Overture re: Governance Model Protecting Congregations

The Session of Grace Orleans humbly submits the following overture to the Presbytery of Ottawa requesting that the Presbytery of Ottawa transmit the overture to the General Assembly, preferably with approval, with the request that the overture be referred to Assembly Council.

Overture re: Governance Model Protecting Congregations with a Traditional Understanding of the Bible

To the Venerable the General Assembly:

WHEREAS, the discussion of human sexuality issues has been before the Presbyterian Church in Canada for at least the past thirty years; it is time to bring it to a conclusion that protects congregations with a traditional understanding of the Bible; and

WHEREAS, the Session and congregation of Grace, Orleans ON, has yet to see a definitive response to an Overture submitted five years ago regarding Gracious Dismissal, having experienced significant pain both in the congregation and the loss of its pastor of many years, and significant conflict over this issue, with the Assembly apparently showing little regard for congregations that hold firmly to the traditional understanding of marriage and sexual ethics; and

WHEREAS, the 145th General Assembly was presented with four potential courses of action: “A” (traditional), “B” (full inclusion), “C” (one denomination with three theological streams), and “D” (current practice but with a local option); and

WHEREAS, Option “B” (full inclusion) emerged with undisclosed majority support, there was clearly a rift finally seen after the Tuesday of deciding option B, and heard from many commissioners in the Court on Wednesday night. Consequently, a fifth course of action was hastily developed before Thursday morning which resulted in a majority of commissioners voting to refer the following decisions to presbyteries:

“That the Presbyterian Church in Canada holds two parallel definitions of marriage and recognizes that faithful, Holy Spirit filled, Christ centred, God honouring people can understand marriage as a covenant relationship between a man and a woman or as a covenant relationship between two adult persons. That congregations, sessions, ruling and teaching elders be granted liberty of conscience and action on marriage.”

“That congregations and presbyteries may call and ordain as ministers and elect and ordain as ruling elders LGBTQI persons (married or single) with the provision that liberty of conscience and action regarding participation in ordinations, inductions and installations be granted to ministers and ruling elders;” and

WHEREAS, in November 2019, following the publishing of the remits, two law firms with significant religious freedom, constitutional and human rights expertise have offered their opinions and advice concerning the legal effect of the Remits, if adopted. Their conclusions are, in some cases in opposition to the opinion provided by Cassels LLP in 2018 and, more importantly, they address the wording of the Remits – which the Cassels opinion could not. These opinions, offered by Kuhn LLP, supported by Miller-Thomson, and summarized below, raise significant concerns about any possible protections for clergy, Sessions, Presbyteries, congregations and the denomination as a whole concerning those who hold to a traditional understanding of the Bible:

“It is not clear from the language of the Remits how they would be applied or interpreted within the PCC polity.” Moreover, “the interpretation of the Clerks of Assembly on the impact of adoption of the Remits do not take into account what Canadian federal and provincial law may require of PCC congregations, Presbyteries, ministers or ruling elders.” (Summary Notes from Kuhn LLP, Legal Counsel, Abbotsford, BC. 12 Nov 2019, paragraph 1)

“The law currently protects clergy from being compelled by statute to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies against their religious beliefs, particularly in two provinces and one territory that have enacted statutory protections. However, this may not be the case in provinces in which such legislation does not exist or in the longer term given current trends in the law and how the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been interpreted and applied in recent legal cases.(Summary Notes from Kuhn LLP, Legal Counsel, Abbotsford, BC. 12 Nov 2019, paragraph 2)

“The adoption of the Remits will make it more difficult for PCC ministers to establish a sincerely held religious belief opposing the morality of same-sex marriages, particularly if they are compelled by the PCC to accept ordination of ministers and ruling elders who are in such relationships.” (Summary Notes from Kuhn LLP, Legal Counsel, Abbotsford, BC. 12 Nov 2019, paragraph 2)

The adoption of Remit B may expose the PCC, individual ministers, and congregations to liability for discrimination for refusal to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, or allow church property to be used for same-sex wedding ceremonies and celebrations. (Summary Notes from Kuhn LLP, Legal Counsel, Abbotsford, BC. 12 Nov 2019, paragraphs 3 and 4)

There is no guarantee that congregations and Presbyteries could “refuse to employ ministers who are in same-sex marriages or who wish to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.” (Summary Notes from Kuhn LLP, Legal Counsel, Abbotsford, BC. 12 Nov 2019, paragraph 5); and

WHEREAS, in its concluding statements, Kuhn LLP offers a way ahead that is in the spirit of Pathway C. In it they state that, “While there is no safe and guaranteed path to protect liberty of conscience and action, the best option (short of separating into two denominations) would be to defeat the adoption of the Remits and then either (a) maintain the status quo; or (b) to devolve theological teachings on same-sex intimacy and marriages to the Presbyteries and allow each congregation to join (or transfer to) a Presbytery that shares its religious belief and commitment. Before moving in this direction, the PCC should carefully set out the proposed changes to the Book of Forms such that the Presbyteries and General Assembly can actually understand the impacts of what is being proposed.” (Summary Notes from Kuhn LLP, Legal Counsel, Abbotsford, BC. 12 Nov 2019, paragraph 7)

THEREFORE, the Session of Grace, Orleans, Ontario, humbly overtures the Venerable, the 146th General Assembly to seek a way forward, in the spirit of “Pathway C: One Denomination – Three Streams,” presented in the 2019 report of the Special Committee of Former Moderators, to provide a Governance Model with a legally safeguarded, guaranteed and permanent place in The Presbyterian Church in Canada where congregations and clergy with a traditional understanding of the Bible can continue to do ministry in this denomination in a manner which reflects the same character, identity, ethos, and core teachings that are the way of our denomination honouring our existing subordinate standards; or to do otherwise as the General Assembly, in its wisdom, deems best.