Thursday, October 11, 2012

Presbyterian Assembly 2012, Reflections

The 2012 PCANZ General Assembly in Rotorua is done and dusted. The highlight for me was catching up with old friends and making new ones. While the Assembly had its challenges, it is networking and relationships that count. I enjoyed the worship, Malcolm Gordon is very gifted and he and his team led us well. The moderator, Ray Coster did a commendable job leading with grace and respect. The business committee were tireless in their efforts, it is far from easy to run an Assembly with our polity! The tone of the business was positive, especially considering the sensitivities around the debates. The hosts were brilliant, the food was especially great! My friend and former colleague at Laidlaw College Tim Keel was sensational and challenging. I love his fresh contemporary missional perspective. That said, I think it was an almost impossible task for him to speak in the midst of intense debate. I would have loved time to gather in groups to consider the implications of what he said for the church today rather than get into the minutae of endless debate. Still, all in all, it was a great experience.

On the other hand, we continue to be tied up as a church on the matter of ordination and homosexuality. We had three motions seeking to overturn previous legislation to block practising homosexuals and those in de facto relationships from ordained ministry. One was based on liberty in non-fundamental matters, arguing that the issue is not of the essence of the faith, and so should not be legislated. The second argued that where 2/3 of a congregation wanted a particular minister whatever their sexuality, they should be free to do so whether gay or not. The third proposed that the PCANZ remove all discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Although many agree with liberty on non-essentials and utterly repudiate discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, each was rejected by about 65 to 35%.

The first of these likely failed because the majority of the Assembly believed marriage and sexuality are fundamental issues to human life and existence, and to Christian faith. I would think this is right with heterosexual marriage essential to image bearing and creation, the Mosaic law, Jesus' teaching and Paul's teaching. The second based on a 2/3 majority I found somewhat ironical. On the one hand, those supporting homosexual ordination believe that 1/3 of the whole church wanting gay ordination should cause the whole church to drop the legislation. Yet at a local church level where 1/3 oppose an ordination, it is not seen as sufficient to stop the ordination.

It is a hard debate because it cuts so deep, especially for those of homosexual orientation. I don't think anyone enjoys the debates. We are victims of our own polity in all this. On the one hand it is great that we can debate these issues, and people have the "right" to continue to challenge. On the other hand, when will it end? I have to say, even though I disagree with their position, I greatly admire the courage and commitment of those working for the ordination of homosexuals. Although the debate was difficult and there were some comments which were a little marginal, I also commend us all for the way we discussed the issue.

The tragedy of the Assembly is the amount of time that continues to be spent on this issue. I ponder whether there is a third way. The difficulty is that if any concession is made, this is seen as a loss to evangelicals and human rights exemption will lapse meaing the church has to ordain homosexuals. As such, it seems to be an all or nothing debate. This means that the stand-off will likely go on and future assemblies will continue to be hamstrung by this issue. That is unless we agree to some sort of truce for a given period, but that is hardly likely with so much passion in the debate. For many too, it is a justice issue, and I respect that.

What puzzles me is why those who are so strongly in favour of the ordination of gays, lesbians and people in de facto relationships don't move to set up their own church -- as some conservatives have done in recent imes. Were I one of those advocating in this way, I would far rather be a part of a fresh movement rather than bash my head decade after decade trying to change the mind of the PCANZ Assembly -- especially with the need to get a 60% majority to reverse previous legislation. This may be decades away if at all. After all, we have been at it for 25 years now! Separate presbyteries or synods within the church is not likely to work. I ponder whether it is time for an amicable divorce, and what that might look like. Property becomes the touch stone issue at this point. But I still ask, is there a way? Can we work this out? The only way both "sides" will be free to "be" will be some kind of separation. This idea is somewhat ironical though, when we are talking about marriage, fidelity etc!

I admit to being more than a little stunned by the stand made against same sex marriage by the Assembly. In our polity, a motion must get 60% to be passed, and I expected them to be very close, even to be lost. Yet, the votes endorsing Christian marriage, rejecting same-sex marriage and that the PCANZ would speak as one voice to Parliament were all passed by between 70-77%. With my theology which sees marriage as central to God's vision of humanity, I admit to being encouraged by this outcome and that the PCANZ will now speak to Parliament on this matter. I am surprised that this has not featured in the mainstream media since the Assembly. I am not sure why?

