Note: This document can be downloaded in PDF format here and may serve as a resource to Sessions and congregations as they try to determine which stream they are going to end up in.
Introduction and Context
PSALT – Presbyterians Standing for Apostolic Love and Truth – is a national movement which aims at building The Presbyterian Church In Canada into a more biblically faithful expression of Christian discipleship and witness. So, we affirm our five statements of faith:
1. God in Christ as the centre of church life;
2. Scripture as God’s holy and authoritative revelation;
3. The Holy Spirit as the active agent forming grace-extending, truth-telling, disciple-making communities;
4. A view of discipleship which demands whole-life obedience and sacrifice unto freedom and joy;
5. A view of mission which seeks explicit sharing of the apostolic gospel and a call unto faith and repentance.
We also believe this is congruent with three key points in 1876 Basis of Union of the PCC;
1. The written scriptures were the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
2. The Westminster articles were a trustworthy guide to understanding the scriptures: a doctrinal standard, but subordinate to the ultimate standard of the scriptures.
3. The government and worship of the church were to be in accordance with the recognized principles of Presbyterian church government.
In 2018 the PCC had the opportunity to reaffirm these points from our Basis of Union when the Church Doctrine Committee recommended to the General Assembly that the PCC should not change the biblical and historic teaching on marriage and sexuality.
However, the Assembly decided to look for another source of unity for the PCC, apart from our Basis of Union, in response to these matters. The result of this decision and the following recommendations made in the in subsequent years, along with all the discussion and voting that has recently taken place in the Presbyteries, have not revealed another viable source of unity for the PCC.
The Leadership of Psalt has noted these developments and the uncertainty it holds for the future of the PCC. While we believe that there is still much unity to be found in doctrinal and theological statements of the faith which we profess, we see that the Lord is working through these circumstances to bring something new in and out of what is now passing away.
The analogy of a river is a helpful way to understand how things will move forward from here. The water in the river is the doctrinal and theological basis that we share together and in the past this water has charted its course flowing between solidly defined riverbanks. however, as the riverbanks have lost their integrity and are now crumbling, they are no longer able to contain the water. As the detritus and debris from the collapsing riverbank falls down into the riverbed it begins to disrupt and redirect the flow of the river sending water streaming off in various directions over new terrain to carve out a new path for itself.
So what are the paths before us – where do we see the water going? Here are some observations about the streams that we have seen emerging.
At the 2017 Psalt Conference we identified three responses which those who share the common doctrinal unity of our Basis of Union were considering in light of the failing theological and structural integrity of the PCC. Some were prepared to “stay and pray” others were looking as to how they might “pull away” and still others were looking to “Pull out” and leave the PCC.
Back in 2017 these were merely swirling eddies in turbulent waters, and we all hoped that the detritus in the riverbed would be swept away and allow us to continue on as we always had. However, the detritus has remained – and even increased – causing these eddies to develop into new streams in their own right and carving their own paths forward.
In part this is because the PCC’s history and polity has always been grassroots and not top down and thus we believe these are streams for renewing the Church, and it is also evidence of the Lord’s Sovereign hand at work, and changing metaphors momentarily, pruning His Church in order that it may bear more fruit. (John 15)
So let us take a closer look at what has occurred over the past three years in these various streams – keeping in mind that while they may be carving different paths, they all share the water which springs from the same doctrinal and theological source.
Stay and Pray
For many in the denomination, Stay and Pray is the default option. While the other streams are still developing, those paths are not yet defined enough to provide a viable option to those who are constrained by circumstance. For some this may be financial obligations, or an impending retirement, or their Congregation or Session is split on the sexuality issue, or they do not wish to relinquish their parish resources to the PCC so a revisionist ministry can replace their legacy.
However, in the past three years some have also come to a growing conviction they should remain and serve within the PCC as a witness. It is not a default option but an intentional choice to stay and pray and test the freedoms granted in the proposed Remits. They intend to minister in continuation with theological and doctrinal Basis of Union both within their congregation and in their Presbytery participation. They are going to trust the Lord to help them maintain God pleasing, faithful positions that honor Scripture and the original vows they made to the serve the Lord in the PCC – in spite of whatever it will become.
