Some love it. Some hate it. Some prefer to try and ignore it. What cannot be denied is that the biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is essential to the life and polity of the denomination.
As is stated in G-3.0101 of the PC(USA)’s constitution: “Councils of the church exist to help congregations and the church as a whole to be more faithful participants in the mission of Christ.”
“Where does the church go to council with itself about its raison d’etre, its essence,” asked the Rev. Eileen Lindner of Palisades Presbytery as she led the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) into a discussion of the purpose of General Assemblies. “How do we make the General Assembly the vital connective tissue for this body of Christ. If we don’t start asking the question, all of the other things we are doing don’t make sense.”
COGA members expressed a variety of responses to the “essence of GA” question.
Fred Heuser, who will retire later this spring as director of the Presbyterian Historical Society, said he resonates with the word “tribe.”
“We are all of the tribe of God,” he said. For me, GA is a place where we can share our experiences, stories, faith in an environment that encourages that. What stands out for me is time spent with individual Presbyterians hearing faith stories. What I’ve remembered are those stories.
“The common reason why they were there was to share their faith with others,” Heuser continued. “That Family connection, that relationship opportunity is critical, more so than anything else.”
General Assembly Vice-Moderator Tom Trinidad of Pueblo Presbytery agreed, adding that it was in the committee he served on at the 2012 Assembly where he experienced that coming together. “For the first couple hours, we broke into small groups for conversations on topics that were tangentially related to our business. The time that was spent was foundational for the later debates that we had. That’s where we told our stories. That was important,” he said.
Based on his GA experience, Trinidad outlined a four-step process of what General Assembly could be. “We gather, we reflect upon our own faith-based perspectives, out of those shared experiences we come to provisional agreement as an Assembly, and then we come home and try to apply what we have done,” he said. “If GA could be recast in that way, that could help the whole church.”
That kind of deeply personal sharing is what makes the General Assembly work, said Virginia Rainey, stated clerk of Huntingdon Presbytery. “It is so important that we retain connectedness so we can listen to and hear other voices, for we believe there is greater strength and wisdom in the discernment of councils.”
COGA Vice-Moderator Marcia Mount Shoop said that in the process of befriending those who are different “we confess that we are willing to live with the tensions and contradictions” that accompany any General Assembly, “and acknowledge that God is doing something with that,” she said.
The Rev. Dennis Hughes, recently retired stated clerk of Seattle Presbytery, said, “The General Assembly is at its best when it is operating out of respect for diversity,” he said, “not the desire for purity.”
Agreement is not as important as speaking out, said Ruling Elder Jim Wilson of Scioto Valley Presbytery. “In the midst of the changes this denomination is going through, I hope that we do not take the easy way out and become less prophetic for the sake of ‘peace,’” he said. “That [prophetic voice] is what we are as Presbyterians and the price we pay for being Presbyterian.”
General Assembly empowers young people, said the Rev. Jerrod Lowry of Utah Presbytery and self-described “youngest former Youth Advisory Delegate here.”
“To come to the GA and be surrounded by Presbyterians from all over the U.S. and the world, and surrounded by other youth and to hear the message that you are empowered … that you are a part of the church and that we want to hear from you,” he said, “I left feeling like I was not just empowered for this seven day stint but that I really am part of the church. You take that back to your home and you really do feel that you belong.”
Noting the richness of the brief discussion, Lindner asked, “How do we graft all these little stories onto the big story so everyone feels the connection to the whole?”
When the PC(USA) figures that one out, said COGA Moderator Vince Thomas of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, “the church will have discovered GA’s ability to inspire the church, particularly by the breadth of the church’s ministry, and to be together with people from across the whole church.”