Dear Life and Mission Agency,
I am writing regarding the marriage & liberty of conscience remits of the 2019 general assembly as a person affected by the decision to send them to presbyteries under the barrier act. This is submitted as an open letter.
On one hand, the discussions that led to the remits leaves me hopeful that we may be able to negotiate a genuine freedom of conscience and practice among our elders of both categories, our members of the diaconal order, and other ministry staff as we share the financial, material, and real estate resources that the Creator provides for us in our attempts to glorify the Creator within this world.
On the other hand I am concerned about the implications for our denomination should presbyteries and the 2020 General Assembly adopt the remits under the barrier act process.
On a ‘third hand’ …. , well I’ll talk about that below after my respectful submission of suggestions regarding process.
Suggestions on process:
The remits are refreshing because of the space they give us to negotiate a way forward. This space was not available under the approaches represented by the proposed options A or B that emerged from the special committee of former moderators of assembly. Additionally I find hope that the remits came from younger leaders on all sides of the issue getting together to pause and reconsider our way forward.
Without getting into specific arguments regard the wording of the remits I believe that folks on all sides of this issue can see that hasty eleventh hour word-smithing, however timely in pausing us for further reflection, is unnecessarily perilous as a basis for radical change in our formal doctrine and practice.
Thus, I hope that constituent members of presbyteries from all perspectives vote a resounding NO to the remits as they are worded. Since it is a barrier act remit there is no option to amend so our process has forced us into an otherwise unnecessarily binary option.
Vote NO to get rid of the restrictive binary, take a deep breath, and start again in what is hopefully a forward moving constructive spiral of respectfully listening to one another and trying to draft a well thought through, careful, decent way to be as together as possible within one denominational envelop.
Having voted NO courts then proceed to overture the 2020 General Assembly regarding a way forward now that we have discerned the impossibility of seeking doctrinal ‘purity’ around either the blessing of same sex unions in the name of Jesus, or around a traditional exegesis of scripture that does not permit the denomination to bless same sex union in the name of Jesus.
Given the existing pluralism of people of good will and conscientious conviction arriving at radically different conclusions regarding our Lord’s will for the marriage practices of His people, I believe that presbyteries, standing committees of General Assembly, Clerks of Assembly, and the Life and Mission agency need to work together to carefully hammer out a polity that allows for the following going forward:
- Genuine ways for freedom of conscience for those who believe to have discerned conflicting conclusions regarding the blessing of same sex marriages and the ordination / designation / employment of candidates in same sex marriages.
Since it appears that our differences are so deep that we cannot have a unified doctrine of human sexuality and marriage, then going forward we need to give careful thought to our mechanisms of governance to allow us to have radically different convictions without tripping over each other.
Additionally, we need to come to terms with the reality that our
divisions are so profound that they are going to clash and jam on
multitudes of other issues going forward. For all that we all
profess faith in Jesus Christ we Canadian Presbyterians embody
radically different ideological systems when it comes to exegesis;
concepts of obedience, authority and autonomy; hermeneutics;
epistemology; theological anthropology; doctrines of Scripture and
The Holy Spirit; ideas regarding the nature of sin; and in so many
The blessing of same sex marriages is only the tip of the iceberg that is beginning to reveal our radical lack of unity in the understandings of the faith we all profess.
- Polity plans for processes of ‘gracious dismissal’ and the sharing of worldly assets with ‘conservative’ and / or ‘progressive’ (God I hate these labels…give us wisdom…) congregations and or teaching elders / staff / diaconal ministers who, in concert with their faith communities and families, discern that they need to leave in order to preserve their conscience before our Lord. Whatever the resolution of our current conundrum we will have on all sides of the ‘issue’ brothers and sisters who profess faith in Jesus who will not be able to remain within the PCC organization in good conscience.
A radical change in our doctrine (or in the clarity and unity of our doctrine, or in the development of a plurality of radically different official doctrines) means a radical change in our covenants through ordination vows, congregational affiliations, and professing memberships.
Not all will be able to enter the ‘new covenant’ in good conscience and must be given the opportunity to go where they sincerely believe our Lord is leading them, with a fair and equitable care package of worldly goodies like shares of property, pensions, stipends, perhaps even severance pay and moving allowances.
If we are not able to change our doctrine despite the pleas of many for ‘full inclusion’ then it still behooves us as followers of Jesus to be generous with our brothers and sisters who need to go elsewhere to find their practice of loving obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ.
