The Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the biggest and most influential Protestant churches in the U.S., has elected a Korean-American, Syngman Rhee, as its moderator.Rhee was elected June 24 by the church's 212th general assembly, meeting in Long Beach, California. Four candidates stood for the election, and for the first time in the church's history there was no white, male candidate.The moderator holds office until the next general assembly, which will take place in June 2001. Rhee will represent the church as its "good-will ambassador," visiting congregations in the U.S. and the church's numerous overseas missions. The PCUSA is one of the most generous U.S. denominations in terms of partnerships for aid, education and mission with overseas churches and agencies. The moderator is not paid a salary.The PCUSA has 2.6 million members in 11,400 congregations. The general assembly's annual budget is about $130 million. The church has 625 national staff and 15,000 active and 5,000 retired ministers, as well as 800 missionaries in 90 countries. Rhee, 69, was elected 50 years to the day after he fled North Korea as the Korean War broke out. He is professor of mission and evangelism and director of the Asian American Ministry and Mission Center at Union Theological Seminary/Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. The PCUSA has more than 250,000 Korean-American members and is involved in various forms of partnership with Presbyterian churches in South Korea.However, the main focus of the media and much of the debate at the general assembly was not the election of the moderator but debate about blessing same-sex unions, an issue that is causing controversy in most U.S. mainline churches.Late on June 30, the second-last day of the gathering, the assembly approved by a narrow majority—268 to 251—a constitutional amendment prohibiting within the church the blessing of gay and lesbian unions. To become church law the amendment needs to be ratified by a majority of the church's 174 presbyteries—regional governing bodies—before next year's assembly. The close vote indicates deep division within the church. However the hour-long argument that preceded the vote was generally calm and polite. Those opposing the amendment argued for inclusiveness within the church and for local ministers' rights to decide on pastoral care. Arguments for the amendment generally referred to Scripture.Ecumenical organizations, of which PCUSA is a major supporter at national and international levels, were also the subject of a major debate at the assembly, which rejected a resolution from the church's Savannah Presbytery calling for cuts of about two-thirds in contributions to the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva, and the National Council of Churches (NCC) in New York. In 1999 the PCUSA contributed about $2.8 million to the NCC and about $1.3 million to the WCC. Delegates supporting cuts to ecumenical organizations complained that while the PCUSA paid its contributions, other member churches of NCC and WCC did not. They also complained that both organizations did not represent the whole denominational spectrum of Christianity. But supporters of the NCC and WCC pleaded for support for ecumenism, nothing that churches in developing countries receive aid via the NCC and WCC.In other actions, the general assembly expressed deep concern about the mass violation of the rights of Christians in Indonesia and Pakistan. The church's officials will urge the Clinton administration to put pressure on leaders in both countries.The most urgent international issue considered by the assembly was the escalating crisis on Ambon, the main island in the Malukus in the east of Indonesia where violence is continuing between Jihad (extremist Muslims) warriors and the large Christian community. Churches have repeatedly accused Indonesian military forces of supporting the violence.Will Browne, associate director of the PCUSA's Worldwide Ministries Division, told the assembly that his office had just received word from the PCUSA's partners in Ambon that "one more push by the Jihad will force Christians to give up Ambon," one of the most strongly Christian areas of Indonesia. Browne said that the crisis was "potentially far worse than East Timor" because bigger numbers of people were involved.The assembly approved actions recommended by Browne's division to:

  • call for an immediate investigation of human rights violations in Ambon,
  • urge the UN to send in observers and peacekeepers,
  • urge the U.S. government to put pressure on the Indonesian government to resolve the crisis, and to suspend U.S. military assistance to Indonesia, and
  • call on U.S. corporations not to invest in Indonesia until the crisis is resolved and the human rights of all are guaranteed.

PCUSA leaders will also write, following a request from the assembly, to President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asking them to "actively encourage the government of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to repeal all laws that violate the human rights of minorities."The assembly also criticized U.S. military strategy, in particular U.S. plans "to militarize space" and urged the U.S. government to respect all existing treaties and arms reduction agreements.The PCUSA assembly ended July 1.

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Copyright © 2000 ENI.See our earlier coverage of the PCUSA general assembly, " Presbyterians Propose Ban on Same-Sex Ceremonies | Change to church constitution, which passes by only 17 votes, now goes to presbyteries" (July 5, 2000)