Redefining Marriage

Same-sex marriage affirmed at Presbyterian General Assembly.

The highest court of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) affirmed “two parallel definitions of marriage” at its June meeting, opening the door to potential changes to the denomination’s doctrines and practices. The amended motions state that “faithful, Holy Spirit-filled, Christ-centred, God honouring people can understand marriage as a covenant relationship between a man and a woman or as a covenant relationship between two adult persons.” The current doctrine of the PCC holds that marriage is between one man and one woman, and gay or lesbian people seeking ordination in the church are expected to remain celibate.

If the proposed changes are approved by a majority of the church’s presbyteries (regional governing bodies) and reaffirmed by the 2020 GA, they will allow congregations to conduct same-sex weddings and presbyteries to ordain gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) ministers in same-sex monogamous relationships. The measures do include a provision “that liberty of conscience and action” be granted to those who disagree with same-sex marriages and the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy.

The denomination has struggled with human sexuality for decades. Reports by multiple committees and departments of the national church have come before consecutive GAs with contradictory recommendations. Concerns about a possible split in the denomination over a change – or a lack of change – to the church’s doctrine and practices have loomed over the discussions and debates.

Rather than presenting a single set of recommendations, a committee of former GA moderators outlined four possible pathways: Option A: the church could maintain its current doctrine on marriage and ordination, Option B: it could become fully inclusive of LGBTQI persons by changing its doctrine, Option C: it could form three theological streams within the denomination with separate presbyteries within each stream, or Option D: it could maintain its current doctrine, but create pastoral exceptions to allow congregations to conduct same-sex weddings and presbyteries to ordain LGBTQI clergy without fear of reprisal.

Commissioners ranked these four pathways from one to four on secret ballots. The ballot process selected Option B, the path to full inclusion. It was then endorsed with a vote on the floor of the assembly with 126 commissioners in favour and 91 opposed. 

The representatives from the church’s two Korean presbyteries, known as the Han Ca presbyteries, withdrew from the assembly the following morning. “I feel like my brothers and sisters in the Han Ca presbyteries and the 40 percent of people who participated yesterday [and voted against full inclusion] are welcome if we can agree with the 60 percent [who voted in favour], and if we can’t agree, we are no longer welcome,” said Rev. Denise Allen-Macartney, a proponent of the traditional definition of marriage. Times of open discussion and an “evening of empathy” revealed raw emotions from people on both sides of the debate, with frequent expressions of longing to feel fully included in the church.

During the assembly’s final sederunt, a pair of young ministers, one of whom is in favour of full inclusion and one who holds a traditional view of marriage, put forward an amendment recognizing “two parallel definitions of marriage.” 

“The Holy Spirit showed us through our tears that there is a way forward,” said Rev. Jacqui Foxall, one of the duo who made the amendment, “a way where more chairs are brought to the table, and Christ feeds and nourishes the church, and no one is asked to give up their chair – but just make more room.”

The amendment received strong support and was eventually approved. Not everyone, however, was happy with the compromise and 21 commissioners asked to recorded their dissent in the minutes.

 “I cannot say to my congregation that Option B passed and was implemented,” said Rev. Linda Ashfield, a strong proponent of full inclusion. “I think we do a disservice to our LGBT community if we say this is a welcoming and inclusive church.”

“I do believe that we’re called to go forward together and that we can make this work,” the assembly’s moderator, Rev. Amanda Currie, said. “We can honour our diversity, and not discriminate against one another, and show respect, and include that diversity as we go forward . . . Let’s trust that the Spirit will be with us in the days ahead.”  


  • Connie Wardle

    Connie is an elder at Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville, Ont., and the proud mother of Emily, a one-year-old explorer, climber, budding conversationalist, and unlocker of smartphones.

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