the 221st General Assembly

Posts tagged ‘ACREC’

On a Positive Note


Unlike its companion, Committee 4, Committee 7 – “Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations” – voted to reject an overture from the Presbytery of Chicago “On Distinguishing Between Biblical Terms for Israel and Those Applied to the Modern Political State of Israel in Christian Liturgy”.

Since the design of this overture was to sever the ties between ancient, biblical Israel and modern Israel – and by implication, between ancient Israel and the Jewish people – it was problematic at best.

In fact, whenever churches have emphasized this distinction historically, they threw open the floodgates to Christian antisemitism.

I’m not suggesting that the modern state of Israel is identical to biblical Israel, but to deny the relationship between the two is foolish and dishonest on the best of days.

In their action on this matter, Committee 7 chose to follow the “advice and counsel” of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and it chose to reject the contrary “advice and counsel” of the Advocacy Committee for Racial and Ethnic Concerns.

ACREC urged Presbyterians to go farther and insist that “This distinction should be made by worship leaders whenever ‘Israel’ is used in a worship setting, whether in hymns, prayers, confession, or sermon.]”

Fortunately, wisdom prevailed in committee 7.

Nonetheless, as with all the decisions taken today, nothing is final until after the whole assembly meets.

 

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How’s that Again, ACREC???


How’s that again, ACREC?  You’re supposed to be the PC(USA)’s Advocacy for what exactly?  Oh … “The Advocacy Committee for Racial and Ethnic Concerns”.  Hmmm.  Your “Advice and Counsel” on Overture 04-09 – “Resolution on Equal Rights for All Inhabitants of Israel and Palestine and on Conversations with Prophetic Voices” would be deliciously ironic if it weren’t so sad.

For the uninitiated:  Business items considered by a General Assembly are first taken up by committees of GA commissioners.  In theory, these are able to delve more deeply into specific topics and then return recommendations to the whole assembly.  In the majority of, but by no means all cases, the committee recommendations are followed by the plenary.

But before items ever get to these committees, they are vetted by permanent standing committees of the denomination.  These are not GA commissioners.  They are basically the ‘religious’ version of bureaucrats.  They give advice to the committees, and they often provide resource people to “help” the committees’ deliberations.  This practice ensures a certain degree of institutional control over the outcome – in spite of the fact that the GA itself – the commissioners – are in theory, the highest governing body of the PC(USA).

So … ACREC attached its recommendation to pass Overture 04-09.  Committee 4 – the actual commissioners considering “Middle East Issues” – dutifully approved it.  But in the middle of ACREC’s “advice” we find this gem quoted:

The ADL [Anti-Defamation League] goes after anti-Semitism with a fist, it goes after Israeli racism with a sigh. As a matter of fact, the ADL and the entire American Jewish establishment should suspend their campaigns against anti-Semitism indefinitely and take a look at what’s going on in Israel.

Now, the quote is taken from an article by Larry Derfner in the Jewish Daily Forward.  Obviously, therefore, it must be just fine for ACREC to quote it without context.  Just putting it out there.

Just what, exactly?  What function does it serve?

Is ACREC really suggesting that antisemitism isn’t a problem?  That “the American Jewish establishment” should ignore antisemitism?  Perhaps there is something uniquely hypocritical in Jewish concern over antisemitism … at least in ACREC’s fevered imagination.  Perhaps an ethnic minority should not be concerned by attacks on its members?

Or is the point more visceral?  Is it more intended to cultivate distaste for American Jews … who might, just might, oppose the institutional PC(USA)’s ultra-biased preferred narrative on Israelis and Palestinians?

Rather an interesting choice for a committee supposedly dedicated to racial ethnic concerns …

 

Will Spotts

Alphabet Soup (a PC(USA) primer)


A PC(USA) General Assembly is often not a user-friendly thing. It takes non-Presbyterians (and I suspect it takes a fairly large majority of Presbyterians uninvolved in national denominational politics) a while to get their bearings.

Endless tinkering has rendered the process increasingly Byzantine. Modifications that have, on their surface appeared good – the desire to increase representation and responsiveness, the desire to create a worshiping rather than deliberating governing body, the desire to lessen conflict – have had the combined effect of introducing needless complexity and making it far harder for all but a very few to know what is going on. Then there is a tendency toward insider speak – a preference for language that is less standard English and more PC(USA) English. Add to that a peculiar taste for ever changing abbreviations and acronyms … YADs, YAADs, GA, OGA, COGA, GAC, GAMC, MRTI, ACSWP, ACREC, ACWC, MEMG, MESC, PNS, BOC, BOO, GANC, GACOR, ACC, ACL, BOP, PCCEC, OTW, TWE, COTE, GAPJC, PILP.

