PCUSA to hold General Assembly online only for first time in denomination's history

Leaders are seen here at Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s 219th General Assembly. | (Photo: Facebook/PCUSA)

Presbyterian Church USA, the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, will be holding its General Assembly exclusively online for the first time in its history.

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly voted unanimously on Tuesday to move the gathering online. Their vote came earlier than planned, as they were originally going to vote on the matter on Thursday.

Julia Henderson, interim director of assembly operations for the Office of the General Assembly, said in a statement that their vote was moved up to Tuesday due to "contractual issues."

“We knew we would reach a point in time in our contract with the Baltimore Convention Center and hotels where they would not be able to meet the agreed upon services listed in our contracts and that day [was Tuesday],” said Julia Henderson, according to the Office of the General Assembly.

“This is a force majeure. We need to let them know we are canceling because they cannot meet their obligations.”

As a result of the decision to move the General Assembly to online, the original assembly schedule of June 20-27 was changed to three days: June 19 and then June 26-27.

The convention center in Maryland where they were planning to hold the in-person assembly has since been converted into a field hospital for those suffering from the new coronavirus, explained OGA.

Earlier this month, Rick Jones of the OGA reported that PCUSA leaders were considering moving the General Assembly to be exclusively online and for fewer days due to COVID-19 concerns.

Due to the shorter schedule and online platform, the plan was to reduce the agenda to include key items, such as elections for moderator and stated clerk, budget, and actions regarding special committees.

“I don’t see how concerts and virtual exhibit halls are critical. I see that we want to create a virtual GA experience,” said COGA member Eliana Maxim at the time, OGA reports.

“But things are not the way they were. We need to do something totally responsive in this unprecedented time.”

PCUSA Stated Clerk, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, said earlier this month that, even with an abbreviated schedule, the General Assembly still plans to address “social justice” issues.

“We are not divorcing ourselves from social justice. We are in a world and nation that is hurting in many ways and people cannot connect with loved ones who are dying,” he said. “We have always been pro-justice. This is not a diminishing of that. I do think there is a need for us to be very poignant in our way of expressing who we are as Presbyterians.”

In response to stay-at-home orders and concerns over the spread of COVID-19, many churches and religious gatherings have canceled or temporarily suspended in-person events.

For example, the United Methodist Church announced in March that they were postponing their General Conference, originally scheduled for May 5-15. 

The UMC Executive Committee of the Commission on the General Conference made the decision due to a Minnesota state order prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people.

UMC Commission Chair Kim Simpson said in a statement that they expected the decision and they are planning “to move forward with new plans as quickly as possible.”

“Our focus in this moment is not solely on the gathering of the General Conference for the work we have been called to do, but is on the individuals, families, churches and communities around the world whose lives are being impacted by this pandemic,” Simpson said in March.

“We recognize the struggle to deal with the physical, emotional and spiritual needs which come with the unknown. We are confident that local United Methodist churches will be finding new ways to be in community with their neighbors and meet their evolving needs.”

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