Question: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: 27,558. One to notice the problem and inform the support committee chair; 12 members of session to draft an overture that the light bulb be replaced; 72 members of presbytery to affirm the overture and send it to the General Assembly; 36 on the GA Committee for Illumination to consider the proposal and several other similar ideas; 688 commissioners and 221 advisory delegates to vote on the committee’s recommendation; and 26,528 ruling and teaching elders across 173 presbyteries to ratify the particular action proposed by GA. Once the stated clerks report the official voting results, the new light bulb will be turned on one year after the conclusion of the assembly.

As Presbyterians, we take very seriously the need to bring our minds, hearts, and experiences together to discern the will of God for the church. The most inclusive gathering, the General Assembly, consists of commissioners – teaching and ruling elders like me and our session members – from every presbytery in the country. They will meet this year from June 30 to July 7 in Pittsburgh. You can learn more and even follow the assembly in real time at www.pcusa.org/ga220.

We discern together because we are aware that no one of us has a perfect understanding of what Christ intends for the church. Our perspectives are naturally confined by our human limitations. More profoundly, we acknowledge that our ideas and understandings are always skewed by sin – our tendency to see, decide, and act for our own purposes rather than in God’s love. In prayer, we trust that the Holy Spirit can bring our perspectives together so we can learn from and critique one another, ultimately finding a truer sense of God’s will.

The light-bulb joke above describes the basic path taken by most of the GA’s business. It comes to the assembly as an overture from a presbytery or synod, as a report from a GA commission, or as a resolution proposed by two or more commissioners. An item of business may request one of three kinds of response: an action under GA’s direct authority, such as initiating a mission program; an “authoritative interpretation” that clarifies how to follow a certain portion of the church constitution (the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order); or an amendment to the constitution. Constitutional amendments are presented by the GA to the presbyteries, a majority of which must ratify the change. This process charts a middle ground between giving full authority to the central council and making all decisions from the bottom up.

This year’s assembly will consider hundreds of particular items of business, most of which you may never hear about. Two of the most visible topics will be about human sexuality, specifically the ordination of people in same-sex relationships and the definition of marriage. (At present, ordination decisions are entrusted to the session or the presbytery as the ordaining entities, and marriage is defined as “a civil contract between a man and a woman.”) There is also a sweeping proposal to restructure the church’s middle levels, i.e. presbyteries and synods. Changes on any of these topics would require the presbyteries to vote before a constitutional amendment would take effect.

I follow the General Assembly with all the excitement of a bona fide church-polity geek, and as current chair of the presbytery committee that will help review proposed amendments before we vote on them early next year. While I don’t pretend to be up on all 700 items of business, I’d love to have conversations about what’s going on in Pittsburgh and what it might mean for us here. Seriously, this stuff is great.

Here’s one thing you can do without having to pretend that you’re nearly as jazzed about GA as I am: Pray for the commissioners, advisory delegates, and all who will be attending. We pray for their safe travels, for their enrichment and joy through the experience, and most of all that they might lead the church into ever more faith, hope, and love.

In Christ’s peace,

Nathan

 

For more information, see:
The GA website: http://www.pcusa.org/ga220
The GA media guide: http://www.pcusa.org/media/uploads/oga/pdf/ga220-media-guide.pdf

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