Commissioners to 2017 General Assembly chose neither the narrow path nor the wide avenue on the issue of human sexuality, opting instead to take a rocky road.
A decision on whether to allow ministers to immediately bless same-sex marriages and begin the process to redefine marital union was deferred. A strong majority of commissioners, after several hours of debate, voted to put off a vote on recommendations 11-15 of the joint report of the Committee on Church Doctrine (CDC) and the Life and Mission Agency (LMA) until the CDC's "final report on this matter has been received and that the General Assembly, in its wisdom, has made a decision regarding The Presbyterian Church in Canada's doctrine concerning same-sex relationships."
However, the PCC's lower courts, congregations and colleges will be asked to study and report on two weighty theological documents, one advancing the current stance that marriage is between a man and a woman, the other calling for marriage to be defined as two people. Perhaps as a parting blow in response to the deferral, a smaller majority of commissioners added two additional reports for study, both leaning liberal: the LMA report responding to the overtures on human sexuality and a paper entitled "The church and people who are transgendered and intersex."
In addition, the church is being asked to consider the document "Where from here?" – which asks for direction on which course to take on the issue: status quo, wholesale change or allowing individual minsters and congregations to choose on their own. The report also invites other suggestions.
Assembly thus set the course for a twisting and turning journey over the next seven months, sending five documents on the sexuality issue to congregations, colleges and lower courts for study and reporting by the end of January 2018.
The only firm decision was to finally enact a process to repent on past acts of hatred against those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning and intersex communities. The initiative will see steps taken to create a space for the LGBTQI people to tell their stories, draft a response and identify "concrete actions" to remedy the situation and report back within three years. It's intended to fulfill a section of the 1994 General Assembly statement of human sexuality which was never acted upon.
A related issue, gracious dismissal, received wide consensus. For the third year in a row, Assembly received several overtures seeking the right of congregations to leave the PCC with their buildings. The requests came from sessions and presbyteries representing both sides of the human sexuality debate. As it was the year before, the official response from the church was lukewarm. However, very early in the assembly, commissioners agreed to strike an immediate committee to form terms of reference for a special initiative to address the issue. Those terms were approved unanimously. Among the issues to consider: the ongoing wounds that resulted from the congregations which left in 1925 to create the United Church of Canada, the regulatory framework that currently prohibits congregations from leaving the denomination with their buildings and the potential harm to the PCC and the wisdom of allowing gracious dismissal to take place prior to a final decision on sexuality.
The debate over human sexuality revealed more than a theological divide in the PCC. Our growing, ethnic-based congregations – Korean especially – emerged as vibrant supporters of the traditional, biblical witness, and yet overlooked by General Assembly office. Last year's document, "Body, mind and soul" was never translated into Korean. Many of those congregations have not bothered with the debate, being more focused on the actual work of the church. On a motion from the floor, assembly agreed to provide translations of the two main documents in the human sexuality debate by the end of August. (This lack of recognition of our ethnic congregations – which are among the healthiest – was ironic given the significant amount of time the PCC has spent on repenting for its part in the Indian residential school era.)
Lost in the haze was another report on an equally weighty issue: physician-assisted suicide. Commissioners received a detailed and moving pastoral report on the issue prepared by a CDC sub-committee. It was also sent down for study, with a reporting deadline of January.
The final tally: congregations are being asked to read and report on six documents by the end of January. That's a lot of reading, study, prayer, discussion and decision.
It could have been worse, in more ways than one. Had commissioners voted in favour of recommendations 14 ("That being in a same sex civil marriage shall not be a reason to bar any person from candidacy or ordination as a minister of Word and Sacraments, elder, or designation of a diaconal minister") and 15 ("Christian marriage is a union in Christ whereby two individuals, regardless of gender, become one in the sight of God") then congregations would have had two other issues to study and report within the same deadline. Judging by the overwhelming majority which voted in favour of deferral, there was no appetite for a life-and-death decision at the 2017 General Assembly.
The lack of a decision was heartbreaking to some in the liberal camp, who were noticeably frustrated. At the same time, some on the traditional side are grieving the death of a once-vibrant, biblical denomination; to them, the end is inevitable. Thus sets the stage for an eventual showdown.
Rev. Andy Cornell <email@example.com>