217th Assembly of Presbyterians

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Season of Discernment

The report of the Taskforce on Peace, Unity, and Purity and Purity of the Church passed yesterday afternoon with a vote of 298 for and 221 against. I and a rag-tag band of like-minded Presbyterians have been working for this since we arrived last Wednesday. Our meetings in the committee stretched until about 10:30 p.m. on Sunday before it was placed in the docket for yesterday's plenary.

Much of the debate at the Committee on Ecclesiology focused on trying to debunk misinformation from the conservatives that it could lead to the banning of women being ordained and that it would lead to the ordination of more gays and lesbians into the church.

Let us be clear about what the taskforce report is. It is a Taskforce on How We Govern Ourselves, it is not a taskforce on sexuality. It does not change the Book of Orders or other parts of the constitution of the denomination; rather it affirms a practice dating back to 1729 which vests ordination decisions on local congregations. There are national standards, but these are locally applied.

Most of the focus has been on Recommendation 5, which issues an authoritative interpretation of the constitution regarding ordination standards (i.e. reaffirms the tradition). But all the other recommendations were received nearly unanimously (i.e. we stay as one denomination and should not split over our differences). They essentially say that we cannot continue to fight and try and resolve our differences by butting our heads. Alternative means such as discernment should be used in the decision-making process.

In the end, it was not the well-reasoned arguments and parliamentary moves that were used by both sides that convinced Presbyterians in the middle. One pastor puts it well: "We are sick and tired of fighting conflicts the way we have been doing it in the last 30 years. We should set it aside and do God's business."

The conservatives mounted a spirited, well-organized campaign led by a minister who spent 20 years lobbying the government. In contrast, our group was organized on the spot. He and I have gotten to know each other pretty well -- and actually like each other despite our differences. I hope to know him and his colleagues better as we enter into a season of discernment to resolve our differences.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

A Day of Listening

It was a day of listening. I do not know how many eventually signed up for the open hearing for my committee. Apparently, there were more than can be accommodated. So our committee leadership cut up all the names, placed them in a bowl and picked 60 names. They were divided equally between the those who were for or against the report of the Taskforce on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. They had 2 minutes each.

Those who were against the report preached at the committee, in effect saying that it will bring fire and hellstorm to PC (USA) and warned that it will not only split the church but increase the decline in our membership. There were even 5 ex-gays (2 of whom I later learned were not Presbyterians and do it for cash) who obviously did not read even the summary of the report and railed against the ordination of homosexuals. Others railed against the ordination of women.

Those who were for the report testified in a calm but passionate manner. They expressed great joy that the taskforce -- diverse as it is -- were able to unanimously support the report. They emphasized the need for churches to use the discernment process the report recommended to find solutions to conflict. They also emphasized that the taskforce was a taskforce on the church, not a taskforce charged with resolving sexuality issues.

Among the speakers were former moderators and presidents of Presbyterian seminaries -- all of them urging the committee to adopt the report. We also heard from the taskforce members who worked for four years to craft the report.

The first part of the day was also useful in testing the committee moderators' parliamentary skills and giving us a taste of the conservatives' strategy to gut the report.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Habemus Moderator

No, there was no white smoke from the electronic voting machines. Instead, there were three rounds of voting before we finally settled on Rev. Joan S. Gray as the moderator of the 217th General Assembly.

Rev. Gray won 307 votes or 62 percent of the total cast. Rev. Deborah Block of Milwaukee won 152 votes or 31 percent. Two male pastors trailed with 20 or less votes each by the third ballot. Rev. Gray has written definitive books on Presbyterian polity and governance. She was ordained by the Presbytery of Atlanta.

It is fitting that as we celebrate several anniversaries related to the ordination of women as pastors, elders, and deacons that we elected a woman to lead us in the next two years.

A Surprise Gift

It is not often than a general assembly starts with an announcement of an unprecedented gift of $150 million. The benefactor, Stanley W. Anderson, is a businessman and an elder who is a member of the Central Presbyterian Church in Denver, CO.

Anderson made his fortune in banking and financial services where he spent more than 30 years. He started Anderson and Associates, a firm which sold commercial card products and engaged in electronic commerce. When he was young, his family was on welfare.

