The 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) has completed its business and all who gathered in Detroit have returned home. I write to offer a brief summary of the actions taken. We’ll say a bit more at our presbytery meeting this Tuesday, June 24, beginning at 5:45 p.m. at the Metuchen Church. A more comprehensive report from our commissioners will be offered in September, after they’ve had time to reflect on the messages they want to share with you.

This General Assembly was prepared for action. Through extensive deliberation that included times of small group reflection, corporate prayer, and parliamentary procedure, with daily worship and communion grounding it all, commissioners took action on the wide range of issues and concerns brought before them by the presbyteries of our denomination.

Among the most controversial was a decision instructing the Presbyterian Foundation and Board of Pensions to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola, three companies that some say are engaged in ‘non-peaceful pursuits’ in Israel-Palestine. This overture passed by a narrow margin of only 7 votes. Although virtually everyone shares a hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, we differ on how to get there. As I listened to the debate on this issue, I noticed that we are struggling with two competing values. On the one hand, our denomination values peace in the Middle East. Those who have travelled to the region have seen first-hand the oppression of people who live in Palestinian settlements and the culture of violence endured by Jews and Palestinians alike. On the other hand, we value our long-standing interfaith relationships, both in this country and in the Middle East. Many are concerned that this act of divestment from companies that profit from acts of oppression carried out by Israelis will be construed as an act of divestment from Israel itself. Will this action create tension, for pastors and congregations who have positive relationships with Jewish neighbors and synagogues? What about congregations whose members work for the companies targeted for divestment?

Although the call for divestment is making headlines, General Assembly actions on the Middle East also included: Reaffirming Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders; a commitment to a two-state solution in which a secure and universally recognized State of Israel lives alongside a free, viable, and secure state for the Palestinian people; reaffirmation of the PC(USA)’s commitment to interfaith dialogue and partnerships with the American Jewish, Muslim friends and Palestinian Christians; comprehensive and transparent accounting of all foreign aid given by the U.S. government to Israel and the Palestinian authority; encouraging Presbyterians to travel to the Holy Land, and give broad support to the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities throughout the Middle East; urging all church institutions to give careful consideration to possible investments in Israel-Palestine that advance peace and improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis. Within the larger context of these many recommendations there is room for all of us to pray and work for peaceful solutions to the long-standing difficulties they seek to address.

Over the course of the week, I was struck by the breadth of issues that matter to Presbyterians. Overtures originated in presbyteries, where presbytery commissioners from particular congregations brought concerns they wanted the General Assembly to consider. This year, for the first time, overtures needed the concurrence of more than one presbytery before they could be placed on the General Assembly docket. This is not a complete list, but here is a sampling of the overtures upon which the General Assembly acted:

  • Adoption of the Belhar Confession (Susie Krevenko serves on the committee that brought this recommendation)
  • Recommitment to 1001 New Worshiping Communities.  We have created almost 250 NWC in just 2 years. These worshiping communities are taking the Gospel to new places and new people in unexpected ways. (The New Community Church, a campus of the Presbyterian Church at New Providence and wired4worship, a next gen worship experience on the campus of The Presbyterian Church in Westfield are two of them).
  • Commitment to help provide education for 1 million children in the US and around the world as a way to alleviate poverty, especially for women and children.
  • Celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program.  Over that time more than 1000 young adults have given a year of their life to serve God.
  • A Policy statement entitled, “The Interreligious Stance of the Presbyterian Church, USA
  • Advocacy of measures to prevent gun violence
  • Approval of “Tax Justice: A Christian Response to a New Gilded Age,” a paper offering recommendations seeking a fairer tax system in the US (Ray Roberts serves on the study team).
  • Adoption of a report on Mid Councils that will reduce the number of Synods from 16 to 10-12 over the next two years
  • A declaration of opposition to targeted killing by military drones unless due process is followed and a call to the U.S. congress to pass legislation that would restrict use of drones
  • Divestment from holdings in fossil fuel companies, referred to the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee.
  • Asking for lifting of travel restrictions for U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba and removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism
  • A new Authoritative Interpretation that allows Presbyterian ministers to perform same-sex marriage in states where it is legal and a definition of marriage as “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.

Yes, the General Assembly covered a lot of ground in a week’s time. These decisions, while not binding on the consciences of individual Presbyterians, do represent the collective wisdom of those whom we elected to discern the will of Christ for the living of these days. As we talk with one another about matters of importance in which we differ, may we show mutual respect. May we continue to pray for our witness to the world around us. May our congregations focus anew, on neighborhoods and communities where people wait to experience the assurance of God’s love.  May our actions communicate the healing and salvation for which Jesus Christ lived and died. Most of all, may we abound in hope!