Human sexuality and the church ― gay marriage, gay ordination and same-gender partner benefits ― are likely to be the most hotly debated issues later this month when the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gathers in Pittsburgh.

Other major issues are apt to be the Middle East, immigration and how to structure the governance and funding of the 2 million member denomination to best meet the challenges of ministry in the 21st century.

Decisions on approximately 800 individual items of business will be made between June 30 and July 7 by 688 voting commissioners ― equal numbers of Teaching Elders (ordained clergy) and Ruling Elders (ordained laypersons) elected by their presbyteries. They will be joined by 221 advisory delegates and thousands of visitors for the biennial national meeting of the PC(USA).

All of the business coming to this year’s assembly can be found online at http://pc-biz.org. In addition, news and photographs of the Assembly will be available on the Assembly website: www.pcusa.org/GA220, as will live streaming of plenary sessions.

A brief look at the top issues coming to the Assembly:

1.   Same-gender marriage: Overtures from four presbyteries call for a constitutional change in the PC (U.S.A.)’s definition of marriage (W-4.9000) from “a woman and a man” to “two people.” Such amendments would have to be ratified by a majority of the presbyteries. Two overtures call for the Assembly to confirm the current definition of marriage and one of those also calls for a super majority (two-thirds) vote from the presbyteries in order for any amendments to take effect.

Five presbyteries have proposed an “Authoritative Interpretation” of the constitution that would allow pastors to officiate at wedding ceremonies in states where same-gender marriage is legal. An authoritative interpretation ― which can only be issued by the General Assembly or its Permanent Judicial Commission ― does not require presbytery ratification.

An Authoritative Interpretation proposed by the Presbytery of Mississippi argues against such measures, stating that the constitutional definition of marriage is “binding upon teaching elders and commissioned ruling elders authorized to perform Christian marriages.” The Presbytery of the Redwoods has proposed an Authoritative Interpretation that argues that the language of W-4.9000 is descriptive — not prohibitive. 

2.  Ordination standards: Last year a majority of the presbyteries ratified an constitutional amendment proposed by the 2010 General Assembly to remove the requirement that ordained church officers practice “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” That provision had been added to The Book of Order following action by the 1996 Assembly and subsequent ratification by the presbyteries.

The new provision (G-2.0104b) states: “Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life” and ties ordination decisions by presbyteries (for Teaching Elders or ministers) and sessions (for Ruling Elders and Deacons) to the constitutional questions asked of all church officers when they are ordained and/or installed (W.4.4003).

Seven presbyteries have submitted overtures calling for restoration of the 1996 standard. The Presbytery of South Alabama has proposed additional constitutional language that “councils may publicize in their operational manuals any theological, ethical, and behavioral expectations that reflect prevailing biblical and confessional interpretations of that governing body.”  Two presbyteries ― Albany and Genesee Valley ― seek an Authoritative Interpretation that prohibits the kind of pre-judgment they perceive in the South Alabama proposal.

3.  Middle East peace: The PC(USA)’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), completing a process that was first launched by the 2004 Assembly, is recommending that the PC(USA) divest itself of stock in three corporations ― Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions ― that it says are “profiting from non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine.” Overtures from the presbyteries of San Francisco and Palisades support all or part of the MRTI recommendation. An overture from National Capital Presbytery opposes divestment and another from Philadelphia Presbytery calls for “a plan of active investment in projects that will support collaboration among Christians, Jews, and Muslims and help in the development of a viable infrastructure for a future Palestinian state.”

In a related recommendation, MRTI asks the Assembly to renew the call of previous Assemblies to “all corporations doing business in the region to confine their business activity solely to peaceful pursuits, and refrain from allowing their products or services to support or facilitate violent acts by Israelis or Palestinians against innocent civilians, construction and maintenance of settlements or Israeli-only roads in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory, and construction of the Separation Barrier as it extends beyond the 1967 ‘Green Line’ into Palestinian territories.” Three overtures support that call.

An overture from the Presbytery of Muskingum Valley asks the Assembly “to recognize that Israel’s laws, policies and practices constitute apartheid against the Palestinian people.” An overture from San Francisco Presbytery seeks to “condemn the production and sale of Israeli products that come from the Occupied Palestinian Territories” and calls for a boycott of two producers of such products.

4.  Mid Council Commission: The General Assembly Commission on Mid Councils ― which has been meeting intensively since its creation by the 2010 Assembly ― is calling for a sweeping reorganization of the PC(USA)’s governing structures. Two of its proposals are particularly controversial: the elimination of synods as ecclesiastical units of the church and the creation of non-geographic presbyteries “for particular missional purposes.”

The Commission proposal would, by 2016, replace the  current 16 synods with five regional administrative commissions “to facilitate churches and presbyteries to fulfill their missional objectives when realignment is necessary and also to support the presbyteries and regions in promoting the full expression of rich diversity in membership, participation, and decision-making”; and by an unspecified number of regional judicial commissions “to serve as courts of appeal to decisions of presbytery permanent judicial commissions (PJCs) and as courts of original jurisdiction in remedial cases against presbyteries or upon reference from presbytery PJCs.”

