Category Archives: barrier act

Top Ten Presbyterian News Topics Of 2015

Once again, as I think back on the year and review what has happened I decided to make a list of the different themes that stood out to me from different Presbyterian branches. Here, in no particular order, is my list. Your list may vary.

Racial Reconciliation

One of the more dramatic moments in a Presbyterian General Assembly this year occurred at the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. A good narration of the action comes from Travis Hutchinson’s blog. He begins his post with this description of the personal resolution offered from the floor of the Assembly:

Mississippi Teaching Elders, Drs Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan entered a personal resolution at the beginning of the Assembly which acknowledged the involvement of our denomination (and our predecessor denomination) in promoting racism and failing to act to support the goals of the Civil Rights movement. It encouraged us to seek repentance and carry this message to our local churches. The resolution was referred to our Overtures Committee for a recommendation.

The Overtures Committee recommended referring it to the next GA to allow for it to be perfected but when it returned to the floor it was clear that many commissioners felt making the statement at the current Assembly was a more important action than waiting for refinement. But in that parallel universe that is Standing Rules and Parliamentary Procedure the choice before the Assembly was not to adopt the original motion but to refer it back to the Overtures Committee or refer it to the next GA. After much debate, a couple of votes and not a small amount of prayer the Assembly voted to send it to the next Assembly. Then a protest was filed “expressing [personal] confession of sin and hope for repentance.” Over 200 of the commissioners signed onto the protest according to the official news item. Another detailed description of the Assembly action on this item can be found on TE Timothy R. LeCroy’s blog.

Other news in this topic includes the continued work of the Reformed African American Network, the formation of the African American Presbyterian Fellowship within the PCA’s Mission to North America ministries, and the PC(USA) has launched an anti-racism campaign.

In the PC(USA) the presbyteries approved the addition of the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions leaving only the final approval of the 222nd General Assembly in 2016.

Finally, in Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been working with the indigenous peoples and at the release of their final report the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada made a statement that acknowledged the pain of the past while expressing hope for the future.


Mass Shootings and Gun Violence

With several high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. this year it may be impossible to chronicle every Presbyterian connection. But two in particular caught my attention. The first was the shootings at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church in June. Among many connections, the church has had a long and close connection to Second Presbyterian next door. I chronicled some of the many connections in a headlines piece at the time. The other tragedy was the recent San Bernardino shootings close to where I live and several friends were mentioned in local news stories about responses and pastoral care. The PC(USA) issued both a pastoral letter as well as an initial and then a follow-up news article.

In addition, the Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly, Larissa Kwong Abazia, issued her own personal statement about the situation and asking the denomination to seek ways to respond to gun violence in general. In addition, in light of all the shootings it was a year in which the PC(USA) film about gun violence, “Trigger“, was highlighted.

As I said above, there were multiple incidents world-wide and that same June Headlines piece also contained links to several stories about a terrorist attack in Tunisia that killed adherents from the Church of Scotland.


Presbyterian denominations and same-gender relationships

This was an issue across many Presbyterian branches this year with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada beginning a study process to consider making their standards more inclusive and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland debating and sending to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act the proposed changes to their governing documents. For the Canadian church the study documents have been released. In the case of the Kirk the indication is the changes to the Acts and Proceedings have been approved by a majority of the presbyteries but the results will not be certified until next year.

In the American Presbyterian church, the PC(USA) presbyteries approved a change in the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship in the Book of Order. That change went into effect at the end of June and in early September the chapel at the PC(USA) national offices hosted its first same-gender wedding ceremony.


Reaction within the Presbyterian family to same-sex marriage decisions

The reaction to these decisions is worthy of its own item in the list with the reaction to the PC(USA) decision being swift and wide-spread. Within two weeks of the vote total being reached the National Black Church Initiative cut ties with the PC(USA) over the vote. A couple of months later the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) and the Evangelical Presbyterian and Reformed Church of Peru (IEPRP) ended mission partnerships on the national level. The PC(USA) has issued a news article acknowledging these breaks but also saying that other mission partners have decided to continue the partnerships.

Elsewhere, the decision by the Church of Scotland was a concern in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland which initially expressed “deep sorrow” at the decision and during their General Assembly decided that they would not send a representative to the Kirk’s 2016 General Assembly. Outside the Presbyterian family the Russian Orthodox Church has broken off ecumenical discussions with the Church of Scotland over this.


Shifting between Reformed branches

The movement of churches between different Presbyterian and Reformed branches continues unabated. ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians announced that their membership had grown to over 240 churches, most are congregations that have departed the PC(USA). In Scotland the Free Church continues to see a few congregations and ministers wishing to move from the Church of Scotland. In addition, a few churches completed the process of transferring from the Reformed Church in America to the PCA.



With shifts in Reformed branches comes the question of taking or leaving property. Those moving from the Church of Scotland to the Free Church typically do not get to take it. University Reformed Church was assessed about $300,000 to take their campus to the PCA.

But bigger and more plentiful property disputes came from churches departing the PC(USA) including congregations that walked away, were graciously dismissed with a payment, kept their property in civil suits, lost their property in civil suits, and one of the more unusual cases where the court awarded the property to the PC(USA) faction of the congregation but not on behalf of the presbytery.

Other interesting property cases include a very convoluted property case in California with the KAPC and a case in Malawi where the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) “sued itself” over property.


Presbyterian branches working together

Particularly in light of very recent developments this might qualify as the most interesting topic of the year.

Let me begin with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America whose Unification Task Force is on track to bring a proposed set of bylaws to the 2016 General Assembly. This would put the two denominations on track to make final approvals in 2017 and unite in a single general assembly in 2018.

While not a move with unification in sight, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church held their General Synods jointly in a move to strengthen the ties between these two streams of American Presbyterianism. For those not aware, each of these branches traces their heritage back to Scotland separately and apart from the mainstream branch of American Presbyterianism.

Finally, in a move that is not between two Presbyterian branches but between two national churches, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England just formally announced their intent to be more intentional in their joint work in what they are calling the Columba Declaration. This was followed by the Church of England’s Anglican partner in Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church, issuing something of a “what about us” statement.



In putting this list together it seemed at times that I could have filled it with humanitarian crises. But if there is one that that Presbyterians world-wide seemed not just outspoken about but responsive to it would be the Middle East refugee crisis.

Regarding statements, these came from all quarters including the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Free Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, and the PC(USA), and many others.

In terms of action, there are accounts of relief and resettlement efforts all over the news. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is partnering with the Hungarian Reformed Church. Presbyterian churches are among those across Canada ready to help resettle refugees. Similar things can be said for the U.S. where, among many towns and churches, Trinity Presbyterian in Atlanta is ready to sponsor two families. And in Princeton, NJ, Nassau Presbyterian Church and the Seminary are working together to help resettle a family.

And we also have the account of a PC(USA) group traveling to Turkey and seeing relief efforts first hand as they worked in a local soup kitchen and food pantry to help feed Syrian refugees.

In another refugee story, the final Central American individual who found sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson was able to go home after 15 months under a confidential agreement. However, with an announced round of deportations coming up the church, with others, has responded that they are ready to offer sanctuary to more refugees who fear for their lives if they are deported.


Membership trends continue

Not much new to say here. As with all the mainstream churches in the U.S., the PC(USA) membership decline continues with a loss of 2.1% in the number of congregations and a 5.3% decline in the total membership. What is interesting, at least to me, is that when normalized and compared the membership decline in the PC(USA) over the last decade is very similar to the decline in the Church of Scotland.


Publications and Media

Not sure what it was this year but publications and media, particularly those recognized with awards and honors, seemed to catch my attention more than most years.

Let me begin with the Learn resources from the Church of Scotland, particularly the Learn Eldership book that I reviewed last spring. It has been joined by two additional pieces – hard to call the relatively short How Will Our Children Have Faith? a book – that I might get time to review in the future.

But the series in general, and the Learn Eldership in particular, have been recognized by different organizations. In addition to being a best seller, Eldership was a finalist in the Publications category of the Scottish Creative Awards. It was also recognized in the Innovation category as being among the crème-de-la crème of Scottish magazines in the Scottish Magazine Awards.

From Westminster John Knox Press we have a winner of the 2015 Christianity Today Book Awards in the Theology/Ethics category. It is Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. (Yes, technically announced in 2014 but awarded in 2015)

I would also include in this topic the just-released book by Dr. Sean Michael Lucas, For A Continuing Church: The roots of the Presbyterian Church in America. It is described as the “first full scholarly account of the theological and social forces that brought about [the PCA’s] creation.”

