I am sure that many people in our congregations are wondering what the actions of General Assembly regarding human sexuality mean and might change in the lives of our churches in the short and in the long term. Here is what I would take away:
For the moment, nothing has actually changed
The Assembly has essentially done nothing more and nothing less than send a remit (outlined above) down to Presbyteries. Nothing really changes until (or unless) that remit is approved by 50%+1 of Presbyteries representing 50%+1 of all the members of Presbyteries on the roll. Presbyteries cannot edit or amend the remit; they can only approve or reject. Assuming the remit passes this test, it will return to the subsequent General Assembly which also has the opportunity to vote on it. General Assemblies generally approve any remit that has passes through Presbyteries, but there have been a few historic exceptions. Only after all of these tests have been passed would the remit be considered to have changed the doctrine and practice of the church.
Assuming this all passes, does this change what I’m supposed to believe?
No. The intent of this seems quite clear. It acknowledges that faithful Christians may believe different things about marriage and ordination and that is okay. In many ways is the first post-modern stance that the church has ever taken, acknowledging the simple truth that we no longer live in a world where Presbyterians will believe things simply because the church tells them what they are supposed to believe.
Note, however, that while freedom of conscience is proclaimed and nobody will force anybody to participate in a same-sex wedding or ordination of LGBTQI+ clergy, that in no way gives anyone licence to treat anyone with disrespect. The church has (in other actions) rejected and repented for the sin of homophobia and no court of the church should in any sense tolerate actions or words of hatred directed at anybody because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Members of Presbyteries will be expected to maintain good working relations despite perhaps feeling very different about these matters.
How does this change my congregation?
This decision does not force any change upon any congregation; it actually offers more freedom to congregations in their actions and decisions. Congregations will be able to marry who they want to marry within the confines of Canadian law. And congregations will be freer to choose qualified ministers to serve their congregations as they will no longer be required to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. No one is going to force any congregation to call a minister who does not fit the practices and teachings that they are comfortable with.
What about LGBTQI+ candidates for ministry or calls?
As this is implemented, it should mean that any LGTBTI+ candidates should be eligible for any calls within congregations. All applications should be given the same consideration. The only bar to a candidate being called should be the prayerful and free choice of a congregation and search committee and the general suitability of the candidate.
An additional motion was passed instructing the Clerks of Assembly “to provisionally prepare guidelines to ensure that calls to LGBTQI ministers and the election of LGTBQI elders are facilitated in presbyteries and congregations.” The wording of those guidelines will be of great importance (and I do not envy the task of the clerks in writing them). These guidelines will have to make it clear that, while Presbyteries have a right and duty to examine the life and conduct of any student or candidate, nobody should be excluded simply on the grounds of their gender identity or orientation.
What will my congregation have to do?
I see nothing in any of this that requires any congregation to take a particular action. There is nothing that requires, upon the completion of this process, a session to declare what its stance is regarding marriage or ordination. It need not decide anything until such time as someone may request a same-sex marriage, an LGBTQI+ elder is elected or a potential minister applies for a position. I feel I should state this because I understand that many congregations or sessions still find it difficult to have those kinds of conversations. No one is actually obliging you to have them.
That being said, there is much to be said in favour of congregations acting proactively and staking out their own identities and positions. We are no longer living in a time and you can just assume that outsiders will know what your congregation stands for if you do not explicitly say so. Outsiders will actually assume many things and a lot of it may be very negative.
In particular, those congregations that have chosen to be affirming of LGBTQI+ people have often found that they are met with a great deal of skepticism from a community that has a history of being marginalized by the church. Therefore, simply deciding to be affirming often has little impact. People will wait to see how congregations actually demonstrate such a commitment in real life and practice.