What is the best way to improve the prospects of our being able to meet? Let me suggest paring back the assembly so that it can meet at a large suburban church campus or at an arena or hall connected with a Christian or private college—probably in the Southeast where restrictions have been less draconian thus far.
As noted in your November 11, 2020 General Assembly update, it is imperative that the highest court of the Presbyterian Church in America meet in 2021. You rightly called the Assembly “extremely important for our corporate mission,” and noted that, “we have important issues to address.” It is because I agree with this assertion that I must take issue with your proposed course of planning, believing that it may well result in the assembly not being able to meet in 2021 at all.
You rightly note that the June date for the meeting in St. Louis may prove to be “infeasible” and say that contingency planning will include a backup date in September or October, also in St. Louis. This seems risky at best. St. Louis-area government officials, like those of a certain party in urban areas across the country, have demonstrated a readiness to implement aggressive COVID-related restrictions. While St. Louis County is separate from the city of St. Louis City, here is an example of restrictions prevailing in the area: On November 16, 2020 the St. Louis County executive reduced maximum allowed gathering sizes (of any kind) from 49 to 10.
June is a long way off, but the tendency of locales like St. Louis is to be more restrictive than much of the rest of the country. Arguably, this makes meeting there any time in 2021 highly uncertain. It may be hoped that an effective and widely-available vaccine will change things radically and make an autumn meeting possible, but pinning our hopes on a vaccine’s effectiveness and availability, or counting on the reasonableness of local politicians and bureaucrats, seems like a bad idea. We should also consider that certain locales or venues may require attendees to show proof of having received a vaccine, and we may have presbyters who refuse the vaccine.
Pinning our hopes on holding the General Assembly in a city like St. Louis would seem to be a recipe for having no Assembly at all in 2021, and that could be disastrous. The PCA is in a sort of quiet turmoil at the moment. There are controversies that need to be addressed and discipline cases that need to be resolved. A small number of churches have left the denomination over these issues and more are considering their options. It is imperative that the General Assembly meet.
What is the best way to improve the prospects of our being able to meet? Let me suggest paring back the Assembly so that it can meet at a large suburban church campus or at an arena or hall connected with a Christian or private college—probably in the Southeast where restrictions have been less draconian thus far. Since 2015 we have had 1400-1600 commissioners at GA. If visitors, spouses, and exhibitors were prohibited and the full number including support staff was under 2000 there would seem to be options available. The main business of the General Assembly is business. Stripping away everything not required by the BCO (including seminars, parties, and extra worship services) should allow the Assembly to meet in a reasonably-sized venue and make it possible for business to be conducted in a few days’ time.
Not using a convention-style venue might be an inconvenience—presbyters might have to drive longer distances from hotels to the meetings each day, fewer entertainment and dining opportunities might exist—but the business of the Assembly could still be conducted. A church or institution might even donate the space, which could make up for revenue lost if the exhibit hall could not function. And our ability to livestream the meeting would preserve its public nature even if there was no space for visitors.
It should also be considered that fewer presbyters might attend in 2021 due to COVID concerns, putting less strain on a less-than-ideal venue. Lower numbers would be regrettable, but the Book of Church Order (BCO) allows the General Assembly to meet with as few as 100 presbyters, certain other conditions also being met. The BCO also would seem to give the Administrative Committee the authority to change the venue and to eliminate certain accustomed (but not necessary) features of the meeting.
It is imperative that the highest court of the PCA meet in 2021. Planning a scaled-back Assembly in a non-urban area may be the best way to ensure that the General Assembly can meet.
Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, Tenn., is a board member of MORE in the PCA, and co-hosts the Presbycast Podcast.