Finally, two films directed by PC(USA) Presbyterian Disaster Assistance agency photojournalist David Barnhart have been invited to the Beaufort International Film Festival in February. The films are “Kepulihan: When the Waters Recede” about the aftermath of the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami and “Locked in a Box” about immigration detention facilities.


So there you have my list of what caught my attention.

Some of you may be wondering where all the issues that were happening in Louisville are? In my list above I tried to capture more broad themes and those are more denomination specific. But, to add them here the news out of Louisville included: an outside audit of cost overruns at the last Presbyterian Youth Triennium; continued investigation, dismissals and lawsuits related to the New Church Initiative fiscal management; the departure of Linda Valentine and hiring of Tony de la Rosa in the Executive Director position; the search for a new Stated Clerk and Gradye Parsons announcing he would not apply again; and the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s own budget crisis.

For more information specific to the PC(USA) you can check out the Presbyterian Outlook’s list of top stories. For that matter, the Free Church of Scotland has their own year in review, and the Church of Scotland Mission and Discipleship agency has one as well.

And so I hope that 2015 was a good year for you and my prayers for all of you for a good 2016. My year will start out on a very high note, so stay tuned for that. Until then

Happy New Year and a Joyful Hogmanay

Overtures To The 141st General Assembly About Changing Ordination Standards In The Presbyterian Church In Canada

Coming up later this week the 141st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada will convene in Vancouver. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this Assembly meeting will be dominated by overtures and discussion directly focusing on ordination standards related to those in active same-sex relationships. While I will do a broader preview of the meeting in a couple days, here is a more detailed look at the background and business before the Assembly on this particular issue.

It is useful to realize that while ordination standards, and specifically those standards related to individuals in same-sex relationships, have been a hot topic for a while in a couple of Presbyterian branches, for the last couple decades it has been much more of a background issue for the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC). That has been changing quickly over the last few months.

The current discussion has its roots in the 1984 General Assembly when the Assembly asked for a Statement on Homosexuality which was presented to, and adopted by, the 1985 General Assembly. But to go along with that a study was requested and approved by the 1985 Assembly. It was presented to the 1992 Assembly which approved it and sent it down to the presbyteries. The final version was accepted by the 1994 General Assembly (page 251). The first two parts are available within a study guide prepared later.

The report deals with a number of issues regarding human sexuality but as regards homosexual relationships it follows the church’s doctrine and comes out against them:

6.20 Is homosexual practice a Christian option? Our brief, exegetical review of biblical texts set within the broader biblical perspective on our vocation as sexual beings leads us to say `No’. Committed heterosexual union is so connected with creation in both its unitive and procreative dimensions that we must consider this as central to God’s intention for human sexuality. Accordingly, Scripture treats all other contexts for sexual intercourse, as departures from God’s created order.

One individual resigned from the committee that drafted the study and four more recorded their dissent.

At the same Assembly where this study was accepted the Assembly was already dealing with a specific case. Mr. Darryl MacDonald was serving as a supply minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Lachine, Quebec. The church applied to the presbytery to ordain him and the presbytery approved and he was ordained. The decision was appealed to the General Assembly by 13 members of the presbytery and a nine-member investigating committee formed. With a slim five-member majority the committee recommended to the 1996 General Assembly that his ordination call be nullified. By a wide margin the Assembly approved the committee recommendations including that his certification for interim work be revoked as well. Presented with the request to come into compliance with the order of the General Assembly the church chose instead to sever ties with the denomination. There was another appeal to the 1998 General Assembly to at least allow Mr. MacDonald to preach in Presbyterian Churches. The Assembly reaffirmed the 1996 decision and stated that the revocation of the certificate was complete and he could not lead worship in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Ultimatly, St. Andrew’s joined the United Church and Mr. MacDonald was accepted as a minister in that denomination which had not barriers to ordination. In 2012 a petition was sent to the General Assembly pointing out that other United Church ministers could freely preach in Presbyterian pulpits and the force of the earlier Assembly decision meant one United Church minister in good standing in that denomination was singled out for exclusion. A special committee was formed and the Assembly concurred with that committee’s recommendation that the restriction should be lifted. The article in the Presbyterian Record quotes the committee convener:

“Accepting the petition removes an anomaly that only one ordained minister in a sister denomination is prohibited from preaching as a guest in one of our congregation’s pulpits,” said David Kilgour, a commissioner from the Presbytery of Ottawa and convener of the special committee.

  (Three other web sites that have information on this history include a page from Religious Tolerance, an AP news story and the successor church’s history web page.)

So that brings us to the recent developments. Since the 140th General Assembly a number of overtures from presbyteries and church sessions around Canada have been submitted for consideration by this year’s Assembly. The lead overture is #4 from the Presbytery of East Toronto titled “Full inclusion in the church of persons regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.” By my count there are six additional overtures that are concurring or similar in wording and intent. In response there was a flood of overtures that began with #6 from the Session Of Kortright, Guelph, Ontario titled “Affirming the Statement on Human Sexuality (1994).” There are a total of 13 of these or similar overtures. Beyond that there is an overture (#15) to encourage listening within the church on this subject, another (#16) to set up a process for dialogue about the issue and another (#29) to have the Church Doctrine Committee “review how The Presbyterian Church in Canada has formerly addressed the issue of homosexual relationships, and in particular to study the traditional exegesis of the biblical texts that speak to this issue, alongside the various revisionist readings of those texts that have been suggested in recent decades.”

In total, there are 24 overtures out of all 37 submitted to this Assembly that deal with human sexuality. You can find all the overtures at the end of the reports volume beginning on the 471st page of the volume.

One detail that might be a point of major discussion in this work, and which is the point of the one memorial submitted to the Assembly, is whether the act is a declaratory act and takes effect immediately or if it will need to be sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act. The memorial and the overtures affirming the 1994 report request that any changes be sent to the presbyteries. The overtures requesting full inclusion ask for a declaratory act. In a parallel discussion the Church of Scotland just spent some time in a similar discussion and decided to send it to the presbyteries. On the one hand that is always a safe call, and from my sense of polity, if the PCC approves more inclusive language I would argue that it should go down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act just as the Church of Scotland action did last year. However, I do disagree with the Kirk’s action this year as the action it took was more in the line of an adjustment to last year’s act to bring it in line with the new civil environment and not a brand new action so presbytery concurrence is not necessary.

One more interesting overture in here is the very last one, #37. It asks for a gracious dismissal policy for churches to leave the denomination, implicitly suggesting that particular churches might want to break with the PCC if the Assembly decides to change the ordination standards. As a polity note, and since the PC(USA) action is specifically mentioned, I would point out that the PC(USA) General Assembly action was to encourage presbyteries to have gracious dismissal policies resulting in a large number of various local policies and not a uniform national policy.

Now here comes the “hold onto your hat moment.” None of the actions respectfully requested of the Venerable the 141st General Assembly may happen, at least this year. Faced with this groundswell on both sides of the issue a special process is being proposed. Here are a few excepts from a Presbyterian Record article about the background:

Eighteen sessions and six presbyteries have filed overtures for discussion at this year’s General Assembly on the issue of human sexuality. This volume of response is without precedence in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

“I went through the Acts and Proceedings from 1960 to 1966, the years before the ordination of women was approved,” Rev. Stephen Kendall [Principal Clerk of the General Assembly] told the Record. “There were three overtures on that issue.”..

The overwhelming response has prompted Kendall and his team at the Clerk’s office to proceed a little differently from previous years. All of the referred overtures have been sent to Committee on Church Doctrine and to Justice Ministries for review, so they can prepare themselves for the inevitable debate…

Three Presbyterian educators—Dale Woods, Principal of Presbyterian College, Montreal; Patricia Dutcher-Walls, Professor of the Hebrew Bible, Vancouver School of Theology; and, Kevin Livingston, Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto—have been asked to prepare a facilitation process on human sexuality. Time on the assembly agenda has been designated for these discussions. “Assembly should be a safe place for conversation,” said Kendall. Several blocks of time have been allotted to ensure voices are heard and ideas are shared.

“Assemblies are places of discernment and when we’re actually there together we will have the opportunity to do just that.”

