2020 General Assembly Report: Day One
A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
Saturday, June 20, 2020
That word has been much over-used in recent months related to the COVID pandemic, collapse of the economy, and the tsunami of demands for racial justice unleashed by the killing of George Floyd.
Yet it is the only word that truly fits the launch of the 224 th General Assembly.
Originally scheduled to take place this week in Baltimore, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s historic first-ever online General Assembly launched at 7 p.m. on June 19. Beginning with Native American blessings, the Assembly was then led in a worship service in which elected participants were commissioned for service by Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson. In opening remarks, Co-Moderators of the previous GA Rev. Cindy Kohlmann and Elder Vilmarie Cintron-Olivieri noted the significance of opening GA on Juneteenth, challenging the church, “Out of our deep love of Jesus, we call on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to cast a wider net, listen to ‘the voices of those long-silenced’ in the context of our denomination and the world, and to make space at the communion table for those who are still watching from afar the deliberations of a denomination that is supposed to be their own.”
The first big piece of business before the Assembly, election of new Co-Moderators, was originally slated for 8 p.m., and at the last minute pushed back to 9 p.m. as it became clear that some preliminary business would take more than just an hour.
Neither plan worked out.
When the session adjourned after 11 p.m., the election of new Co-Moderators had not yet commenced. And the Assembly made yet another unprecedented move – it called for a new, unscheduled session of the Assembly, for the purpose of electing Co-Moderators. That new session will happen tonight, June 20 th , at 7 p.m. You can watch it live here .
Protests against this change included the observation that only persons of privilege could summarily change their schedules at a moment’s notice. Commissioners may have already scheduled work or other binding commitments for Saturday night. But weariness at the late hour prevailed, and the body decided to discontinue the proceedings, since election of Moderators takes two hours to complete.
How did preliminary proceedings originally slated to take one hour, then two, eat up more than four hours? The primary hold-up was debate over the Assembly’s decision to refer non-essential business to the next GA in 2022. Advocates for several causes lined up to persuade the Assembly to take up issues they consider essential to the life and witness of the church. It was reminiscent of recent public controversy over which businesses are “essential” and thus should remain open during the pandemic.
Which gets to a core question the church faces in every place and time: What is truly essential for our life and witness as followers of Jesus here and now? Recent months of church closures have reminded us that the church doesn’t need its buildings to be the church. What is truly essential for your congregation to be able fulfill the church’s God-given purpose? How about our presbytery and our denomination?
GA is experiencing the same discernment challenge we have been facing – what can wait, and what cannot? – and just as it happens with us, people of good will disagree. And just as we do locally, we must do nationally, praying that God will grant us wisdom and courage for facing this hour, for discerning the mind of Christ.
Pray for GA. Pray that it will be unprecedented not only in its strange virtual way of gathering, but in its discovery of the will of God for us in this season of unprecedented challenges and opportunities.
Unprecedented? Indeed so. May GA, and may we all rise to the challenge of hearing a word from God and doing the work of God at such a time as this.