General Assembly Update
Greetings from the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit, overlooking the Detroit River, with a view of the Canadian border. The 221st General Assembly of the PCUSA is meeting here this week, and Shenango Presbytery is represented with voice and vote by Ruling Elders Frank Stratiff (Hillside) and Tom Wilson (Lebanon), and Teaching Elders Jim Latta (Faith) and Chris Weichman (Clen-Moore). Advising the Assembly are seminary student Addie Domske (New Wilmington) and youth Matt Pherson (Third, New Castle). Including myself, five other Shenango Teaching Elders and several other observers have been in attendance for all or part of this week.
As of Thursday morning, the Assembly’s committees had completed their work and the Assembly is now back in plenary session. Major items of action thus far include:
– Commissioners approved (551 – 87) the addition of the Belhar Confession to our church’s constitutional Book of Confessions. That action will need approval by 2/3 of the presbyteries over the course of the next year. The Belhar Confession was written in South Africa in 1982 and was later adopted as a confession of faith by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in 1986, and has since been adopted by other denominations as well.
– Commissioners approved (371 – 238) an authoritative interpretation of Book of Order W–4.9000 to “affirm pastoral discretion in performing marriage ceremonies.” As an attempt to interpret this section of the Book of Order, the authoritative interpretation reads:
“Worship is a central element of the pastoral care of the people of God (W–6.3001, W–6.3010) in which a teaching elder’s discernment of the leading of the Holy Spirit is indispensable. The necessity of ensuring the exercise of freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G–2.0105) in the planning and leadership of worship has deep roots in our Reformed tradition and theology. Because a service of marriage is one form of such worship, when a couple requests the involvement of the church in solemnizing their marriage as permitted by the laws of the civil jurisdiction in which the marriage is to take place, teaching elders have the pastoral responsibility to assess the capabilities, intentions, and readiness of the couple to be married (W–4.9002), and the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G–2.0105) to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform. Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may conduct a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship, so long as it is approved by the session; or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian worship. In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The authoritative interpretation of this section by the 203rd General Assembly (1991), and the subsequent authoritative interpretations of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission relying upon it, are withdrawn and replaced with this authoritative interpretation.”
Based on the provision of Book of Order G–6.02, this authoritative interpretation (AI) goes into immediate effect in the life and work of the Presbyterian church.
– Commissioners approved (429–175) an amendment to Book of Order W–4.9000, an amendment that reads:
“Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community. In civil law, marriage is a contract that recognizes the rights and obligations of the married couple in society. In the Reformed tradition, marriage is also a covenant in which God has an active part, and which the community of faith publicly witnesses and acknowledges. If they meet the requirements of the civil jurisdiction in which they intend to marry, a couple may request that a service of Christian marriage be conducted by a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who is authorized, though not required, to act as an agent of the civil jurisdiction in recording the marriage contract. A couple requesting a service of Christian marriage shall receive instruction from the teaching elder, who may agree to the couple’s request only if, in the judgment of the teaching elder, the couple demonstrate sufficient understanding of the nature of the marriage covenant and commitment to living their lives together according to its values. In making this decision, the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church property for a marriage service. The marriage service shall be conducted in a manner appropriate to this covenant and to the forms of Reformed worship, under the direction of the teaching elder and the supervision of the session (W–1.4004–.4006). In a service of marriage, the couple marry each other by exchanging mutual promises. The teaching elder witnesses the couple’s promises and pronounces God’s blessing upon their union. The community of faith pledges to support the couple in upholding their promises; prayers may be offered for the couple, for the communities that support them, and for all who seek to live in faithfulness. A service of worship recognizing a civil marriage and confirming it in the community of faith may be appropriate when requested by the couple. The service will be similar to the marriage service except that the statements made shall reflect the fact that the couple is already married to one another according to the laws of the civil jurisdiction.”
The amendment concludes:
“Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.”
This amendment will be sent to all the presbyteries for a majority approval.
– Commissioners also approved (521–31) a recommendation to “direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to establish a way to bring reconciliation to the church that would involve visiting each presbytery and serving as a resource for each presbytery’s discussion of these actions in congregations and the presbytery at-large and present voices of reconciliation for the unity of the church.”
More major updates to come from Detroit. Please keep our commissioners, and all commissioners, in your thoughts and prayers. A reminder that Shenango Presbytery has a stated meeting in place for Tuesday, June 24, at Wampum Presbyterian Church. Our presbytery’s General Council has in place a called meeting, scheduled before the stated meeting of presbytery, to consider faithful and appropriate options for Shenango as we move forward together in mission and ministry.
Ralph Hawkins, Executive Presbyter (elect)