When people pepper their speech with insider jargon and obscure acronyms, they do not generally mean to exclude and mislead, but their words often have that effect. Actions emerging from a General Assembly of the PC(USA), statements by various officials, agencies, services, committees, councils, and news reports can leave observers bewildered. Differentiation between official policy and policies that have the support of national staff and various committees or even of interest groups can often prove difficult. This creates a climate where statements can be made as if they were true and representative if unchallenged, but that allows excessive room for plausible deniability when those statements miscarry.

Since I am commenting on a General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I think it prudent to offer a few very simplified tips and definitions in the hope of helping the uninitiated navigate these perilous waters. This barely scratches the surface, but I mention these items because they are likely to come up on this blog. I would refer readers to the PC(USA)’s website for more information, but I find it rather unhelpful in untangling the web.

Presbyterian: a form of church government – government by presbyters (or elders). There was an envisioned collegiality among ruling (laity) and teaching (clergy) elders. The idea was profoundly anti-clericalist and anti-hierarchy. All elders are elected by church members.

Session: the governing body of a local church. It consists of elected ruling elders, and it is usually moderated by a teaching elder (formerly called a minister of the word and sacrament, formerly called a teaching elder). It is responsible for the day to day business of a congregation.

Presbytery: a (smallish) regional meeting of representatives – ruling and teaching elders – from local congregations. These together usually make decisions that are wider in nature than the concerns of a local church. The presbytery exercises some oversight of local congregations.

Synod: a curious creature. It’s composed of several presbyteries – and it is a higher governing body. Nonetheless, most Presbyterians are mystified by its exact nature and responsibilities.

GA (General Assembly): the national meeting of representatives from presbyteries (not synods). The only people who can vote at this assembly are ruling and teaching elders commissioned for the task by their presbyteries. A commissioner is one of these. How such commissioners are selected remains a mystery – the process varies greatly among presbyteries.

It is important to note: the General Assembly is, in theory the highest governing body of the PC(USA). There is, however, a great gulf fixed between theory and practice. Commissioners operate at a gross disadvantage. For the most part, they are amateurs … they tend to have day jobs. They can be easily swayed by the pros … national staff who eat, sleep, and breathe national PC(USA) politics; national committee members, interest groups, even single issue activists – all have more information, more consistent strategies for getting their ways, better communications, the ability to spin GA decisions to their liking. More importantly, non-commissioner participants tend to be perennial – they have the luxuries of experience and long term thinking – while commissioners tend to come to GA for a week and go home. It is fairly rare for a person to serve as a commissioner more than one or two times.

OGA (Office of the General Assembly): the office of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. It is responsible for planning the General Assembly meeting, constitutional services, church statistical reporting and other duties. The OGA is overseen by the COGA (Committee on the Office of the General Assembly).

GAMC (General Assembly Mission Council): a GA agency responsible to “lead and coordinate the total mission program”. Its members are members of the board of directors of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) corporation. It is responsible for basically all aspects of the mission of the PC(USA) – though it is theoretically accountable to the GA. It has oversight of things like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, Evangelism and Church Growth Ministries, and World Mission.  Until recently, the GAMC was known as the GAC (General Assembly Council); this year they propose renaming themselves Presbyterian Mission Agency.  [As an aside, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll have a PMA – not to be confused with PDA (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance).]

ACSWP (Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy): a permanent committee “responsible for the process of developing and recommending social witness policy to the GA.” Members are elected by the GA.

MRTI (Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee): a permanent committee that views itself as implementing GA “policies on socially responsible investing (also called faith-based investing) by engaging corporations in which the church owns stock.” Its priorities are determined by GA referrals and ecumenical consultation.

ACREC (Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns): a permanent committee that theoretically “advocates for full access for all racial ethnic/immigrant groups to all programs, ministries, middle governing bodies and congregations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by monitoring implementation of policy and corresponding actions, decisions and issues of racial ethnic concern.”

ACWC (Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns): a permanent committee that advocates “for full inclusiveness and equality in the church and in society,” and views its role as providing “a prophetic witness to and for the church on existing and emerging issues of women’s concern.”