Non-geographic presbyteries could be formed by “ten or more congregations and ten or more teaching elders … with the concurrence of existing presbyteries.” The provision, which would expire at the end of 2021, exempts all property issues from consideration by the non-geographic presbyteries. Congregations could be dismissed “to another presbytery within the synod or to another geographically contiguous synod” under the condition that the congregation “shall continue to affiliate with the presbytery of origin for the purpose of mutual blessing, and shall have voice at presbytery meetings, except in matters related to” property issues and the dissolution, division or dismissal of congregations.  

The commission is also recommending that two task forces be named to “review the nature and function of the General Assembly Mission Council and the Office of the General Assembly … with respect to their relationship with and support of mid councils…”; and a National Racial Ethnic Ministries Task Force to “review, assess, and explore the call to, responsibility in, and vision for racial ethnic ministry within the PC(USA), reporting its findings for implementation to the 221st General Assembly (2014).”

5.  Special Offerings: a Special Offerings Advisory Task Force (SOATF) has been meeting for four years to address declining receipts for and participation by congregations in the PC(USA)’s four special offerings: the One Great Hour of Sharing, Pentecost Offering, Peacemaking Offering and Christmas Joy Offering. Receipts for the offerings have declined more than 25 percent in the last 11 years and 17 percent in the last four years ― to about $13 million in 2011.

The SOATF is proposing several dramatic changes in the offerings with a goal of increasing receipts to $20 million by 2020. The first would focus the offerings on particular causes rather than specific General Assembly Mission Council programs For instance, the One Great Hour of Sharing would be promoted as serving disaster relief, community development and hunger ministries rather than Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), Self-Development of People (SDOP) and the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP).

Peacemaking “endeavors” would be included in the One Great Hour of Sharing and the Peacemaking Offering ― which is dedicated to the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program ― would be replaced by a World Communion Offering to benefit the PC(USA)’s overseas mission work. And the one-half of the Christmas Joy Offering that has supported racial ethnic schools and colleges would now be used for “racial ethnic church leadership development.” The Pentecost Offering, the newest of the four dating to 1998, would continue to support ministries with youth, young adults and children at-risk.

Overtures from the presbyteries of Pittsburgh and Albany call for retaining the Peacemaking Offering. An overture from the Presbytery of Western North Carolina, while not mentioning the Peacemaking Offering, seeks “a separate avenue for the funding of the Peacemaking Program.” The Pittsburgh and Western North Carolina overtures also call for continuing the current distributions of the One Great Hour of Sharing to PDA, SDOP and PHP.  An overture from the Presbytery of Inland Northwest asks for a three-year special offering to support Native American ministries.

6.  Same-gender partner benefits: In response to urging from the 2010 Assembly, the PC(USA)’s Board of Pensions (BOP) has announced that it will extend the same spousal and dependent benefits to same-gender domestic partners as it does to married plan members.

The BOP was also urged by the Assembly to design a relief of conscience mechanism for those who object on moral grounds to the extension of spousal and child benefits to qualified domestic partners of Benefits Plan members, effective Jan. 1, 2013. In a letter to employing organizations, the board wrote: “Once the Board has enrollment and claims experience with the newly enrolled population, it will be able to take steps to design an effective mechanism. As a first step, the Board is giving churches and other employing organizations the opportunity to formally declare their objection to this extension of benefits.”  

Once the BOP knows how many employers would seek coverage-objection status in this matter, it will determine “the next steps in designing an effective relief of conscience mechanism.”

Stockton Presbytery has submitted an overture seeking to amend the Book of Order provision mandating church pastors’ participation in the BOP benefits plan so that “any installed teaching elder or minister who objects on theological grounds, as a matter of conscience, to provisions of the Benefits Plan of the PC(USA) shall have the freedom to have the session reallocate the amount equivalent to the cost of participation in that benefits plan to provide for similar benefits through a third-party provider” separate from the PC(USA).

7.  Immigration: The Presbytery of Grand Canyon is calling on the Assembly to rescind an action of the 2010 Assembly “to refrain from holding national meetings in states where travel by immigrant Presbyterians or Presbyterians of color might subject them to harassment or racial profiling.” That action was prompted by harsh anti-immigrant legislation adopted in Arizona and considered in other states.

Noting that immigration reform demanded by the 2004 Assembly has yet to take place, Grand Canyon and the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky have submitted overtures asking all Presbyterians to  “affirm the scriptural call to provide hospitality to strangers, and thus welcome immigrant people to our nation and our church…”; to build bridges that encourage deeper relationships between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and immigrants, and pay more attention to the presence and value of immigrant people in our neighborhoods and churches…”;  and to “educate and advocate with religious, business, community and law-enforcement leaders for legislative reform at the national, state, and local levels....”

The presbyteries of Santa Fe, Hudson River and Chicago and the Synod of the Southwest have submitted similar overtures. And the Assembly’s Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns has submitted a resolution calling for reaffirmation of the denominational policy statement “A Call to Stand with Immigrant Presbyterians in Their Hour of Need”; the development of accessible worship and study resources around the issue; and to advocate for passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide immigration benefits to those who arrived without documents to the United States as children, before the age of 16 and who have been residing in the U.S. continuously for at least five years prior to the bill being enacted into law.

