217th Presbyterian General Assembly
The 217th Presbyterian General Assembly was hosted by the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley for the 2.3 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex from June 15-22, 2006. 534 elected commissioners attended the proceedings. The Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated that the convention would attract 5,000 to 7,000 visitors, filling 14 hotels and generating an estimated $5.9 million in economic activity.
The Assembly opened with the election of Joan S. Gray (Presbytery of Greater Atlanta) as moderator, succeeding Rick Ufford-Chase. Elder Robert Wilson of Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville was nominated as vice moderator.
Committee meetings were held during most of the week to consider overtures which, with approval, would be brought to the General Assembly for consideration. During the conference, all Assembly business was tracked on "Les", a computer network accessed from laptops used by delegates throughout the Assembly:
- The Committee on Church Orders declined two overtures which would further discourage recognition of same-sex marriages by the church. They did vote to preserve a provision in the Book of Order requiring "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." for church officers. This overture was approved by the General Assembly by a 405-92 vote.
- The Committee on Social Justice approved petitions calling for investigation of alleged torture conducted by the United States in the "War on Terror", for economic development in Latin America to reduce the pressures on both sides of the U. S. border caused by immigration, and for a specific overture calling for Smithfield Packing, Inc. to modify their employment and labor practices. Other approvals recommended adopting a new "Social Creed" and encouraging congregations to work comprehensively to end homelessness.
- The Committee on Health Issues approved reports on empowering people with disabilities and on the causes and prevalence of suicide and self-injury among youth. It also approved a two-year extension of a church-wide dialogue on end-of-life issues. An overture to ban financial support to pro-choice and pro-life groups was defeated.
- A controversial report on alternative images of the Holy Trinity from the Theological Issues and Institutions Committee was approved by the General Assembly in a 282-212 vote. The alternatives to the tradition "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" were approved for congregational study, but not endorsed for liturgical use. A specific exception preserved the traditional phrasing in the rite of baptism. Other committee recommendations calling for initiating the process of creating a new hymnal and "e-hymnal" were also approved.
- The Committee on Peacemaking and International Issues voted to recommend overtures calling for divestment in companies profiting from war in the Sudan and asking the United States to change its policy on the immediate deportation of Haitians. These recommendations were referred by the General Assembly to Advisory Committees for further study.
- The Church Polity Committee recommended that the Assembly address a request for a Korean-American synod with consideration for the desire to keep the denomination inclusive and unfragmented.
- The Mission Coordination and Budgets committee unanimously nominated Linda Bryant Valentine to serve as executive director of the next General Assembly Council.
- The Committee on Church Growth and Christian Education recommended further study of creating a fourth church office for Christian educators.
- The Assembly Committee on Ecclesiology voted to send the "Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church" report to the Assembly without amendment. The report's most controversial recommendation calls for keeping existing standards for ordination, but giving individual ordaining bodies greater discretion over the disqualification of individual candidates. The report was adopted by a 298-221 vote in the General Assembly.
Several notable guests were invited to the General Assembly:
- Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land led an ecumenical service on Saturday.
- Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, North American president of the World Council of Churches preached at the ecumenical service on Saturday.
- The Rev. U-Choan Tan of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan read the epistle at the ecumenical service on Saturday.
- Rev. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, preached at the worship celebration on Sunday
- The Chorale Presbytérienne du Congo performed at the worship celebration on Sunday
Attendees to the Assembly had several programmed tours available during the week:
- Black Belt of Alabama: A day-long of Auburn University Rural Studio works in the Black Belt region, including stops in Newbern and Greensboro.
- A Church, A Mission and an Iron Man: A half-day tour of South Highland Presbyterian Church and Vulcan Park.
- Birmingham: Dark Yesterdays to Brighter Todays: A half-day tour of 16th Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute at Kelly Ingram Park.
- History Lives in Selma, Alabama: A day-long tour to Valley Creek Presbyterian Church, Sturdivant Hall, First Presbyterian Church, the Old Depot Museum, Brown Chapel AME Church, the Live Oak Cemetery, and Edmund Pettus Bridge.
- Yes, Virginia, There is a Third World: A day-long visit to the Servants in Faith and Technology (SIFAT) training center in Lineville.
- Caring Times Three: A half-day tour of First Presbyterian Church, including stops at the Ruth and Naomi Senior Outreach, First Light Ministry, and Greater Birmingham Ministries.
- Montgomery - Civil War to Civil Rights: A day-long visit to Montgomery, with stops at the State Capitol, the Rosa Parks Museum, Civil Rights Memorial, Memorial Presbyterian Church, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Theatre.
- ...the holy Catholic church: A day-long tour to the Ave Maria Grotto and St Bernard Abbey in Cullman and the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament at the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville.
- Canoe the Cahaba with Moderator Rick: a four-mile float down the Cahaba River, passing along the site of the Living Rivers: A Retreat on the Cahaba, led by Randy Haddock of the Cahaba River Society.
- Huntsville, Alabama: Rockety City U.S.A., Antebellum to Anti-Gravity": A day-long trip to Huntsville with stops at Twickenham, the Downtown Historic District, First Presbyterian Church, and the U. S. Space and Rocket Center.
- Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Art and Education: A day-long visit to Tuscaloosa with stops at Stillman College, the Cypress Inn, and the Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art.
- Music, Music, Music: A half-day tour including stops at the Alabama Theatre for an organ performance, and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame at the Carver Theater.
- Birmingham: Gateway to Good Health and the Good Life: A half-day tour to the Lakeshore Foundation, the Southern Progress Corporate Headquarters, and the Andrew Gerow Hodges Chapel at Samford University's Beeson School of Divinity, with architect Neil Davis as guide.
- Birmingham has also hosted General Assemblies in 1917 and 1957.
- Chelsea potter John Rodgers was commissioned to produce 400 sets of communion ware based on a Congolese wooden chalice given to the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley in recognition of their early mission work to that African nation.
- Assembly participants each received a tote-bag made by the Women's Center Matete in Kinshasa from traditional Kasai Kuba cloth, further representing ties with the Congo.
- A $150 million gift to the Presbyterian Church (USA) from Stanley W. Anderson of Denver was announced on June 15 during the Assembly.
- Commissioner Nelson L. Erwin, 73, of San Angelo, Texas suffered a heart attack on an elevator and died during the Assembly.