Threatening to Stretch the Tie that Binds Beyond Christian Elasticity

At the time of publication, J.H.(Hans) Kouwenberg Hans Kouwenberg was the minister at Calvin Presbyterian Church, Abbotsford, B.C., and editor of Channels. This article also appeared in the July 9, 1996, issue of Christian Week.

As the 122nd annual meeting of the Presbyterian Church in Canada wound down on June 12 in Charlottetown, PEI, some went away worrying that the church’s growing diversity might ultimately undo its unity found in Christ.

True, the Assembly met for the first time in PEI, a place that experienced an early and exciting history of growth in Presbyterian work and witness. It is said that there are more Presbyterians per capita in PEI than anywhere else in Canada. To the tourist’s eye there seem to be well-maintained church buildings in almost every town and village in this province, and several congregations, such as in North Tryton, are thriving under lay leadership. Also, the first Presbyterian missionary, John Geddie, who went to the New Hebrides in 1848, came from PEI. The first three and only Canadian Presbyterian martyrs who died in this mission came from PEI.

Thus when as many as 1,200 people – including the 290 commissioners or one-sixth of all the ministers and representative elders of the PCC – gathered for an uplifting worship service in the historic and evangelical Zion Presbyterian Church, there was an upbeat mood. The past Moderator, the Rev. Alan McPherson of Central Presbyterian Church, Hamilton, Ontario, preached a stirring sermon on “Bearing Fruit” in which he urged Christians to be faithful in reproducing and multiplying themselves not only in qualitative but also quantitative ways. Referring to potato-growing, for which PEI is famous, Dr. McPherson said that if each farmer got only one new potato for each one planted, it would certainly not be considered a good enough harvest. For those interested in the priority of “church growth” a good beginning had been made.

But when the potentially fractious issue of homosexuality came before this Assembly, the upbeat mood seemed to vanish. Although there was a courteous and careful hearing of both sides of the issue, the commissioners tensed noticeably. It was clear that everyone knew that an important decision had been made. The issue at hand was how Assembly would respond to an appeal from some members of the Presbytery of Montreal against that body’s decision to ordain to the ministry of word and sacrament a candidate who is living in an openly homosexual relationship and currently serving as an “interim minister” at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Lachine, Quebec.

When the time came to consider the majority recommendations of a special committee which had studied the matter all last year and which supported the appellants against the Presbytery of Montreal, a motion arose from the floor – contrary to the special report’s recommendations – to allow “the Presbytery of Montreal to proceed, with all due speed, to ordain Darryl MacDonald to the Ministry … and to induct him as minister in the pastoral charge of St. Andrews, Lachine.” The swords were drawn. After some vigorous debate, this was soundly defeated by 220 votes to 39. Relief came for most; hurt for some others. But Assembly had begun to state its mind about the ordination of a self-confessed homosexual to the Christian ministry.

The scene was then set for the adoption of all of the report’s majority recommendations: 1) “that the action of the Presbytery of Montreal on April 18, 1995 to sustain the call from St. Andrew’s Lachine to Darryl Macdonald be declared null and void” (237 affirmative, 24 negative, secret ballot votes); 2) “that the ruling of the Presbytery of Montreal to declare the appeal against Mr. Macdonald’s appointment as Interim Supply as ‘frivolous and vexatious’ be set aside” (carried by a show of hands); 3) “that the call to Mr. Darryl Macdonald, processed by the Presbytery of Montreal, be declared ultra vires (or beyond its competence)” was adopted as amended: “because it is contrary to our current understanding and declaration about the teaching of Scripture, our subordinate standards, and all General Assembly statements to date on homosexuality, and contrary to the procedures of our church” (237 affirmative, 24 negative); 4) “that the Presbytery of Montreal be reminded that if it wishes to pursue the matter of ordaining candidates of self-avowed homosexual practice within the PCC, it may seek remedy using the regular overture procedure to place the matter before the whole denomination (carried by a show of hands); and 5) “that the Presbytery of Montreal be directed to re-examine the status of Darryl Macdonald as a Licentiate of the Church” (147 affirmative, 110 negative). Some thought that this last vote was close because people did not want to appear punitive; others think that our society has trouble today making the hard but necessary decisions.

In any case, the decision not to ordain a self-avowed homosexual had been overwhelmingly made. Some in the affirmative might think that with such a strong vote the issue would be settled for a long time. But most of those voting in the negative offered their “dissents” – they consider this to be a matter of injustice. Further, one ought to note that an “overture” or petition for the church to study the matter further could be made in the future. Fortunately, some see the decision as a significant “precedent” with which future assemblies will have to deal, but it ought to be observed that already commissioners from the Presbytery of Montreal have been vocal in the media following the Assembly’s decision, casting doubt on Assembly’s decision. And the congregation of St. Andrew’s, Lachine, has already re-affirmed their support for Mr. Macdonald and it does not look likely that the Presbytery of Montreal will be any more inclined to remove him after than before the Assembly’s action. Further, it is significant that the Young Adult Representatives present at the Assembly also voted on the question among themselves – as “observers” they are not allowed to vote as part of the Assembly – and the results of their balloting favoured ordained self-avowed homosexuals by 70%.

So where will this decision take the PCC in the next few years? Will the church make a further definitive of “declaratory” decision against the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals, or will it be tormented by a protracted study of the matter as has been witnessed in the United Church during the 1980s and which may well bleed members away? Thus, although the decision was decisive, some went away from the Assembly wondering if they had suddenly become “old fogeys” as the media termed them or if the elastic unity of the PCC is beginning to stretch beyond the breaking point.