There were other things that delighted my soul. Particularly encouraging were the statement to support vulnerable children and to work from the bottom up for a living wage. What a great idea. Awesome work here from the Wellington Presbytery. As one who grew up in the Pacific Islands, I think it is great that the Pacific Island Synod was set up, giving PI Presbyterians a place to stand and be heard. A motion was passed in support of the climate change refugees in the Pacific. I admit to not really having realised how critical their situation was. I hope future Assemblies reflect even greater concern for social justice. I hope evangelicals will get more involved in initiating these in the future and reflect an understanding of a broader gospel. I also love our bi-culturalism, and the way we take it really seriously.

I yearn for more focus on other areas of mission at General Assembly. There was one speech, rather late in the evening and so lost in tiredness, on evangelism. We need to reframe evangelism for this context, yet we speak little of it. Many missional moves in the area of money and missional leadership from the Council of Assembly were held in great suspicion and sent back for more discussion. The delay disappointed me, but it will come back better I am sure. I long for the day when we gather and discuss how we are going to share Jesus to the world, rather than being embroiled in ethical debate. Not that the two are disconnected of course, but there must be a way to deal with these things more quickly and get to matters of the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed at a local church level. I like the idea of an Assembly week with more time on worship, inspiration and equipping. I hope we can find ways to sharpen our business, and not retrace the same old debates endlessly.

Finally, with all the negatives, it is great to be part of a church that will discuss hard issues, a church where people can question things. The funniest moment of the Assembly was Martin Stewart's motion that we have annual assemblies. The moderator put the motion, and there was total silence from the 270 commissioners! The "nos" were resounding in contrast! Has there ever been a motion completely rejected in this way? Martin took it brilliantly! Well done.



RAYMONDO said...

It's not mentioned in the mainstream media because the church does not push it. The church does not because the leadership "does not want to hurt anyone's feelings" so makes no public comment, or at least does not push to make it known more publically than it is already. Also the leadership is probably on balance careful not to offend the liberal media which is pro change orf almost any kind...

Jason Goroncy said...

'... heterosexual marriage essential to image bearing'? Surely you're not serious about this unqualified statement, Mark.

Alistair said...

It is a tragedy...

I wonder if the best way forward is to have someone move from the floor of assembly that we move to the next order of bussiness?

Jason Goroncy said...

'What puzzles me is why those who are so strongly in favour of the ordination of gays, lesbians and people in de facto relationships don't move to set up their own church'. The word 'love' comes to mind.

Bruce Hamill said...

Thanks Mark! Do you have any thoughts on the fact that the motion to disallow discrimination on the basis of orientation (not just practice) was lost?

Bruce Hamill said...

With respect to setting up another denomination, I think Brian McLaren says it all in his comments on 'breaking ranks' here

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mark. I think the key question for me is "what is the Spirit saying to our brokeness?" I have people who I respect and love on both sides of the debate. There was a time in my life when I would have been strongly opposed to the ordination of gays, but meeting gays in counselling and praying with them changed me. I now see it as a justice issue and among other things, one of preventing suicide among our young people. A significant number of our highest in the world youth suicide statistics are of young people facing sexual identity issues. The church stance on gays can be no help to them, their parents, siblings and grandparent. This cuts out a goodly number of the population. Do we as a church ignore them, declare them second class citizens, drive them back underground as happened in the past...

Mark Keown said...

In response:
1. Thanks Raymondo, yes, there is a desire not to be too offensive, which is a good desire I think.

2. Thanks Jason: yes, I do think heterosexual marriage is essential to image bearing, but I need to qualify that. I am tied up in some serious family sickness issues at the moment but will blog on this sometime asasp. I won't comment at this point beyond that.

3. Thanks Alistair: there were two moves to move a motion to move to the next business,one from evangeicals, it failed. One from the liberal wing sought to employ this on marriage, but the Moderator ruled that the debate had closed at that point. It didn't feel right moving this at the time to me. It felt disrespectful for some reason. An evangelical then moved that the motion be put, that felt better. These debates once on the floor, need to be played out.

4. Thanks Jason again: I am not sure what "the word 'love' comes to mind" means in this context. Love is not antinomian and eros can be distorted, so I don't know what that means. Paul, when applying love, say in Rom 13:8, in the same letter rejects sexual immorality including homosexuality. He does so in 1 Corinthians. One of the disagreements in the debate is how to understand love. It seems to me love can be distorted in one of two directions;relational love (injustice, etc); or sexual love (distorted erotic love). 1 Cor 13 deals with both, although the emphasis is on relational love (love is not rude). As in a dysfunctional marriage, sometimes love would say separate rather than stay together. So, I don't know how that helps. Love may say separate.

