The first General Assembly that I attended as a commissioner was shortly after I was ordained and was held in Charlottetown Prince Edward Island. Sometime before that, there was a church in Lachine QC in my Presbytery of Montreal that had knowingly called as their minister a gay man who was in a committed relationship with another man. (They were not married, as this was not legal in Canada at the time.) Because the support of that congregation for that particular minister was so clear, the Presbytery had sustained that call – had basically said that it should be permitted to go forward. I agreed, not because I had entirely made up my mind on such matters at that point in time, but because I felt that it was only right to honour the choice and will of the congregation.
That action of Presbytery had been appealed. So, when I went to that General Assembly, the decision of our Presbytery to sustain the call was being judged by the Assembly.
Knowing full well that the doctrine of the church at that time did not permit that man to be ordained as a minister, we, as commissioners, argued that the compassionate and loving thing would be, nevertheless, to allow that congregation to have the minister that they wanted. Surely, we could make an exception for extraordinary circumstances! The answer, at that Assembly, was a clear no. There was no room for any compromise.
I must say that in all my years as a Presbyterian minister since that time, the answer has remained a very clear and exclusionary one. In those years, the numbers of clergy and members of the church who were quite okay with the idea of calling an LGBT+ minister or participating in a same-sex marriage (since legalized of course) has only grown and if this year’s Assembly is an indication of the makeup of the whole church, grown to form a significant majority.
And yet, in all those years, was there any space for compromise? It was officially and continually stated that there could be no compromise in the courts of the church, though I certainly have observed that the courts of the church have been happy enough to look the other way and not notice many things during those years.
And really, that is what I have experienced right up until the beginning of this Assembly. Just a month ago, I went to my Presbytery with a plea to recognize that there are some congregations in our Presbytery who are quite happy to fully include LGBTQ people in their congregations, so why not just let them do what they believe God has called them to do? Why not just compromise and create policies within the Presbytery that would just allow them to go ahead? I tried to speak of this possibility to Presbytery but I was not even allowed to so much as put forward such an idea for the discussion. The doctrine of the church was clear, I was told, and therefore there could be no compromise for particular congregations, it seemed.
Today, only a month later, at General Assembly, we have spent a goodly amount of time listening to people who now suddenly found themselves in the minority calling for compassion and compromise. They have asked us to please find some way for them to continue to have only the ministers that they want and to participate only in the marriages that they want to participate in, even though the majority will of the church seems to have shifted.
And I heard their hurt and their pain. They felt as if they and their churches were being excluded much like that church in Lachine had been excluded those many years before. (Except, of course, the Church in Lachine was literally kicked out and nobody was talking about kicking anybody out today.)
I wondered a lot today about how that made me feel. There were a couple of times when I will admit that I was tempted to say to myself, isn’t it a little bit late now to be talking about compromise? Isn’t it a little bit late to be talking about making space for the minority view?
I will admit that the thought did cross my mind. Maybe, in all those years, if the church had been willing to put some compromise workarounds in place, it would be so easy now to extend that same spirit of compromise to them. But, as I said, the answer had always been no.
But, though the thought did occur to me, I need to say at the end of another long and very tiring day, that I have absolutely no desire for that to be how I respond or how the church responds. It is my hope and prayer that tomorrow, as the General Assembly gives final shape to what will be sent down from this Assembly to the church, that we do create a generous space to compromise and to make it clear the congregations will be able to continue to believe what they believe and practice how they choose to practice and that they will continue, in the long-term, to be able to call the ministers that they choose and who believe in practice the faith as they desire.
I have no doubt that there are many people drafting amendments tonight that will make space for such compromise. I won’t take a shot at drafting one myself, but I will seek to support proposals that give to congregations, sessions and their ministers full freedom of conscience and belief. I want congregations to be able to have the ministers that they choose. I just wish we had been practicing such compromise before now.
It is kind of all that I ever wanted.