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The Politics of a General Assembly, Part 1:The Election of a Vice-Moderator

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Last week, I had the honor/burden of being a commissioner to the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA.  It is  truly an honor to be chosen to serve, as not everyone gets to, given that we now do assemblies every other year rather than annually as we used to. But it is also a burden, both because of the butt-numbing tedium of much of the process, as well as having to be subjected to the political machinations of the various interested parties, some of whom have a no-holds-barred approach towards winning. In what follows, I will give my thoughts on the aspects of this GA, much of which I found extremely painful.

I.  The Election of the Vice-Moderator

On Saturday night, June 30th, the Assembly elected, on the fourth ballot,  the Rev. Dr. Neal Presa to be our Moderator for the next two years. This was a very exciting process, listening to statements by the four candidates and then an hour of questions from the floor, followed by a close election. Presa’s parents had flown 8000 miles from Guam to be present that evening, and they proceeded with him and his wife and children to the platform to witness his installation accompanied by thunderous applause. When Presa’s two little boys stepped to the mic to read a scripture and offer the installation prayer for their “Daddy,” as they referred to him, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the building. At least there wasn’t anywhere near where I was sitting.

The next morning, however, the bloom was off the rose, as we moved to elect the Vice-Moderator.  Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe had run on a “ticket” with Presa, so while she didn’t have to run against any other Vice-Moderatorial candidates, she still had to be elected in an up-or-down vote by the Assembly, which is usually a formality. Presa had told the Assembly the night before what had already been widely reported in the denominational press, which was that McCabe had, months before, presided over a same sex marriage in D.C. where such marriages are legal and where her church was located (she is no longer at that church). Some commissioners rose to object to her serving as Vice Moderator and made an attempt to unseat her, which to my knowledge is unprecedented. This attempt was defeated, however, and McCabe was elected by roughly  a 60-40% margin.  This was very disturbing to many of us, but we thought that the matter was settled.

It wasn’t. On Wednesday, after several days of working in our committees, the Assembly gathered again for it’s first plenary session after the election on Sunday. As the first item of business, McCabe resigned, saying that she did not want her election to derail the Assembly. Weeping openly, she said that since her election she had been subjected to numerous and sustained attacks on the Internet and by email, some of which threatened to disrupt the Assembly in order to force her ouster. She said she loved the church and didnt want her election to get in the way of the Assembly doing its work.  The sound of the collective groan that went up from the Assembly was as shocking as the words of resignation themselves. We were stunned. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen in our church; we pride ourselves in transparency (everyone knew what she had done before electing her) and the ability to be gracious in both winning and losing.

I was a Presa-McCabe supporter from the very beginning. I went to the Assembly planning on voting for them and was even campaigning for them at dinner not ten minutes before the Sunday evening vote to my fellow commissioners seated with me who didn’t know either Presa or McCabe.  It is difficult to describe the bad feeling this resignation left in many of us. If Presa and McCabe would’ve never been elected, we would’ve simply shrugged our shoulders, gotten behind whomever did win, and moved on. But to have won, fair and square, by a wide margin, no less, and then to be driven from office 72 hours later due to cyberbullying  was something difficult to grasp. We would’ve never thought anything like this possible in our church. Thus, the taint of this event hung the dark cloud of illegitimacy over everything else that happened at the Assembly. Even the Moderator said he could feel it, according to my wife, who attended a Town Hall-style meeting led by Presa and McCabe Thursday evening.   The new Vice Moderator, Tom Trinidad, seemed like a nice enough fellow and did a great job in his shifts as the moderator of the Assembly.  But there was no way to cover over what had happened.

(Tomorrow: Part 2:The Committee on Confessions)

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  • David True

    Thanks Tim! So what lessons should we draw from this sad episode? Is this about the PCUSA or is it larger?

    • Timothy F. Simpson

      Dave, I think the lesson is a general one, namely that the progressives have or will shortly prevail on issues of the culture wars in mainline Protestantism. The evangelical case simply doesn’t hold up any longer on the merits and thus those who still embrace it will either have to resort to such tactics to hold onto power or else adopt some kind of conciliatory approach that would have them become the loyal minority the way that progressives had to be for so many years. Clearly, many evangelicals, both in the PCUSA and other mainline traditions, simply cannot take not being in the minority and are thus angling to create situations in which they won’t have to be by engaging in schism. It still isn’t clear, though, how many will resort to such drastic and UN-Presbyterian actions b

  • Glen Hallead

    For what it’s worth…there do seem to be some odd and unresolved details surrounding the Vice-Moderator’s resignation:

    1. when asked at the “Town Hall meeting” for evidence of the cyber-bullying, etc, the Moderator and Vice-Moderator both seemed either unwilling or unable to actually produce anything and resorted to “personal perceptions” and “reports” to make the case;

    2. the resignation seemed to be as much of a “I can’t take this stress” as an “I don’t want to have the assembly divided by this issue” as evidenced in the depth of emotion displayed,

    3. the unfortunate labeling, by the moderator, who later back pedaled on his use of the term “pernicious poison” to refer to the supposed cyber-bullying; and

    4. the reality that the Vice-Moderator did, in fact violate the standards brought forth in the Directory for Worship, provisions in the Book of Order, and clearly spelled out judicial summaries on the matter, and therefore invited some of the appropriate questions of order.