In summary, the special facilitation process being proposed would defer decisions on the overtures until the whole church has had a chance to talk about them.  It would begin with discussions among the Assembly commissioners and spread to the wider church in the coming year. The recommendations also come with a reading list. (It will be interesting to see if Kevin DeYoung’s brand new book gets added to that list.) Here are the specific steps (slightly edited) being proposed which the commissioners would have to accept (the Recommendations begin on the 158th page of the Reports Volume):

  1. That the General Assembly move into a committee of the whole for up to two sessions of a facilitated process to discuss the issues addressed in the overtures concerning human sexuality and our church’s response to them. The Saturday session would be “Listening Circles” around the tables and the Sunday session would be “Praying Circles.”
  2. That notes of the conversations during the facilitated process be submitted to the Committee on Church Doctrine and the Life and Mission Agency Committee (Justice Ministries) to assist those committees as they prepare their responses to these overtures for a future General Assembly.
  3. That the Committee on Church Doctrine and the Life and Mission Agency (Justice Ministries) confer throughout the coming year as each continues the work of responding to the overtures referred to them.
  4. That the church (congregations, sessions, presbyteries, synods and standing committees) be encouraged to engage in a year of conversation and discernment on the topics of human sexuality, sexual orientation and other related matters raised in the overtures.
  5. That the Committee on Church Doctrine and the Life and Mission Agency (Justice Ministries) prepare a joint study guide on sexual orientation to be posted on the church’s website by the end of October, 2015.
  6. That the above be received as the interim response from the Committee on Church Doctrine and from the Life and Mission Agency (Justice Ministries) regarding our church’s response to sexual orientation today.

So if the recommendations are accepted there would be the start of significant discussion but limited debate about these issues at this General Assembly and recommendations would be returned from the Committee and the Agency to the 142nd General Assembly.

We will see what the will of the Assembly is regarding the overtures and the proposed process. As this develops you will probably find discussions on Facebook on the Presbyterian Record page as well as page of Canadian Presbyterians for the Ordination of Gay and Lesbian People.

So there is the background, the overtures and the recommendations for the Assembly to consider later this week. As I said, I will have the broader preview in a couple of days, but right now, Belfast is calling

Church Of Scotland Ordination Overture Results And Reaction

Almost all of the presbyteries in the Church of Scotland have now voted on the overture from the 2014 General Assembly related to ministers in same-sex relationships and it is clear that the overture has gotten strong approval from them.

While this is a major hurdle it is important to keep in mind some of the fine details. First, it is not final until the 2015 General Assembly takes a look at it and adds its concurrence. Considering the margin with which it passed the 2014 Assembly and the number of presbyteries that gave approval it would seem reasonable to expect the next Assembly to also approve it. But we need to keep in mind that at the moment the process has not been completed.

The second item to remember is that this overture does not change the official stance of the Kirk but only provides a mechanism for individual churches to depart from that stance in the ordination and installation of officers should the need arise.

And the headlines, even from the official publication Life and Work, are a bit inaccurate in that gay clergy have been permitted if they were celibate, but the overture proposes new policies for partnered clergy in same-sex civil unions.

One important aspect of this vote to keep in mind is that the margin among the overall votes cast is much narrower than the presbytery vote. Of the 46 presbyteries it is being reported that so far 28 have voted yes and 11 have voted no on the overture. That is a 72% yes vote. But if you look at the total from the presbyters, it was 1253 yes and 1006 no, a 55% to 45% split.

As the results were spreading through the news media the last couple of days the group Forward Together, a Church of Scotland affinity group opposed to the proposed polity changes the overture would bring, announced their new initiative — the Covenant Fellowship. Their Statement begins:

We believe that the Church of Scotland is moving away from its roots in Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith. We believe that the time has come for the creation of a ‘Covenant Fellowship’ within the Church. This Covenant Fellowship will draw together those who believe that the Scriptures, in their entirety, are the Word of God and must provide the basis for everything we believe and do. Our vision is nothing less than the reformation and renewal of the Church of Scotland, in accordance with the Word of God and by the empowering of his life-giving Spirit.

The Church of Scotland is facing a severe crisis. A majority of Presbyteries has now adopted an Overture which would permit those in same-sex civil partnerships to serve as ministers and deacons in the Church. Many people feel that the only way to protest against this unscriptural move is to leave the Church of Scotland. Many ministers, elders, members and adherents have done so already and more will follow. While respecting that position, our hearts’ desire is to remain within the Church, in order to seek its reformation from within, although we recognise that not all will feel able to make such an unqualified commitment.

The Statement goes on to solicit from like-minded individuals and churches their signing on to the Declaration of support for these principles and protest of the actions of the Church of Scotland.

The Statement was issued in association with comments from the Rev. Prof. Andrew McGowan, which were picked up by the media. He said, in part:

If approved, this (overture) will extend even further the disruption of the Church of Scotland.

Many well-known congregations (individual ministers and groups of worshippers) in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Stornoway and elsewhere have already left the Church, or been split in two.


The hope is that the Covenant Fellowship, which begins today as a protest against recent events, will grow to become an effective campaign group within the Church on behalf of those who believe in Christian orthodoxy.

This statement and comments did not go unnoticed, and some of the language in the comments and the Statement elicited an official response from the Acting Principal Clerk of the General Assembly. The Rev. Dr. George Whyte says:

The Church of Scotland welcomes Professor McGowan’s continued commitment to remain a member and a minister but there are in his statement accusations which we believe are not accurate.

The proposed legislation which is the focus of the group’s criticism has been painstakingly considered by the Church across the nation. We know that for many people the discussion has been difficult and it has always been clear that we could never come to a common mind on the matter.

This pain and disillusionment has been felt by those, like Professor McGowan, who think the Church is going in the wrong direction and those who desperately want a Church which would go further on their chosen route. Yet the issue has to be discussed and we are a Church which recognises “liberty of opinion.” Our General Assembly has agreed that this proposal – to allow a congregation call a minister in a civil partnership – falls into that category. It is not, therefore, an attack on the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith.

“We share Professor McGowan’s abhorrence of further disruption and we hope and pray that across Scotland Christians will find ways to continue to work together despite their varied opinions.”

In addition to the Covenant Fellowship, media was also reporting comments from a spokesman for the Free Church of Scotland. The comments expressed concern for the actions and direction of the Church of Scotland and concluded with the line “Although we are saddened by the present circumstances in the Church of Scotland, we are happy to provide a home to those who wish to leave.”

The Church of Scotland has seen the departure of a few ministers, congregations and members over the last few years since the trajectory was set by the 2011 General Assembly. But this new association seems to now more clearly define one side although being a brand new initiative we will have to see how it develops.

It is also tempting to map the current landscape of the PC(USA) and the directions of ebb and flow there onto where the Church of Scotland find itself now, and it almost seems that naming the new initiative the Covenant Fellowship invites that comparison. However, the lay of the land in the Kirk is probably going to be shifting rapidly and I will let the structures settle down a bit before I take the time to undertake that analysis.

What can I really say at this point to sum up these developments but… Stay Tuned!

Presbyteries Begin Voting On Same-Sex Marriage Actions

With General Assembly season now behind us we move into the portion of the year where the actions of the General Assemblies that require presbytery concurrence are now being considered by the lower governing bodies.

Coming from three of the Assemblies we have proposed actions that have implications for same-sex marriage/partnerships within the church and the progress is being closely watched within each branch. Here is a brief summary of what to watch and where each is at this time.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted a proposed constitutional amendment that now needs to be approved by the presbyteries. This change in the language of Book of Order section W-4.9000 has been bundled into the Amendment booklet and is now referred to as Amendment 14-F.

Presbytery voting has begun and the Office of the General Assembly is, as always, the official tracker of the votes. They have created a page specific to the marriage amendment that has not only resources about the GA action and that amendment, but a nifty map of the presbyteries that have reported their vote and which way it went. I have to admit that with only a few recorded so far it is a bit tough distinguishing between the shades of purple they use for yes and no, but once it begins to fill in the difference should be more obvious. And interesting to see that the Dakota nongeographic presbytery was geographically placed in southern Saskatchewan.

If you want the official tally of the voting on all amendments that is still there and shows that to date three presbyteries have officially recorded their votes ( 1 yes and 2 no on both 14-F and Blehar at this time ). Also interesting to note that the official page for the Belhar Confession does not have nifty map.

And for the polity wonks it is helpful to remember that the PC(USA) now has two less presbyteries for a total of 171 meaning that it takes 86 to approve a Book of Order Amendment and 114 to approve a change to the Book of Confessions.

For up-to-the-minute unofficial reporting I see that the Covenant Network is keeping an on-line tally with the presbytery voting results including the number of yes and no votes, something the OGA does not include. As of two weeks ago their tally was two presbyteries on each side.

