Presbyterian Church votes steer clear of controversies
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To survey the sartorial choices at the Presbyterian Church (USA) convention last week was to witness the evolution of a denomination.
Many clergy draped hand-knit rainbow scarves around their necks to show their support for gay marriage. Others in the crowd pasted "DIVEST" stickers to their name badges in a signal that they wanted to pull church funds from companies that sell products used in Israel's West Bank occupation. Long after rabbis in black suits and yarmulkes had gone home, young Jewish activists stood outside the meeting hall in loose T-shirts wearing colored signs that read, "I'm a Jew and I support divestment. Ask me why."
For three days last week, it appeared as though the church might take historic action on social justice issues hot enough to draw a global audience to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. A church committee on Middle East issues passed by 36-11 a resolution calling for divestment from companies whose products the church said contributed to Palestinian suffering. A separate committee on marriage voted 28-24 to amend the church's constitution to say that marriage was between "two people" rather than only "a man and a woman."
But Gary Davis from Peoria, Ill., reflected the will of the majority when he lumbered into the meeting hall on Friday morning covered from head to waist in "Caterpillar" gear, showing his support for one of the companies from which the church had considered divesting.
In two votes, the general church body turned down the chance to take controversial stands: it defeated divestment by 333-331 and voted down marriage redefinition 338-308.
Like others, Mr. Davis said the church couldn't afford to stir the pot. "We've had churches leave and others threaten to leave over divestment," Mr. Davis said of his presbytery in Peoria, where Caterpillar is the largest employer. "Why are we pushing members out of the church?"
Conversations with voting church commissioners and observers following the closely watched votes showed that in a fragile denomination, caution won out over bold action even as commissioners clashed over interpretation of scripture. Proponents of the measures rued the role of fear in turning the church away from what they called prophetic action, but those opposed said that a church already splintering needed to slow down.
In the vote on divestment, meeting procedures played a role in flipping overwhelming committee support for divestment into narrow rejection by the church body. In the small committee session, open hearings were held in which 90 speakers brought personal stories before voting members.
Presbyterians, mainstream American Jews, and Arab Christians all testified, but six committee members and three observers interviewed said the most influential testimony came from young Jewish activists. These activists were mostly affiliated with Jewish Voice for Peace, a small but vocal left-wing advocacy coalition that many describe as a "fringe" group. They spoke about their pain at witnessing firsthand suffering in the West Bank and frustration that mainstream Jews were threatening to sever relationships over divestment. Commissioners said their personal testimony helped undercut prevailing rhetoric on the mainstream Jewish perspective.
"The young Jewish voices were the voices that stuck with me," said Rob Trawick from New York, who supported divestment. "I understood that they represented a minority. But sometimes small minorities tell us uncomfortable truths."
Tripp Stuart from Texas said he personally opposed divestment, but supported the committee's recommendation in part because "it was impressive to me that there were Jews on both sides of divestment."
Before the larger church body, however, which compresses debate time and doesn't open the floor to outside testimony, speakers drew on generalized views of Middle East politics rather than personal experience. Supporters of divestment said they regretted that discussion had not included the powerful personal testimony that it did in committee.
"I don't think we ever got to a serious debate in the moral and ethical aspects of the proposal," Mr. Trawick said. "We remained on the level of perception."
Rabbi Gil Rosenthal of the National Council of Synagogues had been invited to offer an ecumenical greeting the morning of the debate, but surprised some by using the occasion to present a seven-minute speech attacking divestment. He warned that "all of those accomplishments [of Jewish-Presbyterian partnership] are in jeopardy if the divestment overture is adopted."
A number of anti-divestment speakers echoed Rabbi Rosenthal's language during debate.
The Rev. Brian Ellison, chair of the church committee that had recommended divestment after eight years of engagement with the companies in question, said the rabbi's speech accentuated fears of angering American Jews and becoming the first major U.S. denomination to support divestment that were already coursing through the church body.
"A lot of commissioners did seem to be motivated by a fear of what might happen. That's not an entirely irrelevant consideration, but it seemed to be what carried the day."
