On Wednesday July 7 there was a demonstration at the Assembly by a group from a Korean-language congregation in the Chicago area.
As I made my way from the Convention Center back to my hotel, members of this group handed out stapled packets of documents that adequately explained to me why an administrative commission of the Synod of Lincoln Trails was justified in taking the actions against which these protestors were demonstrating. Their distribution of literature may have been against some policy of the General Assembly. At no time did these protesters obstruct my passage to or from the Convention Center. Nor did they (to my knowledge) intrude into the meeting of the General Assembly.
This demonstration seemed particularly pointless to me. The protesters' concerns were not related to any piece of business that was properly before the Assembly, and the deadline for commissioners to introduce new business had passed days earlier.
On the other hand, the enthusiasm of the group in lining up to take photos to commemorate the trip does suggest that the demonstration may have served some group-building purpose for members of this faction of the congregation. They had gone on an adventure to Minneapolis, had taken a stand for something important to them, and could go home thinking they had done the right thing.
But the demonstration that received the most attention at the 219th General Assembly was the Soulforce civil disobedience action on Friday, June 9, when protesters entered the assembly hall and prayed in front of the podium until the Minneapolis police removed them. This protest was an expression of frustration over decisions not made by the Assembly.
On Thursday evening the Assembly had considered the report of the Assembly Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues (Committee 12). This issue had its own committee because the 218th Assembly had authorized a Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage, but also because a number of presbyteries had sent overtures to the General Assembly asking for various actions concerning marriage. The special committee's report recommended that the issue continue to be studied across the church with a number of resources, but did not make any specific recommendations for policy change. A minority of the Special Committee had also filed a minority report with a different slant on the issues. The Assembly decided to send both the majority and minority reports from the Special Committee to the whole Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for further study.
The Assembly then disapproved two overtures that would have reaffirmed the traditional understanding of marriage, and voted to answer a number of overtures calling for change by the previous action to send the majority and minority reports from the Special Committee for study. This action left those hoping for a change in policy frustrated by no sign of movement.
The next morning when I walked to the Convention Center through the skywalk I passed demonstrators calling for the Assembly to reconsider the action. I don't know whether this sign-posting and sign-holding violated any rules, but they never slowed up my walk to the Convention Center.
During the morning session there was a motion to reconsider the previous night's action. It was debated at length and defeated.
In the afternoon the Assembly approved changes to the Pension Plan that would extend spousal and dependent benefits to same-gender domestic partners of plan members.
Then came the report of the Assembly Committee on Church Polity, in the middle of which the Soulforce protesters entered the Assembly hall. The timing of this protest is significant to me. The issue is not that it came after a series of successes for those working for full inclusion of LGBTQ Presbyterians. (John Shuck puts the protest in the larger context of the General Assembly's actions on LGBTQ issues. Antony offers a critique of the view that people should be happy with "a few legislative crumbs.") What is significant to me is the specific item the Assembly was considering when the protest began. The Assembly was discussing Item 05-21, a proposed authoritative interpretation about authoritative interpretations - a topic that may appear to some as a highly obscure point of Presbyterian Polity, but one which could have had significant implications.
In order to explain what I want to say about the protest, I need to make a brief digression to explain Item 05-21. (Dan Saperstein offers a detailed explanation of the issues, with which I largely agree. But it is interesting that Dan's article makes no mention of the protest that interrupted debate on 05-21.)
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has two ways of getting authoritative interpretations of the constitution. One way is that the General Assembly in plenary, after being advised by the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, may adopt an authoritative interpretation by a majority vote. The other way is that when the General Assembly's Permanent Judicial Commission is deciding a case or appeal, it may authoritatively interpret the constitution. The most recent authoritative interpretation is binding upon the whole church.
The question that was being debated was whether the authoritative interpretations by the General Assembly in plenary have an authority that trumps the ability of the General Assembly's Permanent Judicial Commission when it is deciding a case. They don't, but an argument can be made to suggest otherwise, and a minority on the Assembly Committee on Church Polity offered such an argument.
The argument for this view depended on painting the GA PJC as just another commission of the General Assembly. The counter-argument, if there were commissioners ready to make it, would have been that unlike other commissions that the Assembly might appoint, the GA had no choice about whether to form its PJC, and could not give its PJC instructions, except perhaps to meet at a specific time and place.
It had been suggested to me that the energy for the minority report came from certain recent decisions of the GA PJC that included dicta apparently contrary to the clear intention of more progressive authoritative interpretations rendered by recent assemblies.
I had heard the argument for the minority view a couple times before Item 05-21 came up. Each time I had heard it, I found it difficult to grasp. Short of some appeal to emotion that would motivate the commissioners to support it, the success of the argument would require the Assembly commissioners to give it their undivided attention.
In the floor debate the proponents of this minority view carefully placed the elements of their argument before the assembly. They had a good rhythm, and were skillfully creating the impression that their view was rising out of the full body.
Enter the Soulforce protesters.
Moderator Bolbach stopped the proceedings, rebuked others who started to boo the protesters, had the Assembly sing and then pray, then let the Assembly be in a brief recess while the police came and removed the protesters.
During that short break the ACC huddled near our table to vote on verbal advice (that we would never give, as it turned out).
When the Assembly came back to order to continue debate, those on the podium needed to remind each other (and the commissioners) what they had been doing before the protest started. The debate continued, but with much less commissioner participation and more comments from Microphone 9 (the one used by elected members of the Assembly). The minority report was not approved, and the assembly approved the committee's recommendation.
Why? Part of me would like to think that it was because the ACC's written and spoken advice was so clear and persuasive. It is also possible that the minority never had enough votes to succeed from the beginning. But it is also possible that the interruption by the group of protesters tilted the playing field of the debate against the committee minority.
I'm glad this vote turned out the way it did, but I wonder: Did the hand of God intervene through that group of Soulforce protesters to protect the Assembly from making a mistake?