While I will be doing a much more detailed analysis as more data are available, here is a quick comparison of the first four data point in comparison to 10-A. I will leave it for another time to discuss whether the comparison of two amendment that deal with significantly different equality questions is appropriate. Abstentions are included in the totals and the percentage after the total is the change in the number of total votes from 10-A.

Presbytery 14-F Yes 14-F No 14-F Total 10-A Yes 10-A No 10-A Total
New Castle 73 (74%) 24 (24%) 99 (-14%) 79 (69%) 34 (30%) 115
Palo Duro 25 (45%) 30 (55%) 55 (-35%) 35 (41%) 50 (59%) 85
San Diego 22 (22%) 76 (77%) 99 (+14%) 21 (24%) 66 (76%) 87
Yukon 27 (59%) 19 (41%) 46 (-22%) 21 (36%) 38 (64%) 59

So far we have two presbyteries with no on both, one yes on both and one switch from no to yes. In three out of four cases we see a significant decrease in the number of total votes cast. With 167 presbyteries left to go there is still a lot of data yet to be collected so I won’t go any further with this analysis now.


Church of Scotland

This past May the General Assembly 2014 of the Church of Scotland approved an act related to ministers in civil partnerships that affirms traditional language but includes proposed language (all found as an Appendix to the Legal Questions Committee report) for churches to request to depart from the traditional standards and it is now being voted on by the presbyteries as special legislation under the Barrier Act. There are 46 presbyteries and a majority of 24 are required for concurrence leading to the General Assembly giving it final considering in 2015.

The Principal Clerk’s office does not keep the official tally of the votes online but a group of evangelicals in the Kirk, Forward Together, has been monitoring voting. In a statement from last week (30 October) they indicate that they know of three presbyteries who have already voted no on the overture. That statement also contains a list of known dates of presbytery votes with the largest single day on the list this past Tuesday (4 November). The deadline to vote is in December.

In particular, the vote against by the Presbytery of Lewis received some publicity probably enhanced by the issuance of a statement following the vote. The story was picked up by the Stornoway Gazette and the KaleidoScot web site, among others.

Holding an alternate viewpoint on the question is Affirmation Scotland which says that they are disappointed the legislation does not go farther but supports it as an intermediate step. One of their affiliated churches, Greyfriers Church in Edinburgh, has recently made it clear that they are an inclusive congregation and that should the act be confirmed they will be an affirming congregation and request a departure from the act should the circumstances arise.


Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand

In their General Assembly about a month ago they reaffirmed their support for marriage between one man and one woman and the Assembly sent to the presbyteries special legislation under the Barrier Act that would confirm that language in their Book of Order.

The act must be approved by a majority of the eleven presbyteries, two synods and two church councils.

It is relatively early in their process so we will see what announcements are made as it moves forward.



At this point the process is moving forward in each of the branches. While the Church of Scotland voting will be wrapping up in the next couple of months the other two branches will take a bit longer. As I indicated above, I will be taking the PC(USA) voting data and adding that to my database to see what observations we can make about that branch. For the other two there is a paucity of previous votes for statistical comparisons so we can only keep an eye on them as current snapshots of their denomination. We will see what happens.

2014 General Assembly Of The Church Of Scotland

Tomorrow afternoon the 2014 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will convene in Edinburgh and will meet for the following week. This promises to be an interesting Assembly with issues important to the church and to Scotland on the docket.

Here is helpful information to follow along with this assembly.

  • There will be live streaming of the proceedings and you can connect to the stream appropriate for your device from the media page.
  • Most of the Documents pertaining to the Assembly are linked from the General Assembly Publications page. This includes the three Reports volumes, known as the Blue Book but with a nice graphic cover this year. In addition to the traditional PDF the reports are also available in MOBI and EPUB formats for your eReaders. There is also an Order of Proceedings as well as the Daily Papers which will contain late-breaking changes. And there is an option to subscribe to notifications of new documents being posted. In addition, there is a General Assembly App with versions for Apple iOS and Android.
  • If you need to refer to the documents about how they do this decently and in order most of those are linked from the Church Law page.
  • A brief order of the docketed events and reports can be found on the General Assembly 2014 page.Also note that sessions start 15 minutes earlier than in past years so those of us on the other side of the world will have to adjust.

What we all want to know of course is how to follow along on social media. You can begin with the Church of Scotland’s official Facebook page.

On Twitter the starting point is the Kirk’s main feed at @churchscotland and the hashtag #ga2014. The church’s official publication, Life and Work, is also a good source for information on the web, on Facebook and on their Twitter feed @cofslifeandwork. In addition, while it is a personal account, you can follow the editor, Lynne McNeil, at @LifeWorkEditor. Similarly, the Church of Scotland Youth will be tweeting at @cosy_nya and you also might want to follow along with their incoming clerk, John Haston (@johndhaston).

UPDATED 18 May: In suggesting personal accounts to follow, let me start with three individual accounts that are probably worth watching as the Assembly gets rolling. The first is the outgoing Moderator of the Assembly, the (soon to be) Very Reverend Lorna Hood who has just switched from an official to a personal account @revlornascot. We can only hope that the incoming moderator has as great of a change in heart as she had and begins tweeting, but don’t look for that this week. The second person is Seonag MacKinnon, the head of communications for the Kirk, who tweets for herself at @seonagm. Finally, even though he may not actually be at the Assembly in person, the Rev. Peter Nimmo of Inverness is at the Assembly and is a good source of information at @peternimmo1. I will expand this list as the week progresses.

UPDATED 18 May: If you are now checking after the opening weekend I would suggest you can get caught up with the daily updates from the Church of Scotland website as well as updates from Life and Work on their General Assembly page. In addition, the Photo Gallery on the Kirk website is now active.

Two less-business related highlights of the Assembly caught my attention. The first is the annual festival, Heart and Soul, that the Kirk sponsors on the Sunday afternoon of the Assembly week that will again be happening in Princes Street Gardens near the Assembly Hall. For those of us not in Edinburgh we look forward to seeing pictures, probably on the Church of Scotland Facebook page. The second item is that the Lord High Commissioner this year will be a member of the Royal Household, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex.

And now what we all really came here for, the business of the Assembly. Here are a few of the business reports that may be of interest and will probably attract attention within and outside the church.

  • On Tuesday afternoon there will be a special session to discuss the Scottish Independence Referendum. This is not a business item in the sense that the commissioners will vote on a resolution one way or the other on independence. Rather it will be a time of public discussion with featured speakers followed by comments from the floor.
  • On Wednesday the Legal Questions Committee will bring their report regarding Ministers and Deacons in Civil Partnership. The report includes an overture in response to the direction of the 2013 Assembly to affirm the Kirk’s historical position while providing a path for churches and sessions to follow their conscience in the employment and ordination of same-sex partnered individuals. The legislation that is passed will then be sent down to the presbyteries for their concurrence under the Barrier Act. Before this report the Theological Forum will report on related discussions that have been held in the past year.
  • As always, the Church and Society Council, to report on Thursday, has a long report with a deliverance that takes up a wide range of relevant issues in 73 different points. Among the many topics covered in these points are Competitiveness in Sport, Families and the Church in the 21st Century, Food Security, Funeral Poverty and Living a theology to counter violence against women. And that is just a few of the topics the commissioners will consider.
  • The Youth Assembly will bring their report on Tuesday.
  • The Ministries Council will report on Monday. A centerpiece of their report is the shortage of ministers and those training for the ministry to meet future needs of the church. As their report says: 80% of the parish ministers are due to retire in the next 15 years. A variety of options will be discussed.

So there is a taste of the line-up for the next week. With the challenges facing the Church of Scotland and the Scottish people at this time it will be interesting to see what the commissioners think and what decisions they make. I will try to update throughout the week as the Assembly progresses.

So this is not just Stay Tuned, but Tune In…

Musings On The FOP NRB Theology Document – 2. Theology Comes First

As we anticipate the next gathering of the Fellowship of Presbyterians I thought I would riff for a few minutes about their draft Theology Document

One month ago the Fellowship released both a draft Theology and a draft Polity document for the new Reformed body ( NRB ) in preparation for their meeting in just under two weeks. The close of the comment period for the drafts was yesterday and registration closes on Monday. The Fellowship says that at the present time 2100 people have registered for the meeting so it looks will have significant participation.

