The first extended debate at the 221st General Assembly (2014) involved not the more high-profile issues facing the meeting. Those will come later this week. Wednesday's opening plenary session instead included a lengthy discussion of whether childcare and other family-friendly options should be offered at the biennial gatherings.
A Commissioner’s Resolution sought to require childcare and family-friendly options, and the Assembly Committee on General Assembly Procedures recommended that the request be referred to the Committee on the Office of General Assembly to develop a childcare program that would address legal and insurance concerns.
The referral was approved by a 330-290 vote, and the discussion reflected the emotion around the issue.
Those supporting the resolution argued that childcare is already offered at other large meetings such as the Big Tent. Following the vote, the issue dominated Twitter feeds related to GA221.
“If you vote against providing childcare, then stop talking about wanting young families in the church, bc you don't,” was representative.
The other item that sparked discussion was a Commissioner’s Resolution to make executive presbyters corresponding members of the Assembly, with voice but not vote.
“We are not at ground level,” said Teaching Elder Commission Steve Shussett, executive presbyter of Lehigh Presbytery. “We are in a position to see how the dozens or 10s of churches we serve will all be affected. But we are not at the national level either. The Assembly could be helped by our advice.”
The Assembly disapproved the Resolution by a 452-163 vote.
In other matters the Assembly
- disapproved a request that teaching elders participate in the moral responsibility of per capita payments,
- disapproved an overture to permit presbyteries to limit per capita payments to synods and the General Assemblies to only those funds actually collected,
- defeated an overture to establish Young Adult Commissioners with voice and vote in place of the current Young Adult Advisory Delegates, and
- approved standards of ethics for Commissioners and Advisory Delegates.
Consent items from the General Assembly Procedures Committee included adopting the report of the Committee on Biennial Assemblies.
Even though adopted without discussion, Committee Moderator Gene McEvoy ured urged commissioners to pay special attention to it. “I want you to understand what a gift this is.”
The committee on Biennial Assemblies had been charged with updating the Standing Rules of the General Assembly, which were written in 1983. The streamlined 2014 version starts with a Statement of Values, rather than beginning with a list of rules. “We have to start with our theology, the why” said Biennial Committee Moderator Carol McDonald, retiring executive of the Synod of Lincoln Trails. “Then we can go on to the what and the how,” she said, speaking earlier in the week to the committee.
There are two core values that shape the work, worship and witness of gatherings of the General Assembly:
- That the common life of the whole church, as evidenced in our meetings, will reflect the mind of Christ, demonstrating consolation, spiritual sharing, compassion and sympathy, and doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regarding others as better than ourselves. We will be in full accord and strive to model the faithful, obedient, humble, and self-emptying witness of Jesus Christ.
- That our engagement with one another in the ministry of the gathered church will reflect the transforming love of God, enabling us to discern God’s will together. We will use our gifts on behalf of one another and the world, giving glory to God. We will love genuinely and hold fast to all that is good. We will rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer. We will live in harmony with one another and overcome evil with good.
The Standing Rules then go on to the “whats” and “hows.” Some of the changes include that the General Assembly could have co-moderators, rather than a moderator and vice-moderator. Commissioners must now be elected 180 days prior to the meeting of the General Assembly, rather than the previous requirement of 120 days. Up to one-third of General Assembly committee moderators could be selected from a pool of previous commissioners from the past three General Assemblies.
Bowing to the reality of a digital world and relationships, the use of connected devices is no longer prohibited. Instead the Standing Rules state: “Commissioners are expected to be present when meetings are in session both physically and mentally. The use of electronic devices for purposes other than those directly related to the current topic is therefore discouraged when meetings are in session.”
The multiple lively twitter feeds commenting on every action and every technological glitch of the Assembly showed that commissioners have an expanded definition of what is related to a current topic. All commissioners are required to follow a Social Media Policy.