Following the Community Organising course in Columbus, Ohio, I returned to New York (with a diversion to Atlanta, Georgia due thunderstorms in New York) to spend a few days once again with the Gearys in White Plains. Then, on 30 June, I flew to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the 220th General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PC(USA)).
I’ve already written about some of the topics discussed by the GA. I’ll return to some of those later, but in this post and the next few posts, I want to reflect on the format of the PC(USA) GA, and how it contrasts and compares with the Church of Scotland’s (CofS) Assembly. This will take more than one post: in subsequent posts I’ll be considering the committees system and the plenary sessions.
A good overview of the Assembly is this leaflet produced afterwards for local Presbyterian Churches. Designed as a bulletin insert for Sunday orders of service, this would be a good idea for us as well!
I should start by saying a big thank you the PC(USA) for their hospitality. I was appointed to be an Ecumenical Representative by the Church of Scotland- effectively a visitor sent by own Church. The PC(USA) took care of me very well. I was in a lovely hotel in central Pittsburgh, and was given a credit card to pay for meals and other expenses. In addition, a lovely lady, Joy Kaufmann, looked after all the Ecumenical visitors with help, advice and hospitality which was greatly appreciated.
There were 21 Ecumenical Representatives, from foreign and other US Churches and ecumenical organisations. There were a further 18 Ecumenical Guests, all from the Presbyterian Church of Korea, who were celebrating their foundation by US Presbyterian missionaries, and 3 interfaith representatives. None of the Guests or Representatives have any vote and their opportunities to speak to the GA in Plenary session are limited. However there were also Ecumenical Delegates, sent by 15 Churches (10 international and 5 from North America) who’d been invited to do so by the previous GA. They were able to take a much fuller part in the decision-making process, and could both speak in the Plenary Session and were able to cast advisory votes (see below).
In the CofS we are used to meeting together in the Victorian splendour of the our General Assembly Hall on the Mound in Edinburgh. Although there has been discussion about moving the Assembly around the country over the years, the Kirk has stuck to meeting in Edinburgh. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the PC(USA) GA is peripatetic, moving from city to city. It is also no longer an annual event, but biennial- another change which the Kirk has considered but never acted on.
The first impression which I had was of the sheer size of the GA. Around 3,000 people had gathered for the event in an ultra-modern conference centre on the riverfront in downtown Pittsburgh. It would was hard to miss that the PC(USA) was in town, with welcoming banners, and all the delegates on the streets wearing their ID badges. However, only a minority of those present were actually taking part as Commissioner appointed by Presbyteries: just 688, fewer than in the CofS. However, joining them on the floor of Plenary Sessions were some 200 Advisory Delegates. The majority of these (173) were Youth Advisory Delegates; in addition were delegates representing Theological Students, Missionaries and the Ecumenical Advisory Delegates. Among those making the rest of those present are staff members, GA administrators, and some 1,000 volunteers from local churches. But perhaps most fascinating for me was to see how many people came to simply observe. Each GA plenary had an audience of hundreds, mostly local Presbyterian church members who had come to watch proceedings.
There were also those manning a large Exhibit Hall, with booths from the various church agencies, commercial companies, mission and advocacy organisations and other organisations (a bit like the Christian Resources Exhibition which takes place annually in Glasgow).
Altogether an enormous gathering, which took a bit of orientation!