For those interested in polity, parliamentary procedure and process I think you will find some of the analysis by Carmen Fowler LaBerge in the Layman of some interest. She highlights many of the process issues that will come up at the meeting, e.g. Who can vote on these documents? Will substitute motions be permitted? I’m sure the organizers have this all in hand but an announcement of these process issues has not been posted to the Fellowship web site. She also echoes a couple of my thoughts about the Theology document, which I will refer to in a minute.

While my first musing was on the polity related to subscribing to the theology, when the documents were released I probably looked forward to reading the theology document more than the polity — after all, our polity flows from the theology. There were several things I anticipated in the theology document and I can say that I was wrong about several of them.

Maybe my biggest question, and my biggest surprise, was the approach they took to confessional standards. The proposal is to adopt the whole of the current Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Confessions as the initial standards. The Forward to the document begins with this (page 1):

The first task is to identify the statements of our confessional heritage that will connect us with the one holy catholic apostolic church and express our distinctively Reformed convictions within that church. We propose the collection of confessional documents in The Book of Confessions as the appropriate theological expression at this moment in our life together. These creeds, confessions, and catechisms have much-needed wisdom of proven worth for us, and can uniquely serve as the central documents for a new Fellowship that strives to retain meaningful connections among congregations, some of whom will be within the PC(USA), some of whom will be in a new Reformed body. (emphasis as in original)

Later it continues with (page 2)

We recognize that The Fellowship and/or the new Reformed body may, after a time of building and testing theological consensus among us, alter this judgment. But it is our opinion that the theological consensus among evangelicals has not been tested and, further, that to presume a consensus where one does not exist is to repeat one of the most significant theological failures of our generation. As members of the ordered ministries of the Church, we have agreed to The Book of Confessions. Let us keep that covenant that we may be found faithful to any new theological covenant we will make.

As I said, Carmen Fowler LaBerge echoes my surprise at this broad inclusion when she says:

I was surprised that the Fellowship document recommends the entirety of the PCUSA Book of Confessions
as the confessional standard of the new Reformed body.  In particular,
the Confession of 1967 is problematic for many who have grown
disaffected with the PCUSA’s diffuse theological wanderings since its
adoption a generation ago.

I could ask whether the playing field would have been different if the Belhar Confession had been adopted — but since it was not this really is a hypothetical and moot question at this time.

Now, I am going to take the document at face value about their reasoning, but also add that there are obvious pragmatic benefits to this choice: The document mentions the shared confessional standard that would benefit union churches and affiliations as well as the fact that they are beginning with a standard currently accepted and vowed to by those in the Fellowship. But, when you consider the time frame that the drafters were under as well as the potential for bogging down an assembly in fine-tuning a new confessional standard, the benefits of an off-the-shelf known entity are obvious. It also means that the NRB does not have to worry about publishing their own volume of confessions just yet.

The Confessional Standards are the first substantive portion of the document and the second is the Essential Tenets (of the Reformed Faith). I think that most would agree that the Essential Tenets section does a good job of articulating the historical orthodox Christian beliefs as well as what most would consider the traditional Reformed distinctives. Throughout it there is good agreement with the Foundations section of the PC(USA) Book of Order. In general, whether you personally agree or disagree with Reformed theology and basic Calvinism, you have to acknowledge that for the most part this section holds closely to that. And doing this section as a narrative, and not bullet points, I would say enhances the value of it.

The point where the disagreements would most likely begin is in the final “application” section – the document calls it “Living in Obedience to the Word of God.” This is the section that uses as a framework the Ten Commandments. While I discussed some of my hesitancy with this in the previous post, this is the section that applies the preceding confessions and tenets to specific lifestyle issues that a good portion of the church might see in a different light. For instance, the second point says:

2. worship God in humility, being reticent in either describing or picturing God, recognizing that right worship is best supported not by our own innovative practices but through the living preaching of the Word and the faithful administration of the sacraments;

Church historians and polity wonks may recognize that the term “innovative practices” is a loaded term in Presbyterian tradition. This is a current topic among churches, like the Free Church of Scotland, that are discussing flexibility in worship styles, particularly regarding exclusive unaccompanied Psalmody. As one article on the Regulative Principle puts it – “The regulative principle of worship requires man to worship God only as
He has commanded in His Word. To add elements of human innovation into
the worship of God brings His just displeasure.” (emphasis added) Many of these Presbyterian branches would consider some of the worship practices seen across the PC(USA) as “human innovation.”

Specifically, the term “innovations” is a technical term in many branches of Presbyterian polity whose depth of meaning I won’t go into at this time. One place it is regularly found is in the Barrier Act – the standard in many Presbyterian branches descending directly from the Scottish Reformation that says when an act of the General Assembly/Synod must have the concurrence of the presbyteries. A polity discussion from the Free Church Assembly regarding worship practices discusses the Barrier Act of 1697. The sub-title of the act is “Act anent the Method of passing Acts of Assembly of general concern to the Church, and for preventing of Innovations.” (Yes indeed, capitalized as a proper noun.)

But getting back to the Theology document… This complexity around the application of the second commandment is just one example. My point is that it is usually when the church tries to translate doctrine into practice that we run into the biggest differences of opinion.

Moving on I’ll finally get to what I like best about the Theology document, and that is the concept behind section three on Ideas & Questions for Immediate Consideration. Let me back-track to the Forward for the real punch line here (page 1-2):

Casual affirmation of our theological heritage by our generation has severely weakened our worship and witness. We are squandering the gifts our confessional heritage could give us. We confess we have not been good stewards of the Faith. We must now reengage the Faith of the Church in ways that are more deeply committed to its truth and thus its value in ordering our life toward faithfulness. We have a strong conviction that our current theological failures are not the failures of the bishops at Nicea, the divines at Westminster, or the confessors at Barmen; the failures are our own. Now is the time to confess it and strengthen our theological covenant.

It later (page 2) says

Structures for doing theological work and for keeping theological integrity need to be established. Theology is not only to be established in our minds and become formative for our hearts, it is to be embodied in our manner of life and in the structures of the church. Companies of Pastors and Orders of Elders need to be formed. Teaching and Ruling Elders must relearn how to fulfill their missional callings in light of the Faith of the Church.  Our faithfulness depends on it. We strongly propose that new structures will be formed for the purpose of making a contribution to the theological well-being of the church so that our Faith can make its full contribution to the mission of the Church.

[Rant mode on] This may not be true for your congregation but I sometimes ask myself “If we have a Book of Confessions, why don’t we use it?”

One of my concerns with adopting the Belhar Confession was that we have so many documents now that just sit on the shelf, what is the value of adding one more? And I’m sure my pastor is getting tired of my commenting that we don’t use confessions enough in worship and education, or when we use one from another tradition why don’t we use more from our Book of Confessions.

Don’t misunderstand me – just as this Theology document finds the standards “have much-needed wisdom of proven worth for us” I agree and value both the historical and the timeless voice in which they speak. It is not in their intrinsic value that I have questions but in their visibility and application in the church today.

[Rant mode off]

I really like the fact that the Theology document recognizes this and proposes a process for keeping the confessions “on the table,” making sure theology comes first (page 10):

Renewed commitment to sustained conversation is needed. At its best, sustained conversation is characterized by prayerful and rigorous study of the Scripture with attention to clarifying the Reformed theological lens through which we read the Scriptures, by grateful listening to the voice of the church around the world and through the ages, and application of theological wisdom to every part of life before God and for the world.

Toward these ends, we now commit ourselves to the formation of theological friendships in communities that include all teaching and ruling elders – gatherings of elders which covenant to study and learn together, providing mutual encouragement and accountability for the sake of sustaining and advancing the theological and missional work of the church.

If the creeds, confessions and catechisms are living documents, then we must live with them and into them. I very much appreciate that this document and the proposed life of the NRB addresses that fact.

Well, there are a bunch more things I had in my head to muse about, but my time is up and this got longer than I thought it would.  At this point I don’t anticipate another musing before the FOP has their next gathering so I’ll sit back and watch Presbyterian polity at work in a new venue. Prayers for the gathering and I’ll catch up with the FOP on the back side.

Reverberations From Ordination Decisions: Some Challenges In The Church Of Scotland

[Ed. note: This is the second in a three part series that I hope to get written and posted over the next week.]

Over the last few months a couple Presbyterian branches have made
decisions to make, or move towards making, standards for ordination more
inclusive, particularly regarding the ordination of individuals who are
in active same-sex relationships.  These decisions have made waves in
the international Presbyterian community and these waves will be
reverberating in the community for a while to come.  This is a look at another set of reverberations.

