When Ordination Vows are Broken

Progressive Christians continue to react with shock and dismay over the decision by the United Methodist Church to uphold the traditional definition of marriage. It didn’t take long for those who are opposed to the decision by the worldwide body to declare their next move: to continue defying church law.

“We are not going anywhere,” one liberal told The New York Times. “If someone wants to come for me, for us, then bring it.”

It’s as if the global United Methodist conference didn’t even happen.

Gone are the days when we were conditioned from birth to submit to God’s holy ways, embodied in our denominational standards. Now, if we don’t like the decisions which are made after due process has been followed, we defy them.

For decades, The Presbyterian Church in Canada has been home to a few ministers and elders who ignore the teachings of the church. Some deny the bodily resurrection of Christ, ignore the reality of sin, and embrace pagan faiths as truth. More recently, some are openly married to partners of the same gender. Ministers are solemnizing and blessing the unions of other same-sex couples.

The same defiance that we’re seeing with United Methodists is alive in our own courts. On March 12, the Presbytery of Waterloo-Wellington received a notice of motion from a minister that seeks to amend its standing orders in an effort to normalize same-sex marriage. It’s calling for a permanent suspension of discipline, inspired by the moratorium granted by General Assembly 2018 to allow the Rainbow Communion to do its work, listening to the stories of those hurt by the sin of homophobia.

True, the motion would not “compel any minister or session to perform a particular marriage” nor would it “compel any congregation to take specific actions to be more affirming” — as if that makes it all right. It’s like sprinkling sugar on top of something sour and passing it off as palatable. Imagine a provincial government proposing a “notwithstanding clause” to allow it to opt out of any federal legislation it finds inconvenient. It would be thrown out of court at the first challenge.

The Waterloo-Wellington presbyter’s notice of motion amounts to insubordination. It’s a violation of our ordination vows.

God takes vows seriously. In Hebrews 6, we are reminded of the promise to Abraham, that he would be the father of many nations and that the world would be blessed through him. God’s promise was backed up with a vow, if we ever had any reason to doubt. And in case you think it’s all one way, the author of Hebrews reminds us of our own obligation: “When people make promises, they guarantee them by appeal to some authority above them so that if there is any question that they’ll make good on the promise, the authority will back them up.” (Hebrews 6:16 MSG)

Which begs the question: when people knowingly break the vows they have made before God and the church, won’t God give them a nudge, a poke, a gentle reminder that they are treading on thin ice? Clearly, some people are ignoring the voice of God and are listening to the voice of this world.

Civil disobedience — widely accepted in the secular realm — has no place in the church. We are commanded to respect authority, which has been placed by God. It’s why we stand when the Moderator enters General Assembly. It’s why we honour due process, lest we fall into oligarchy or dictatorial control. The Waterloo-Wellington notice of motion is disrespectful of the work of the Special Committee of Former Moderators, whose report on finding a way forward through our theological divisions has not even been presented. It’s contrary to the order that we have promised to uphold.

Those who are fighting to change the theology and practice of the church are free to do so, but wait for the process. Practice self control.

3 thoughts on “When Ordination Vows are Broken

  1. Andy, it sounds to me like the Presbyter is following the polity of the church. It will be up to the court to declare the motion out of order if they agree with you or to pass the motion if they don’t. Then that decision can be appealed to GA if necessary. Your indignation is hardly justified in my opinion. But since you are so concerned about keeping ordination vows, I wonder what you think about all those who have stated publicly that they will be leaving the church if we change our position on same-sex marriage (or those who have said they will leave if we don’t). Are they breaking their vow to adhere to doctrine the church “may yet confess in the Church’s continuing function of reformulating the faith”? Furthermore, there are rules for discipline within the church. If you’d like to accuse someone (or several people as seems the case) of breaking their ordination vows, you are welcome to use the correct channels. I hardly think your blog is the proper way to do so. One might even say that you are taking a “divisive course” by making such an accusation in a public forum. But I’m sure that wasn’t your intention. Next time practice some self control.
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    Reuben, thank you for your response. The overall point of the blog was to remind us that we need to respect the law. Those who are musing about leaving the PCC out of principle I believe are doing so out of a desire NOT to break their vows if our theology and practice change. For example, if the PCC ever changed its definition of marriage and did NOT provide grace to those who did not support the new position, then rather than defy the courts, they would sever ties out of conviction that it is important to be united on our essentials. As for the correct channel, I am not a member of that court. If the same thing happened in my presbytery, I would not be silent. As for the clause in our vows that refers to future changes in doctrine, the intent is not to write a blank cheque, so to speak. None of us can promise to uphold doctrine that might be contrary to our personal convictions. If we feel we can no longer stand behind our vows, I believe we are obligated to renounce them and move on. Until that happens, we are morally bound to uphold the status quo. Clearly, the status quo is being challenged; there is nothing wrong with theological debate. But we need to allow the Special Committee of Former Moderators to do its work. — Andy Cornell

  2. I’m curious. Does this notion of respect for the Assembly mean that the Renewal Fellowship will not be intimidating commissioners this year, as it did in 2018, by photographing them as they vote?
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    Alex, I was a guest of the Assembly in 2018 as part of my duties with Renewal Fellowship. One of my tasks was to take illustrative photos for our newsletter http://www.renewal-fellowship.ca/2143. As a former journalist, I know the value of good photos and know readers appreciate them. That was my sole purpose. What makes you think the purpose was intimidation? It’s worth pointing out that PCC staff were doing exactly the same thing at the same time in order to feed the web and the Presbyterian Connection newsletter. It’s an open court and we are all documenting the first draft of history. — Andy Cornell

  3. There are several points made in this post that sadden me but I will address this line:
    “Clearly, some people are ignoring the voice of God and are listening to the voice of this world.”
    As an affirming member of the Presbyterian church it offends me to think that you assume my decision was made lightly and due to popular culture or the world as you say. Quite contrary, my beliefs have been changed after much time spent in prayer, study, and listening. In fact, I was not confident nor did I have peace in my beliefs until I cried out to the Lord, and while I wept he answered me. My embrace of lgbtq people has strengthened my faith and love of God. Please do not dismiss it. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss further.
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    Amy, thanks for your response. I’m not suggesting that those who are affirming made their decisions lightly. I know that many people have lost sleep and wrestled with this issue. I am one of them. Clearly, you and many who are affirming are people of great faith. We love all of our sisters and brothers. We simply point to what we believe is right. — Andy Cornell

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