The Presbyterian Outlook is an independent weekly newsletter covering the life of the PC(USA). This series of articles provides a helpful overview of the actions taken by the 221st General Assembly.
Reported by Rhonda Kruse
As you know, Hudson River Presbytery originated an Overture to the 221st General Assembly in Detroit strongly encouraging the PC(USA) to address the gun violence epidemic in our country with various actions to promote gun violence prevention. Overture 09-07 was approved by a large margin (61-5) in the Social Justice Issues (SJI) Committee on Monday afternoon and was also passed by a large margin (85%-15%) by the entire Assembly during plenary late Thursday afternoon. I thought you might be interested to know some of the “behind the scenes” work that was done to arrive at this happy conclusion.
Because an overture to the General Assembly must have a concurrence from at least one other presbytery to be considered by a GA Committee, as soon as HRP approved the Gun Violence Prevention Overture we started contacting presbytery leaders around the country. To our delight, six presbyteries (New Hope in NC; National Capital in DC; Albany, Geneva and Genessee Valley in upstate NY; and Western Reserve in northern OH) concurred, allowing our overture to move forward toward Detroit.
Every presbytery originating or concurring with an overture is allowed to have an Overture Advocate (OA) come before the GA Committee to speak in support of the overture. Rev. Tami Seidel, a GA Commissioner, exchanged many emails and hosted several conference calls with the other six OAs to coordinate their statements, ensuring that they did not duplicate points, spoke specifically to the overture, and kept their statements to under two minutes each.
Each GA Committee designates at its own discretion time to hear testimony on overtures and issues coming before the Committee. The Social Justice Issues Committee set aside about 60 minutes Monday morning, so I signed up to speak on behalf of HRP’s Overture. There were about 6-7 others from across the country, and we all spoke passionately in favor of encouraging our denomination to speak out on the gun violence issue. One of the speakers was Rev. Jim Atwood, author of Gun Violence, Gospel Values and America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose, who has been working with Hudson River Presbytery in this effort all along. No one signed up to speak against the Overture, which we took as a good sign.
Support in Debate on the Assembly Floor
The SJI Committee approved our Overture after folding a couple of related overtures (from National Capital and Detroit Presbyteries) into ours, strengthening the section on legislative action and adding a piece about ammunition purchases. While it passed by more than 75%, allowing it to be put on the Assembly’s Consent Agenda, we were thrilled that the Committee voted to NOT include it in the CA. This decision allowed the Assembly to discuss 09-07 on the floor, thereby raising denominational awareness of the need for gun violence prevention efforts.
Anticipating possible misunderstanding and pushback from people who fear “having their guns taken away” (something our Overture does NOT promote), we preemptively contacted SJI Committee members who had spoken favorably, asking them to support 09-07 on the Assembly floor when it was presented. We developed a number of “talking points,” and distributed them as widely as possible among Commissioners and Young Adult Advisory Delegates, encouraging them to speak out on behalf of 09-07 and against any misinformation.
In addition, we set up a “Twitter Frenzy” around Overture 09-07, asking key people from around the country with large Twitter followings to tweet in favor of the Overture up until the start of the Thursday afternoon session. It was a great success—many people joined in so that anyone who was following the #GA221 hashtag saw the message many times in many forms.
Finally, we contacted the Moderator of the Social Justice Issues Committee, asking him to please include a couple of things in his report to the Assembly: (1) point out that the SJI Committee purposely pulled 09-07 from the Consent Agenda so that the whole Assembly could talk about this important issue, and (2) that 09-07 does NOT propose taking anyone’s guns away but, rather, addresses gun violence. The Moderator was happy to receive our request and included these points in his introductory remarks.
Those who have been following the live streaming of General Assembly know that the Social Justice Issues Committee followed immediately on the heels of the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee’s report. We wonder if that was why there was so little real debate around 09-07. Several spoke in support (with our talking points!) before just a couple of questions were asked. No one really spoke out against it, so the Moderator proceeded quickly to a vote. I took a picture of the screen when the results were reported—what a beautiful sight!
Thanks to all who worked with me “behind the scenes” to get the Gun Violence Prevention Overture through, particularly Margery Rossi, Tami Seidel, Noelle Damico, and Chris Iosso. The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (Shannan Vance-Ocampo, Rick Ufford-Chase, and Mary Ann Harwell in particular) were amazing in their support and promotion of our Overture through their networks. We have met many people here in Detroit from across the country who are as passionate as we are about gun violence prevention and want to work with us to raise awareness about this issue. We hope to now join our denomination’s voice to the growing grass roots efforts to effect necessary change and reduce the number of people killed and injured by guns every year.
Reported by Stephen Valastro
We were asked to make comments on what has happened during our time on the plenary floor today, Thursday June 19, 2014. I have taken on this task for Thursday afternoon when one of the most controversial topics of this General Assembly was being brought before the body. When I state that the advisors approved or disapproved I am not breaking it down but taking into account the YAADS, TSADS, Ecumenical advisors and Mission advisors as one unit of advisory delegates.