The second set of decisions was made by the Church of Scotland General Assembly towards the end of May. The Assembly took a full day, May 23rd, to debate the report of the Special Commission On Same-sex Relationships and the Ministry. In that report the Commission noted:

9.14 As we have said in section 7, ordination and induction raise issues of the lifestyle of and the example set by leaders in the Church. The issue of whether to ordain and induct people involved in same-sex relationships depends upon a decision of the Church on the prior question of its stance towards committed same-sex relationships.

This is a complicated question and one which it tied to other theological understandings.  Unlike the decision by the PC(USA), they acknowledge the linkage of these issues and in helping the church deal with them in a systematic manner they recommended the establishment of a Theological Commission to report back to the 2013 GA.  The work of this commission is described in the Remits Report from the Assembly (pg. 20):

The Assembly has agreed to establish a Theological Commission of seven persons representative
of the breadth of the Church’s theological understanding, who will address the theological issues raised in the course of the Special Commission’s work.

The Assembly also resolved to consider further the lifting of the moratorium on the acceptance for training and ordination of persons in a same-sex relationship. This consideration will come to the General Assembly when the Theological Commission reports in 2013.

The Theological Commission’s report will also examine:

(i) the theological issues around same-sex relationships, civil partnerships and marriage;
(ii) whether, if the Church were to allow its ministers freedom of conscience in deciding whether to bless same-sex relationships involving life-long commitments, the recognition of such lifelong relationships should take the form of a blessing of a civil partnership or should involve a liturgy to recognise and celebrate commitments which the parties enter into in a Church service in addition to the civil partnership, and if so to recommend an appropriate liturgy;
(iii) whether persons, who have entered into a civil partnership and have made lifelong commitments in a Church ceremony, should be eligible for admission for training, ordination and induction as ministers of Word and Sacrament or deacons in the context that no member of Presbytery will be required to take part in such ordination or induction against his or her conscience.

This means that the Theological Commission has been given an instruction to explore the possibility of making significant changes to the Church’s present position; however, decisions about change will not be made before the Assembly of 2013, thereafter there may be the need for Barrier Act procedure, with final decisions on any matter more likely to be considered by the General Assembly in 2014.

The Theological Commission has now been appointed and the members are the Rev. John McPake (convener), Rev. Prof. Andrew
McGowan, Rev. Gordon Kennedy, Rev. Dr. Mary Henderson, Dr. Jane McArthur,
Rev. Dr. Alan Falconer and Rev. Dr. Marjory MacLean. All are prominent in the Church of Scotland (as evidenced by the fact that they are all easy to find using a search engine) and many have academic experience.  As you might guess from the titles there are six clergy and one ruling elder, so not much balance there, but there is good gender balance and all the reviews I have read give high marks for theological balance.

Following the conclusion of the Assembly it did not take long for the reactions to begin. In fact, the planning for one meeting apparently began after the decision but while the Assembly was still in session.  That meeting, a Ministers and Elders Meeting, was held about three weeks after the Assembly meeting at St. George’s-Tron in Glasgow and it bears strong similarities to the Fellowship Gathering in the PC(USA). This was a gathering of about 600 congregational leaders who listened to at least six presentations about what the future looked like and what the options are for Evangelicals in the Church of Scotland.  (The six presentations are available on the web.)

On the one hand, these presentations use much of the same language (count how many times “like-minded” is used) and express the same feelings and perspective we have been hearing from conservatives in the American church.  And there was talk about the next meeting to be held this fall where there would be less of the presentations from the front and more interaction of those gathered. There are some differences besides the fact that this was a much shorter meeting, being only an afternoon.  One is that this is still a more informal group that is gathering for discussion. Another is that all the presentations foresee churches leaving the denomination if the trajectory continues as it is set and the question is whether to leave now or leave when, or if, the process has concluded.  There was brief mention of the possibility of accommodation within the church but that was a single passing comment that I caught.

One of the other interesting things about this meeting was that the attendance was reported as about 600 individuals, representing 0.12% of the total church membership.  Remember for the Fellowship Gathering the attendance was about 2,000 individuals or just slightly below 0.1% of the PC(USA). Both of these events had a similar draw on a percentage basis with right around one person attending for every thousand members of the church.

As I mentioned, the question addressed at the meeting was not “stay or go” but “go now or go later?”  There is an interesting response to the meeting by Mr. James Miller on his blog Five Sided Christian.  Towards the beginning of the piece he writes:

Having spoken to a number of ministers, elders and others, it is
apparent that there are many people who are deeply troubled by the two
options being put forward by St George’s Tron Church and some others. I
have to say that I share this dissatisfaction and have the sense that
evangelicals are being railroaded into a decision to separate. This
seems to be coming from a certain group of ministers and elders, who
give the impression that they have been wanting for years to leave the
mixed denomination they are in and have now found an issue through which
they can force their vision into reality.

He then goes on to counsel moderation, saying that while he thinks the decision of the Assembly was wrong he also considers the meeting “premature and pessimistic.” He holds out hope for the process, something that was lacking in the video presentations, arguing that this issue has a long way to go through the Theological Commission, the 2013 GA, and then the necessary approval of any changes by the presbyteries under the Barrier Act.  Consideration of leaving should only happen once it has reached its conclusion. As he says:

…I think it much more likely that if we stay in and “wrestle, and fight,
and pray” that the “trajectory” can be turned back into an orbit around
the Bible’s teachings and historic, traditional and ecumenical Christian
views and that the current momentum for change will be sent crashing at
one or other of the four hurdles still to be crossed.

My prayer is that it will be so. But if it is, then the evangelicals
will face as big a challenge and one we must not shirk. We will then
have the enormous task of loving and caring for and serving every gay
and lesbian Christian, to help them live the life of celibate friendship
we say that they must follow. For if we will not do this as fervently
as we protest actively gay people being ordained then we risk being
condemned of hypocrisy and outright pharisaism with every justification.
I hope we are also planning with equal vigour how we do this now,
whatever structures or denominations we find ourselves in
ecclesiastically come 2014 or 2015.

But while there are these discussions going, as you might expect some churches are not waiting for the process or the discussions to play out.  Almost immediately Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen began the process to break away but according to the BBC the kirk session has postponed a final vote to allow time for discussion with Aberdeen Presbytery. Stornoway High Church did discuss and vote on leaving, but the kirk session set the necessary approval for the action at 80% of the congregation and the action only received 74% approval. A news article also mentions that St. Kane’s Church, New Deer, Aberdeenshire, is also contemplating the move but I have found no updates to the first news article. There was also a preliminary report of two ministers leaving the Kirk over the decision.

In addition to these actions many sessions and individuals – office holders, members, and members of other denominations – have expressed their disapproval of the Assembly action on a web site called simply Dissent.  The dissent itself is a five point statement expressing support for “the traditional teaching of the church” and the intent to “commit ourselves to pray for the members and the work of the Theological
Commission; to work with all our strength for the evangelisation of
Scotland in partnership with all God’s people; and to depend upon the
renewing and reforming presence of God’s Holy Spirit within his Church.” Similarly, there is a page at Christians Together which announces this site and gathers other statements of concern and opposition to the GA action.

And lastly, in one of the more interesting reactions, the Westboro Baptist Church has announced that it would like to have members travel to Scotland to picket churches in protest of the Assembly action.

There was another significant decision the Assembly made as part of the Special Commission report.  It reads:

4. During the moratorium set out in 8 below, allow the induction into pastoral charges of ministers and deacons ordained before 31 May 2009 who are in a same-sex relationship.

This has now moved from the hypothetical to the specific as a minister in Fife announced to her congregation that she is in a committed same-sex relationship and would like to marry her partner. After making this announcement at the end of August she has dropped out of sight and there are no further updates.  The Scotsman article says:

A Church stalwart last night revealed that residents has been “stunned”
to hear of Ms Brady’s plans, adding that parishioners were at
loggerheads over whether or not she should be allowed to continue in her
current role.

He said: “The congregation is divided over the
issue of the minister’s sexuality. One elder has already resigned and
others are considering their position. I personally do not believe it is
right and I do not believe same-sex civil unions are right.

“Miss Brady has been a conscientious minister but this is going too far.”

Finally, there has been reaction to this decision from other denominations. I mentioned in the first part of this series the decision of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana to sever ties with partners who approved of ordaining active homosexuals and preforming same-sex marriages.  While this was apparently aimed primarily at the PC(USA) following this trajectory of the Church of Scotland would also put them in the position of meeting those requirements.

