A Visitor’s View of General Assembly

By Dr. Jonathan Dent

We in the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) thought that we would be able to put the issue of sexuality to rest at this year’s General Assembly. The Church Doctrine Committee (CDC) was recommending, by a slim majority of 9 to 7, that the Assembly deny the prayers of the overtures that wanted approval of same sex marriage and of self-defined sexuality persons as ruling and teaching elders. We thought that there would be a place for debate of this. We never arrived there.

Instead of deciding when this would happen during the Business Committee Report and simply setting an agenda to do so, it was argued that this was too difficult, given that the Life and Mission Agency (LMA) wanted to defer the whole question until next year, as opposed to what the CDC wanted. (The matter of responding to the overtures had been referred to both the CDC and the LMA.) The past Moderator made a motion to enter into the Committee of the Whole to decide the agenda order. One of the clergy members of the LGBTQ community declared the whole Assembly to be unsafe, at putting the question of going into the Committee of the Whole. The Moderator tacitly agreed and urged the Assembly to be a safe place, no longer intimidating one another.

While in the Committee of the Whole, the Assembly decided that they would not debate the question, possibly since it was too divisive, and they referred the matter of responding to the overtures to a Special Committee composed of former Moderators from 2005 to 2017. Other matters were referred to that committee as well. One commissioner was allowed to observe that she did not feel comfortable with the fact that this special committee was “mostly old white men.” Again, the Moderator tacitly agreed with the statement by allowing it, with its force of identity politics. The Assembly carried the motion to refer all matters connected with human sexuality to the Special Committee. One could feel the sense of relief come on the Assembly, yet also the frustration that in the end, we had not even attempted to decide issues that were brought forward to the Assembly in Vancouver in June 2015.

The Assembly was highly charged emotionally. As a visitor, I felt welcomed by many friends and acquaintances that I’ve made over the years. We spoke often without reference to the “the issue.” On the other hand, I felt unwelcome by some individual comments, such as by the naming from the microphone of the Renewal Fellowship and PSALT as a bullying and intimidating presence in the court. This is strange for me, after attending Assembly over my thirty years as a minister, in many commissions. I have never heard the Moderator or Clerks address visitors (and other non-commissioned persons) with accusations of lobbying, bullying, and intimidation, of taking unauthorized photographs, by praying, and engaging in the kind of spiritual conflict mentioned in Ephesians 6:10ff., where it is clear that this is not against fellow human beings, but against the devil and his spiritual forces.

The Listening Committee, which renamed itself the “Rainbow Communion” mostly were able to change their terms of reference as they requested. One exception to this is that they were to “recommend” to the Assembly and not merely “provide” the Assembly with their understanding of homophobia and hypocrisy within the PCC. They were also able to insert the words “heterosexism” and “transphobia” into their mandate. These words represent an ideology that could go against our subordinate standards. The Bible and the traditional option A are heterosexist, if I understand the term. They also were able to pass a change to their mandate that they would be “listening to others outside the LGBTQI community,” which may artificially increase the number of people to whom they will listen. The Committee was also able to obtain an indefinite suspension of censure based on current same sex relationship policies, in order freely and honestly to work on the Committee or to be heard by the Committee. The Moderator was challenged as to whether this was in order, without going down under the Barrier Act, as an indefinite change to our discipline. The Moderator made it clear that a future Assembly could limit this suspension, if it chooses, so the Moderator’s ruling was upheld.

Have we become an “affirming” church, now that we have adopted all these Rainbow Communion motions? Some will argue that we have. But please remember that these motions are only in light of fulfilling the 1994 mandate to address homophobia and hypocrisy. We have agreed only to listen to these persons in our midst, and not to fully change our doctrine and practice. We need to keep praying.

Gracious dismissal overtures were answered in the Clerks’ Report. They wrote that, out of concern for unity, they will not suggest any openness to departing congregations being able to leave with their assets. Congregations, who leave their buildings because of doctrinal or other concerns, will have the opportunity, along with other interested parties, to buy back their real estate six months after vacating their premises. For many of us, it feels like a “winner takes all” kind of mentality, in spite of several pleas from the microphones for more of a pastoral response than this. This matter was referred to the Assembly Council.

The Assembly voted down removing the right to dissent when absent with permission from a court. Less than three minutes was spent on the multi-million-dollar budget. One question about annual million-and-a-half-dollar deficits was answered by the new CFO, saying that he would use reserves for this deficit.

Did PSALT unfairly influence the Assembly? We spoke to one another through social media. We debriefed in the evenings and at the end of lunch breaks. We prayed early in the morning. While this is influence, I do not believe this is unfair influence. As I shared before the Assembly with a conservative clergy commissioner friend who does not want to join PSALT currently, I do not believe that PSALT is divisive to the denomination by seeking to uphold the current biblical status of marriage and the biblical basis of sexual ethics and leadership, as represented in Option A, the traditional biblical point of view.