Eighteen sessions and six presbyteries have filed overtures for discussion at this year’s General Assembly on the issue of human sexuality. This volume of response is without precedence in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
“I went through the Acts and Proceedings from 1960 to 1966, the years before the ordination of women was approved,” Rev. Stephen Kendall told the Record. “There were three overtures on that issue.”
Kendall is Principal Clerk of the General Assembly. He said there are usually about a dozen overtures to assembly each year; this year there were 37, including the 24 on human sexuality.
The overwhelming response has prompted Kendall and his team at the Clerk’s office to proceed a little differently from previous years. All of the referred overtures have been sent to Committee on Church Doctrine and to Justice Ministries for review, so they can prepare themselves for the inevitable debate. (Referred overtures are the ones filed before February 1st, 2015. Those filed after that date but before April 1st, are called unreferred. These overtures will be forwarded by the Bills and Overtures Committee of General Assembly to the Assembly itself and possibly on to the same two committees.)
Three Presbyterian educators—Dale Woods, Principal of Presbyterian College, Montreal; Patricia Dutcher-Walls, Professor of the Hebrew Bible, Vancouver School of Theology; and, Kevin Livingston, Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto—have been asked to prepare a facilitation process on human sexuality. Time on the assembly agenda has been designated for these discussions. “Assembly should be a safe place for conversation,” said Kendall. Several blocks of time have been allotted to ensure voices are heard and ideas are shared.
“Assemblies are places of discernment and when we’re actually there together we will have the opportunity to do just that.”
While the tone of the overtures may differ depending on the session or presbytery, the majority fall into two broad camps: “Continue, as a unified voice, to uphold our historic and biblical stance that marriage is designed by God as a holy covenant between one man and one woman exclusively.” Or “[be] fully inclusive of every person regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity in all aspects of church life, including calling, designation, ordination and marriage equality as a matter of justice and hospitality.”
Five overtures are filed under the title, “Full inclusion in the church of all persons regardless of sex orientation and gender identity.” The recommendation from the Presbytery of East Toronto, which is similar to the others, asks assembly, “to prepare through the Life and Mission Agency of the General Assembly, in consultation with Justice Ministries a declaratory statement for the General Assembly that affirms that The Presbyterian Church in Canada is fully inclusive of every person regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity in all aspects of church life, including calling, designation, ordination, and marriage equality as a matter of justice and hospitality.”
Twelve overtures referenced the 1994 Statement on Human Sexuality. Similar in wording to each other, these overtures request, “the 141st General Assembly to prepare, through the Committee on Church Doctrine, an appendix to the Statement on Human Sexuality (1994) which affirms the original content/intent of that report, and which addresses current literature on the subject of same-sex intimacy and relationships.”
A few of the overtures request further process of discernment within congregations and presbyteries. The one from the Presbytery of Pickering asks for “General Assembly to engage the church in a fresh round of ‘listening’ through (a) developing an intentional strategy within the church’s congregations and courts where we can share stories and explore the scriptures, and (b) creating a safe space for this sharing by removing any possibility of church discipline for those who come forward with their stories.”
Neighbouring Oak Ridges presbytery asks General Assembly to “pursue unity and consensus within the church by encouraging presbyteries to familiarize their congregations with relevant scriptures and the official documents of The Presbyterian Church in Canada pertaining to marriage and sexuality, and to create opportunities for respectful theological dialogue with emphasis placed on points of agreement.”
Anticipating a direction which they may find unfavourable, one session overtures the assembly to “consider establishing a means for ‘gracious dismissal’ of congregations which might in good conscience be unable to accept changes in doctrine or discipline which depart from the historic confessional standards of the church.”
There are a dozen overtures on issues other than human sexuality. Three presbyteries are requesting a Native Ministries Endowment Fund. And one requests “a concise statement and explanation of the church’s teaching on palliative care, euthanasia and physician assisted death.”
All overtures end with the phrase, “or to do otherwise as the General Assembly, in its wisdom, may deem best,” which is an acknowledgment, as Kendall affirms, that the annual gathering is a place of thoughtful reflection and decisions made are of the highest court of the denomination. Technically, only one overture is needed to initiate a process of discernment at General Assembly.
The 141st General Assembly will take place at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, June 4th-8th.
The 455-page Assembly book of reports can be found here. Along with the overtures it includes all the reports from the various offices, courts and missions of the Presbyterian Church.
The Presbyterian Record will be posting regular news stories and photographs from assembly on this page and its Facebook page.