The Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) is changing its theology and practice to be inclusive of same-sex marriage and to permit lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) people to be ordained as ministers and ruling elders.
These changes to church law were discussed and voted on during the June 6-9, 2021 General Assembly (GA), held online for the first time due to the pandemic. Commissioners convened online, using a platform called PC-Biz as well as Zoom to conduct business and to vote. It was livestreamed to the public on YouTube.
When decisions on LGBTQI questions were made, much of the celebration among those in favour also took place online. An elder at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Cobourg, Ontario, immediately shared the news on his Facebook page: “Just now, the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s General Assembly has voted into church law, the recognition of same sex marriage within the church as an act of love. They have sought to embrace the diversity of being of all God’s LGTBQI+ children,” he wrote.
Pointing to recent news of the 215 residential school children remains found in Kamloops, and a tragic hate crime in London, he added, “In a week of hearing difficult stories in Canada, in this moment, today, love wins on one front.”
Remits and choice
These decisions were highly anticipated after being put on hold for an additional year after the 2020 General Assembly was cancelled due to COVID-19.
At the 2019 GA, lengthy debate on human sexuality took place, and full inclusion won on the floor. After a “coffee shop” morning meeting where commissioners who were opposed expressed feelings of hurt, a motion was put forward for a hybrid definition of marriage that would allow ministers and congregations to have freedom of conscience.
This motion became known as Remit B (marriage) and Remit C (ordination) – which were then sent to presbyteries to discuss under the Barrier Act. A majority of presbyteries needed to express approval before the remits returned to the GA.
The two parallel definitions of marriage in Remit B recognize it as a covenant relationship between a man and a woman or as a covenant relationship between two adult people, and “that congregations, sessions, ruling and teaching elders be granted liberty of conscience and action on marriage.”
Remit C states 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.”
Rev. Maureen Walter, minister at St. John’s Presbyterian Church Toronto, was a commissioner in 2019 and recalls the “huge discussion.” As time goes on, she says she thinks freedom of conscience will not be an issue.
“It remains to be seen how that freedom of conscience will work as it is implemented,” Walter says. “Meanwhile, it allows for those with a different theology to remain active participants in our communion.”
Discussion & dissent
Both remits were discussed on June 8, 2021. Moderator Rev. Dr. Daniel Scott selected commissioners in turn speaking for and against, with two minutes of time allotted per person, and many shared their views. When the time came for commissioners to vote, Remit B took in 136 votes in support and 76 against, and Remit C had 130 votes for and 83 against – both passing with slightly more than 60 percent of the vote.
Commissioner Rev. Deb Stanbury, Executive Director of ARISE Ministry, says she felt relief and excitement when the remits passed.
“I am taking a moment to appreciate and celebrate how absolutely massive this is, that as a denomination we have been talking about this and there have some who have been hoping and working for this for 25 years,” she tells CC – pointing to the hurt caused by the 1996 GA’s overturning of Rev. Darryl Macdonald’s ordination because he was in a committed relationship with another man.
“I’m celebrating that we have gotten to this place and to this point, though I recognize that there is a lot of work still to do – that the remit is not the full inclusion that some had hoped for,” she adds.
Thirteen commissioners asked for their dissent be recorded in the minutes for Remit B, and eight for Remit C. Commissioner Rev. Andy Cornell did not support the remits. “I understand that the authors of the remits intended them to be a compromise, designed to keep the denomination from disintegrating,” he says, pointing to the concerns of an exodus like what happened in the United Church.
“The remits were cooked up in an early-morning coffee shop meeting. This sort of maneuvering is fine for political deal making but is not how doctrine should be developed,” Cornell says. Two definitions of marriage are “not only illogical but it suggests that the mind of Christ is divided.”
“My prayer is that the decision will spark a renewed conversation about theology and doctrine and get people to think more deeply about what scripture says, and contrast it with what the world values,” he says.
Questions moving forward
After the remits passed, questions arose regarding gracious dismissal and creating a separate theological synod for churches which hold to the definition of marriage prior to passing Remit B. The Assembly Council, a committee of GA, has been tasked with looking into gracious dismissal and the terms that would be involved for a congregation wanting to leave the denomination but retain its assets.
“The question of unity is a big one for the denomination,” says commissioner Rev. Neil Ellis. “I celebrate and believe we made the right step forward, but we still need to be listening and hearing what the concerns are of others, and, in all of that, how do we find unity?”
Learning how to speak and work graciously with one another when there are disagreements on this issue will be the greatest challenge for the coming year, he says. Difficulty could arise in situations where clergy and their sessions and congregations hold opposing views.
“In each instance there’s going to have to be the grace to listen to one another . . . if we can’t proclaim the good news of the cross together because of this issue we probably have a larger issue pastorally,” Ellis says.
As the denomination looks to what is next, several overtures are being studied. Cornell says his personal preference would be to plant a new, traditional Presbyterian denomination. “I truly believe that we need to be as pure and unambiguous as possible in our doctrine and practices. While I love my colleagues, who don’t share my theology and I respect that many of them have great pastoral gifts, it’s vital for a church to be in unity with Christ,” he says.
“The battle to make the PCC completely affirming remains a goal for many,” Cornell says. “Of course, many of those who adhere to orthodoxy believe the denomination has now officially stepped into apostasy. Some of the ethnic congregations are in shock and are ready to leave. This is unhealthy and ultimately unsustainable.”
As people wait for more to unfold, there is a sense that the work will continue.
“I’m hopeful,” Stanbury says, “but the work doesn’t end here. It just changes.”
In 2017, the GA established a Special Listening Committee regarding LGBTQI known as the Rainbow Communion. That same year, a motion from the floor requested the Moderator, Rev. Peter Bush, write a letter of repentance to the LGBTQI community, which was sent in February (2018). The letter confesses responsibility for harm done in the church and encourages building new covenantal relationships with its LGBTQI members.
The committee was formed to respond to the call to repent of the harm caused by homophobia and hypocrisy in the church and was tasked to create a safe and respectful environment for people to tell their stories of harm. Representing a range of people across Canada, 139 stories were shared.
The Rainbow Communion co-conveners, Sue Senior and Rev. Dr. Robert Faris, presented the final report to the GA on June 7, 2021. The final report is 117 pages and includes sections identifying harm done, responding to harm done and ensuring harm does not continue.
“Many have expressed deep gratitude for the care with which the committee prepared the Listening Spaces so that respect and confidentiality was assured. Garnering this trust is a source of amazement to us as the church has been the vehicle for harm and the committee were the representatives of the Church in receiving the stories,” says Senior.
“It is the storytellers who were generous and gracious in sharing this precious gift to the PCC,” she says. “We hope that the stories continue to be held with great care and that similar spaces may open in the future for the many others who have stories to share and might feel that they can do so now.”
As part of the GA presentation commissioners viewed a video summary of the report, with voice actors anonymously sharing storytellers’ words.
All 23 recommendations from the report were adopted, including affirming that all people “whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity” are equally beloved by God. Congregations are to be inclusive by providing opportunities for all to offer their gifts in the church, and a fund will be formed to provide psychotherapy/counselling for those who have experienced harm.
“Many of the next steps are already outlined in the recommendations that were passed including the preparation of a confession for harm done to those who identify as LGBTQI and others,” Faris says.
“This confession will be an important moment where those who live with the trauma and impact of harm done whether they are still in the PCC or not, whether closeted or not, might begin to see a new relationship within the Body of Christ,” he says.
The reports, video and more resources can be found at presbyterian.ca/listening.