When "No" Becomes "Yes" — A Church is Lost
William Manson is the minister at Cote de Neiges Presbyerian Church in Montreal, Quebec.
Members of the Renewal Fellowship are no doubt aware of a conflict in The Presbyterian Church in Canada that originated in the Presbytery of Montreal. I feel that it is worthwhile to set out a brief historical account and analysis of these difficulties.
By an overwhelming majority the 1994 General Assembly adopted the Report on Human Sexuality. That document asked: "Is homosexual practice a Christian option?" The answer given was "No." In March of 1995, within the Presbytery of Montreal, a movement began which was designed to change that "No" to a "Yes."
During an interview for a call to St. Andrew's, Lachine, Darryl Macdonald informed the congregation that he was a practising homosexual. The congregation didn't mind. The call came to Presbytery on April 18th, 1995. It was ruled out of order as contrary to Scripture and our subordinate standards. Presbytery overturned the ruling, judged the appeals against the overturning to be "frivolous and vexatious," and appointed Mr. Macdonald to supply the Lachine pulpit. This action was also appealed.
The 1995 Assembly appointed a Special Committee. On receiving its report, the 1996 Charlottetown Assembly upheld the appeals. It also declared that the presbytery's sustaining of the call was null and void and that the call itself had been ultra vires. The Presbytery reacted by forming a special committee to advise it on how to respond to the General Assembly, and then engaged in a long process of study on homosexuality and gay ordination.
Finally, in April 1997, the Presbytery agreed to revoke Mr. Macdonald's status as a licentiate, but refused to terminate his appointment to Lachine. This refusal and the Presbytery's handling of the entire matter then became the subject of appeals, a memorial, and numerous overtures to the 1997 General Assembly. That Assembly appointed a Special (Judicial) Commission.
The Commission ruled, in March of 1998, that "Mr. Macdonald is ineligible to occupy a pulpit for any reason, within the bounds of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. This ineligibility cannot be overridden by a presbytery, interim-moderator, or session of The Presbyterian Church in Canada." With great reluctance, Presbytery endorsed the Judgment of the Special Commission, which included the directive that it "immediately remove Mr. Darryl Macdonald as Interim Supply at St. Andrew's Lachine." However it took no action on this directive. The Session at Lachine ignored the Commission and continued to employ Mr. Macdonald.
At this point, weekly warnings of disciplinary action were issued by the Presbytery Moderator and Clerk to the Session and congregation of St. Andrew's in the name of the Special Commission's Moderator and the Clerks of the General Assembly. These warnings had no beneficial effect. Media coverage intensified. Two of our ministers appeared on television, ostensibly supporting the Lachine congregation's defiance. Members of the Presbytery attended a widely advertised service of support for St. Andrew's.
When the fourth General Assembly to deal with this matter met in June 1998, it was confronted with appeals against the Presbytery's refusal to take possession of the Lachine buildings, a request from the Presbytery to appoint a mediator, and a report on the whole matter from the Clerks of the Assembly. An ad hoc committee was appointed. It recommended that the Presbytery be directed to take immediate steps in compliance with the directives of the Special Commission. However, at the end of the debate an amendment was introduced and adopted. This amendment, sponsored on the basis of "showing compassion," had the effect of giving the congregation the opportunity to separate from the denomination and rent the church buildings in Lachine.
Subsequently the congregation voted to leave The Presbyterian Church in Canada, and the subject of the rental of the buildings became the concern of our Church's Commission on the Assets of Dissolved and Amalgamated Congregations. As this account is being written the rental arrangement has not been finalized. On February 15th, 1999, some of our ministers participated with ministers of other churches in what had been advertised as "a quasi-ordination" for Darryl Macdonald.
What is Going On?
