I grew up in a Methodist pastor’s family and joined the PCUSA in 2000. I’ve always been a member of the Body of Christ, and aligned with mainline Protestantism, but it wasn’t until after attending the 222nd GA in Portland as an alternate commissioner that I learned that I was a capital-P Presbyterian (and I learned that at a PoJ meeting). It’s almost impossible to conceive how the Holy Spirit and Robert’s Rules of Order can work together… but I have profoundly experienced just that since discerning a call to GA three years ago. Such experience has not only deepened my personal faith but has led me into greater connectional encounters, especially in the discernment and debates of behind-the-scenes church work at different levels.
I’m still not sure what all happened. The pace of GA was so breakneck that I often found myself reading the news of the previous day, about GA taking such and such an action, and thinking “We did??” There were two primary reasons for this: one, the disappearance of most of our “reading breaks,” and second, the consent agenda. Although I had visited PC-Biz many times leading up to the conference and had studied my committee’s materials in detail, I found that there was essentially no time to look at other items in advance, until they came to the floor for consideration. Likewise, eighty items were approved at a stroke on the consent agenda, including formerly controversial topics such as human sexuality and Middle East issues; some experienced this as anticlimax, others as relief, and some of us as bewilderment!
I learned much about what a caring church the PCUSA is. At innumerable points during the week, that caring was manifest in both compassion and action. Taking part in the march to the Justice Center was powerful indeed. A Young Adult Advisory Delegate came out on the floor of the Assembly, and the support was deafening. I was inspired by the many and varied contributions to the Hands & Feet Initiative. In all debates I witnessed in committee and plenary, mutual respect was the dominant expression. I made tons of new friends and shared many, many hugs.
I was on one of the largest committees, with 55 members. It was a challenge to get to know each other and figure out a working plan, getting used to speaking only when recognized, waiting for a microphone, and introducing oneself every time. We were reminded that meetings are open and many are listening, taking notes (and expressing opinions both on and off the record). Deliberate and frequent pauses for prayer and daily worship were essential. We listened to testimony during open hearings and received information from overture advocates and resource persons before deliberating on actions.
It was my committee’s duty to debate fossil fuel divestment, possibly the single most controversial item before GA, with some forty presbyteries concurring on the overture. In essence, the committee was presented with an ultimatum which we had to negotiate and send to the full body; there was no middle path available to us. The committee voted 35-20 to recommend divestment, then took action on associated overtures – actions which then had to be undone/redone after the Office of the Stated Clerk went over with us some inconsistencies in what we had voted to send forward. The full Assembly eventually adopted the minority report, forestalling any wholesale divestment.
I was impressed anew at the florid diversity of our church – the moderator candidates were themselves emblematic of this diversity. There were over twenty options for attending Sunday worship in local congregations. There was more use of non-English songs and prayers than in the past. My immediate seatmates in plenary included a gay Puertorriqueño and a young adult from (I guessed) West Africa, both representing the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. It may have been my imagination, but as the week wore on, clothing seemed to get more colorful.
I cannot begin to articulate how much I encountered God’s presence in this experience. It was Session meeting, Annual meeting, and church camp all rolled into one. I am grateful to God and to the Presbytery of the James for the chance to be a part of this Assembly.
Winston Barham, Ruling Elder, Westminster-Charlottesville