Ordination standards, church government and the ongoing debate over homosexual clergy will be among the issues considered at the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, which starts today in Minneapolis.
As they do every two years, some 1,000 representatives, known as commissioners and advisory delegates, will converge from among more than 10,000 congregations nationwide. They’ll represent the 2.1 million members of the denomination.
This year’s theme is John 7: 38: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living waters,” and three church members from Northeast Mississippi are excited to be part of the week-long proceedings.
The Rev. Bill Connolly will attend as the minister commissioner from the Presbytery of St. Andrew, an administrative division of the church, which includes 65 congregations in the northern half of the state, with offices in Oxford.
“It’s very much like a family reunion,” said Connolly, pastor of Ripley Presbyterian Church, describing the atmosphere of fellowship and worship that pervades the biannual assembly.
The Presbyterian Church USA is the largest of churches that carry the name Presbyterian, some of which split since the religion arrived on American shores in the late 17th century. The PCUSA was formed in 1983 as a result of the reunion between the so-called southern and northern branches of the church.
Other Presbyterian churches currently active in the U.S. are the Presbyterian Church in America, which just ended its 38th annual General Assembly in Nashville, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
If the PCUSA’s biannual General Assembly is, as Connolly said, a family reunion, it’s one during which a lot of serious business takes place.
Presbyterians refer to the motions put before the assembly as overtures, and this year the Presbytery of St. Andrew is presenting an overture concerning ordination standards as they relate to self-affirming, practicing homosexuals.
The overture concurs with an overture from the Presbytery of San Diego, which proposes to restore authoritative interpretations that were removed from the denomination’s constitution by the 218th General Assembly in 2008.
That year the assembly voted to remove interpretations that prohibited the ordination of practicing homosexuals, thereby taking the first step toward possibly ordaining gays as elders and as ministers of word and sacrament.
The assembly also sent a motion to all the presbyteries nationwide to change the Book of Order to allow the ordination of homosexuals, but the motion was defeated by majority vote.
“The ordination standards, which had been in place for 30 years, were strongly upheld,” said Connolly, adding he’s confident that, no matter how often the issue comes up at General Assembly, the presbyteries will continue to support the language of the constitution, which calls for fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness, for all officers in the church.
Although homosexuality garners a lot of headlines, other important issues also will keep commissioners busy.
Among them is the possible reorganization of the church’s governing system.
The Presbytery of St. Andrew, one of two in the state, is part of the larger, regional governing body called the Synod of Living Waters, which includes churches in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama.
There are 16 synods and 173 presbyteries nationwide, and that means lots of offices and staff – and lots of salaries and costs.
In the midst of a recession the denomination is taking a close look at how efficiently it’s running its operation.
“Some folks are asking if we really need synods,” said the Rev. Greg Goodwiller, stated clerk of the Presbytery of St. Andrew.
Goodwiller said a number of overtures will be presented to the assembly that “deal with the ongoing consideration of whether we need to do an overhaul.”
“It’s hard to focus on mission while so much of what we’re doing is paying for brick and mortar and staff positions,” said Goodwiller.
Charles Bryson of Leland will serve on the committee that will deal primarily with the issue of possible restructuring.
It will involve, Bryson said, a possible change in one of the church’s two pieces of guiding literature, called the Book of Order.
As an elder commissioner on the Procedures Committee, one of 19 that will meet during the assembly, the 60-year-old Bryson will be the fourth generation of his family to serve an official function at General Assembly.
His mother and grandfather both went as commissioners and his oldest son, Tom, went as a youth delegate.
Bryson, who grew up a member of Tupelo First Presbyterian Church, is no stranger to the governmental function of the PCUSA.
He’s served as the moderator for the Presbytery of St. Andrew, as well clerk of his home session, the denomination’s term for the governing body of a local congregation.
He’s approaching his turn as commissioner with enthusiasm and humility.
“I’m going into this with fear and trembling,” said Bryson. “I feel called to do it, and my family has always considered it an honor.”
Like many denominations, Presbyterians focus more these days on the health and wellness of their members, and recent Tupelo High School graduate Hal Boerner will attend General Assembly as a youth delegate to discuss those issues.
Boerner, 18, knows a thing or two about wellness. He participated in track and field in high school and he’s still into biking, hiking and other outdoor pursuits.
His father, Hank, is the director of the North Mississippi Medical Center’s Wellness Center.
“We’ll talk about everything from wellness to disabilities and abortion,” said Boerner, who will serve on the Health Issues Committee.
Boerner has been reading up on his committee’s topics in the pre-assembly literature sent to him by the denomination.
As a youth delegate, Boerner’s role will be essentially one of advising, since he won’t have voting power on most issues. Nevertheless, he’s excited about the opportunity and he’s taking it very seriously.
“I’ve been a Presbyterian my entire life, and it’s a huge part of me,” said Boerner.
Like a lot of youngsters, Boerner is less concerned with the politics and inner workings of the denomination than with exploring new and exciting ways to be a Christian in a rapidly changing world.
“It’s important for me to let people know what I’m thinking,” he said. “There’s so much to deal with, it sometimes seems a little overwhelming, but I’m sure we’ll get through it just fine.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal