07/17/2014 12:53 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

Reflections on the Presbyterian Church General Assembly and How Gracious Debate Can Lead to Action


At the 221st Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) General Assembly, something wondrous happened. We passed historic measures to recognize the love and commitment of all couples and to make sure that ministers can provide pastoral care around marriage to all couples in their congregations. This was an important milestone for our church, and a humbling one in my own faith journey.

As I reflect on my time as a commissioner at General Assembly (GA), what I've been most struck by is how we actually did it. What I learned -- and saw with my own eyes -- is that debate doesn't have to be a battle, but that it can actually be a gracious engagement. We all experienced respectful debate that led us to action. During the General Assembly, I felt the Holy Spirit of God -- flowing among us and in us -- and it gives me such joy and hope for the PCUSA and for the world.

I wasn't alone in this feeling. Many other veteran participants shared that this was their experience as well, and that the spirit of our assembly was markedly different from most. There was an earnest willingness to listen respectfully to every voice. There was a consistent commitment to accept the responsibility of taking action, rather than passing it on by "kicking the can down the road" to some other time and group.

Another commissioner stopped me during a break in the plenary to exclaim how great it was that every amendment, question and point of order was actually perfecting the motion before us rather than trying to sidetrack or manipulate it in some way.

This collection of about 650 commissioners was ready to do the hard work of discerning God's will and setting the PCUSA on a course to carry that out. It was a thing of beauty to witness parliamentary procedure used in its purest way -- not to obstruct action but to facilitate it. This was Roberts' Rules as they are meant to be used: graciously.

If one of America's historic mainline churches can respectfully and prayerfully debate important issues like marriage, justice or geopolitical conflicts -- and reach a conclusion graciously -- might this be a turning point in our national debates? I have hope that this is so.

As the GA came to a close, Moderator Heath Rada charged all present -- most of all the commissioners -- to return to our churches ready to interpret the serious outcomes of this assembly to our brothers and sisters in Christ. In addition to reporting back and explaining the votes at GA, I would encourage all of us to also carry back the spirit of prayerful speaking and listening where we honored the full dignity of each person participating, whether they agreed with us or not.

This challenge is especially critical for those of us in support of the positions that carried the day. I am part of that because the GA freed me, as a pastor, from fear of discipline for presiding at the wedding of two men (together 18 years) on the day after I returned home from Detroit. And the GA took the additional step to make such marriages possible for all PCUSA pastors and congregations by recommending amendment to our church constitution now to be voted on by the 172 presbyteries across the country.

If we can tenderly nurture the flicker of trusting good will that flamed at GA into a fire of common joy in the potential of our PCUSA church family to fulfill Jesus' prayer that we may be one through gracious engagement, then we have a chance of the world knowing we are Christian by our love.

Then, surely, the world will be inspired to follow us. May it be so.