In certain ways of thinking about organizational unity and fiduciary responsibility ‘gracious dismissal’ appears to be contrary to the best interests of an organization. It smells like diminishment and death contrary to the purposes of the organization. What good steward carves up his or her charge? Thus, in the quest for unity and faithfulness, the clerks and assembly council have until this point been properly reluctant to consider the possibility let alone begin drafting policy.
However, we are not only stewards responsible to the health and
mission of our organization under the fiduciary laws of Canada and
its provinces and territories. We are stewards of the material
things that the Lord Jesus Christ has given to us.
And Jesus may well think differently than the real estate holdings, banks, NGO’s, charities, and insurance companies we are used to dealing with in the world under Caesar. To the world of those who are perishing Jesus himself smells like diminishment and death, but to those of us who are receiving abundant life, He is the fragrance of life itself. His wisdom seems like foolishness to not-for profit charity sector business administration and it is often counter-intuitive to our own well intended but worldly-wise ideas of decency and good financial order.
Whatever our theological and anthropological ideologies we Presbyterians all claim faith in Jesus. He is the one who gave His entire life for us and who continues to give His life for us. So who are we to be stingy to fellow professing disciples of Jesus with whom we have radical, intractable but honest disagreements regarding how we hear from our Lord?
Who are we to be hard hearted towards our ‘ideological opponents’ and pursue their pensions, stipends, and buildings casting them out into the world with no shared provision of our material heritage? Surely we have learned from the ugliness of 1925 and following? Surely we have heard the parable of the extravagantly loving forgiving father whatever ideology we may feel is prodigal? (Frankly, I think we are all the older son…it’s even in our name, presbies have presbyopia…we tend to see things through the eyes of the stingy legalistic elder sibling….)
Partially because of our delays in changing our doctrine we have an opportunity to do things much more graciously and tidily than our United, Anglican, Methodist, and PCUSA brothers and sisters have been able to do….we can learn from how satan, the world, and the flesh have made things ugly and find ways to bless each others freedom of conscience and belief EVEN if we cannot in good conscience find ways to bless each others’ doctrines and practices in the name of JESUS.
Heart Cry (on a third hand….):
I joined the Presbyterian Church in Canada around 1991-2 from a Roman Catholic background having journeyed through approximately seven years of questioning my childhood faith in Jesus Christ. One of the attractive points for me was the system of government by a hierarchy of courts rather than a hierarchy of clerical offices.
The parliamentary system really appealed to a lot of things in me and the things I cherished. I could not conceive of a church without some sort of formal polity, even an independent community church movement consisting of a single congregation struck me as a micro denomination in a small echo chamber. I am grateful for the home that The Presbyterian Church in Canada provided and continues to provide for my family, my self, and my ministry together with others of Christ’s body.
have often struggled, especially since ordination to Word and
Sacrament in 1997, in tension between what it means, in terms of our
organizational culture, to practice good ‘church-man-person-ship’
and what it means to be a faithful minister of the gospel of Jesus
Christ. This struggle is especially prominent when it comes to
assessment of candidates for ordination / designation and / or staff
positions within various levels of the denomination.
Often times I believe I have been lukewarm to our Lord in yielding to cultural, collegial, and friendly sensibilities when it came to laying on hands of candidates in whom I sensed a radically different approach to the written word. I felt that even if the candidates’ understanding was radically different regarding the nature of scripture and the role it plays in in informing the life of the church under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, their view passed muster as long as that approach was framed in the correct vocabulary and already present among colleagues whom I esteem as human beings, but with whom I profoundly disagree in many essential matters of the faith we all profess.
I believe that in this inattentiveness to the Lord for the purposes of getting along together in our own religious project with people I genuinely like, respect and love has allowed a mostly unremarked, unexamined elephant to dwell within our shared room. We used the same churchy theological words, but we meant very different things by them; radically different things. And that was mostly OK for us. It was our pet elephant. Sometimes it got a little stinky and crowding, but it was ours.
This elephant was reasonably tame while the old Constantinian alliance between Bible and culture drifted through its sunset. However, now that the consensus of Canadian societal sensibilities have radically departed moorings in Christendom, that once very ‘tame’ elephant now threatens to trample us all.
I believe that in failing to challenge radically different epistemologies among ordinands during the sunset of Christendom consensus I have been unfaithful to our Lord, to the Spirit of our ordination vows, to the unity of the holy catholic and apostolic global church, and to my brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus, my heart is broken.
