Tales from Assembly: Understanding the Other

This blog represents the thoughts of the author. While they may reflect the theological position of The Renewal Fellowship, they should not be seen as an official statement.

We call it “the issue” – code for the tortuous wrestling with our official response to same-sex attraction. Long after the secular world and most other mainline denominations got past it, the term hints of shame or disdain.

That may now change.

While delivering my post-Assembly commissioner’s report to presbytery last week, I was interrupted mid-sentence by a minister colleague. Her issue: the fact that I used the term.

“We’re talking about people,” she told the court. “Lives, careers, emotions, bodies, minds, and souls.” I understood her point. “Issue” refers to a “problem or difficulty”. To her and others on the affirming side, it’s fundamentally about justice. It’s intensely personal.

My chastisement represented a defining moment. And it put the experience of General Assembly 2019 in a new light.

Up until Assembly, personal impact was almost the exclusive domain of the affirming movement. Now, it’s shared by traditionalists, who are facing similar limitations to their expression of conscience that their affirming sisters and brothers have experienced for decades or more.

The tide turned instantly as the results of the pathway rankings were announced. Assembly chose “B”, inclusion, which would change our “definition of marriage to be a committed/covenanted relationship between two adult persons. Clergy would be permitted to conduct such marriages. LGBTQI persons in married relationships would be eligible for ordination.”

Among the immediate comments that followed, two student seminary representatives poured out their hearts.

“I find that I’m not sure of my place in the Presbyterian Church at this point because of my understanding of Scripture,” Angelika Atkins, who had just graduated from Knox College and is seeking ordination, told a hushed Assembly.

Pausing to maintain composure, she said, “I hold these two in tension: my love of people and my understanding of Scripture. Most people who know me would assume I would be for ‘B’ and want to be for ‘B’, but I find myself torn; I find myself lost.”

Jinsil Park, of Presbyterian College, a self-described “outsider” from Korea who was drawn to the PCC because he felt accepted in our denomination, said, “I never received that love from other churches. And now is when I can spend my whole life in this church and with this people … As Angelika said, I don’t know whether I’m going to be accepted anymore because of my understanding and my theological stance.”

They are just two faces of the new personal reality.

I’m another. For me – eight years into ministry after a midlife career change – the shock came when the special Assembly “Implications Committee” released its report. The most-jarring recommendation: those who adhere to the traditional definition of marriage would have until September 1, 2022, to get on board.

We were the ones who now felt excluded.

A little later, one of the leaders of the affirming movement – a ruling elder who is married to her same-sex partner – asked me how I was doing. “Like I’m facing exclusion,” I said.

“Now you know how we feel,” she replied.

Her comment wasn’t vindictive. She is a person of faith and conviction with a pastoral heart. But a fact is a fact.

The next morning, commissioners accepted a toned-down version of that pathway that would remove the best-before date. But it was cold comfort. The writing was on the wall.

It’s a harbinger of a new debate. Both sides are now invited to get personal, not in a gloves-off kind of way but in the reality that the issue has come home to roost.

In my testimony, it’s easy to expound on the fundamental godly purpose of sexual activity, which is procreative. It echoes creation, made more profound as we are created in God’s image. I can also confidently point to gender complementarity. Our physiology is designed for heterosexual activity only; same-gender sexual activity is, well, not natural.

And yet Living Faith, the subordinate standard to which we adhere, points out that “Sexual union in marriage is intended to provide mutual joy and comfort as well as the means of creating new life.”

Mutual joy and comfort.

Of course that troubles me. How could it not? Here I am, declaring the innate ungodliness of anything other than heterosexuality, then returning home to the loving arms of my wife. Age-wise, we are past the stage of procreation.

“Love is love,” is the phrase that I hear constantly from the affirmers. To which I say, “and sex is sex.” I separate the two, while those who are acting on their same-sex desires do not. Those in LGB communities are defined in large part by the consummation of their attractions, I’m told.

I have to ask myself, “to what degree do heterosexual men and women also define themselves by their sexual activity?” A lot, I’m sorry to say. It’s 2019, after all, deep into the age of relativism.

I remain convinced that God did not intend for men or women to lie down with their own kind at any age or stage of life. And yet, like many others, I am torn between my heart for people and my heart for Scripture.

There is nothing that I can say that will turn the minds of my dear friends in same-gender relationships and their allies – and vice versa. This is a matter for the Holy Spirit.

Is there hope for co-existence in the same communion when our theologies are so far apart? Our doctrines – and there are many variations – may all be inspired by Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Many view the circle chart with those four parts in equal measure, but orthodoxy yields to Scripture the controlling share of the pie. And now, add “culture” to the proverbial Wesleyan mix. Culture? That’s a factor that many of those in the progressive wings consider. But it’s anathema to many in orthodoxy, who see culture as worldly, the domain of the enemy.

Before we split – which may be inevitable – I’m going to encourage intelligent, respectful conversations about these things, starting in our congregations, sessions, and – in Barrier Act inevitability – our presbyteries. A serious discussion is what I strongly suggested to my presbytery. At best, such sharing of minds and experiences would be an exercise which allows for a mutually respectful firewall to be designed and built. Or it may signal a holy debriefing as we go our separate ways.

Whatever the outcome, let’s try again to understand the other.

One thought on “Tales from Assembly: Understanding the Other

  1. Thanks for sharing, Andy. It’s a challenge coming to terms with the “issue”, but we know we can’t move on until we do. I’ve come to view the “issue” as a competitive struggle for identity and belonging within the PCC. Folk on both sides want the church to be their home. They hope it can meet their need for love (security and significance) according to their set of ideals for the church. But even an ideal church falls far short of God’s love in Christ – thankfully.

    Andy, I’m convinced that you’ll experience remarkable peace by centring yourself on your identity in Christ rather than in the PCC. The two are not the same. You’ll discover that the PCC can never deprive you of what is yours in Christ. The PCC can never squelch your God-given calling in Him. The PCC can never prevent you from seeking the Lord, living for His glory, and proclaiming the Good News. Gay ordination is not stopping you from any of that (unless you let it)! Even death itself can’t deprive you of God’s best for you – as the apostle Paul discovered:

    Romans 8: 38-39 “ For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    Isn’t it far better to centre on that wonderful promise and expound it’s significance in blogs or elsewhere? That would surely be good news for the PCC in these days – and hopefully liberate some folk from peace-robbing preoccupations and entice them to seek after Him too.

    “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim…..”
    Diane Eaton

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