Committee 10 the committee on Civil Union and Marriage made its report beginning after the midday break with a majority motion brought from committee to disapprove of overture 10-07 the creation of a task force On Creating a Task Force to Identify Common Ground and Reconcilable Differences with Respect to Same-Gender Marriage—From Eastern Korean Presbytery. A minority report was made and perfected to create a task force on marriage and the confessions to resolve the perceived tension between the scripture, the confessions and the book of order. The minority report was amended from a 4 year study to a 2 year study. After an hour of debate with emotional yet calm discussion from both sides the question was called. In that hour many commissioners and advisory delegates spoke to both sides graciously and with respect. The motion to call the question was approved and the question was called. The minority report was ultimately defeated and did not replace the majority report. More discussion followed. A motion was made to limit speeches to 1 minute and was approved. After more discussion the question was called. The advisory delegates voted in favor of the committee’s motion as did the commissioners.
The committee brought a motion to disapprove 10.001 amending the book of order W 4.9000 Concerning the Church’s Role in Legal Marriage and Services of Christian Covenant—From the Presbytery of Lehigh. The originator of the motion spoke to it and the question was voted on. Advisory delegates voted for the committees motion on disapproval as did the commissioners and it passed disapproving the overture.
The committee moved 10-003 to be approved as amended. A point of order was called that the overture was out of order because it was unconstitutional. The ACC ruled that it was not a constitutional issue and the ruling was discussed. The moderator ruled it in order and after heated discussion and a challenge the body voted and the moderators ruling stood. The body would discuss and vote on the Authoritative Interpretation before the body. Discussion on both sides was emotional and very passionate with concern for home presbyteries and congregations including those in my own For Faith Parish, a great concern to myself. The question was called and approved to be voted upon. Voting to approve the amended AI was taken. The advisory delegates voted to approve and the commissioners voted to approve the AI 371 for and 238 against. While I don’t have to say how I voted I am going to with an explanation. I voted to approve the AI so as to allow Pastors to be able to tend to all of those in their care and with the help of their sessions discern whether they will allow Pastor’s to marry congregents who are in same sex relationships.
The committee moved that 10-4 was answered by 10-3 and the motion passed.
The committee moved that 10-6 was answered by 10-3 and the motion passed.
The committee moved 10-2 on amending the definition of marriage in the book of order W 4.9000. A motion was made to amend the amendment to add “traditionally between a man and woman” to the overture. The amendment passed marginally by the advisory delegates yet passed by the commissioners 518 to 93. A great deal of discussion on amending the definition of marriage took place. Once again there was very emotional and passionate discussion with great concern on both sides of the issue of how this would affect our denomination in many ways. The affect this would have on those congregations who will have to discern their future with the PC-USA, our mission partners around the world and the relationships the PC-USA has with other faith denominations. After a lengthy time of discussion the question was called and by voice vote the advisory delegates and commissioners approved voting on the overture. The amended amendment to redefine marriage in the book of order W 4.9000 passed with the advisory delegates. The commissioners voted and passed the motion 429-175.
The committee moved that 10-005 was answered by 10-2 and the motion passed.
The committed brought 10NB (new business) to the body and moved approval. 10 NB is;
Recommend the 221st General Assembly (2014) direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to establish a way to bring reconciliation to the church that would involve visiting each presbytery and serving as a resource for each presbytery’s discussion of these actions in congregations and the presbytery at-large and present voices of reconciliation for the unity of the church.
After little discussion the advisory delegates voted almost unanimously to approve the motion. The commissioners voted to approve 521-31.
The Committee on Social Justice came up next and began by moving 09-07 On Gun Violence Prevention—From the Presbytery of Hudson River. After a somewhat brief discussion the advisory delegates voted very highly to approve the motion. The commissioners voted 484-87 to approve. Once again I would like to say how I voted. I did not vote to approve this motion not because I am for gun violence it is just the opposite I abhor gun violence but I personally do not agree that this is the solution. My opinion notwithstanding I will abide by the decision of the General Assembly because while I feel strongly on this issue I feel so much stronger in our form of government. Being here and witnessing what we can do as the body of Christ has only solidified my love for our denomination and the way in which we run our church and minister to each other.
The committee moved that 09-01 was answered by 09-07 and the motion passed.
The committee moved that 09-21 was answered by 09-07 and the motion passed.
The committee moved 09-16 Tax Justice: A Christian Response to a New Gilded Age—From the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. Brought by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy this is one of the longest reports of the 221GA. It is a very comprehensive report and recommendation. There was a motion to refer the overture back to ACSWP that was defeated. After some discussion the advisory delegates voted to approve with over a 75% margin. The commissioners voted to approve 425-170.
The plenary recessed for dinner at 5:30 after prayer.
