Heritage as a Sacred Trust

Of the many surprises in the recent General Assembly, and the strange twists that the debates took, none was more surprising than an unexpected recommendation, dependent on the passing of the remits, that we apologize to the United Church of Lachine for past wrongs. The recommendation suggested that a great wrong had been done to the congregation of St Andrews Presbyterian Church, Lachine, which was absorbed by the United Church of Lachine, when the 123rd General Assembly had affirmed the historic position on homosexuality in 1996. There was no debate in the Assembly, and it was approved that a letter be sent full of regrets and apologies. To my astonishment, aside from a remark from a Presbytery of Montreal Commissioner that the proper name of the United Church had not been used, there was no further discussion, and the vote seemed to pass unanimously.

The rewriting of history is a fairly recent phenomenon in our society. We find it difficult to sympathize with (now) unpopular views of an earlier age which no longer seem sustainable. The University previously named after Egerton Ryerson, that great Methodist pioneer, now has a new name. Ryerson’s considerable accomplishments in evangelizing colonial Canada are now ignored because of his presumed mistakes in educating Canada’s aboriginal occupants. Likewise the horrors of the residential schools obliterate the sacrifices of our dedicated WMS workers in serving Canada’s First Nations. History is no longer understood as a record of the past, but a place to even scores. Likewise those who affirm historic and orthodox Christianity are told that we will be condemned by the later verdict of history, rendering our views as completely inadmissible. History, it is asserted, will prove us wrong, and that we have buried our heads in the proverbial sand. One wonders how far this will be taken. Will the whole heroic missionary movement of the church in past centuries be regarded as a mistaken effort to eliminate native cultures? David Livingston’s memorial in Blantyre, Scotland, is being altered to reflect African native cultures.

On the 50th anniversary of Church Union, in an issue of Stanford Reid’s Presbyterian Comment, professor Ritchie Bell asked the question in the title of a memorable article, “Did I make a mistake in 1925?” in the then current frenzy of ecumenical excitement. Bell defended the anti-Unionists, saying that they were the ones who had fought the good fight for religious orthodoxy, and that Canadian Presbyterians had nothing to apologize for. So it is with those who maintained creedal orthodoxy in 1996 when the 123rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada affirmed the church’s traditional position on homosexuality. They did so out of a deep and conscientious concern for the historic position of the church in all its branches. At the close of the Assembly, as commissioners were leaving, one commissioner, an influential educator, told all who passed by that she would do everything she could to reverse the decision of the Assembly. The principled stand of Dr. William Klempa, the Reverends Bill Manson, Don Neil, Peter Szabo, and George Anderson, all members of the Presbytery of Montreal, was destined, she claimed, to the ash heap of history. A concerted effort was made over the following years to change the verdict. As we have seen, this has succeeded, and at a recent meeting of my presbytery I was denied the right to speak when I requested a place on the docket after the impending positive vote would be taken on the remits. The silencing of all opposition so that we will not appear freakishly outdated by future affirmers was evident.

The Presbyterian Church in Canada, thanks to the dedicated and committed anti-unionists of 1925, has always so far stood on the “right side of history.” Its history is valued, not as a relic of an archaic past, but as a living and vital heritage. As one who has taught church history in theological seminaries, that discipline is vital to our life and ministry. One does not have to identify with the Proud Boys to uphold the heritage that we have been given as a sacred trust. It is not something that we should be ashamed of, but hopefully should enable us to seek to serve a generation that is obliterating all its monuments, devaluing its archives, and failing to pass on the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)

Rev. A. Donald MacLeod is a retired PCC minister and a co-founder of The Renewal Fellowship

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