Closer to home, the first speaker at the Ministers and Elders meeting mentioned concern expressed by the General Assembly of the United Free Church of Scotland.  I am grateful for the full language of the UFCOS Assembly action sent to me by their Principal Clerk, Rev. Martin Keane, because the action is nuanced.  The motion from the floor that became part of the agreed deliverance was:

General Assembly noting recent decisions taken by the Church of
Scotland to consider further the issue of same-sex relationships and the
ministry, agree to suspend the review of the Covenant between our two
churches pending the outcome of their consideration of the matter.”

What is important to note is that the Covenant itself was not suspended. Rather the review of the Covenant, which would normally happen every two years and is due to be done in the coming year, has been postponed until after the Church of Scotland has come to a resolution on this issue.  With the review of the Covenant would come any modifications and the renewal of the Covenant for another two year period.

I think it is safe to say that the reaction of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was not as nuanced.  Before both Assembly meetings four presbyteries asked the General Board to express concern to the Church of Scotland regarding the report of the Special Commission.  The General Board agreed and passed the following resolution:

“That the General Board instructs the Clerk of the General Assembly to write to the Church of Scotland expressing appreciation of the long and valued relationship between our two Churches; indicating that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland strongly believes the scriptural position to be that sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman are sinful and as such, in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, no minister or elder would be ordained or installed who continues to engage in such practices; and assuring the Special Commission of its prayers that wisdom and insight be given as it reports to the General Assembly in May.”

Then, at the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, three weeks after the Church of Scotland decision, the full Assembly passed a motion “That the General Assembly endorse the actions of the General Board and the Clerk…”  The church also issued a press release concerning these actions and the report of the outgoing Moderator who was an ecumenical delegate to the Church of Scotland GA.

So, having now jumped over to Ireland let me stop here for now and pick up some of the related issues circulating on that island in my third, and final, installment.

The General Assembly Of The Church Of Scotland Chooses Their Trajectory

Yesterday, in a session on a single report that lasted all day, the 2011 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland chose the trajectory it would take regarding the service of partnered homosexuals in the ministry.  If all you want is the bottom line…

Executive Summary
By a vote of 351 to 294 the General Assembly chose to:

Resolve to consider further the lifting of the moratorium on the acceptance for training and ordination of persons in a same-sex relationship, and to that end instruct the Theological Commission to prepare a report for the General Assembly of 2013…

In addition, the Assembly lifted the moratorium on “induction into pastoral charges of ministers and deacons ordained before May 2009 who are in a same-sex relationship.”

So it is a resolution to keep on discussing it with an eye in a particular direction.  The prohibition on ordinations has not been lifted yet, but the Assembly has chosen to point the church in the direction of permitting them in the future.  While the action today is not subject to the Barrier Act it is anticipated, but not yet decided, that the final action would be.

For those who are very familiar with the Deliverance, it is my understanding (I did not hear the morning session) that every point passed as written (no amendments approved) with the Assembly choosing option 7b over 7a.

The Rest Of The Story…
First I want to comment on the nature of the discussion itself.  All who followed it on Twitter, myself included, gave very high marks to the Moderator, the Rt. Rev. David Arnott, and the Convener of the Special Commission on Same-sex Relationships and the Ministry, Lord Hodge. Even though the debate was serious, and at times intense, the Moderator, Clerk and several of the commissioners helped control the tension with a nice amount of dry humor and quick wit.  The debate itself was courteous and respectful and I did not catch any personal attacks or snide remarks.  As for the content, having been through many of these debates before nothing jumped out at me as being a new argument for or against with all the usual scriptural and cultural appeals being made by both sides.  None-the-less, at least one commissioner commented that he had his mind changed by the debate, but as to which specific point or item he did not say.  It was an interesting morning (in my time zone) of listening and the debate usually moved along well and seldom got bogged down in polity or semantics.

I will point out that in the time I was listening, by my count not a single amendment was agreed to by the Assembly.  Similarly, the Convener declined to accept any amendment on behalf of the Special Commission. He regularly expressed the view that the Commission had worked hard at crafting a Deliverance that reflected the work of the group and wanted to honor that work.

Walking through the Deliverance, found at the beginning of the Commission’s report, the Assembly worked through the first two items before lunch.  They accepted the report (23/1), agreed to the necessity for pastoral care and that orientation is not in itself a barrier to holding office (23/2), and affirmed the unlawfulness of discrimination within the church and within the bounds of church law (23/3).

After lunch there was a spirited debate about part 23/4 which would “allow the induction into pastoral charges of ministers and deacons ordained before May 2009 who are in a same-sex relationship.”  In case you did not pick up on the magic date of May 2009, that was the Assembly at which the Special Commission was created. While there were suggested amendments the item passed as written 393 to 252.

Item 23/5, to continue the silent period for public discussion on this issue was agreed to, as was item 23/6 to create a Theological Commission to carry this work forward.

And then the core issue was reached…

The Commission brought to the Assembly a choice between two options.  The first, 23/7a began:

Resolve to consider further the implementation of an indefinite moratorium on the acceptance for training and ordination of persons in a same-sex relationship thus maintaining the traditional position of the Church…

The alternate, 23/7b opened with:

Resolve to consider further the lifting of the moratorium on the acceptance for training and ordination of persons in a same-sex relationship, and to that end instruct the Theological Commission to prepare a report for the General Assembly of 2013…

Another alternative, a “third way,” was moved by a former moderator, the Very Rev. Dr. Finlay Macdonald, it proposed that the Kirk was not ready to limit their choices and presented instructions to the newly formed Theological Commission to help the church continue the discussion.  Specifically it opened with “instruct the Theological Commission to continue the process of
discernment initiated by the Report received by the General Assembly of
2007…”  While respectfully received and favored by many, after discussion it was defeated by one of the closest votes of the day, 303 to 347.

The Assembly then debated the two original alternatives, another amendment to 7a was defeated, and a final vote was taken on the item with the commissioners favoring 7b, to move towards lifting the moratorium, by a vote of 294 for A and 351 for B.

The remaining two items, 23/8 to continue the moratorium on actions related to this issue and 23/9 to dismiss the Commission with thanks, were passed quickly.  The Assembly then thanked Lord Hodge for his leadership with generous words from the Moderator and a standing ovation. And with that the consideration of the report, which began at 11 AM local time concluded a bit after 6 PM (with a break for lunch).

So, with the moratoriums on speaking and action on these issues still in place, for the moment nothing has changed in the Church of Scotland.  However, with the creation of the Theological Commission and the agreed direction of their deliberations the Kirk has set a direction for the future that everyone expects will result in the lifting of the restriction on same-sex partnered individuals being ordained to office.  For completeness, here is the full text of 24/7b which was approved:

7(b) Resolve to consider further the lifting of the moratorium on the acceptance for training and ordination of persons in a same-sex relationship, and to that end instruct the Theological Commission to prepare a report for the General Assembly of 2013 containing:

(i) a theological discussion of issues around same-sex relationships, civil partnerships and marriage;

(ii) an examination of whether, if the Church were to allow its ministers freedom of conscience in deciding whether to bless same-sex relationships involving life-long commitments, the recognition of such lifelong relationships should take the form of a blessing of a civil partnership or should involve a liturgy to recognise and celebrate commitments which the parties enter into in a Church service in addition to the civil partnership, and if so to recommend liturgy therefor;

(iii) an examination of whether persons, who have entered into a civil partnership and have made lifelong commitments in a Church ceremony, should be eligible for admission for training, ordination and induction as ministers of Word and Sacrament or deacons in the context that no member of Presbytery will be required to take part in such ordination or induction against his or her conscience; and to report to the General Assembly of 2013.

I want to wrap up here with two more items.  The first are links to several other blogs that discuss this change and give observations: Chris Hoskins, Stewart Cutler, Bryan Kerr, Stafford Carson, and Rev Shuna.

Second, I can’t leave this topic without looking at the numbers.  In the three votes I mention above the prevailing side in the vote had 60.9% of the votes on 23/4, 53.4% on the alternative amendment, and 54.4% on the selection of 7b.  For comparison, in my earlier post about the Commission report and the consultation they had with presbyteries and kirk session, they found that 48.9% of the responding presbytery members did not favor the church permitting partnered homosexuals in ordained positions while 41.4% did favor ordination.  The differences could be attributed to the fact one was a consultation and the other an actual vote.  There could also be differences in the populations sampled and as we see in other denominations the representatives to the national meeting being more progressive than the local members.  The differences could also be easily explained by the fact that the responses were to different questions.  Or, since this was only setting a direction and not making a final decision there may be an openness to continuing the discussion in this direction without the need to commit at this point.