This stream began to gain momentum and carve its own path and with Option C listed as a potential path forward in the Moderatoral Special Committee’s Report to the 2019 General Assembly. There are a number of variations on the concept but there is a strong desire emerging to create separate non-geographical Synods/Presbyteries for congregations whose theological and doctrinal convictions will not allow them to support and participate in the PCC’s embrace of false teachings regarding marriage and sexuality.
These entities would have their own theological and doctrinal autonomy allowing for the free exercise of orthodox ministry which would also minimize the legal exposure on the issue of marriage and sexuality. Maintaining a shared administrative connection and position within the structure of the PCC would allow congregations to retain their buildings, property and assets and continue to contribute and benefit from the Pension Plan and Group Benefits.
As this option of pulling away is being considered and further details are being worked out, it is becoming increasingly attractive to those whose only option by default had been to stay and pray and has resulted in several overtures being sent to the General Assembly.
There are many who would consider leaving as their preferred option, however very few are in an optimal position to pursue this stream. For most clergy this would mean leaving their congregation to completing requirements to seek out a calling in a new denomination and for congregations it would mean dissolution, walking away from their building and assets to start over from scratch. Yet there are those who are willing to step out in faith to pursue a fresh start apart from the PCC with some notable successful examples of those who have already done this in the past.
The realization that there are other people in Reformed denominations who have already walked this path and who may have some wisdom and experience to share with us resulted in the formation of an ad hoc group, with multi-cultural representation from across the PCC, for the task of gleaning insight and advice from those who have already left a denomination in order to step out in faith and begin anew.
They were pleased to report that there is goodwill and support available for those who would need to leave the PCC, but emphasized that leaving requires humility, and the importance of a repentant heart and a willingness to bless those whom you are leaving and that you must also leave behind any anger, distrust and pride in order to follow the Lord’s leading elsewhere.
This is timely and helpful spiritual advice for us. We are aware that some of the structural barriers that have thus far prevented congregations from leaving could potentially be addressed by General Assembly in an upcoming report on Gracious Dismissal.
In spite of attempts to prevent further study and investigation on this issue, a subcommittee was formed back in 2018 and was to report to the Assembly Council. This past November, an interim report was received and considered by the Council, and further discussions with the Clerk of Assembly, the Pension and Benefits board and the Trustee Board took place. A final draft report was presented to Assembly Council just before the Covid crisis so we will have to wait to see what the Assembly Council will present to the next General Assembly on this issue. So, we can see that these three streams which emerged in 2017 from the shared waters of our doctrinal and theological unity have all started to carve out new paths and will continue to diverge as they move forward.
It is very important however, in spite of whichever stream we may find ourselves in, that we remember the three streams all share the same doctrinal and theological water and the divergence we will see in the years ahead is a result of how that water must carve its path through our various contexts and circumstances.
In order to energize and encourage one another in the year ahead Psalt will form three working groups to provide resources and coordination and networking for these three streams to ensure all our efforts are not redundant but synergistic and effective.
And as a starting point to that work we offer the following encouragements which we can all work towards, regardless of which stream we might find ourselves in.
First, we must anticipate and work towards a time when we are able to minister in a Presbyterian structure that is aligned with the gospel of Christ which we are to proclaim, and empowered by the Holy Spirit for its effectiveness. Where mutual accountability supports disciples-making and our sanctification and the Holy Scriptures are obeyed as the only rule for faith and life and inform and define our mission.
Secondly, we must be more aware of the changing external societal context. Up to now we have been focused on responding to the issues of marriage and sexuality solely within the PCC, but we must now draw on that experience and respond to the Fed Gov’t plans to criminalize their definition of Conversion Therapy. External factors, like changes to the criminal code on this matter will have a significant internal impact on how issues of freedom of conscience and action surrounding marriage and sexuality are able to be worked out in the PCC under the proposed Remits. We would be very wise to get ahead of this issue.
Third, we should participate in joint training and resourcing projects that will equip and strengthen us in preparation for wherever our stream will lead us. To this end Psalt heartily endorses and encourages participation in the Flourishing Churches Program. Broad participation in such a program from our community provides us with opportunity to be intentional about moving forward to the future God has planned for us and gives concrete expression to the unity we still share as we find our way in divergent streams.
We pray this summary informs, encourages and blesses you and we welcome your support of our ministry through prayer, membership, service and donations.
If you would like to become involved in one of our working groups please contact us to let us know.
Blessings in Christ.
The Psalt Leadership Team