We have sown the wind and we are now reaping the whirl wind. Instead of being what I once proudly hailed as ‘THE Presbyterian Church IN Canada’ we are now revealed to have been all along ‘a Jesus-flavoured presbyterian religious organization OF Canada’.
Now, in this mess, I wonder to what extent our ideas and practices of office are from Jesus and to what extent they simply borrow language from scripture and offer up a version of pagan Roman civil servant priests processed through a Roman Christian reading of the Old Testament priesthood, processed through the Imperialist need for religious stability as a political tool of Pax Romana (progenitor of Pax Britannia); processed through Geneva City Council processed through (murderous) Westminster parliamentary tradition processed through Scotland’s (brutally repressed and colonized) role in the UK as evolved through 17th to 19th centuries, processed through 1875 recently confederated Canada, processed through 1925 formation of the United Church and the grubby money grabbing, door locking, hollering, mud flinging, and church property seizures that followed. (Shame on us, we needed acts of parliament and provincial legislatures to help sort that out, the courts of Caesar defining things for the people of Jesus???)
In recommending a way forward regarding liberty of conscience and avenues for gracious dismissal I feel more like a citizen of a nation-state involved in a policy process regarding freedom of religion than I do a disciple of Jesus Christ living organically within a Kingdom Community of Christ’s Body. And yet, even among many with whom I radically and intractably disagree there is mutual respect, support, and caring mutual service…but when mediated through bureaucracy and legislative process that affection comes out so inadequately and hamfistedly. So why insist on bureaucracy, legislative process, formality and office in our structures as the Body of Christ? Are these the things of worldly leadership paradigms tied around us as grave clothes restricting the life of the Body?
Additionally within our presbyterian denomination, our profound differences of epistemology; of the role of Scripture in the life of the doctrine and practice of the denomination; our differences in understanding the way the Spirit of Jesus works with the text of the received canon; our radically different understandings of the nature sin, love, and obedience to our Lord will NOT be resolved by an ecclesiological or pragmatic answer to questions of how to be hospitable and just to LGBTQ+ people in our midst.
That is the presenting issue, but the divide goes much deeper than that. Regardless of our barrier act decisions around human sexuality the reality of our radically different roots will grow to radically different plants. Our radically different foundations will lead to radically different buildings.
of our roots are Christian in the sense that we all profess faith in
Jesus, we all seek to honour Jesus in our own ways (…IN OUR OWN
WAYS, what is His way?….), and they are all ‘Christian’ in the
sense that they are all in some way informed by the teaching and
example of Jesus. However, given the radically different
epistemologies, cosmographies, anthropologies, does our profession of
sharing ONE faith really make our faith the same? Does the fact that
we strive to respect each others consciences to believe what we
believe and live accordingly mean that we actually share the same
Whose faith is it? Where does it come from? How many radically different ideological foundations can we have in one religious house of our denomination? How many faiths? How many Jesuses?
Does Jesus even have denominations or are they our worldly religious offerings to Him? Are they good offerings? Are they as neutral as we assume they are in our freedom to interpret the scriptural language on deacons, pastors, elders, overseers, teachers, apostles, evangelists, prophets and pastors? Or are they things we insist on holding on to, slapping biblical nouns on to worldly power structures hoping that our Only King and Head will bless our understanding and our projects?
Is Jesus our Lord or our co-pilot? Is He our Lord or is he a magic genie whom we shape in our own image and whose belly we rub with song and prayer when we want some thing good in our own eyes?
PLEASE JESUS, would the real Jesus step forward and sweep aside our
plasticine Jesuses that we my be captured by the glory of Your
presence in and among us. Please Jesus make us your body, your
temple Your bride. Please Jesus rule over Your Church. We need your
wisdom. You are our King, the King of Israel and we do not want to
do what is right in our own eyes, we want You to live in us that we
may follow you together. Come Lord Jesus!
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendth,
our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of all, in human vesture,
in the body and he blood,
Christ will give to all the faithful,
his own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of Light, descending
from the realms of endless day,
comes the powers of hell to vanquish
as the darkness clears away.
At his feet the six-winged Seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
hallelujah Lord most high
Hymn 542 1997 Book of Praise Liturgy of St. James; English translation, Gerard Moultrie (1829 – 1885) public domain.
Your fellow child of our Heavenly Father,
Aug 8, 2019