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The Politics of a General Assembly, Part 2: The Committee on Confessions

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(The following is the second installment of my reflections from being a commissioner to the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA last week in Pittsburgh.)

II. The Committee on Confessions

Every commissioner to a GA is assigned to work on a specific committee. Assignments are made randomly, so you can’t pick what you want to work on beforehand, nor can you trade with someone else if you don’t like what you have been given. You get what you get. I was hoping for either the Committee on Middle East Peace (see Part 3 of this series tomorrow)  or the Committee on Marriage and Civil Unions (Part 4 of this series Friday), but what I got instead was Confessions, which was definitely in my “top 5 committees of interest” list, so I wasn’t too disappointed. The GA schedule called for the 20+ standing committees to do their work Sundqy-Tuesday, and then for the Assembly to meet in plenary session Wednesday-Friday to vote on each committee’s recommendations.

There were two important matters which my committee had to address. The first was to approve a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC), a project that had been ongoing with both the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA) since 2009. The major concern that had gotten some traction out in the wider church was the new translation’s removal of the words “homosexual perversion” from Question 87 of the HC.  Our committee heard from the PCUSA team that had worked with the RCA and the CRC, who walked us through a detailed explanation of dozens of changes that were coming in the new translation and why they were linguistically and theologically sound. Regarding Question 87, for instance, they pointed out that neither the German HC nor the Latin translation made subsequent to the original in the 16th century had any such words as “homosexual perversion” in them.  The words, the committee told us, were added by the original English translators in the early 1960s, and reflected modern concerns, rather than what was going on 450 years ago.

Fortunately for the whole church, when the PCUSA committee on the HC was formed, Sylvia Dooling was made a member of it. Sylvia is one of the most extreme conservatives in our denomination and she has a small but vocal following. In testimony before our committee, she was effusive in praise of the new HC translation and affirmed that she was convinced that the removal of “homosexual perversion” was indeed justified and not some left-wing plot to undermine the church’s confessional standards on sexuality. Nonetheless, we still heard testimony to that effect in the open hearings before our committee, but Dooling’s imprimatur, as much as anything else, seemed to ease the way for the translation’s passage, first with the approval of our committee, and then on Wednesday, the approval of the entire GA itself. The HC now goes out to our 173 presbyteries for approval, with 2/3 required in the affirmative for ratification.

The second, and more vexing issue before the committee was to address an overture from National Capital Presbytery on the adoption of the Belhar Confession (BC). It was written in 1986 by the daughter church living under apartheid, to its mother, the all-white Dutch Reformed Church. This would be the second try for the BC, which failed by 8 votes to get the required 116 for inclusion in our Book of Confessions last year. It was widely felt across the denomination, and indeed the committee heard testimony to this effect, that Belhar got lost in the argument in 2010 over both the new Form of Government and Amendment 10A, which called for local option on the ordination of gays and lesbians. National Capital thus asked the GA to send the BC back again to presbyteries for reconsideration.

My feeling was that the BC failed to achieve ratification because conservatives were reading it as a covert attempt by liberals in the church to get implicit approval for gay sex in the Confessions by using racism as a euphemism for any standards whatsoever, with the BC’s strong language on unity as the hammer/guilt trip designed as the check on conservative opposition. I had had conversations with theologians and pastors around the country in whose presbyteries these arguments were made. Moreover, the conservative affinity groups also had made these points repeatedly in 2010-11 when the BC was being voted on.

So it was not a surprise when we listened to statements in the open hearings portraying the BC as really being about sexuality, and that if we made an “idol” of church unity (this was an oft-repeated phrase), that the church would be incapable of rendering moral judgment on anything, lest unity be disturbed. Most of those on my committee who were in opposition to the BC played it more cautiously at first, making the argument that it was too soon to try and get it ratified again, or that bringing the BC before the GA at the same time as the HC would cause a backlash that would endanger both. When it came down to it, however, those on the committee who were against the BC expressed the same reservations as we had heard all through the last round of the process–too much emphasis on unity is bad because then we can’t call sin, sin.

When a motion to ask the GA to restart the six-year process required to add a confession to our Book of Confessions was made in the committee, one commissioner rose to offer a substitute motion that, instead of restarting the process for ratification, would have derailed the BC by calling the church to a four-year study of it, making ratification possible ten years from now at the earliest. This was my first experience of how the conservatives would use parliamentary maneuvers to block what was shaping up to be a progressive assembly by proposing study after study, utilizing minority reports and substitute motions designed to keep the Assembly from making decisions or even hearing about some important issues for as long as possible, if at all.

My committee wasn’t fooled by this polity move. It beat back the substitute motion and approved recommending the restart of the BC’s process and a reconsideration of it on its own terms by a vote of 20-9. The same person tried the same maneuver in the plenary session, but after an hour of wrangling over polity, the substitute motion was defeated by the Assembly by a wide margin and the committee’s recommendation to restart the BC’s ratification process was approved. The thing is, though, is that all of this happened on Tuesday and Wednesday, while we were relatively fresh. As the week went on, however, as the substitute motions, as minority reports piled up in ever greater numbers, and as the agenda of the Assembly got further and further behind, the cumulative toll began to change the Assembly’s response to controversial subjects, which is a matter to which I will return tomorrow.

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  • Michael W. Garrett, Pastor

    The side perceiving itself to be in the minority always uses the polity moves that will advance its interests. I don’t mind that being noted about conservatives, as long as we remember progressives will readily do the same. (Authoritative interpretations, anybody?) The politics of the assembly is interesting; the reasons why there has to be so much even more.

  • Cameron Smith

    Well then, I am certainly eagerly waiting for the scholars in the PC(USA) to return the Westminster Confession to its original, pristine 1647 form. I mean, after all, the real concern driving the Heidelberg “restoration” is the pressing need for the original language, right? Right!

  • http://areformedcatholicinthepcusa.blogspot.com Reformed Catholic

    Why are we worried about the Confessions now anyway, the Advisory Committee on the Constitution basically said, and affirmed by the Stated Clerk and Moderator, that the Confessions are not to be used as any sort of reference for anything since “there are multiple interpretations” in the Confessions, thus not to be use as a “rule book”.

    • Timothy F. Simpson

      Reformed Catholic–That was not what I heard either Paul Hooker of the ACC, the Stated Clerk or the Moderator say. What they said was that the Confessions represent a broad spectrum of belief across centuries of time and that we have not historically used the Confessions as the check on what was placed in the Book of Order. I don’t know anyone who accepts the entire Book of Confessions because they represent, at many points, issues which have little or no bearing on the life of the contemporary church. The BoC and the BoO are all one Constitution but they function very differently, which is in part why we don’t amend them with the same process or numerical majority.