In conclusion, it is worth pointing out the global community that was online for this session.  The Kirk streamed 1.7TB of data yesterday and those commenting on Twitter came from many corners of the world and stayed up late or got up early to follow the proceedings.  From my perspective it was a great social media community and a demonstration of how social media has enhanced Global Presbyterianism.  Thanks to all of you who were tweeting for the stimulating interaction.  But, this interest also demonstrated the “lightning rod” issue that I have talked about — This morning @generalassembly tweeted “We seem to be missing some several thousand viewers since yesterday. If you see them, please tell them we’re here all week!”  For those of you who could not join us, you missed another interesting day and some good discussion in the Assembly and on Twitter about youth and the church.  I’ll comment more on that at another time.

So, the Church of Scotland has more work to do, both in this Assembly and with their new Theological Commission to report back in 2013.  Stay tuned…

General Assembly Of The Free Church Of Scotland 2011

The General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland will convene at 6:00 pm on Monday 23 May in St. Columba’s Free Church, Edinburgh, and continue through Friday 27 May.

For those interested in the meeting the Assembly page has a great summary of several committee reports and links to those full reports.  The reports page has the links to all of the different reports for the meeting.  And the church has posted a revised programme, or docket, for the meeting.

I will post a link to daily updates here, if they are made available, as well as hashtags or Twitter users that may be active during the meeting.  For blogs to watch, I would recommend Iain D Campbell at Creideamh and Gordon Matheson at Rev Jedi — they have been posting in advance and I would expect them to also reflect on the Assembly.  Again, I will update here if I find concurrent commentary and will link to others (which I know there will be) when the meeting concludes and I write a summary.

A few of the business items that caught my attention for this meeting.

The Board of Ministries will be bringing three ministers from other denominations to the Assembly for membership in the Free Church.  In addition, the Board is requesting a one year postponement in the previously approved Probationary Placement process for new ministers to allow for the refinement of certain details and to clarify the provision of the financial support for the probationers.  As the report puts it “The Board is recommending delay… to allow it to examine in greater detail the budgetary implications for the Board in providing stipends and for congregations in providing housing and meeting expenses.”

The Home Missions Board is proposing legislation to be sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act to create Team Ministries to share full-time ministers between churches under certain circumstances.  The legislation is detailed with the responsibilities of the presbytery and Home Missions Board and represents a creative solution for charges with staffing challenges due to size or finances.

Speaking of financial challenges the report of the College Board acknowledges right at the beginning “The Board is aware that there are voices within the Church questioning the feasibility of maintaining a College. As the denomination continues to decline, the support base for the College continues to shrink.”  The report goes on to argue for the continued importance and utility of the College and its link to the Free Church identity and Scottish and Free Church history.  But it concludes with this:

More pertinent than any of these reasons, however, is the fact that the College provides the forum where students, committed to a common theological position, called to a common ecclesiastical work, and training for a common evangelical purpose, can live and learn together. Bonds are forged, fellowship is fostered, friendships are made, and the best interests of Presbyterian ministry are served as those who will work together first learn to train together. The denomination can surely only be enriched and enhanced by continuing to encourage and support such an institution.

What follows is a frank discussion of the challenges the College presently faces, particularly the difficulty filling certain professorial chairs.

The Communications Committee report contains three reports prepared to address public questions: Suicide, Transhumanism — Salvation by Technology?, and Sex Education in Scottish Schools: The Church’s Response.  All interesting reading but each a topic for another time.  (I would note that the topic of suicide is also an issue for the Church of Scotland Church and Society Council this year as well.)

Similarly, there is also an extensive (18 page) report from the Study Panel on Divorce and Remarriage.  And again, interesting reading and a topic for another time.

That brings us to what may be the issue at this Assembly that is drawing the most attention, the report of the Special Committee on Praise and the reverberations of the Plenary Assembly last Fall.  For more detailed coverage you can check out my post from that time, but to summarize, the special Plenary Assembly relaxed the church’s requirements for music in worship to be only unaccompanied singing of inspired words.  The Plenary Assembly also set up the Special Committee to “investigate, collect and, if necessary prepare from within the resources of the Church appropriate portions of Scripture, other than the 150 Psalms, in a form which accurately renders the thought of the original and is suitable for singing in public worship.”  At this juncture the committee is reporting in that it has begun its work and does not consider it necessary at this time to produce a specific supplemental worship resource for this music.

The other aspect to this topic is the response from the church to the actions of the Plenary Assembly.  There are seven overtures to this Assembly and two memorials and all of them address the action of the Plenary Assembly. (These can be found at the end of the Assembly Arrangements report and they make up most of that report)

[On a polity note, I ran across something here I did not expect and is outside my experience with Presbyterian polity.  It is usually the case that overtures can only be submitted by a lower governing body, but one of the overtures is from an individual.  Doing a read of the Free Church Practice it looks like a commissioner to Assembly can submit an overture where these are know as commissioner resolutions in other branches and frequently can not be submitted by a lone individual.]

The overtures generally address two issues.  The first is that the change in worship standards was not sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act.  There are overtures from the Synod of North America, Western Isles Presbytery, Knockbain Kirk Session, and Lochs Kirk Session  that specifically ask for the legislation to be sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act.  There are also overtures that deal with the nuances of the legislation regarding the existing secondary standards including relief of conscience consideration for officers who disagree with the decision and possible adjustments of of the Formula of Ordination.  These overtures come from Western Isles Presbytery (a second one from them), Edinburgh and Perth Presbytery, and Rev. Prof. John A. Macleod.

I will admit to personally being surprised at the time that the Plenary Assembly decision was not sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act.  I want to publicly thank Mr. Horgan for some helpful discussion and insights into this polity question.  In particular he recommended an article from the Free Church on The Formula and the Psalms that answers many of these questions in a Q&A form.  This is a great article for polity wonks as it gives an historical perspective to the Acts of the church and the subtleties in the polity that do not require this to be sent down under the Barrier Act.  From a polity viewpoint I now better understand the situation, but the Assembly will wrestle with this decision themselves on Tuesday.  They get to make the decision and whether from the necessity of polity or from the desire to preserve connectionalism they may decide to put it to the presbyteries.

I want to conclude with mention of the two Memorials which are also related to the Plenary Assembly.  The first is from Officebearers, Members And Adherents of the Free Church.  It is a protest that, among other things, “the decision not to pass this unexpected and revolutionary Finding of the Plenary Assembly to Presbyteries through the Barrier Act is at variance with the constitution of the Church.”  They argue that the Plenary decision is null and void.

The second is similar, but is “From Young People of the Free Church.”  They begin:

We, the undersigned, are younger people who are concerned to ensure that we are not misrepresented in the debate regarding the worship practice of the Free Church. At the Assembly, and at other times, the assertion was made that the young people would welcome change and that the young would be lost to the church without change. „The young‟ are not some homogenous group who all think alike and who all have the same desires and preferences regarding the worship of our God. Many of us loved the Free Church as she was and believed her mode and manner of worship to have been both Scriptural and entirely honouring to our God. Following the decision taken at the plenary assembly to allow individual congregations to use hymns and instruments as part of their public worship we want to make our voices heard, to speak for ourselves in this matter and to detail our concerns. We care about our church and love her people. Above all we are concerned that God be exalted, that His will obeyed and that His Word be honoured.

They then argue against the actions of the Plenary Assembly and give give eight reasons they believe it will be detrimental to the church.

Lots and lots of interesting material here to mull over.  And lots for the commissioners to the Assembly to deliberate on this week.  May our prayers be with them as they join together to discern the will of God.  And we look forward to hearing about their discussions.  As the close of every overture says:

Or do otherwise as in their wisdom may seem best. And your petitioners will ever pray

Church of Scotland Presbyteries voting against blessing same-sex unions is reporting today that the voting by Church of Scotland presbyteries on a General Assembly action to permit ministers to bless same-sex civil partnerships is trending strongly against the action and the presbyteries will probably defeat it.  They report that at the present time only six presbyteries have voted in favor and 21 have voted against.  There are 48 presbyteries in the Church of Scotland so with 3 more needed for defeat of the GA action both sides are reportedly acknowledging defeat.  The GA approved the blessing of the partnerships until, under the barrier act, the presbyteries have voted but I don’t know if under their polity the presbytery vote becomes binding upon the next GA or at the point the vote is decisive.