions, FOG coming

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If all the documents to the “paperless” 219th General Assembly here were printed out, they’d rival Tolstoy’s War and Peace in length. By the time the Assembly concludes July 10, the 712 commissioners and roughly 200 advisory delegates will have acted on more than 300 items of business that would span about 1,400 printed pages.

Nearly half the business of the Assembly comes as overtures from presbyteries and synods. Added to the reports of Assembly agencies and permanent and special committees, the range of concerns presented to commissioners and advisory delegates for their deliberation and action is breathtaking in scope.

They include Middle East peace, the war in Afghanistan, ordination standards for church officers, the relationship between Christian marriage and same-sex unions, gun violence, theological issues around compensation for church workers and consideration of two doctrinal statements — the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belhar Confession.

Issues internal to the life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) include the election of the moderator and confirmation of  the recent elections of two denominational leaders, mission and per capita budgets for 2011 and 2012, a sweeping revision of the denomination’s Form of Government, renewal of the PC(USA)’s emphasis on church growth called “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide,” a new “strategic direction for Presbyterian World Mission and a proposal to create a Commission on Middle Governing Bodies to deal comprehensively with the severe stresses facing many presbyteries and synods.

A brief look at some of the key issues —

Middle East peace:  Breaking Down the Walls,” the 172-page report of the Middle East Study Committee created by the 218th General Assembly (2008), affirms Israel’s legitimacy as a state but says the continuing occupation of Palestinian territory is “illegitimate, illegal under national law and an enduring threat to peace in the region.” Its 60 recommendations call for a “two-state solution,” the renunciation of violence by all parties to the conflict, and an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza and non-interference by all governments in the internal politics of another.

Two presbyteries have submitted overtures calling for the PC(USA) to divest from Caterpillar for profiting from the use of its equipment for non-peaceful purposes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The church’s Mission Responsibility through Investment Committee is recommending that the Assembly denounce Caterpillar for its activities but retain its stock in the company, a position similar to the study committee’s. Assembly Committee 14 —Middle East Peace Peacemaking Issues

Two reports from the Theology and Worship Office address theological relationships between Christians and Jews and Christians and Muslims. “Christians and Jews: People of God” examines the historic ties between Christianity and Judaism, the important role of the land in the Bible and history, and the relationship between evangelism and proselytization in Jewish-Christian relations. Noting that there is less common ground between Christians and Muslims, that report calls for “a fuller study articulating a theological understanding of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations” that would come to the 221st  General Assembly (2014). Assembly Committee 08 — Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.

Ordination/Marriage: More than a dozen presbyteries have overtured the Assembly, seeking to remove from the Book of Order the requirement that church officers live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” The requirement, adopted in 1996, has been challenged repeatedly. Presbyteries narrowly defeated an amendment to delete it that passed the Assembly in 2008. Assembly Committee 06 — Church Orders and Ministry.

Another major report authorized by the 2008 Assembly comes from the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage. The committee is not calling for a change in the church’s definition of marriage but recommends further discussion and the development of resources that will help guide presbyteries and congregations, particularly in states that have legalized gay marriage. Three committee members have submitted a minority report that defends what they call a more “traditionalist” stance against any sexual relations outside marriage between a man and woman. At least five presbyteries have submitted overtures to change the constitutional definition of marriage from “between a man and a woman” to “between two people.” Assembly Committee 12 — Civil Union and Marriage Issues

Leaders/Budgets: Six candidates are standing for moderator of the 219th General Assembly (see front page).

Commissioners will be asked to confirm the General Assembly Mission Council’s election of Linda Valentine to a second four-year term as the GAMC’s executive director, and to adopt 2011 and 2012 General Assembly mission budgets in the amounts of $82,097,234 and $80,550,613, respectively. Assembly Committee 09 — Mission Coordination

They will also be asked to confirm the Presbyterian Foundation’s election of the Rev. Tom Taylor as its new president. Taylor formerly served as Valentine’s deputy executive director for mission. Assembly Committee 18 — Board of Pensions, Foundation and Presbyterian Publishing

Per capita budgets of $13,719,940 for 2011 and $14,047,690 for 2012 are being proposed. If adopted, the per capita apportionment will rise from $6.15 to $6.35 per member next year and to $6.55 in 2012. Assembly Committee 03 — General Assembly Procedures

World Mission/Evangelism: Commissioners will hear about a new “strategic direction” for Presbyterian World Mission for the next 3-5 years that seeks to knit together the many ways Presbyterians are engaged in mission around the world into “communities of mission practice.” The strategy is built around six core values: dignity, empowerment, holistic ministry, partnership, relevance to God’s world and stewardship.

The Assembly will be asked to extend for at least two more years a churchwide commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide” in the areas of evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity. Assembly Committee 15 — Church Growth, Christian Education and Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program

Confessions: Two doctrinal statements will be on the Assembly’s agenda. One special committee is proposing that the Belhar Confession — developed in the mid-1980s as the South African churches’ response to apartheid and which addresses racial justice and reconciliation — be added to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions. Another committee is addressing translation problems with the Heidelberg Catechism — already in the Book of Confessions. It is seeking a two-year extension to continue conversations with the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church, which are also working on the Heidelberg translation issue. Assembly Committee 16 — Theological Issues and Institutions

Social concerns: In addition to the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, commissioners will deliberate about such issues as public education, HIV/AIDS, a theology of compensation for church workers and a paper on gun violence, always a contentious issue.

Rather than addressing gun control, the paper this year focuses on illegal gun sales and programs that have proven successful in stopping the illicit gun trade in the U.S. Assembly Committee 11: the Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World

Governance: The 2008 Assembly sent a proposed revision of the Form of Government in the PC(USA) Constitution back for an extra two years of discussion and revision. The project’s task force — appointed in 2006 and enlarged in 2008 — returns with a proposal to “return the Form of Government to its original intent — a constitution rather than a manual of operations.” It promises to enable governing bodies to operate more flexibly and missionally. Assembly Committee 07 — Form of Government Revision

And as financial stresses and cultural shifts impact more and more presbyteries and synods, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly is proposing a Commission on Middle Governing Bodies that would have the authority to make changes in the governing body system — at the request of those governing bodies — without having to wait for the next Assembly’s approval. Assembly Committee 04 — Middle Governing Body Issues