The Rev. Jim Brown, a retired Harrisburg pastor who is former executive director of the mission agency of PCUSA and estimates that he's attended 30 Presbyterian general assemblies, said "there was a lot of just wheels spinning" at the assembly, with commissioners using parliamentary procedure to hold up discussion and occasional confusion about how long to extend debate. Rabbi Rosenthal's warning was influential because "a lot of assembly members hadn't heard that before they got to the assembly," he said.
But Rev. Brown explained that it was especially effective because Presbyterians are feeling vulnerable. Frequent threats to leave the denomination are "new in the last four or five years," he said. "The denomination is feeling very fragile."
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost at least 182 congregations to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church since 2007, most over issues of theology and sexual ethics. A recent survey by Presbyterian Outlook magazine showed as many as 800 more of about 10,400 were poised to leave if the denomination approved gay marriage.
In that climate, Rev. Brown said the threat that "if you vote for divestment all heck will break loose" resonated with voters. Many have spent decades cultivating relations with American Jews.
Less widely acknowledged tensions over pushing out church members with connections to Caterpillar also spurred opposition to divestment. The Rev. Blake Brinegar of Houston, Texas, who authored the minority report rejecting divestment that was passed by the church body, said he believed divestment was misguided because it wouldn't happen quickly enough or carry large enough financial implications to change anything. But he acknowledged that he was swayed by conversations with contractors in his congregation who have relationships with Caterpillar. "They were having serious issues with remaining in the church if divestment passed."
The Rev. Susan Krummel is head of the Great Rivers Presbytery in Peoria that Gary Davis and Nicholas Nott, a 37-year Caterpillar employee who spoke before the assembly, also represent. She explained that divestment threatened the Presbyterian Church in a city where Caterpillar employs over twice as many people as the next largest employer. One-third of the members of one Peoria congregation are Caterpillar employees. She said some employees have stopped making personal contributions to the church because they worry it doesn't want their Caterpillar-generated funds. For others, she said, divestment could be the straw that finally sends them out of the church.
If divestment passed, "I think they'd have more reason to question their relationship with the Presbyterian Church," she said.
Though gay marriage presented a different challenge to the church -- there was no absence of substantive, firsthand testimony from assembly members -- the debate was conducted along many of the same lines. Supporters asked Presbyterians to take a historic stand for the silenced and oppressed. Opponents countered that the move risked rending an already tenuous denominational unity.
"Today the PCUSA has the chance to be prophetic," the Rev. Bob Melone from Virginia said during debate.
The debate featured conflicting views of scriptural authority, with one side arguing that condemnation of homosexual acts was rooted in God's plan for humanity and the other side arguing that such bans were rooted only in ancient culture. But centrists may have been most moved by warnings that amending the church's language on marriage would fracture the denomination.
The Rev. Tim Devine of Susquehanna Valley Presbytery said he co-pastors a house of worship where 60 percent of members could leave if the church approves gay marriage.
After the vote, Carmen La-Berge, president of the theologically conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, wasn't certain even the vote against same-sex marriage would persuade congregations to stay. "The issues within the church that are provoking congregations to reconsider their relationship to the denomination go far beyond this one issue. But, where a redefinition would have served as a lever, this may serve as a salve."
Whether because of the divisions divestment and gay marriage exposed or because the denomination's fragility really did impede discussion, this general assembly seemed to leave important questions unresolved.
Since 2004, each General Assembly has given Brian Ellison's committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment clear directions about how to manage investments in line with church values. Now, three people interviewed who were involved in deliberations over divestment said the church had left Rev. Ellison without an assignment.
"I don't know where to go from here," he said.
Others maintained that between barbs about prophetic reform and denominational splintering, prudence won out.
The Rev. Jack Baca, moderator of the committee on Middle East issues, said Friday as he watched proceedings push past 10:30 p.m. for a second straight evening that there was some truth to charges that the assembly was "afraid of changes."
But he said sometimes "this particular thing is a stupid thing to do. There's legitimate fear and illegitimate fear."
He bounded out the meeting hall doors, a hop in his step as he said his goodbyes and a flighty glimmer in his eye that betrayed a lack of sleep. Nearby Rev. Ellison spoke with Sydney Levy and two others from Jewish Voice for Peace, their eyes just as tired and their feet a little heavier.
First Published July 8, 2012 12:00 am