The great divide: Challenges in reforming the church

I received my copy of the Presbyterian Record the other day.  In glancing through the first few pages I came to the letters section and came across this heading, “Sad, Disappointed, Hopeful” (July/August 2011, p7) There followed three brief letters.  The first spoke of the PCUSA decision to allow practicing homosexual ministers in terms of the perversion of the word of God and a list of well-known scripture references which condemn homosexuality.  The second was rejoicing with the PCUSA and hopeful that PCC would follow suit, and the third pointed out that The Church of Scotland has also made this move and ends with, “Might it be time to discuss the possibility of gay clergy in the Presbyterian Church in Canada? Perhaps.”  (Writers Paul Kokoski, Darlene McLeod, