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.
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):
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…