This past week, I had the pleasure of once again attending the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Detroit, Michigan. This biennial conference is where Presbyterians of all ages, races and political persuasions gather together for a week of worship, prayer, and discernment as to what the will of the body is regarding various issues that have come up since the last General Assembly. I attended the previous General Assembly in the role of a Student Assistant but this time I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to attend in a different role, that of a Theological Student Advisory Delegate. These are seminary students who are sent to the Assembly as representatives of the seminary. They serve on committees and have full voice and vote in committees and voice on the floor of plenary. Our votes are tallied but are considered advisory votes and thus do not count in the final total where voting is considered.
I had been an alternate to go and then found out a week before the start of the Assembly that I was needed to go in someone else's place. I quickly changed my plans, canceled some flights and was soon enough well on my way to Detroit for an experience that I can only describe as amazing! I like to describe GA as one big family reunion and that was definitely true from the very beginning of this one. Almost from the minute my plane landed I was running into people I knew and some I hadn't seen in years. It was a very joyous experience and that proved to be true for the entire week.
On the second night of the assembly, we held elections for our Moderator and Vice-Moderator of the PC(USA). These two people would be representing our denomination all over the world for the next two years and would be the face of the Presbyterian Church over the course of that time. This was quite a historic year as all three candidates for Moderator had publicly stated their support for same-gender marriage, one of the issues that would be coming before the Assembly later in the week. Thus, in my own opinion, there really were no bad options. I'm blessed to say that a good friend and former colleague from Chicago was elected as the Vice Moderator. It felt so awesome to see her up there being inaugurated and installed and knowing that she would be someone representing the denomination that I love for the next two years. That was another way in which the Assembly was a blessing to me.
I ended up serving on the Church Polity committee. This is the committee that considers overtures regarding changing different parts of our constitution. I'm a bit of a self-professed polity nerd so this was actually the perfect committee for me to serve on. I found myself really drawn in to our debates and questions. It was all fun for me. I had also agreed to help plan our committee's worship services, something that I have found myself really enjoying over the last two years. I ended up being in charge of picking out hymns, something that I find very spiritually rewarding for me. Needless to say, this made my time on the committee even more enjoyable.
Our committees met for two days and then we were back in plenary session so that we could all vote on the overtures that the committees had approved or disapproved. While there were many that were very important, there were a few issues in particular that were the most watched and the most prayed about. They were ones that the Assembly chose not to approve at their last gathering and there was much conversation in the months before that this time things would go differently. I know that I was certainly praying for a different outcome this time around.
The first issue of controversy to come before the assembly was the one regarding same-gender marriage. There were two overtures relating to this and I'm so proud to say that both of them passed the Assembly by an overwhelming margin. The first one is an authoritative interpretation that gives pastors the freedom of conscience to marry same-gender couples in states where it is legal. The language of this overture was really lovely and made it clear that pastors who don't agree with same-gender marriage don't have to be required to perform one. They still have the right to say no to any couple, straight or gay. It also doesn't require pastors to break any state laws as the rule only applies to pastors who reside in states where it is legal. As more and more states allow it, more and more Presbyterian pastors will be able to follow their conscience and marry their same-gender congregants without fear of prosecution from either state or ecclesiastical authorities. Because it was issued as an authoritative interpretation, its passage at the Assembly meant that it would go into effect as of the end of the Assembly. Meaning that in the 19 states where same gender marriage is legal, those Presbyterian pastors are now free to marry same-gender couples if they so choose.
The other overture that passed was the one that would change the description of marriage in our Book of Order (which is Part 1 of our Constitution) to read that marriage is "between two people, traditionally a man and a woman". This is a huge change from the current language which explicitly states that marriage is only between a man and a woman. Because this is a change in our Constitution, it requires a majority of our presbyteries to ratify it so won't go into effect until a year from now (assuming it receives the required number of votes). Passing these two overtures was a huge step forward for the denomination and one that comes at great risk. Many churches have already threatened to leave because of our actions. For me, I saw it as an opportunity for us to truly live out the Gospel. Jesus called us to be people of acceptance and love for everyone. He broke bread with the outcasts and sinners. He was a friend to the friendless. By passing these overtures, my denomination showed that it was willing to be bold, brave and prophetic and that it was seeking to live out the values that Jesus taught. To me, that's worth losing some people over. What wasn't said in the conversations was how many people we may gain by passing these overtures. People who have left the church because we've been rejecting them. People who got tired of waiting for the church to change. People who were waiting for the church to become more like the Jesus and the God that they believe in. These are people who will hopefully come to church now. They are people who will agree to be part of a denomination again and will become an important part of our future as a denomination.
The other controversial overture that passed, albeit by a very slim margin, was the one regarding divestment from three companies that have been profiting off the Isreali occupation of Palestine. This is an issue that attracted lots of passion, controversy and twisted stories. There has been a lot of misinformation about the actual language of the overture that was passed. Here are the actual facts from someone who was actually there, read the overture and voted for it. The PC(USA) did not divest from Israel. We did not declare ourselves to be anti-Semites. We instead chose to take a moral, highly symbolic stand and declare that we weren't going to profit anymore off of the suffering of the Palestinian people. It was an act of conscience. It was a prophetic move that declared to all that we are seeking ways of peace in a land that hasn't known any in a long time. Yes, it has been twisted and distorted by the media as an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic action but nothing could be further from the truth. Those "facts" are being reported by people who didn't even bother to take the time to read the actual language of the overture. The Presbyterian Church (USA) still loves their Jewish brothers and sisters and still cares about them. That hasn't changed. Let me make it perfectly clear. This wasn't an anti-Israel action. This was an anti-oppression action.
All that being said, I left this assembly filled with so much hope and joy for the church that has been a part of my life for so long. The theme this year was "Abound in Hope" and I can't think of a better theme, personally. It was abounding in hope. Hope permeated the entire week. Hope energized my conversations. It fueled my motivation and it gave me the courage to speak on issues that felt important to me. This Assembly gave me hope for the future of my denomination; for the future of my ministry; for the future of my life. Indeed, I left Detroit on Saturday morning feeling eternally grateful that I got to be a part of the experience. I can't really even tell you in words how awesome it felt to be in the room when they announced that the two overtures about same-gender marriage had both passed. I felt proud, joyful, grateful and so appreciative for the people who had dedicated the last several decades of their lives to ensuring this would someday happen. I remain awestruck by it. As a queer (a word I don't often use to describe myself) seminary student, I am very much aware how historic that particular day was and the fact that I was privileged enough to be sitting on the floor of plenary voting on an issue that is so personal to me and so many of my closest friends. It makes me cry just thinking about it.
I close this off by saying that I am so glad that the opportunity to go to Detroit fell into my lap. It was where I needed to be. It was how I needed to start my summer. It was what I needed to give me hope in my denomination again. I feel so excited now to someday be a pastor in this church that I have grown up in. I'm so lucky and so privileged and so grateful and yes, so hopeful. Detroit restored my soul. It restored my life. It restored my dreams.