This past week, the 146th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) took place. At least two things made this General Assembly significant. The first was that it was the first General Assembly to be held virtually. The second came with the adoption of Remits B & C concerning human sexuality; the PCC now affirms that LGBTQI couples may be married in a PCC Church, and that married or single LGBTQI persons may be ordained as ministers and elders in the PCC.
As we begin to consider the implications of these decisions, it is worth spending some time understanding how we came to this decision, particularly for those who have not been following the steps taken that have brought us to this place.
As with many other denominations, the matter of inclusion has been before the Presbyterian Church in Canada for years now. Arguably the beginning of this conversation began for the PCC with the Human Sexuality report of 1994, so the issue has been before us for almost thirty years!
Without going into all of the history of this process it is important to note a few key things.
- The church has repeatedly declared that homosexual (the word used by the General Assembly) orientation is not a sin. This was reaffirmed at the 2019 General Assembly
- Similarly the church has always ordained and designated LGBTQI ministers, elders and diaconal ministers, provided they remained celibate.
Beginning in about 2000 and over the last two decades, the conversation regarding sexuality became more and more prominent in the Presbyterian Church. Moderators of the General Assembly have written pastoral letters in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021. Perhaps most significant of these was the letter written by the (then) moderator, Rev. Peter Bush. This letter; a letter of repentance for ‘homophobia and hypocrisy’ within the church was written at the direction of the 2017 General Assembly. It further ‘remind(ed) the church of God’s call to be a community where we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us.’
During these years, the church undertook a number of other actions as well.
- 2015 the Life & Mission Agency and the Committee on Church Doctrine jointly designed a process under which overtures might be considered
- 2016 under the Committee on Church Doctrine a study guide; Body Mind & Soul is created an made available to the church
- 2017 that a special committee be created to “create a safe and respectful environment in which confidentiality is assured, in order to encourage LGBTQI people:
- to tell their stories of harm done to them within and by the church; and
- to share their stories of God’s grace experienced by them and Christian ministry performed by them, even in the midst of the challenges they have faced.”
- This committee was named the ‘Rainbow Communion’
- In 2018 a special committee was formed, consisting of former moderators of the 2005-2017 General Assembly’s to ‘to propose a way ahead that allows the mission and ministry of The PCC continue.’
In 2019 this committee of former moderators presented their report and a process of ‘prayerful discernment’. Out of this process, the General Assembly chose inclusion as their way forward.
In the PCC decisions of church doctrine and church law are required to then go to presbyteries under the Barrier Act for discussion and approval. In a nutshell, the recommendations regarding the implementation of the change are called Remits. These Remits are sent to each presbytery in the denomination, voted on, and the results are transmitted to the next General Assembly. The next General Assembly votes again on the Remits, and if carried, they become the law of the church.
In 2019 the two Remits were:
- The Presbyterian Church in Canada holds two parallel definitions of marriage and recognizes that faithful, Holy Spirit filled, Christ centered, 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. That congregations, sessions, ruling and teaching elders be granted liberty of conscience and action on marriage.
- That congregations and presbyteries may call 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.
These Remits were adopted by the 2019 General Assembly, approved by a majority of presbyteries under the Barrier Act, and have now been adopted by the 2021 General Assembly. (There was no 2020 General Assembly due to COVID 19)
In addition to the Remits, the 2019 General Assembly instructed the Life and Mission Agency to facilitate a process for listening to those affected by these decisions (for and against). As well the General Assembly Council commissioned two separate legal opinions as to the legality of this dual position. These and the report of the Rainbow Communion were presented to the 2021 General Assembly prior to the court’s consideration of the Remits.
What makes these Remits unique is that this is the first time the church has adopted parallel understandings of marriage and ordination. Likewise, individuals are granted liberty of conscience in both. This means that different congregations will respond in different ways. In addition to congregational responses, the Clerks of Assembly have also been instructed to prepare guidelines to implement these changes in presbyteries and synods.
This has not been an easy process for the church and will continue to be difficult for some time to come. It is our prayer that with grace and time we will be able to continue as a church that has always had a diversity of theology and practice, and that in so doing God’s name would continue to be glorified.
As you reflect on these changes and work to share them with your congregation(s), please feel free to use the documents and resources linked below. They are the collection of reports presented to the 2021 General Assembly. Please feel free to share them as you have need.
The following are the reports that were presented to and adopted by the 2021 General Assembly
View the video ‘Not All Are Welcome’ produced by the Special Committee re LGBTQI Listening (Rainbow Communion) by clicking on start button on the video itself.