About a month ago, I made a notice of motion at a meeting of my Presbytery – Waterloo-Wellington. A notice of motion is basically a heads-up – an indication that you intend to put forward a motion for debate that will bring significant change or that might be controversial.

This was the notice that I gave:

At a future sederent, I will move or cause to be moved:
That the Presbytery of Waterloo-Wellington insert in an appropriate place in its standing orders the following section:

Recognizing Affirming Congregations:

Recognizing that there is a variety of opinion and theological understandings of the place of people who identify as LGBTQ+ in the life of the congregations of our presbytery, the Presbytery of Waterloo-Wellington would like to affirm that an inclusive and affirming approach is valid and has been chosen by a number of our congregations. We reflect this affirmation in the following standing orders of our presbytery.

  1. The Presbytery will perpetually extend the philosophy of amnesty adopted by the General Assembly to enable to work of the Rainbow Communion to all of the work of the Presbytery; the Presbytery will engage in no discipline regarding the revelation that any member of Presbytery or member or adherent in any congregation within its bounds identifies as LGBTQ+.
  2. The Presbytery will engage in no discipline of a teaching elder who, with the support of his/her session, presides over or participates in any marriage that is considered legal in Canada. The presbytery will not compel any minister or session to perform a particular marriage. The presbytery will recognize the status of any legal marriage in Canada.
  3. Presbytery will continue to exercise oversight and discernment over every student and candidate for ordination. The sexual orientation or gender identity of any potential candidate will not be entertained as a cause to call their call to ministry into question.
  4. In processing calls, the Presbytery will continue to exercise all due diligence as directed by the Book of Forms. The Presbytery does not consider that the sexual orientation or gender identity of a potential candidate can, in itself, cause a call to be invalid.
  5. Interim moderators must not prevent congregations from considering a candidate solely on the grounds of gender identity or sexual orientation.
  6. The Presbytery will not use its authority to compel any congregation to take specific actions to be more affirming. It will continue to engage in dialog and discussion on the matter.
I would like to take the opportunity in this blog post to offer some explanations for why I decided that it was necessary to make such motion a meeting of the Presbytery (called a sederent) in the near future.

The state of the discussion

Many people will know that the Presbyterian Church in Canada has been talking about the place of people who identify as LGBTQ+ in the life of the denomination for quite some time – for a couple of decades really. There have been some changes and certainly many shifts in attitude in that time, but the denomination as a whole has not really resolved anything. Another report, prepared by former moderators of the General Assembly will be presented to the General Assembly this June. I certainly hope and pray that it will enable some constructive discussion, but I have little expectation that it will resolve the question in any conclusive way.
Presbyterian congregations joyfully participate in a Gay Pride event
But meanwhile, a number of congregations have come to some resolution. Leaders in those congregations, both clergy and lay, have taken a serious theological, biblical and ecclesiological look at the question and come to the conclusion that not only is it possible for them to welcome all members of the LGBTQ+ community into the lives of their congregation but that this is a faithful way for them to live out the Christian gospel.
Thus, these openly welcoming and affirming congregations exist. They are doing their best to live out the gospel and there is much evidence that God is at work in their midst. That is not to say that all such congregations are thriving and growing numerically. They face the same challenges that all of our congregations face in terms of demographic and societal change. Some are growing, some are holding steady, some are shrinking. Affirming congregations don’t seem to differ significantly from the overall trends. I’m not suggesting that what they have done is a panacea for all congregations. Nevertheless, the evidence is there that the Holy Spirit is at work in those congregation. The Spirit is present in changed and changing lives, in meaningful mission and purpose. That is the evidence that matters.

The Presbytery is Responsible for its Congregations

In our polity, the presbytery is responsible to care for and give oversight to all congregations in its territory. This has always meant supporting congregations that have various ways of living out the gospel and that have differed in many ways. The Presbytery is required, therefore, to give thought to how it supports its affirming congregations.
There is a reason why our system of church government is called Presbyterian. It is because the Presbytery is the key body in the whole system. The Presbytery plays a key role particularly in the care of congregations. It is the body that is responsible for the care, conduct and discipline of clergy. It is also the body that ordains ministers and has the authority to judge whether a call to ministry is a true Gospel call.
In my motion, I have focused only on those areas of responsibility that rightly belong to the Presbytery. The Presbytery does not declare doctrines or set educational standards for clergy, but it is responsible for discipline and ordination.
I have written this motion because I believe that the Presbytery of Waterloo-Wellington has no desire to discipline its members because of such things as sexual orientation or gender identity. I also do not believe that we would discipline a minister who carefully considered all of the theological and practical questions and was willing to participate in some way in a same-sex marriage. Indeed, some of these things have happened and we have not engaged in any discipline. Some of these things have happened in other Presbyteries as well with no resultant discipline. I simply desire to make the reluctance of the Presbytery to discipline in such cases a matter of our policy.
I also believe that my presbytery, if presented with a call to ministry that was well supported by a congregation and that was otherwise in good order, would not reject such a call merely on the basis of a candidate’s sexual orientation or gender identity. So why not declare that as policy as well?
Of course, I might be wrong. That may not be where the Presbytery is at this moment in time. That is why I put this forward as a motion to be debated and decided on by the full body of Presbytery.’

Is this the time?

Some have suggested that this is not the time to put forward such a motion. There is a committee working on such matters that will be reporting to the upcoming meeting of General Assembly. Should we not wait for the moderators to do their work and for the Assembly to make its decisions? I certainly support the work of the moderators and the General Assembly. I will be a part of that Assembly as a commissioner and plan to fully participate. The General Assembly must decide how it may best take care of its responsibilities and duties. But that does not remove the need for the Presbytery to deal as positively and constructively as it can with the congregations it is responsible for – all of the congregations. I feel that for the Presbytery to declare how it wants to deal with its affirming congregations now can only contribute to the ongoing conversation in a helpful way.

Of course, that too is up to the Presbytery. I intend to present my motion to the Presbytery in May. It may, in its wisdom, choose to take a vote, or defer or table the motion until after Assembly meets. I will respect the wisdom of the Presbytery in that. If a vote is taken, there may well be an appeal and I would appreciate the clarification of these important matters of the rights and responsibilities of the Presbyteries that such an appeal would surely bring.