The 222nd General Assembly (2016): A Few Thoughts, Three Days Later
Leader for Polity and Administration
Presbytery of Los Ranchos
I’m writing three days after the 222nd General Assembly adjourned. I don’t have a penetrating analysis of GA for you (yet). But I do have some observations.
1. The system is rigged. But not in the way you might think.
I have occasionally heard accusations that GA is rigged to produce foreordained outcomes. The most common complaint focuses around a committee moderator’s denying someone the opportunity to speak.
Such procedural silencing may tempt an onlooker to suspect a nefarious agenda. But the often-frustrating process emerges from a single principle.
That principle, with a few exceptions, is this: Only commissioners and advisory delegates, elected by their presbyteries, may actively seek the moderator’s recognition. All others must wait until they are asked to speak.
I have served the past two Assemblies as a committee parliamentarian. Even if the committee badly mangled Robert’s Rules, I could not say so unless the moderator asked me whether we were in order.
This is different than at Presbytery meetings. I am a member of Los Ranchos Presbytery. I may seek the moderator’s recognition, just as any other commissioner.
But at GA, parliamentarians serve. The same holds true for committee assistants, overture advocates, interested private parties, and even Assembly administrators and Louisville staff.
So is the system rigged? Yes, but not to facilitate an ungodly agenda. It ensures that those whom the presbyteries sent are also the ones who control the proceedings. The commissioners are in charge.
2. The context is complicated. But the complexity is easy to understand.
Now a very sharp moderator might manipulate a desired outcome. But I find that scenario unlikely.
Think of a February meeting of Presbytery. February Presbytery meetings are usually a little clunky. The new moderator has to find his or her footing. But at least most of the commissioners are the same ones as last year.
Now imagine throwing seventy people together who have never met each other, with a moderator who has never led them. Imagine asking those seventy people to answer a set of emotionally loaded questions in only three days.
And then imagine doing it all over again with another new moderator, for another three days, in a plenary hall with not seventy, but five hundred, addressing over ten times as much business in the second half of the week as they did in the first. Even very skilled moderators struggle just to keep up.
3. I wonder how long the Council of Nicea lasted.
No wonder GA feels rushed. Business sped along so much in Portland that I lost track of the contours of the debate. And that experience brought to mind the Council of Nicea.
How did over three hundred bishops from all over the known world reach a common understanding on the divinity of Christ? They talked about it. For a long time.
Given the context—the rules, the inexperienced players, and the aggressive schedule—I’m guessing that the 222nd Assembly sometimes blew it. But I’m also guessing that it sometimes did discern the mind of Christ. And perhaps sometimes it stumbled into God’s will by accident.
But listening for the Spirit collides with budget constraints. It’s easy to debate Christology for months when the emperor is paying your meeting expenses. Want a slower, more thoughtful GA? Raise per capita—a lot.
4. God works in remarkable ways.
And yet, beyond particular votes, I have seen God at work in ways that I didn’t anticipate.
In both 2014 and 2016, my committees faced little controversy. But I connected with people central to the ministry of Los Ranchos.
In 2014, I was assigned to the committee responsible for the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative. I met all of the Louisville staff who supported that work. And Los Ranchos’s participation in the 1001 initiative far exceeds the national norm.
Last week, I served a committee moderated by a pastor from Boston named Young Ghil Lee. Rev. Lee formerly served as Moderator of the National Council of Korean Presbyterian Churches. And one of the biggest challenges to Los Ranchos is incorporating ten Korean-speaking congregations into our life and work.
2014—New Worshiping Communities. 2016—Korean Presbyterians. Right on schedule with work to which our Presbytery has been called. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Or maybe some really clever person in the PC(USA) leadership pulled strings to assign me to those committees.
But given what I’ve said above? I’ll put my money on the providence of God.
The decision-making process of General Assembly is complicated, confusing, and frustrating. It is clouded by putting power in the hands of people with little experience and by a brutal schedule. And sometimes I struggle to explain its decisions to worried listeners.
But God is present there. Madam Moderator, I rise to speak in favor of God’s work in, through, and by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Photos by Erin Dunigan