I was elected by the Presbytery of Denver to be a commissioner to General Assembly this year. I will leave soon for Detroit with three other commissioners from Denver and spend slightly over a week in meetings, deliberating and voting on various matters before us. It’s a complicated affair. The subtleties are generally lost on journalists who often report stories erroneously.
According to the PCUSA website:
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) meets biennially in even-numbered years. It consists of commissioners elected by each of its 173 presbyteries. The GA is full of activities: business sessions, committee meetings, an exhibit hall, daily worship services, and mission tours sponsored by the Committee on Local Arrangements.
The assembly acts on hundreds of items of business, which it receives through the reports and recommendations of various assembly entities, and through overtures from synods and presbyteries.
First, let’s talk about commissioners.
Commissioners are elected by Presbyteries. Denver has four commissioners. Two are ordained clergy or “teaching elders,” and two are “ruling elders” or lay people ordained to largely administrate the local congregation and the larger church, if called upon. It is imperative that there are at least as many ruling elders as teaching elders. This means – in theory – the clergy can always be out-voted by lay leadership. For a denomination that draws it roots from the 16th century Protestant Reformation, this in important.
In reality, clergy are generally (There are exceptions!) more prepared, more equipped and more confident and dominate the proceedings. Furthermore, since it is a rare honor for individual clergy to be elected, denominational bureaucrats and executives of “middle governing bodies” (presbyteries and synods) have a great deal of influence over the proceedings. Most “regular” congregation-based clergy like me are only sent to General Assembly once or twice in a career and some never. I am not suggesting that this is a bad thing; however, it is the way it is. The levels of knowledge, participation and influence vary greatly.
Importantly, Presbyterians believe in “freedom of the conscience.” This means that Presbyterians do not have to believe or buy into everything that General Assembly does or declares. There will be a number of votes that do not go my way. I will find myself in the minority on a number of issues. This does not mean as a Presbyterian clergyman I must change my mind or reverse course or stick narrowly to the party line; rather, when I lose a vote, it simply means that I do not share the “common wisdom” of the majority. It’s humbling to lose a vote, but with our form of government it’s going to happen and it’s not the end of the world!
The Presbyterian system of government is very much like that of the United States, because the United States largely plagiarized us! Everything I love and hate about the American system of government are the very things I cherish and despise about the General Assembly. There is one very important difference, however. Unlike representatives, who are elected by the people to represent their interests in Congress, commissioners are not elected to represent their presbyteries’ interest. They are elected and commissioned to seek and do the will of God. This means that presbyteries, nor sessions, nor denominational executives, cannot instruct or dictate to a particular commissioner how to vote on a certain issue. Each commissioner is expected to be educated on the issues, study, engage in the debate, listen, pray, seek Heavenly guidance, and vote his or her conscience.
The “hot button” issues this year promise to be same sex marriage, divestment from companies that engage in destructive behavior on the West Bank, a proposed thinning or elimination of synods (It’s complicated!), a new creed (Belhar), and a new directory of worship. I am sure other issues will emerge that will require great debate and acrimony.