Extending Space or Drawing a Line?

Please find below some thoughts on the remits and the decision to embrace Pathway B at the 145th General Assembly. I am presenting them on behalf of the writer, whom I’ve encouraged to remain anonymous. I will assume responsibility for the ideas expressed. – Ian Shaw, chairperson, The Renewal Fellowship

It would seem that the differing theological and Biblical starting points that have become apparent within the PCC in light of the remits before us indicate that we are confronted not so much with varying points of interpretation within the same faith family, but have actually become differing families altogether. I say this very aware that faith families are often quite broad and diverse in their thinking and understanding, yet are held together by both a common heritage, mutually agreed upon practices and core beliefs.

I have nothing but love and respect for my Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Baptist etc. brothers and sisters. I can see and appreciate where they are coming from within the Biblical witness and the historic tradition of the church. I have enjoyed and appreciated so very much their ministry in my life, but I understand quite clearly that the theological differences between us and the applications to ministry in the church these differences produce make it quite impossible for us to be organically unified as one faith family. I do not think the Roman Catholics hate women because they do not ordain women; nor do I think any less of my Baptist brothers and sisters because they teach that infant baptism is wrong. I do realize however that we cannot function within the same system of church governance as a faith family because of these varying theological positions.

The remits before us however are not similar to matters in which we can see where each other is coming from within the broad and diverse realities of a faith family. As the Very Rev. John Chalmers, principal clerk of the Church of Scotland stated in their own context on matters of same sex marriage; these matters are ‘a crossing of the Rubicon (The WeeFlea.com May 23,2016)’. David Gushee, who authored the books, ‘Changing Our Minds’ and ‘Leaving Evangelicalism Behind’ and who speaks for full inclusion, states that the issue before us requires us to ‘reconsider the entire body of Biblical interpretation and the tradition related to this issue (David Gushee May 9, 2015 Religion News Service). David Gushee goes on to conclude that ‘I now believe the incommensurable differences in understanding the very meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of the Bible and the sources and methods of moral discernment separate many of us from our former brethren’. He adds a passing comment that the ‘differences are unbridgeable’.

This is simply where we are at; considering the implementation of doctrine and practice that would take us beyond what two thousand years of Christian tradition and the vast majority of the Christian Church in the world today, albeit incredibly diverse in theology and practice, understand as within the family. It must be noted that the Presbyterians in Brazil, Peru and Mexico have served notice to the PCUSA that their decisions have irreparably fractured their relations and it’s not simply the PCUSA’s Latin American partners saying this, but their middle eastern partners as well. (Onenewsnow.com 2015/08/09). The Church of Ireland has also taken a similar response. ‘The general assembly has decided to no longer accept invitations to attend general assemblies of the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church, and to no longer issue invitations to those churches to attend its general assembly (The Irish Times, Wednesday September 18, 2019).’ The article goes on to cite the Clerk of Assembly, Rev Trevor Gribben explaining that “a majority of assembly members felt that both denominations have drifted far from biblical truth in relation to marriage, and were in fact ignoring the authority of scripture”.

The remits claim to be offering freedom of conscience and practise when it comes to ordinations and the practice of marriage, but in reality no such room is being offered. The remits strain out a gnat but expect us to swallow the entire camel. We are not Congregationalists but Presbyterians. We function collegially and it is assumed that we believe in one another’s ordination. We appoint Interim Moderators, do presbytery visitations, share the sacraments with one another and under one another’s ministry. We, therefore, submit ourselves to each other’s ordinations all the time. Presbytery can only function effectively and faithfully when we believe that one another’s ordination derives from an authentic reading of scripture and a Holy Spirit filled life.

As a denomination we do not think it possible to function as a presbytery if some of us do not believe that women ought to be ordained; even as we do not think it possible to function collegially if some of us consider papal authority the highest authority and that presbyteries ought really to be subsumed into bishops. The clerks in the recent ‘Presbyterian Connection’ are quite clear that the liberty of conscience and action in the remits does not extend to considering one another’s ordination invalid. Indeed, they go on to comment that “an important principle of Presbyterian polity is that all are equal in ministry” (Presbyterian Connection, Issue 11, Fall 2019 page 37). These are the very things that are in question. The vast majority of Christians in our world today and the witness of two thousand years of Christian tradition would say these remits propose a divisive course within the Holy Catholic Church.

Moreover, the reality is that the progressives in the denomination perceive these matters of human sexuality as justice issues and are quite convinced in the rightness of their convictions to the extent that despite the denomination’s contemporary adherence to historic Christianity’s understanding of these matters, they do not hesitate to act upon their convictions without any disciplinary repercussions. For example, during the summer the Presbyteries of Niagara and Waterloo Wellington together sustained a call to a minister in a same sex marriage. [Editor’s note: an appeal of that decision is expected to be heard by the Synod of Southwestern Ontario on October 18.]

This same sense of superior insight among these advocates is evidenced consistently in the ordinary operations of the denomination. The rainbow flag flies over opening worship at Assembly! The recent pastoral letter from the Moderator promotes unity by encouraging a vote in favour of the remits. That’s not respectful to either the Barrier Act process or the large number in the denomination who find the decision seriously flawed.

Such things cause one to wonder how long liberty of conscience and practice will last. The Implications Committee at General Assembly was quite clear when they initially stated that all will have to affirm the Pathway ‘B’ decision to remain in this denomination. Nor ought we to misunderstand how so called ‘traditionalists’ are perceived by some progressives in our denomination. I quote from the June 2019 issue of the Broadview, a Presbyterian minister’s comments about the evening at Assembly devoted to listening to one another’s pain over the decision for Pathway ‘B’.

“Yet in this Assembly, … special time was given to hear, again, from powerful, straight, cisgender lobbyists who literally shed tears about “not being heard.”

Is this irony? Gaslighting? I lack the words for it. I felt like I was witnessing slave-masters crying about abolition or men in tears about suffrage”.

Slave masters and men opposed to universal suffrage? These remits do not tell the story about how the traditionalists are perceived and what some progressive presbyters think of their traditionalist colleagues.

Defeating the remits will not heal these deep rifts. Indeed, given the intensity that continues to increase, only faith in an awesome God believes these hurts can be assuaged. However, adopting them will not create hopeful space but strengthen a wall that excludes the orthodox and traditional part of our denomination and effectively leaves them deserted on shore while sailing away to a precarious future.