Has “liberty of conscience and action” replaced “no divisive course” as the touchstone phrase in our polity?
Ministers, elders and deacons promise in our ordination vows to “follow no divisive course but to seek the peace and unity of Christ among your people” and the wider church. It’s widely quoted and tacitly accepted, even though we have no universal understanding of what it means in practice. One could argue that any effort to propose a change that would result in a division within the fold would be included. But that didn’t stop General Assembly from redefining marriage in 2021, a decision which took a natural theological divide and formalized it. It’s been codified in Section 11 and Appendix ‘L’ of the Book of Forms. The mere presence of a clause within our polity which allows us to hold to one of two roads, to the exclusion of the other, is in of itself, a legalization of division.
(Before I go any further, it needs to be stated clearly, once again, that the issue here is not sexuality and marriage. Rather, it’s the theology which allows the reinterpretation or dismissal of scripture and the advancement of an agenda which is guided more by the desires of our human hearts than God’s high calling for human thought and behaviour.)
Liberty of conscience and action is the principle which is intended to allow competing theologies to coexist in the same church. The Clerks of Assembly issued an opinion on the matter in July 2019. The clerks rightly pointed to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states: “God alone is the Lord of the conscience (XX.II).” Given our fallen state, the clerks recognized that people “sometimes adopt doctrines and commandments that might be contrary to God’s word. It’s possible for us, and others, to misunderstand or misinterpret God’s word and will. Because of that possibility, nothing should interfere with an individual’s liberty to align their conscience with God’s word and will.” All good. Potentially divisive church doctrine and law need to include generous liberty of conscience.
How then, is liberty of conscience and action being applied on the playing field? So far, not so good. Witness the new section in the PCC’s guidelines for presbyteries, interim moderators and search committees which state that “The presbytery shall instruct interim moderators when proceeding to a call to give equal consideration to LGBTQI2+ candidates . . . . Any who, in the view of their presbytery, have exhibited discriminatory behaviour toward LGBTQI2+ individuals shall not be appointed interim moderators.”
What exactly does it mean by “discriminatory behaviour”? I reached out to the clerks for their opinion.[i]
The clerks responded at length.[ii] The key statement: “Discriminatory behaviour in this context, is behaviour which contravenes the decisions of the General Assembly regarding the definitions of marriage and the ordination, induction and installation of people who identify as LGBTQI. Liberty of conscience and action is granted to those members of presbytery who choose not to participate in the ordination, induction or installation of LGBTQI persons. However, liberty of conscience and action does not extend to actively speaking out against or denying the right of any qualified individual to be considered for ordination, induction or installation into church office.”
The key words in my mind are “actively speaking out against.” Does this imply that we are not to be vocally opposed to the new doctrine? Or does it mean we shouldn’t speak out against the suitability of specific individuals? It’s not clear.
The larger issue is the new section itself, which specifies LGBTQI2+ communities. That’s fine. But what’s missing is the other side. If we truly hold to parallel definitions and are called to uphold liberty of conscience and action, should we not also extend protection to those who hold to traditional standards? The new clause appears to favour one definition over the other. It’s tunnel vision.
Renewal Fellowship’s board of directors had a healthy conversation over this matter recently. In the words of one member: what we now have is “not an inclusive definition; in fact, it’s discrimination in itself.” Said another: “As someone in orthodoxy, I’m a second-class citizen; I’m feeling muzzled. If I believe someone is unfit for ministry (due to lifestyle choice), I discriminate.” In practical terms, “They’re favouring one child over another.”
If we are to truly exercise liberty of conscience and action, then this section should state: “The presbytery shall instruct interim moderators when proceeding to a call to give equal consideration to all candidates. Any who, in the view of their presbytery, have exhibited discriminatory behaviour toward LGBTQI2+ individuals or have exhibited discriminatory behaviour towards those who adhere to traditional Biblical orthodoxy shall not be appointed interim moderators.”
See the big picture? Rather than tunnel vision skewed toward a revisionist mindset, let’s widen our view be truly inclusive of all valid points of view. If we are to hold to true liberty, let’s walk the talk.
While those who adhere to biblical orthodoxy are increasingly marginalized, little is being done to counter the political shift towards full inclusion. As long as we hold to a true interpretation and application of liberty of conscience and action, then the PCC cannot be an affirming denomination, contrary to what GA decided by a relatively slim 58 per cent majority in 2019.
Until this discriminatory guideline is fixed – either by the denominational staff or by the action of General Assembly – I pray that the theological leaning of a congregation will be presbytery’s primary consideration when appointing an interim moderator.
I also pray that presbyters see these guidelines as just that: guidelines – not law. Because they are an official publication of the PCC, they carry some weight and some presbyters will see this as Gospel and interpret it narrowly.
As interim moderator overseeing a search a few years ago for a traditional congregation, I presented every application to the search committee. Yes, even those from candidates who were in far left field. I allowed the search committee to discern. I know that there are interim mods who do not hold to the same theology as the congregation. I would hope that they would respect the wishes of the congregation and not weed out candidates who are not to their liking.
True liberty allows freedom of choice.
[i] The exact text: 1. What would constitute “discriminatory behaviour”? 2. Interpreting the words “shall not” — does this mean presbytery is legally bound to this guideline or is it just advice? 3. Depending on the responses to Q1 and Q2 — I might ask: what about those who are deemed to have demonstrated “discriminatory” behaviour who are currently appointed as interim mods — should presbytery rescind their appointments and find suitable replacements?
[ii] Here is the full text: “In response to your questions regarding the recent additions to the Calling a Minister: Guidelines for Presbyteries, Interim Moderators and Search Committees, I offer these comments. The Church holds two parallel and protected definitions of marriage, permitting people to choose to understand marriage either as a covenant relationship between a man and a woman or as a covenant relationship between two adult people. This decision provides congregations, sessions, ruling and teaching elders with liberty of conscience and action on marriage. Additionally, the Church has agreed 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. Holding any one of the definitions of marriage that the church has approved and exercising liberty of conscience and action regarding participation in marriages, ordinations, inductions and installations is not, of course, discriminatory behaviour in the context of the decisions of the General Assembly or of Calling a Minister: Guidelines for Presbyteries, Interim Moderators and Search Committees. Discriminatory behaviour in this context, is behaviour which contravenes the decisions of the General Assembly regarding the definitions of marriage and the ordination, induction and installation of people who identify as LGBTQI. Liberty of conscience and action is granted to those members of presbytery who choose not to participate in the ordination, induction or installation of LGBTQI persons. However, liberty of conscience and action does not extend to actively speaking out against or denying the right of any qualified individual to be considered for ordination, induction or installation into church office. Liberty of conscience and action cannot be claimed so as to not recognize the validity of ordination, induction or installation to church office once that ordination, induction or installation has been duly granted. The presbytery is bound within the polity and doctrine of The Presbyterian Church in Canada to take steps to ensure that the decisions of the General Assembly are upheld and honoured. The presbytery would naturally trust its ministers to act with integrity as interim moderators regardless of their personal views and expect them to place the applications and personal profiles of all eligible candidates before search committees for consideration. If a presbytery has reasonable grounds to believe a minister may not be able to discharge the duties and responsibilities of interim moderator in a pastoral and non-discriminatory way, presbyteries should not consider that minister as a possible interim moderator or reconsider their appointment. Discerning who shall be named an interim moderator is within the presbytery’s power and responsibility and is always to be exercised with care and pastoral concern.