What will best serve the Kingdom – politics or principle?
That is one of several questions I have as I consider the four pathways laid out by the Special Committee of Former Moderators, whose long-awaited report was released May 21 (posted here). The committee’s report is in response to General Assembly 2018’s direction to “propose a way ahead that allows the mission and ministry of The Presbyterian Church in Canada to continue” in light of our deep division over sexuality.
Pathway ‘A’, “current practice”, would be no change in doctrine; ministers would not be allowed to marry same-sex couples while ruling and teaching elders who are same-sex attracted would be expected to remain celibate. Pathway ‘B’, “inclusion”, would toss out the traditional definition of marriage and would no longer consider non-hetero sex sinful. Pathway ‘C’, “one denomination – three streams”, would see three distinct groups – “traditional, affirming, and accommodating” – within the PCC, each with their own presbyteries and ordination requirements. (“Accommodating” still needs to be defined, to my mind.) Each congregation would choose which family to join. The denominational offices would remain in order to provide pension, benefits, overseas mission and national identity. Pathway ‘D’, “pastoral accommodation”, would retain the traditional doctrine of marriage and sexuality but would “create space” to allow ministers to solemnize same-sex marriage and congregations to call non-celibate LGBTQI clergy.
The moderators are proposing that the four options be weighed by a ranked vote/preferential ballot, in which commissioners write “1” beside their first choice, “2” for their second and so on. Commissioners can rank one, two, three, or all four pathways. Ballots are counted to determine how many “1”s each pathway receives. If none of the pathways has received 50 per cent plus 1 of the votes counted, the pathway with fewest first-place votes is eliminated and those ballots are distributed on the basis of the pathway ranked “2”. The ballots are recounted until one option emerges with the majority.
There is a possibility that the pathway which has the most first-place votes in the first round of counting might not emerge as the winner after second- and third-place choices are added to the mix in later counts.
(Let me state clearly that I am grateful for the moderators’ work. My fear was that they would ask for another year to decide. I am heartened by their bold assertion that General Assembly needs to make the decision. They have offered four clear paths and a process by which to decide. Bravo.)
With 72 hours of prayerful consideration now under my belt, I cautiously share my heart and mind as I assess each pathway and possible outcome. (I write as one commissioner, whose heart and mind may not necessarily reflect the official position of The Renewal Fellowship within the Presbyterian Church in Canada or its Board of directors.)
For me, ‘A’ is the only option for those who want to be aligned with a church which adheres to scriptural truth. Plain and simple. It is the only option which is faithful to God’s design for the world as revealed in Scripture, consistent with gender complementarity and to the leading of the Holy Spirit. It’s also the path that I hope would continue to adhere to our 2018 letter of repentance to the LGBTQI community.
But – and there is always a but – it does not address our divided state. Yes, it would be a signal that the PCC is in step – albeit by a slim majority – with the rapidly-growing global church. But before you shout “Amen!” consider the response of all those affirming ministers if we hold fast to our foundation. Will they stop marrying same-sex couples? Will ministers and elders in same-sex marriages or relationships part ways with one another? Not a chance. A few may leave the PCC, but many will stay; our restless state would continue.
‘B’ is no longer a true church. It’s the opposite of ‘A’. In a ‘B’ universe, would all of us operating under orthodoxy simply sigh and submit to the new order? Not a chance. Some would leave, others would stay and pray – if they are allowed to do so in the long term – and patiently plant seeds in anticipation of the holy renewal of the church. Again, the problem would remain unaddressed.
‘C’ is the classic compromise – separate but equal, like theological segregation. Here, in theory, everyone has a safe space. In traditional and affirming camps, we can be free of the theological miasma that has gripped us and prevented us from doing the real business of church. (The accommodating group might be that collection of divided congregations, although it’s tough to gauge given the lack of details.) I could hang my hat on ‘C’ quite nicely and sleep at night, knowing that we can – for the first time – truly focus on the Great Commission. In a ‘C’ universe, I can envision a presbytery of congregations of kindred souls – much like a Renewal Day – and the encouragement it would bring as we work in holy synergy. Oh joy! We would resemble that remarkable upstart denomination south of the border – ECO, A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which is on fire. It would take several years to assemble and represent a sea change, but this may appear to have the best upsides and fewest downsides. (Those of us in divided congregations – and there are many – might have to make-do in the “accommodating camp.” But at least we will be able to share our stories and work together.)
I think of ‘C’ as the acceptable compromise. It’s a reflection of realpolitik, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations.” It’s often one of the reasons minority governments give in to the opposition in order to stay in power.
‘D’ is a two-faced oddity in which our actions do not have to reflect our doctrine – sin is legalized. It’s the status quo but with the official suspension of discipline, not that it’s widely exercised now. This pathway is being heralded by the moderators as a potential model as it “demonstrates how to live with difference while staying together. Such forbearance is a witness to the world.” But it assumes those who are traditional will simply turn their faces away and graciously allow the church to stand for one thing in our doctrine but allow something else in practice. Given all that has transpired, that is not likely to happen.
Given this early dissection of the pathways, it appears as if my mind is made up. But is it?
I return to the question.
Do I exercise realpolitik and place a “1” or “2” beside “C” knowing that it’s the option with the greatest theological and practical traction and that my vote will at least count in the second or third round? By doing so, I acknowledge the fact that I am tacitly playing a role in opening the door for some Presbyterian congregations to ignore aspects of Scripture and the natural order and operate in sin. If a friend is sinning, our obligation is to take them aside and point it out. That’s why Renewal Fellowship exists – our mission is to “lead each other and the PCC to authentic Biblical thinking, powerful, Spirit-led prayer and effective Gospel witness.” Shrugging our shoulders and giving up on two thirds of the PCC which would rather be affirming or accommodating (whatever that means) wasn’t what I signed up for.
Do I stick to principle and place “1” next to ‘A’ and provide no other preference, even though in all likelihood it might be the first or second pathway to be dropped, in which case my vote is lost completely?
What would Jesus do? What would Paul do? What would Billy Graham or Jean Vanier do? What should Andy do?
I am torn.
I want to do my small part to advance the church by pursuing purity, even if it means we remain in a restless state. I also desperately want to end the debate and concentrate on where we’re seeing fruit, shaking the dust from my feet and cutting our losses.
Holy Spirit, speak to me and all commissioners. May Your hands work in ways we cannot see, let alone fathom. May Your hands guide Assembly so that what emerges immediately, or a few years down the road, is a reflection of Your will.