Anderson's gift -- the biggest single gift received by PC(USA) -- will be set aside in the Presbyterian Foundation as the Loaves and Fishes Church Growth Fund. Anderson said in his speech that he was tired of declining membership figures in the church and the financial difficulties churches are having. Presbyteries can apply for grants but they must incorporate the three stated purposes of the fund: congregational transformation, racial-ethnic congregations, and new church development.

This grant will hopefully stop the decline in our membership and kick-start a growth. More importantly, I hope it will fuel a transformation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) into a denomination that reflects more accurately the demographics of our increasingly diverse country.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Creating a Safe Space

Three hours have passed since my first session with the Ecclesiology Committee. It was a long one, starting at 3:00 p.m., breaking for dinner at 5:30 p.m., and then resuming for another session lasting until about 9:00 p.m. It was a good series of ice breakers, of acknowledging our personal baggage, and of creating a safe space with which to discuss one of the most controversial issues facing us.

The committee is composed of a good mix of presbyteries, of age groups, of gender -- but not of ethnicity. Of the 66 or so members, there were only four Asian Americans, two African Americans, and I think one Native American and one Arab American. As a denomination, we have to do better than this.

Judging from all that I heard about our hopes, fears, and ourselves, this committee represents a broad range of views. There is an overwhelming desire to discern God's will on what to do with the Taskforce Report and a general distaste for the deluge of letters, books, and DVDs that were sent before the assembly. There is also an overwhelming desire to resolve this issue once and for all so that we can focus on the other important issues we are facing -- like mission and evangelism.

It was also clear that there are those who will use parliamentary tricks to obfuscate the issue or delay the discussions. Even one lobbyist was overheard complaining that the executive session that followed the dinner was illegal since there was no motion for the committee to convene in executive session. Thank goodness he has no vote -- but his friends in the committee have.

By Their Colors You Shall Know Them

I'm in Birmingham now. I've checked in, took a quick survey of the area, registered, and gotten my blue badge. Blue badges are for commissioners, observers wear yellow, PC (USA) staff wear red, local volunteers wear light blue, the press wear green, guests wear black, exhibitors wear gold, and advisory delegates wear navy. I've seen a couple of folks wearing a lot of colors attached to their badges. Either they are part of the Rainbow Coalition or they have multiple functions and identities during this assembly.

I still have to see badges in Braille, but I've seen a couple of folks on crutches and wheelchairs registering. I am glad that the organizers made sure that those who have disabilities are able to participate and are welcome.

The PC(USA) staff and local volunteers have been very efficient in ensuring that our arrival and registration go smoothly. I have no doubt that this will be an enjoyable and well-run assembly. I am very thankful to the Committee on Local Arrangements and our local host -- the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley.

So how many Presbyterians does it take to have a general assembly? It takes 2,900 participants and 2,000 volunteers. Daghang salamat, local hosts.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Bahala Na

I must confess that I am running out of time to finish reading all the materials we are supposed to review. I skipped church last Sunday to catch up, figuring that I will be worshipping twice a day during the assembly. I did not regret it since I finished reading all the materials that were mailed to me and made a dent on the online documents.

With a couple of more hours of reading tomorrow, I think I will be as prepared as I will ever be for the assembly. In times like this, we Filipinos have a default saying. It is called Bahala na. This is derived from the saying, Bathala na -- or leaving it all up to God.

Such an attitude had always been derided by "modern" Filipinos or Westerners as an excuse for laziness. However, as my faith deepened through my spiritual journey, Bahala na has become increasingly true. We must surrender to God and live our lives according to God's will.

As I participate in the general assembly, I know that I can only study so far, read so much of the documents as I can, and listen to as many briefings as possible. In the end, Bahala na.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Mail Bag - 4: Pray for Us, Mary

The 217th General Assembly is only a few days away and the amount of mail I have been getting is a testament to that. I am getting so much mail that a lot of it has to be left with the my condo's concierge because they no longer fit my mailbox.

Most of the mail have lately been urging me and other commissioners to vote against Recommendation 5 of the Theological Taskforce on the Peace Unity, and Purity of the Church. Inherent in those letters is a fear of change; of forgetting that as Presbyterians we are always reforming. One thing I have learned all these years is that the only constant in this world is change. We must embrace change and have faith in God as we continue to reform ourselves.

