Motions about same-sex marriage, gay clergy and a controversial stand on the Middle East will give convention delegates lots to talk about in Minneapolis.
Smiles and congenial chit-chat abounded as the first of an expected 2,800 people started checking in at the Minneapolis Convention Center Friday for the Presbyterian Church USA's general assembly. But how long the pleasantries will last is in question as the denomination hunkers down to spend the next eight days hashing over several highly contentious issues, including same-gender marriage, the ordination of gay clergy and a committee report on the Middle East that many interpret as being anti-Israeli.
Almost lost among the hot-button issues is a matter that likely would have dominated any other general assembly: a proposal to completely change the church's form of government. Add the normal activities at such conventions, including electing new officers, and it doesn't appear that there will be much free time for the delegates, who represent 2.14 million Presbyterians in 10,751 congregations.
"It will be a busy week," acknowledged the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the stated clerk (highest elected official) of the general assembly. "There are 300 separate items of business we have to wrestle with. Everybody will keep occupied."
It was just 11 months ago that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (ELCA) met in the same building for a contentious vote on accepting actively gay clergy. If Parsons occasionally sounds like ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson in talking about keeping the peace during the debates, it's not déjà vu. He touched base with Hanson before arriving in Minneapolis.
"I like the way Mark Hanson talks about the church's mission rather than its issues," he said. "We all have issues we care about, but I want us to come out of this assembly caring about the ethos of the church. We need to remember that this is about being a church, not just about doing the business of the church."
There will be daily worship services, with a special super-service at 10 a.m. Sunday. Most of the Presbyterian churches in the metro area -- and a few from outstate -- are canceling their services and will bus their members to the Convention Center. (There are about 41,000 Presbyterians in Minnesota.) The convention hall will hold up to 7,400 worshipers, and organizers expect to fill it.
Gay clergy issue is back
The last general assembly, held in 2008, passed an amendment to the church constitution similar to the new ELCA rule opening the pulpits to gays who are in committed relationships. But the amendment failed to get the necessary 50 percent approval from the church's 173 presbyteries; it got closer to 33 percent.
The church currently requires gays and lesbians to remain celibate if they want to lead services. Otherwise, they are restricted to chaplaincy duties.
An amendment to change that is expected to be reintroduced at this general assembly. "There's no limit on how many times an amendment can be brought back," Parsons said.
There also are dueling motions about the definition of marriage. One would retain the church's current interpretation of marriage as a union between a man and a woman; the other would broaden the definition to include same-gender relationships.
A report on the Middle East includes more than 30 recommendations, many of which have drawn fire from critics who consider it pro-Palestinian. Among the more controversial motions are a call for Israel to pull back to its 1967 border and one asking the U.S. government to withhold aid to Israel if it doesn't comply.
The report also demands that Bethlehem "be a free and open city accessible to all people" and blames the Israelis for "the exodus of Christians from other parts of the region caused by various military, economic, religious and cultural factors."
All 300 business items will be introduced in committee meetings, which must conclude by noon Wednesday, and will then be put to a vote.
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392