    Still, it is a shame that this happens. The denomination is an imperfect structure filled with sinners on all sides.

    • Glen Hallead

      As I read my no.2 it seems petty and to question her integrity. It was out of line and I apologize.

    • Timothy F. Simpson

      Glen, I don’t think that the matter is spelled out as clearly as you attest, as pointed out by six dissenters in the Spahr case of several years ago. For one thing, W-4.9001 is a declarative sentence, nit an imperative. If folks want to amend this to include some form of “must” or “shall” it might be clear, but that’s not what is written. Worse, even the declarative form is not factually true any longer. Eight states and DC have civil provisions written into their law which undercuts the validity of W-4.9001 and it is a significant lacuna in our polity that this assembly should’ve addressed, inasmuch as the next chance they will get to do so will be two years, at which time the statement will be even less true than it already is now.

  • Al

    Let me start by saying that I’m not happy by the way things played out with the Vice-moderator. But, I do have a problem with the way it’s being spun.

    First, let’s be fair. Same sex marriages are clearly forbidden. Clergy have been censured for doing them. You may not like that, but there is nothing vague about this. It is simply beyond any reason to think that you could boldly break this rule two months before running for one of the highest positions in the PC(USA) and NOT understand it would become an issue. If a candidate refused to ordain a woman two months before GA, do you think that would have been ignored?

    Second, I still don’t know what she and the moderator defined as bullying; abuse so threatening that those around he no longer felt “safe”. I read the comments on StayPCUSA and some of the other blogs. Yes, there’s criticism. Yes, there are hard questions. But, I never saw anything beyond what’s now normal. If you want to stand in the spotlight, you have to expect some heat.

    If fact, I’d suggest that if you want to read some nasty comments, go back and read the comments about evangelical Presbyterians on the #GA220 Twitter feed. Or go back and read what people have said about Parker Williamson for the past 20 years. Or, read a few posts at John Shuck’s blog.
    Perhaps the level of debate we are now used to is too far beyond civil, but what Spuhler McCabe faced was nothing out of the ordinary for either side of our debates. I’m still waiting for the smoking gun of threat or abuse that Spuhler McCabe intimated when she resigned. If people went over the line, let charges be fined. But to make these claims and refuse to back them up with the facts creates only further division.

    • Timothy F. Simpson

      Al, I don’t you are being fair. Comparing her to Parker Williamson or John Shuck doesn’t make sense to me. Parker and John attack and are attacked all the time. They like it dishing it out, so yeah, they have to take it. But who did Tara ever dish on? All she ever did was to give basic pastoral care to her own flock. And she wasn’t seeking notoriety–Neal was running for moderator, not Tara, and he asked her, as his friend, to be his backup at the Assembly if he won, so that when he tired, she could spell him while he rested. I think that it goes too far to suggest that, because she volunteered to do this service to the church that it was now “open season” on her, as if she was a power-hungry climber. It was quite obvious that this was not what she wanted at all and that people were falsely projecting their own thoughts onto her rather than actually taking her on her own terms as they should have.

      • Al

        >All she ever did was to give basic pastoral care to her own flock…

        I have to admit, I have never heard someone describe an action that has repeatedly been something subject to successful prosecution in the PCUSA as “basic pastoral care”.

        >And she wasn’t seeking notoriety–Neal was running for moderator, not Tara…

        That’s like saying Joe Biden was seeking any attention when he ran for vice-president. The vice moderator moderates at GA. With a two years moderatorial term, the vice-moderators are increasingly representing the office. And as we saw this last term, it’s not hard to imagine something happening to the moderator so that the vice-moderator must take over.

        Notice, also, all the attention given to the 219th GA’s vice-moderator,

        If Spuhler McCabe didn’t understand the high profile of the office, she must not have understood it.

        • Timothy F. Simpson

          Al, I think the Biden analogy is weak. He was a professional politician since before his 30th birthday, and had run for President on his own in 1988. Nothing like what Tara was doing, not even remotely. equally weak is the Landon Whitsett analogy. We’ve never scrutinized vice-moderator candidates like what Tara was subjected to, so it would have been completely reasonable to see the office the way everyone had always seen it before, which was non-political. The moderator’s theological and political commitments are widely known, but there’s not one in a hundred people in the denomination who could tell you whether Landon Whitsett was even a liberal or conservative, and yet you’re raising him up as the exemplar for a high profile vice moderator.if no one has a clue about what he thinks, and yet this did not hinder his work in the position, why would any candidate for the position think that it was about to become politicized? Everybody will going forward, for sure. But I don’t see how it can be denied that this was an unexpected development.