Among my recent mail was a card postmarked Wheeling, WV. Fellow Presbyterians there have appointed Mary Hood to be my Prayer Partner. Thank you, Mary! Your and other people's prayers are especially needed to help us discern God's will during this assembly.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Assassinated for their Faith

As I prepare for the general assembly, I cannot help but despair that our denomination is seemingly consumed by the issue of sexuality. My worldview was recently yanked back in place with a series of messages circulated in the listservs I subscribe to -- and I hope it will stay in place during the general assembly.

The controversy over who can or cannot be ordained based on their sexuality is nothing compared to pastors and church workers in the developing world who put their lives on the line as they witness and prophesy for the Lord.

In being prophetic, many have paid for their lives, especially in the Philippines where eight pastors and church workers of the United Church of Christ of the Philippines have been killed since May 2005. I know of no other country where so many pastors and church workers have died in a similar time period.

Here they are, loyal servants of the Lord:

+ Rev. Edison Lapuz, Conference Minister of Northeast Leyte Conference of the UCCP, shot and killed on May 12, 2005.

+ Rev. Raul Domingo, Pastor in San Jose, Puerto Princesa, Palawan, shot on August 20, 2005, died on September 4.

+ Junico Halem, active member UCCP Aluran, Misamis Occidental, shot and killed on December 6, 2005.

+ Nestor Arinque, chairman of the Church Council UCCP, Mabini, Bohol, shot and killed on March 7, 2006.

+ Rev. Jemias Tinambacan, Pastor of UCCP Calaran, Calamba, Misamis Occidental, shot and killed on May 9, 2006.

+ Jose Doton, active member of UCCP San Nicolas, Pangasinan, shot and killed on May 16, 2006.

+ Pastor Andy Pawikan, Licenciate Pastor of UCCP Pantabangan, Nueva Ecija, forcibly taken, tortured and believed killed around 4:00 p.m. when a gunshot was heard, on May 21, 2006.

+ Rev. Noli Capulong, Chairman of the Christian Witness and Service Committee of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines in Calamba City (UCCP-Calamba), May 27, 2006.

I got this list through our mission co-worker in the Philippines, Cobbie Palm. Cobbie is a son of Rev. Jim and Louise Palm, mission workers at the Church Among the Palms (I kid you not!) in Los Banos, Laguna, Philippines. When they returned to US, they directed the Stony Point Conference Center.

"There is a pervasive feeling that the nation is sliding back into the terror of unwarranted killing and the systematic way and method of the killings only point to the military," writes Cobbie in an email. Since 2001, 585 activists and leaders of progressives organizations have been killed. It seems that the bullets are now trained at pastors and church workers.

When we won our fight for democracy in the Philippines, I thought that the extra-judicial killings conducted by the military (the media called it salvaging) would have also ended. Clearly, it has not.

Already, the Philippines is known as one of the most dangerous place to be a journalist, with nine killed last year. Clearly, it is also such a place for pastors.

The Capulong Brothers

Since May 2005, eight pastors and leaders of the United Church of Christ of the Philippines (UCCP) have been shot and killed. The latest is the Rev. Noli Capulong, one of two brothers who are also pastors, who was assassinated on May 27.

At the time of his death, Noli was chair of the Christian Witness and Service Committee of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines in Calamba City (UCCP-Calamba), a few miles south of Manila. An email from one of our mission co-workers, Cobbie Palm, said that two gunmen shot Noli several times as he was returning home. He left behind a wife, a 20-year-old son, a 16-year-old daughter, and the grieving communities he helped.

What makes Noli's death doubly tragic is that he was one of the best possible kidney donors to his brother, the Rev. Dr. Noriel Capulong. Noriel is a professor at the School of Divinity of Silliman University and a noted Asian scholar of the Old Testament.

Noli is gone, but Noriel still needs help. Friends of Noriel Capulong have raised half the $40,000 needed for his kidney transplant. He needs your help. You can email Cobbie Palm or send your donations through the Rev. Joe Malayang of our sister denomination, the United Church of Christ. His address: Rev. Joe A. Malayang, Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, Ohio 44115.