5. Thanks Bruce: I think there were two motions which could have passed normally, but failed because of their intent: a. The motion on liberty on non-fundamental issues; b. The motion on discrimination and orienation. In context, I think the first failed because it was a prelude to removing the prohibition and was unnecessary in light of the motion the previous day. The second failed I think because there is nothing in our legislation that discriminates because of orientation, so is unnecessary at one level (although at another level necessary). Further, I think it was seen as potentially a basis for legal challenge. Not sure about that, just guessing. I didn't actually discuss it with anyone, so not sure. I was uncomfortable voting against both, but it was the context in which they were brought and potential application that led me to vote against them. In your blog you rightly critique our polity, this is a consequence of our approach.

6. Thanks Bruce: I am not sure how the McLaren post helps. It shows that he has changed his mind, not how we live together. All I would say is that it is a free world and anyone can set up a church anytime they like. So, why not go ahead and do it? As it seems the day when 60% of the PCANZ will vote to overthrow the current legislation is a long time away (unless I am mistaken), why not set up a church that is more open and see what happens. If God is in it, it will flourish over time. Gamaliel dealt with Christianity in much the same way. I wonder how liberal people in good conscience can stay in a church like ours that rejects their view. I believe if the boot was on the other foot, many evangelicals would leave to set up their own church. Some have already done so of course, and many have left to other churches.


Lisa Humphrey said...

I probably shouldn't even comment on Marks Blogs, ( apologies in advance Mark and sorry to hear about your family illness)
But it's interesting listening to all perspectives from posts above and I know it's in circling the PCSNZ assemblies and the making of policy.
The debate over Lgbt marriage is in the media it's just not as important to the general public. Those that oppose are more emotional . I work with a group of young gay people and they are so non plussed, they are more accepted now days that they don't feel they have a 'battle' . It's the older LGBT (baby boomers) That have endured prececution and have led the way for a smoother future for younger gay people.
Reading above the only post with any sort of 'love and acceptance ' is the anonymous comment. Remember the days when Black people were classed as second rate citizen? And set up their own communities and the communities were so dam fine the Whites then wanted to be involved? And the Black community welcomed them.

Mark Keown said...

Hi Jason, on heterosexuality marriage and image bearing. There would be no image bearers without heterosexuality. Here is a blog post which gives more detail:

Thanks Lisa. You are free to comment, anyone can. There is a complete misunderstanding of love and a rampant individualism that dominates this debate. Sometimes love means saying no to something. The problems with gay marriage and other variants on what I believe to be God's ideals for humanity, is not individual freedom but its impact on human society over time. But people live in a world of individual rights and so-called liberty. So, time will tell.

Jason Goroncy said...

Mark, with all due respect, this then raises two further questions: 1. Are you suggesting that Jesus is not the image of the invisible God? And 2. Human heterosexuality as a necessary aspect of divine image bearing is not the same as claiming, as you are here, that the imago dei requires heterosexual 'marriage'.

Mark Keown said...

I would agree Jesus is the in the image of God, as was Adam, and neither were married.

Beyond that, every human that exists required heterosexuality ti exist. One can also argue Jesus required heterosexuality to exist, with God supplying the masculine, Mary the feminine.

With Adam, God supplied both elements I would assume. He then created a woman with whom Adam would rule as God's image bearers. Dominion is a shared task.

Our first task as image bearers is to multiply and fill the earth--how can that happen without heterosexuality?

Image bearing is overly individualised if we are not careful--humanity together share image bearing without status and dominion. We have dominion over all creation, but not each other. I believe when Adam named Eve, it was an act of oppression.

Image bearing and living that out on earth requires heterosexuality. I can't see how you can avoid that.Indeed, western civilisation is in part dying, because its birth rate is not sufficient--is this linked?

I did say in my other post on this that a single person is made in the image of God, and does not require to be married. However, there is nothing that I can see in the Biblical story that supports homosexuality as a legitimage expression of human image bearing. Paul's argument in Romans 1:18-32 is rooted in Genesis 1-3 as I would see it.

Please share your perspectives, as I am working throuh this.

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