8.  Confessional statements: Two doctrinal statements will be considered by the Assembly ― the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 and the Belhar Confession, which was developed in the mid-1980s by South African churches as their theological response to the racism of apartheid.

Working in cooperation with the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) and the Reformed Church of America (RCA), the PC(USA)’s special committee is recommending a “common new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism that was in keeping with the original 16th century versions of the catechism.” The new translation of the 129-question catechism ― originally published in German ― also restores the scriptural citations in the original. It has already been adopted by the CRCNA and RCA. The current version of Heidelberg found in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions has been widely repudiated by scholars as a corrupted text that was tampered with by theologians in the 1950s.

“Our hope has been to give the catechism back to the church in full as it was first presented, with the Scripture citations that allow the readers to explore the text in conversation with the texts of the Bible that informed the people who wrote it,” states the special committee.

The 2010 Assembly recommended inclusion of the Belhar Confession ― which proponents say is valuable because it seeks to address issues of racial justice and reconciliation that are still relevant today ― but it failed to receive the required two-thirds majority by presbyteries to add it to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions. National Capital Presbytery has submitted an overture reintroducing Belhar for inclusion in the book of doctrinal statements.

To be added to the Book of Confessions, a proposed doctrinal statement must be approved by a two-thirds vote of two consecutive Assemblies and by a two-thirds majority of the presbyteries between the Assembly votes.

9.  “The Nature of the Church in the 21st Century”: With the church and world in which it ministers changing so rapidly, the 2010 Assembly appointed a special committee to assess the contemporary nature of the church. The committee is bringing ten recommendations (all with multiple parts) that call on: mid councils to “actively identify and assist congregations to discern future possibilities … and engage in “holistic evangelism…”; the Assembly to “appoint a task force to study and make recommendations affirming ordained bi-vocational ministry as a critically viable form of ministry in the 21st century church”; PC(USA) seminaries “to develop courses to better prepare students for emerging cultural realities” and to recruit more racial ethnic and immigrant students”; presbyteries to rethink how they categorize and support new churches and ministries.

Also: presbyteries “to develop strategies to identify, engage, and welcome into membership Reformed and Presbyterian immigrant fellowships within their bounds, including investing financial resources to support these ministries”; the GAMC and OGA to publish all denominational resources in Spanish, Korean and other languages as needed; the GAMC to “articulate a Reformed understanding of just compensation based on our theology of God’s providence and the grace in which we all live and serve” and “study how to effectively address the pernicious situation set up by the ongoing and increasing debt crisis for many seminarians and recent seminary graduates combined with compensation offered to new pastors that is not adequate to service the debt load faced by many”; presbyteries to devise plans to bring below-minimum pastoral salaries up to established minimums and “to set a maximum compensation level correlated with their minimum compensation level.”

And: all church agencies “to articulate a renewed call for the priesthood of all believers, moving away from models of church that rely on an unhealthy dependence on professionalized ministry and ignore the call of believers for mission and ministry in daily life”; a sub-committee “to develop practical resources for further communication with and use for mid councils, congregations, and individuals on forming faithful plans for our common future”: presbyteries “to offer training to learn how white privilege and other discriminatory attitudes and practices limit potential for building up the Body of Christ’; and the PC(USA) “to focus its ministry and resources on the society-at-large and to mobilize its agencies/entities, councils, congregations, and members/disciples to reach out holistically with the Gospel of Jesus Christ to participate in God’s just peace and sociopolitical transformation.”

10.  Economic crisis: As the U.S. continues its slow recovery from the worst economic recession since the great depression, the Advisory Committtee on Social Witness Policy is bringing to the Assembly a paper entitled “Renewing God’s Communion in the Work of Economic Reconstruction.” The paper includes a “call to repentance and renewal,” theological principles for that renewal, and a set of practical suggestions for “individual, congregational and churchwide public engagement with economic issues facing the country.

“In the current severe economic recession and faltering recovery, we see the consequences of a long developing moral crisis in our culture. A distorted value system has taken hold, spreading reckless consumerism, deep insecurity, and extreme inequalities across America,” the paper states. “These are not the values of Christianity or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but they have infiltrated the practice of Christianity in America along with other social life. These values subvert faithful observance; they weaken our communion with family, neighbor, workers, and a world in need. Too often, we behave as children of Mammon rather than as children of God.”

The paper continues: “Guided by the Christian tradition, we seek a sustainable stewardship society shaped for the common good, contrasted with a short-sighted consumer society ruled by economic assumptions too often accepted as unalterable truths … We must seek nothing less than to place God — not the economy, wealth, or competition — at the center of our lives.”

The PC(USA), the statement proposes, “opposes the market fundamentalism that has diminished Christian values in our economy and political culture — values of common sacrifice and shared prosperity, care and uplift for the most vulnerable, and responsibility for future generations. These values are at the core of our common life as Christians.”