Rabbi Gil Rosenthal of the National Coucil of Synagogues was to start Thursday morning of the General Assembly with “ecumenical” greetings. I had always thought “ecumenical” referred to those specifically Christian but this definition has now been broadened to include an imam and a rabbi. But instead of appealing to the liberals in the denomination by stressing inclusivity, Rosenthal launched into a fiercely partisan denunciation of divestment, something that brought howls of protest from those identifying with a pro-Arab and anti-Israeli position. The worm had indeed turned.
Indeed the issue of divestment dominated the day as the Assembly returned to the subject in the evening. The majority report of the Committee on Middle East and Peacekeeping Issues had called for the church to divest its $1.6 million stock holdings in Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett Packard because of complicity in what was called Israeli repression of Palestinians. The debate, with a minority report, went on for two hours but was, as the Moderators said later, marked by civility. One ruling elder from Peoria who had worked for Caterpillar for 38 years was particularly impassioned. As I said to someone sitting next to me “It’s lucky that they didn’t ask someone from Canada from the other point of view.” Caterpillar has few friends north of the 49th parallel since it bought and closed out Electro-Motive Co of London Ontario and put 450 employees out of work. The final vote was 333 to 331 with two abstentions. An audible gasp could be heard as the numbers were announced. The men with yarmulkes, who seemed at times ubiquitous at Assembly, had done their job.
Two issues testing the openness of the church to constructive dialogue proved significant but provided mixed signals. The first had to do with whether the so-called “property clause” of the Book of Order of the denomination should be retained. Faced with growing numbers of churches leaving the denomination – some say up to 350,000 will finally depart though the total cannot be fully known yet – the question of who owns church property takes on a weighty significance. Speaking in favour of placing property in the hands of congregations was Jeff Garrison, pastor of First Church, Hastings, Michigan, who regretted the expenditure of “money and energy that could have gone toward ministry and mission” was instead diverted to legal costs. Garrison cited Canadian church union in 1925 and the resulting litigation and hassles that remained for years as a warning to Americans. Speaking on the other side, ruling elder Jan Banker of Tampa Bay Presbytery spoke of “Presbyterians behaving badly” and referred to an incident in their presbytery which had been marked by an “egregious act of unfaithfulness.” Knowing those involved far too well, I had to concur.
The “property clause” was retained but encouragingly a commissioner’s overture asking the Board of Pensions to explore a shared benefits program with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (to which most congregations leaving the PCUSA have gone) and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (a new denomination to which many others are going) was approved by a vote of 319 to 311 with 8 abstentions. One woman minister rose to denounce the EPC, saying that the denomination denied the legitimacy of her ordination but that statement was soon disclaimed and it was pointed out that only one presbytery in the EPC now opposes women in ministry. “I would encourage us to do the graceful thing” Jim McCrea, a pastor in Galena, Illinois, opined. It was a promising moment amid the unhappiness of separation and schism.