ACC (Advisory Committee on the Constitution): a permanent committee of the GA that advises that body on the constitutional implications of various business items before it.

Special Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies: a temporary committee which offers recommendations about adapting to the recent change from annual GAs to biennial ones. A little noticed group, they have brought proposals that have the potential to dramatically alter the Presbyterian balance of power. They have also recommended extending their mandate …

IPMN (Israel / Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA)): a mission network focused on Palestinian advocacy. It was created by a GA, it enjoys the tax-exempt status of the PC(USA), it has access to PC(USA) distribution and information pathways, it is supported by PC(USA) staff. Nonetheless, national PC(USA) staff and officials claim they can exercise no oversight of this network.

NMEPC (National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus): an officially recognized caucus of the PC(USA). Its nine-member executive committee speaks for Middle Eastern Presbyterians to the denomination’s General Assembly, synods and presbyteries.

All committees listed here were created by one or another GA. They all theoretically operate under the auspices of the GA – though many claim some form of independence. They are all theoretically accountable to the GA, and through the representative GA, they are all ultimately accountable to Presbyterian members.

That’s a long enough list to go on with. I will try to use the full name of any office, committee, network, or group the first time it comes up; I will only subsequently employ the alphabet soup acronym. I will doubtless fail in some instances – so I apologize in advance for excluding the uninitiated.

Disneyland for Presbyterians: a GA Overview


In a little less than a month, Presbyterians from around the country – commissioners from 173 presbyteries, young adult advisory delegates, ecumenical representatives, national staff, denominational officials, observers, interest groups, activists, and seminarians – will descend on an unsuspecting Pittsburgh. A General Assembly is an event. Even in years of controversy and high drama, it has a festive element. I have heard it aptly described as “Disneyland for Presbyterians”.

Alas, in the midst of the festivities, commissioners will face a daunting slate of proposals and business items to consider. For those unfamiliar with the PC(USA)’s version of Presbyterianism, a GA works something like this. Commissioners will spend most of their week focused on a fraction of the total assembly business. That business is divided among several committees with names like, “Mission Coordination”, “Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations”, “Social Justice Issues”, and “Church Polity”. Each commissioner is assigned to serve on one. The committee will have the only in depth opportunity to consider the issues before it, and that committee will recommend a course of action to the whole assembly. Now the whole assembly will have to vote, but in most cases they will follow a committee’s lead.

This year commissioners will bandy about ideas like the overture from the Presbytery of Grace, “On Calling for An End to the Practice of Corporal Punishment in Homes, Schools, and Child Care Facilities”, or “On Supporting the United Nations” from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. Commissioners will be soberly counseled by permanent committees of the church, advised by young adult delegates, and ultimately vote.

All kidding aside, a number of these business items actually interest me. You can follow along at home by visiting the PC(USA)’s General Assembly site, PC-biz.  Proposals are helpfully organized by the committee which will consider them.

Several proposals are coming before the 220th General Assembly that directly concern Israelis and Palestinians. Most of these will be addressed by Committee [15] Middle East and Peacemaking Issues.  (I will look more closely at several of these in subsequent posts.)

When you examine the business before Committee [15] all resemblance to Disneyland ends. The most obvious thing you notice is that there are two contradictory types of proposals. On one side you have arrayed the General Assembly Mission Council, the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the Advisory Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns, the Presbyteries of New Brunswick, North Puget Sound, Scioto Valley, San Francisco, Palisades, San Jose, the Redwoods, Genesee Valley, and Northern New England, and the Synod of the Covenant all calling for various schemes of divestment, boycott, apartheid labels, and a peculiar criticism of “religious discrimination by the State of Israel affecting the human rights and religious freedom of Arab Christians and other Palestinian citizens”.

In contrast to this comparative Goliath, three lonely presbyteries – New Covenant, Philadelphia, and National Capital, – have sent overtures recommending taking a different course. All three would reject divestment. National Capital would expressly reject the BDS movement. Philadelphia would reject the label of apartheid.

Two other issues related to Israelis and Palestinians are supposed to come before this GA, but at this time I cannot locate them on PC-biz. Both of them are referrals from the 219th General Assembly. “Christians and Jews: People of God” was to be re-written, and part 3 of the Middle East Study Committee report was to be replaced by narratives and a bibliography.

 

 

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