What is the significance of this piece of our history as a church? The determined resistance to every effort to impose discipline at Lachine is only the start of an aggressive campaign to push the Church to change its 1994 "No" to a "Yes." A small number of ministers have openly proclaimed that the Holy Spirit is leading us in this direction. They predict that our Church will have to yield to what Mr. Macdonald represents. The "quasi-ordination," downgraded to "a blessing" in the face of official rumblings, but attended by 275 people, will no doubt be remembered as a highlight of the campaign. Lachine is a beachhead.
There is also a fifth column in the Church. Teachers at our colleges quietly endorse the gay campaign. Leaders voice a spirit of resignation. The report of the Assembly committee which recommended that the directives of the Special Commission included this apologetic note: "As our denomination strives to discern the Holy Spirit's leading, the Church needs to be aware that ongoing studies and education may indicate future changes in the directions of doctrine and Church law."1 The Clerks of Assembly wrote about "the present policy of The Presbyterian Church in Canada" (emphasis added).2 Will future policy inevitably be different? The Editor of The Presbyterian Record wrote in favour of a sabbatical in the debate.3 Why, when Scripture is so clear, should we not be able to say that the debate is finished now?
What About the Future?
We have said "No." Are we strong enough to insist that our "No" means "No?" Or are we going to listen and eventually submit to those who insist that our "No" must become "Yes?" Should the conservative part of the Church, still the majority, just sit on its hands and feel nervous? Those who are pushing for change are not on sabbatical. They are always busy, insisting on ongoing "studies," quoting "scientific breakthroughs," abusing the concept of semper reformanda, appealing for "compassion," enlisting support from public media, holding illegal services, and generally trying to mesmerize God's people with acts of audacity. Like Quebec nationalist politicians, who want to hold referendums until they win, our would-be reformers plan to keep pushing and agitating until the Church forgets its previous decisions and they get what they want. Then our leaders will stop apologizing. Then the debate will be over. Then the Moratorium will be permanent. The "Yes" will have to be respected — as the Bible used to be.
Or so it is thought. It could also happen, by God's ordering, that our Church will wake up and put its house in order. We need to realize that the action of the 1998 General Assembly, in endorsing the withdrawal of a congregation and the renting of the church building to the group in question, has already turned "No" into a "Yes" and put our denomination into legal jeopardy.
The Assembly's action was contrary to Church Law. It was procedurally out of order. Renting a church building to a group which employs a practising homosexual would constitute a reversal of previous assembly decisions. Section 49 of The Book of Forms seeks to protect the Church by stipulating that such reversals can be made only after a notice of motion. No such notice was given. The court acted in haste, without proper caution, under pressure.
This departure from procedural norms was not simply a technical slip. It rises to the level of illegality. The issue under debate was no minor matter. It carried and carries the gravest potential to dissolve the Church. This was the fourth Assembly to deal with the specific case of Lachine. There had been a long judicial process. A judgment had been rendered. In a matter of minutes that judgment was reversed and the judicial process became a mockery. A person who for moral reasons had been barred from all our pulpits and a congregation which had persistently defied lawful authority were judged to be acceptable tenants in a building dedicated to the glory of God.
The argument is made by some that, after all, the people using our building in Lachine are no longer a part of our Church and so we are not responsible. In fact, what has actually happened here in Montreal is that someone, whose doctrine and practice are unacceptable by biblical, confessional and Assembly standards, has come along and in a few years has succeeded in removing a congregation from our denomination. That accomplishment has been sanctioned by our highest court. The beachhead has been recognized.
The Presbyterian Church in Canada has lost the will to say "No" and mean "No." Discipline is one of the essential marks of a true Church. Frightened by the clamour of a worldly society, our Church doesn't dare to discipline. We are orthodox, but only on paper. We are compromising our integrity and forfeiting our rights as an institution. This precedent will open a door. People on both sides of this issue will claim the right to use the door. When "No" becomes "Yes," a Church is lost.
- Acts and Proceedings, 1998, p. 49.
- ibid., p. 517.
- October 1998, p. 3.