Tales from Assembly: Why I Dissented

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.

"Pragmatism or principle" was the duelling dynamic for commissioners as we wrestled with how we would rank the four pathways proposed by the Special Committee of Former Moderators.

For many who hold onto classical theology, only two pathways – 'A' (tradition) and 'C' (three streams) – were seriously considered. 'B' (inclusion) and 'D' (accommodation) were non starters. Many of us didn't want to even include them in our rankings for fear that putting any number beside them might lend support. So, the choice was between 'A' and 'C', with 'A' as the principled choice, the only option that held to the classical, biblical definition of marriage and sexuality. 'C' was the fallback option, as it would have allowed the traditionalists and affirmers to form their own courts and have a third group for the divided congregations.

And so as General Assembly arrived, the emerging consensus on the traditional side was for 'C'. We discussed and debated in private groups late into the evening. Those with mathematical minds developed realistic scenarios and crunched the numbers. The hope for preserving a solid, evangelical wing in the PCC was to put '1' beside 'C' and '2' beside 'A.' The reasoning was that if people on both sides – traditionalists and affirmers – ranked their ballots according to principle (with 'C' as everyone's second choice) that pathway would be eliminated. The belief was that 'A' just didn't have the support to win in the end, even if we all placed it as No. 1. So, putting 'C' first on our ballots would be our best bet at avoiding 'B' or 'D'.

I reluctantly went along with the strategy.

But then, God spoke. As the ballots were being distributed, I received repeated visions of 'A-1' and 'C-2.' With the ballot in front of me, I had no choice but to follow the Holy Spirit's leading.

We know the result: 'B'. Few people were expecting it.

Along with 78 other commissioners, I stood at a mic to register my dissent.

The next morning, in a pre-breakfast prayer gathering, another minister shared the "vision" that he also received, just before the voting, about voting 'A-1' and 'C-2'. I wasn't just me. How many others? The Holy Spirit really was at work.

Notwithstanding principle, the spirit of compromise and pragmatism remained alive at Assembly.

After commissioners formally accepted Pathway 'B', a special Implications Committee drafted remits to go to the wider church. The committee recommended that marriage be defined as a "committed covenant relationship between two adult persons" with liberty of conscience and action for those unwilling to participate in same-sex marriages. But it came with the requirement that those who were opposed to calling non-celibate LGBTQI ministers and elders would have until Sept. 1, 2022 to comply.

Assembly was told by the Implications Committee that while no minister should be forced to change their convictions, if inclusion becomes the doctrine of the church, it follows that those wishing to serve and ministers or elders need to accept it.

(Even in the United Church, 30 years after the acceptance of gay marriage, classical theology is tolerated and no one is forced to comply. As a result, the United Church has a vibrant evangelical wing.)

The draconian deadline did more than just hit evangelicals in the spiritual gut. Sympathetic liberals, many of whom remember their classical leanings, were also taken aback. Almost immediately, amendments were being formulated.

As I pondered the where and when of my inevitable exit from the PCC, a moderate liberal minister approached me with words of consolation. This is not going to work, he said, pointing to the recommendation. The amendment that he had just handed to the Committee on Business – likely to be introduced first thing the next day – would have removed the deadline.

"Thank you," I said.

A few hours later, after a meeting of shell-shocked and exasperated theological traditionalists, I was tipped that a group of younger commissioners were working "cross aisle" – opposing sides working together. “Meet us 7 a.m. tomorrow at Starbucks,” said the message. The next morning, there they were, a half-dozen 20 and 30-somethings crowded around a table in animated conversation. All were Presbyterian ministers, faithful and passionate. They represented a wide theological perspective – from solidly traditional to hardcore affirming. A theological rainbow of sorts.

It was a powerful scene: future moderators, committee convenors, voices of influence – leaders all – motivated to keep the family together. I was moved.

"Thank you," I told them. "Love you guys." I meant it.

Two hours later, two of them stood at a mic, amendment in hand. Older commissioners, whose amendments and motions were first in line, gave way.

For the coalition of young ministers, this was their moment. In true diplomatic fashion, with peacemakers' hearts, a deal was forged, and a majority of commissioners were convinced to vote in favour.

And yet, despite my sentiments, I couldn't support it. I voted “no”. I stood at a mic and, with 19 others, I dissented once again.

Could I not see history in the making? Could I not feel the magic? Do I not believe in the enterprise of the human soul? Oh, heartless man.

Principle poked me once again.

My reason at the time for voting "no" was pretty simple. "Christ is not divided," were my words now entered into the minutes. "His church's doctrine should similarly not be divided. Marriage cannot have two contrary understandings and definitions."

A week later, I've had time to unpack it. I'm like a car buyer who had a week-long post-Assembly test drive and has found a ton of alarm bells.

  • The parallel understanding of marriage is faulty logic. Parallel definitions may be acceptable when you're dealing with two different uses of the same word: crane, date, foil, engaged, point and right. All have two or more different meanings depending on their use. But marriage has a singular use, so it cannot have two meanings.
  • The use of the word "parallel" doesn't make sense. It's a mockery of an otherwise useful literary technique. It's fine to say "He likes to hunt and work with tools. He also likes to read." Both are true and are not mutually exclusive. But it makes no sense to say, "Marriage is between a man and a woman. Marriage is also between two adult persons." Which is it?
  • "Covenant relationship between two adult persons" is unbiblical, plain and simple.
  • There's tenuous theological justification of same-gender sex. That's being generous.
  • And what's next? The precedent would be set, and there would be little reason to stop the same theology from creeping into other essential doctrine.
  • "Two adult persons" doesn't adhere to gender complementarity.
  • There's the statement in the marriage definition remit that "faithful, Holy Spirit filled, Christ centred, God honouring people can understand marriage as …". I'm still puzzling over that. If two people are truly filled with the Holy Spirit, then how can each hold different definitions of such a sacred institution? Same goes for two people who are truly centred on Christ, who are walking according to His Word and who truly honour God. As I stated in my dissent, "Christ is not divided."
  • It's people-centred, not God-centred. It's the antithesis of divine revelation, which is the antidote to fallen culture. Even Jesus didn't trust human nature. It's a poor reason to change our doctrine.
  • It's a cop out. Has anyone considered how this debate might appear to the secular world? While there may be some who see this as accommodating and open minded – which are cornerstones in our diverse and pluralistic world – we forget that the world looks to the church for answers. All I hear these days is that millennials, raised and bathed in a sea of relativism, are looking for truth. They turn to the church, and rather than a solid answer, they get multiple choice.
  • It's a textbook public-relations non-answer: neither black nor white, just an evasive, catch-all that reminds me of the answer the chief priests and the scribes gave when Jesus asked them if John's baptism was from heaven or from man: " 'If we say it was from heaven, he will ask why we didn't believe John. But if we say it was merely human, the people will stone us because they are convinced John was a prophet.' So they finally replied that they didn't know." (Luke 20:5b-7 NLT.)

Bottom line: It's a lemon and there's no warranty.

I ran into one of the young coffee caucus leaders today, and I wanted to tell him why I voted against their bold, denomination-saving compromise. Nothing personal, I said. I admire what you did. But please understand that I had to stick to principle.

As much as I want to present the PCC as a united body to an unbelieving world and to demonstrate that we can be friends and work together for a common goal despite our differences, I know that it's really only a human sentiment. It's not supported by a solid spiritual foundation. And if it doesn't have the Holy Spirit's blessing, it will not stand.

Buyer, beware.