Even in its diminished size, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) still matters to a host of advocates hoping to enlist the church in causes ranging from marriage to the Middle East to global warming as its representatives gather for their biennial legislative General Assembly in Detroit this week.
Some advocates are hoping the church becomes the largest U.S. religious denomination to recognize gay marriage, or to pull all its investments from the fossil fuel industry, or to target Israel by pulling investments in military contractors supplying that nation’s occupying forces in the West Bank.
Each of those proposals, though, is facing opposition. Some want the church to retain its traditional definition of marriage as a man-woman covenant, citing the exodus of hundreds of conservative congregations in recent years as the denomination moved left on such issues as its 2011 approval of the ordination of gays and lesbians.
Still others are urging a slower, more deliberate approach to global warming.
And more than 1,500 rabbis and other Jewish religious leaders signed a statement against what they called a one-sided attack on Israel’s policies and even its legitimacy, saying they fear the long-standing “Presbyterian-Jewish relationship in America is headed in the wrong direction.”
In all of these cases, advocates hope, or fear, that what the assembly decides won’t just affect how Presbyterians conduct their own wedding rituals or investment portfolios but will have a broader impact on legitimizing what, at least in religious circles, have been relatively marginal movements.
The weeklong assembly opened Saturday in Detroit. After opening deliberations and committee meetings early this week, the full assembly begins votes Wednesday on dozens of issues.
“I know a lot of people are nervous about conflict at General Assembly and in general,” said the Rev. Randy Bush, pastor of East Liberty Presbyterian Church. “My sense is that conflict is simply people saying with integrity how God has been active in their own lives.”
And the assembly comes as the denomination -- the third-largest in southwestern Pennsylvania, behind Catholics and United Methodists -- also deals with its latest annual report, showing a continuation of its half-century membership decline to 1.76 million in 2013. That’s down over the previous two years by 10 percent and has been accompanied by the departure in recent years of more than 300 congregations around the country, most of them joining more conservative Presbyterian denominations.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) constitution currently defines Christian marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman. One proposal before the General Assembly would replace that with new language describing it as “a unique commitment between two people” regardless of gender -- similar to a proposal that was closely defeated in the 2012 assembly in Pittsburgh.
“We believe that God created each of us with many differences, including sexual preferences, and that those differences are to be celebrated as part of the creative plan of God,” said a written statement accompanying the proposed change, submitted by the Presbytery of the Cascades, in Oregon.
Another proposal would not change the constitutional definition of marriage but allow pastors discretion in how they handle requests for same-sex weddings in the growing ranks of states, such as Pennsylvania, where they are legal.
Currently the church allows its pastors and churches to conduct blessings of same-sex relationships, but only if the ceremonies are not made out to resemble marriages.
Pastors “cannot officiate at marriages for members who happen to be gay and lesbian,” said Rev. Bush. “That’s a pastoral crisis.”
Public opinion and laws are increasingly favoring same-sex marriage, but some caution against going along with the trend.
“In a short period of time a dramatic shift in our biblical interpretation and polity application concerning human sexuality has caused confusion, division and resentment, resulting in weakening, rather than strengthening, of the ministry and mission of the church,” the Eastern Korean Presbytery said in a proposal to continue studying the issue and seek “common ground and reconcilable differences.”
The Middle East debate comes soon after the United Methodist Church’s pension board voted to divest from a British firm that sells security equipment for Israel forces’ use in enforcing its West Bank occupation.
The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board has proposed pulling church investments from three U.S. corporations supplying those forces -- heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar and technology firms Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard. A similar proposal failed by two votes in the 2012 General Assembly in Pittsburgh, which did call for a boycott of Israeli products manufactured on occupied territory.
The three companies “remain entrenched in their involvement in non-peaceful pursuits, and regrettably show no inclination to change their behavior,” the board reported.
Further roiling the debate was the publication earlier this year of a study guide called “Zionism Unsettled” by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, which was created by an assembly a decade ago to monitor the situation. It challenges the legitimacy of the Zionist project and decries what it calls apartheid-style oppression and “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians by Israelis.
Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said such trends threaten long-standing cooperation between Jews and Presbyterians both locally and nationally.
“A policy of divestment resonates in the Jewish consciousness with historic boycotts against Jewish businesses” and the boycott by Arab states against doing business with Israel, he said.
A divestment vote would mean “constructive Presbyterian participation becomes impossible” because it will alienate Jews while supporting “Palestinian intransigence.”
Local Jewish leaders have met with local Presbyterian leaders to discuss the pending votes. “Our commissioners raised honest questions,” said Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister for the Pittsburgh Presbytery. “I’m not sure their minds were changed, but they were able to hear the perspectives of the Jewish community.”
Any impact of divestment would be symbolic rather than financial, as the church’s investments are a minuscule portion of the corporations’ market capitalization.
The same is true for its holdings in the fossil fuel industry, which some want the church to divest from immediately.
“We’re seeing this as a moral issue,” said Susan Chamberlain, a Presbyterian elder from Palo Alto, Calif., who is promoting the proposal. “We really need to put the brakes on the extraction and development of fossil fuels, and we need to put them on in a hurry if we’re going to be able to slow down global warming and climate change.”
But the Presbyterians’ Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy urged a slower, more deliberate process, while the trade association for the Pennsylvania area’s extraction businesses said the proposal ignores the impact of the growing use of cleaner-burning natural gas, which emit less carbon than other fossil fuels.
“If the stated goal is to reduce CO2 emissions, natural gas is doing that. So how do you square that with disinvesting from natural gas?” said Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents the booming gas-extraction industry in and around Pennsylvania.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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