The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF) has long been an active participant in the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly (GA) that happens every other year. As an advocacy group at GA, we are committed to grassroots organizing in our denomination and the pursuit of justice rooted in our faith in God’s peaceful kin-dom. That work happens in the daily work of the church.
General Assemblies are where the church nominates its leaders, creates policies, and budgets for the church’s work in the world. It is a time for planning, vision, and creativity, and a time for gathering in community with other Presbyterians.
Like most things in our world, the COVID-19 Pandemic has altered those plans for this year. Although the Committee on General Assembly (COGA) has not officially announced whether or not GA will happen in late June in Baltimore as planned, an in-person GA seems like an impossibility at this point. COGA has been meeting and working hard over the last weeks to make an alternate plan.
The most recent updates from COGA (published 4/16/2020) seem to indicate that there will be a virtual General Assembly where commissioners will consider and approve budgets and to nominate the co-moderators who will lead the denomination for the next two years, as well as other “critical business” such as changes to the standing rules. The list of what is “critical” is still being finalized, but the list is being determined by criteria listed in the update from April 16.
PPF and Fossil Free PCUSA (a project of PPF) support the work of COGA and recognize that they are in a very difficult situation. It is clear that it would be impossible and irresponsible for the church to go on with “business as usual” in the midst of a global pandemic, while people are suffering and dying from the novel coronavirus. The impact of the virus has been especially devastating to black and brown and undocumented and poor people, and we are a predominantly (thought not exclusively) white denomination with a claim to be committed to antiracism. We cannot continue as usual.
We know General Assembly is an important way that we practice justice in the PC(USA). We also know General Assembly is certainly not the only or even primary way that social justice issues are heard and practiced in the Church. Regardless of what is considered at General Assembly this year or in what format, we know that the “critical” work of the Church is social justice, and the call to live that out will not change if General Assembly business is reduced to budgets and elections in response to the extraordinary circumstances in which we’re living.
Even still, as an advocacy group at General Assembly, PPF has communicated to COGA that our primary concern is that committee reports should not be considered without also hearing corresponding overtures, which represent a more grassroots voice of Presbyterians. To hear social justice and other issues only through committee reports (even ones PPF ultimately agrees with!) would create the high risk of devaluing the voices of the grassroots as heard through overtures and testimonies in committees, often from people and communities directly impacted by the issues at hand.
PPF supports a pared-down virtual General Assembly, given the crisis of the pandemic. Such a pared-down GA would consider just what is mandated by the Book of Order and would be short enough to allow people without long-term access to broadband internet to participate. We support this not because we think that budgets and elections are the only critical business of the Church, but precisely because we understand that GA alone does not dictate the justice work of the PC(USA), which is the essential business of the Church.
We will eagerly wait to hear more about the format of GA on April 23, when COGA has said they will make an announcement, and we will discern the best way for PPF to support the commissioners to the 224th General Assembly. Our role at GA will certainly be very different compared to any years past, but our role to support commissioners and advocate for peace with justice in the PC(USA) has not changed.
In the meantime, we are staying home, washing our hands, and praying for COGA, commissioners and delegates, and our denomination.
Stay tuned for updates by texting PPFPEACE to 844-262-8069 and signing up for our emails if you haven’t already.
And join us for a virtual coffee hour on Friday, April 24 at 1:30 p.m. eastern (12:30 p.m. central / 11:30 a.m. Mountain / 10:30 a.m. Pacific). We hope to know more from COGA by then and can share updates, but regardless, we’ll have time to check in with each other and do a little “virtual” social distancing via Zoom. Register here to get the information to join.