The assembly begins with worship. Trying to worship in what is in effect a giant, open warehouse, with several thousand people, in rows of plastic chairs, under a ceiling of lights, hvac ductwork, and wires, is challenging. From where I sat the “chancel” area was a rumor, with the action projected on giant screens. All the same, I still found the procession of bagpipers moving, imagining our distant Scottish heritage. That line drives deeper even than the Reformation, to Columba and Ninian, Irish monks who evangelized the people of what is now Scotland, to Patrick who brought the good news to Ireland, to the mission to Gaul and figures like Martin and Irenaeus, to the Apostle John, sending witnesses out from Ephesus, to the Lord Jesus.
So, no matter how “contemporary” our worship gets, there remains at its core the New Testament and the Sacraments, continually connecting us to this band of Palestinian Jews who followed Jesus, who watched him die and to whom he appeared after his Resurrection, and who received the Spirit at Pentecost.
The Assembly continues in the afternoon with a long time of general orientation, the most portentous element of which was the decision to allow internet access to the floor, and to undertake a voting procedure in which commissioners would use their laptops, tablets, or phones to access the internet.
The former policy of enforcing an internet blackout was paternalistic and obsolete… not to mention, given advances in phone technology, almost impossible to enforce. Since the GA has abandoned this ridiculous policy, I will spare you the rant I had prepared about it.
The voting change is another matter. Very often, when the GA makes a jump in its use of technology, there is a major glitch, at least the first year. So some of us received this news of the change in voting with some… concern.
In the evening session, as the GA was preparing to vote for Moderator, it became apparent that this new plan was not working. Voting by internet was unsuccessful. Fortunately, the planners of the GA had a Plan B. Trays of little, white, wireless voting boxes were wheeled in, and the boxes distributed to the commissioners. A time-consuming process of testing them ensued. This testing failed. Fortunately, the planners of the GA had a Plan C. (It is a bit scary that there was a Plan C at all.) Plan C was, wait for it… paper ballots!
I do not know the last time the GA used paper ballots. It was prior to 1990. I was a commissioner that year, and we used wired boxes.
A couple dozen mid-Council types (Stated Clerks and Executives) were drafted as tellers. It is fortunate that there were only 3 candidates for Moderator, and that electing a Moderator only required a single ballot. (Had there been like 7 candidates, requiring multiple ballots, God only knows how deep the Assembly would have gone into this morning.)
The GA did manage to elect a Moderator, a ruling elder named Heath Rada. I found the set of candidates rather uninspiring, myself. All were white and middle aged. All were relatively progressive on most issues. My hope is that this does not predict an Assembly that looks back and takes few risks. The Moderator’s “power” is largely ceremonial, procedural, and declarative. The system is designed so that Moderators can’t do too much damage.
At the same time, I hope the Spirit uses presbyter Rada in some good way as we journey into an uncertain future.
The biggest bright spot on the Presbyterian horizon is called “1001 Worshiping Communities.” After decades of moribund statistics regarding new church starts, and throwing away untold thousands of dollars on trying to do the nearly impossible: revitalize declining congregations, the denomination is undertaking a new initiative to start new worshiping communities. We have finally abandoned the old, expensive, 1950’s model of church planting, which seems mainly to have involved buying property, building a building, and hoping people show up. The new “worshiping communities” are not churches or congregations, per se. They look like a lot of different things. And this is wonderful! (I blogged on 1001NWC last October. It’s at http://www.raxweblog.blogspot.com/2013/10/2013-fall-polity-conference-day-three.html.)
173 new worshiping communities have been started since 2012, which is fantastic news, totally blowing out of the water any Presbyterian church-planting initiative in memory. The promise of this initiative is that we will have a plethora of different kinds of gatherings doing wild and amazing things, completely outside the conventional boxes defining things like “congregation” and “membership.” I pray that the Spirit keeps moving in this. My fear is that eventually it will occur to the denomination that, like Peter coming to Jesus on the water in the storm, that we are outside the boat, and we will frantically scramble to cram all this back into the usual Presbyterian structures and categories. But for now, it’s going great, we haven’t managed to kill it yet, the Spirit blows, and the promise remains.