By Ed Thompson
Presbytery of West Virginia
Today, you saw the best as well as the worst of the PC(USA) in action.
I spent most of the day in Committee 8 Environmental Issues and Committee 10 Mission Coordination. This morning, Committee 8 was dealing with Overture 08-05 “On Responding to Environmental Racism,” which came from the Presbytery of Monmouth in New Jersey. People spoke of problems in Oakland, CA; Newark, NJ; and Flint, MI. Others who had worked in Nicaragua, India, and Nigeria testified to what they had seen and experienced in those countries. It was a demonstration of how our denomination stretches around the world. We stand with those who are oppressed, those who are hurting. It made me proud to be a Presbyterian.
There was also an intense debate on Overture 08-01 ”On Directing the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation to Divest from Fossil Fuel and Actively Invest in Securities That Focus on Renewable Energy,” which came from the Presbytery of Hudson River in New York. This basically took up most of the day. I kept checking in with Committee 10, where the Small Church Overture that our presbytery had concurred with was located, so I wasn’t present the whole time. Each time I was there, though, I saw them struggling with how to respond to this important as well as divisive issue. It was a good debate; both sides made good points. In many ways, this was another example of the Presbyterian Church at its best as the committee, by listening to divergent views, was doing its best to discern God’s will for our denomination. Here are some comments that just represent the tip of the iceberg so to speak from this debate.
Those who supported the overture recognized that thus was not going to change ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies. However they said it was going to make a theological statement about who we are and what we believe. Others recognized that while this was basically a symbolic action, they claimed that change does not happen without symbolic actions.
Opponents said this would harm a lot of people, especially those who worked for fossil fuel companies. Others pointed out that if we are engaged in conversations with these companies, maybe we can make a difference. Indeed, if we really want to change things, we need to stay invested and stay involved.
I could argue either side of this debate. I have friends on both sides. The final vote was not all that close: 35 for, 20 against, with one abstention. I can’t remember the final committee vote on this issue at the 2016 General Assembly. However, I do remember that the committee recommendation was also to divest. But when it came to the floor, the Assembly adopted a minority report and voted to direct our Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee to continue conversations with fossil fuel companies. Some suggested that while the votes of the Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs) count in committee, they can only offer advice on the floor of the Assembly, and that was what made the difference since probably at least 95% of the time the Assembly adopts the recommendation coming out of the committee.
I suppose it’s possible the same thing could happen again. Someone was already asking about making a minority report even before the vote was taken. At this point, I can only say stay tuned.
As I mentioned, the Overture on Small Churches that the Presbytery of West Virginia concurred with was referred to Committee 10. Larryetta Ellis was designated as our Overture Advocate, which gave her the opportunity to address the committee. She was originally scheduled to speak around 11 AM, but the committee got bogged down on other things, so she was then told she would speak shortly before noon. That was pushed back to 7:30 PM. She finally made her presentation at 9 PM, which was when the committee was scheduled to adjourn. They kept going, though, and gave about an hour’s consideration to the proposal, so they took it seriously. Overall, I think people wanted to support the ministry of small churches. What seemed to be the main sticking point was the estimate that this was going to cost us $3.2 million over the next two years. The only way to cover that would be to cut other programs or staff.
Representatives of the Presbyterian Mission Agency also claimed they were already addressing small church concerns. Most people seemed to believe them. Others were more skeptical. In some ways, the final vote didn’t reflect the debate. It was 2 for, 43 against, and 2 abstentions. There was some indication that the committee might reconsider that vote. I don’t think they’ll reverse their decision. The price tag of more than $3 million practically guarantees that. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if they issued some kind of supportive statement or called on various agencies to more specifically address the concerns of our smaller churches. Again, we’ll just have to wait and see.
The other highlight of the day was the Bible study that was held prior to the start of the day. I could quibble and say it was more of a lecture than a Bible study, but Deborah Krauss, a professor at Eden Theological Seminary located here in St. Louis, made a helpful presentation on the Gospel of Mark.
What was frustrating was to see Presbyterians engage in wordsmithing that resulted in what I would call irrelevant amendments that were often defeated 1-43, 2-50, or even 0-54. This wordsmithing happened more than once in more than one committee. The fact that this was so prevalent didn’t make it any easier to stomach.
Sometimes, too, it seems we’re only able to focus on the issues that are right in front of us so that we miss the big picture. Sometimes, it seems like we’re stuck in silos and unable to see, recognize, or appreciate what other committees, groups, or churches are doing. I wish I could say that never happened to be me or never happened to us, but, unfortunately, it does. Someone sometime during the day said, “I would be worried about the church but for God.” I can only agree.
Tomorrow, committees will wrap up their work, perhaps even by 3 PM when there is supposed to be a public witness to present the offering taken at the opening worship service (which I heard was approaching $40,000) at the St Louis City Justice Center, where it will be used to free individuals currently awaiting trial in a system that keeps them incarcerated until they can meet bail. At this point, I plan to take part in that.
Then, tomorrow evening, we will have our Presbytery Dinner at Lombardo’s, an Italian restaurant here in St. Louis. It should be fun.
Please pray for all the commissioners at the General Assembly that they may listen to one another as well as listen for God.