I grew up Roman Catholic. I remember as a young adult being really frustrated by church doctrine, and the non-democratic nature of ecclesiastical authority. There were so many times I recall arguing that the Church should be responsive to the people, there should be democratic aspects to it. Sure, I served on a church council, but we had no real authority. I was particularly troubled by the very notion of the power of the hierarchy, of the Bishops, and Vatican. Ultimately, I chose to leave the Roman Catholic church over questions of equality, over the subjugation of women, and what I saw as obsessive focus on a few social issues at the expense of the bigger picture.
Four years later, I am about to embark on something I could hardly imagine for most of my adult life. I am an elected ruling elder commissioner to the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, for those not familiar with protestant church governance, meets every other year for one week, with representatives from the entire church (in the United States). 645 ordained commissioners (divided evenly between clergy (teaching elders) and “ruling elders” (those non-ministers entrusted with responsibility to guide and lead the church), 172 Young Adult Advisory Delegates, and several thousand observers come together for a week, to shape the policy, theological doctrine, and focus of the church. Commissioners are elected by regional bodies (known as presbyteries), which in turn consist of elected representatives (elders and ministers) from each congregation.
The issues faced by the General Assembly range from questions of governance, to theology, to social justice. This year, the Church will, for the third time in 6 years, consider the question of marriage equality. Four years ago, the GA ruled that gay and lesbian ministers could be ordained — and then a majority of the nation’s presbyteries ratified the decision. This year, we will consider for the second time, whether gay marriage will be recognized and celebrated in the church. The GA could issue an authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order, or it could pass an amendment, calling for ratification by the presbyteries in the next year. We will also deal with hot-button political issues such as divestment from three companies doing business with Israel, as protest to the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. The GA will also consider whether the Confession of Belhar, approved by the United Reformed Church in Southern Africa, should be added to the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions. These are just a small smattering of issues. Big and small.
As I prepare to embark for Detroit, I am mindful of the fact that this coming week I will experience church democracy – in all its flavor, the good, the bad, the ugly. I know that there will be a lot of emotions at play. Some of the work of GA will be exhilarating; some will be infuriating; some of it will probably be boring. There will be extensive lobbying on a few issues; there will be efforts to build a community as a whole; sometimes in various caucuses. Yet the process is one of discernment, worship, and prayer. It is not the log-rolling and pork-barrel politics of Congress. (I hope not – but the lobbying will be there, particularly on a few issues!) Of course there will be extensive parliamentary maneuvering. Yet we will also worship together, we will work together, and provide witness for the Church in future years.
I am honored to have this opportunity. I am excited to experience something that I really couldn’t even imagine just a few years ago. As time permits, I will continue to blog my experiences over the ten days to come. But right now, I have to make sure I have packed enough socks.