In Christ’s Service
Stephen M. Valastro Ruling Elder Commissioner 221 General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church USA
After passing the Authoritative Interpretation and sending the amendment on changing the Book of Order in a way that would allow same-gender marriage on to the presbyteries, the General Assembly then passed Hudson River Presbytery’s Gun Violence Prevention overture (as amended by the committee)! Thanks to all who have worked so hard to make this vote a reality!
Here are a few of the folks from the presbytery celebrating the vote along with Jim Atwood, who has been such a help to us in this work!
The Social Justice Committee has just passed the Gun Violence Prevention Overture that originated in our presbytery. It was combined with two other overtures and tweaked a bit but it passed by a wide majority of 61-5. Below are Tami Seidel, our overture advocate, and Shannon Vance Ocampa, the OA from Albany Presbytery, persuading the committee to pass the overture.
And here are the strong words that Tami spoke to the committee as our overture advocate:
“My name is Tami Seidel and I am a teaching elder from the Presbytery of Hudson River, which spans 7 counties north and west of New York City, from urban to suburban to rural, home to 83 Presbyterian congregations and 12,700 members.
The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, December 14, 2012 was the moment of truth, the call to action for me. Although Newtown, CT is an hour east of my community, members of my church had relatives, friends and co-workers who were directly affected, whose children were murdered. On the following Monday, my 9-year old son went to school and sat next to a classmate at the lunch table who told them that his cousin was one of the first graders so senselessly killed. My son told his friend how sorry he was and then let him know that there were special people at the school with whom he could talk if he felt really sad. My son was moved by compassion to support his classmate, but it is anger and theological conviction that have moved me to get involved with trying to prevent further gun violence and to ask our church body to do the same.
Fortunately, there have been countless others long before me who’ve been moved to act on the issue of gun violence prevention. The PC(USA) has consistently spoken out about the frightening and growing prevalence of gun violence for the past 30 years. In 2010, the 219th General Assembly unanimously adopted the resolution, “Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call.” This social witness policy statement clearly outlines the tragic cost of gun violence to our society and nation, as well as the gospel imperative to act, to put our theology to work, so that lives can be saved and peace restored in communities that have been torn asunder by the plague of gun violence. This policy makes 16 recommendations to encourage further education and conversation about gun violence and to take direct action in congregations and communities.
This overture (09-07) updates and expands upon the existing policy of the General Assembly by providing specific ways for individuals and congregations to speak up with our unique Christian perspective and to take action in confronting the gun violence crisis. It calls upon the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, as well as synods, presbyteries and seminaries, to develop models, educational programs and resources for support, healing and advocacy. It gives the Office of Public Witness the ongoing and strengthened mandate and authority to continue to move forward with its initiatives around gun violence. It calls all of us to rise above the polarized political climate around this issue and to engage in theological conversation grounded in biblical and reformed faith. Then it calls us to take action, to create safe spaces and a world in which gun violence no longer has the power to destroy so many lives, but to live in the peace to which Christ calls us all.”
The Transitional Presbyter of Albany Presbytery also spoke on the overture. Here’s what she said:
“My name is Shannan Vance-Ocampo and I serve as the Transitional Presbyter to Albany Presbytery which encompasses 67 congregations and 6,471 active members and 125 teaching elders. I am here today as that Presbytery’s overture advocate.
I want you to look at this specific overture, 09-07. It calls for timely updates to the previous policy of the PCUSA, Gun Violence, Gospel Values, passed by the 219th General Assembly in 2010. This policy is excellent and covers much of the ground needed for advocacy and work in the PCUSA around our response to gun violence and our priority call as peacemakers. Unfortunately there are gaps, not in this policy—but because the scourge of gun violence has increased in the last four years. Each of the specific asks in overture 09-07 before you today seek to address these gaps. Please send items #1-4 in this overture to the Assembly in their entirety and without revision.
Item #5 is something new. Please send item #5 in the way set forward without revision to the full Assembly for vote. It provides resources for all entities of our denomination to set up clear and prophetic signage to proclaim that because we are Church we are gun-free zones. It is also cost neutral.
What will that do?
It might do nothing.
People with guns who want to kill will do just that.
We cannot prevent it.
That is not a reason to do nothing.
We are Christians.
We follow Jesus.
That is who we are.
Our faith requires us to be light in a broken and fearful world.
This overture gives another tool to congregations and individuals to proclaim their faith.
This overture gives additional and much-needed theological resourcing to beleaguered communities.
This overture reminds us of the call of Jesus to be clear about our faith and to proclaim our belief in life-abundant.
We participate in the sin of violence if we continue to be anything less than active and bold on this set of issues.
We follow Jesus.
That is our only test.
Albany Presbytery requests that you send overture 09-07 to the floor without exception.
Thank you to members of this committee for your service to this General Assembly. You are in my prayers.
Thank you Mr. Moderator.”
Many thanks to all who worked so hard to make this happen!!!! Now it’s on to the floor of plenary….