[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of reflections from the biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) offered by the Rev. Scott Clark, Chaplain and Associate Dean of Student Life at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.]
The most significant action that the PCUSA General Assembly has taken so far is the election Saturday night of the Moderator of the denomination.
For background: For the next two years, the Moderator will be the chief representative of the denomination across the country and internationally. The first evening of every Assembly features the election of the Moderator. Nominations have been in the works long before the assembly, and Saturday night the commissioners nominated three really outstanding people: Kelly Allen from Texas, Heath Rada from North Carolina, and John Wilkinson from New York. Then, for about an hour, they took questions from the commissioners and advisory delegates. Then there was the vote. The way this election works is that the commissioners keep voting, round after round, until someone gets a simple majority. (This can take a while, particularly in years when there is a larger field of candidates.) This year, there was only one ballot needed with Heath Rada elected — a thoughtful, engaging “ruling elder” (i.e., congregational leader — equal in our polity to ministers). If you think of the whole process in terms of forms familiar from civil government, the evening is more like a nominating convention, debate, and an election all rolled into one.
All of that is framed by worship and by prayer, but even so one of the things I always wonder, and that I’m always looking for, is how discernment happens in all that. In such a large gathering of discerners, how is the Spirit at work? (Because we know She is.)
Several things stood out for me this year. First, our use of technology had a pretty significant impact on the conversation and the whole experience — it ended up being this curious blend of old-school and social-media-enabled communication. Most noticeably, the high-tech wireless voting system didn’t work. When it works, it’s pretty cool. The commissioners are instructed to vote; they have handheld devices on which they make their selection; there is a fraught moment when we all wait staring at the big screens; and then the results appear (in some years, for some votes, with a gasp). But the system didn’t work Saturday night — though the staffers and leadership labored valiantly to get it up and running. So the Assembly voted old-school — by paper ballot (and the advisory delegates advised by a show of hands).
But imposed on top of that — or all around that — was a technology-enabled conversation broader than I’ve experienced at the Assembly. The Assembly has at long last acknowledged that folks are connecting and talking through all sorts of social media in a conversation that is bigger than the room that holds the commissioners. Our little Assembly guidebook has a social media policy that grounds that communication theologically, naming the reality and suggesting some guidelines for personal accountability. (I had a knee-jerk reaction when I heard there was a “policy,” but I gave it a read and it’s actually rather thoughtful and nuanced IMHO.)
So while the conversation is happening on the floor old-school — the assembled commissioners, advisory delegates, and staff — a broader group of people are talking on Twitter. Talking freely and energetically. A number of those people (including me, @scottclark01) are in the Assembly room — but even more are not. Many are sitting in living rooms or coffee shops, all across the country, perhaps watching the live-feed of the proceedings but maybe not — all participating fully and equally in a conversation about what is going on. It’s pretty wild and open. There was talk about the technology not working (and jokes). Folks engaging from a distance let everyone know that the live-feed wasn’t working either; word got to the staff, and the problem was fixed. There was talk of the candidates, and of the issues that came up. Interestingly to me this year, there were repeated and abundant expressions of appreciation for all three candidates. These really are three fine and thoughtful folks, and the Twitterfolk (who can sometimes snark, again, myself included) — well, our conversation reflected the quality of what was going on in the room. It was a rich, expansive conversation. At one point some non-Presbyterian chimed in, “Wow, you Presbyterians really love your Twitter.” (Please note rich irony.)
And one other noticing, this from my particular social location: The quality of conversation about LGBTQ people and our families is already deeper than I have ever experienced. In the days leading up to the Moderator election, all three candidates spoke in favor of pastors being free to celebrate the marriages of same-gender couples — to extend the pastoral care of the church in marriage without discrimination. The marriage question wasn’t asked directly from the commissioners, but there were questions about the place of LGBTQ Christians in the church. And to a person, the three candidates responded with care and nuance to express the giftedness of all people — including LGBTQ people — for service in the world and church. One candidate, Kelly Allen, spoke in her opening remarks of transgender people with dignity and respect. She also spoke against global violence directed toward LGBTQ people, and she said that the issues that same-gender couples and our families have raised, are helping the whole church to think more deeply about the significance of marriage. Folks, this kind of conversation about LGBTQ people and our experience — deep and thoughtful and understanding — has never happened before at GA. This is my fourth GA to experience in-person; I’ve followed many others. All too often at GA, LGBTQ people are talked about as the objects of controversy — not as subjects and partners in conversation. These three candidates talked about us and our lives as if we mattered — as if we too are fully human. And of course we are, but the church doesn’t say that nearly enough. Thank you Heath Rada, Kelly Allen, and John Wilkinson.
So two noticings: broader conversation, deeper conversation. And on Monday, the committees dive into their work. May they and we continue to attend to the movement of the Spirit in this Assembly, in our lives, and in the world.
Scott Clark is the Chaplain and Associate Dean of Student Life at San Francisco Theological Seminary, a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and of the ecumenical Graduate Theological Union. Additionally, Scott’s ministry includes advocacy for the full inclusion of all people within the life of the church. A former attorney, he has represented Presbyterian ministers who have been brought up on disciplinary charges by the church for celebrating the marriages of same-gender couples, and he currently serves on the board of More Light Presbyterians.
Beginning next week, Scott is participating in the national General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which will be considering a number of faith issues, including the marriage of same-gender couples. Scott is participating in the Assembly as an “Overture Advocate” (one of the advocates sent from regional presbyteries on a particular issue). With others, he is advocating for an amendment to the Presbyterian constitution that would affirm marriage equality for all people, including same-gender couples and their families. Scott also is participating in the General Assembly as part of the team representing San Francisco Theological Seminary, hoping to open and energize discussion about innovation in ministry and in theological education.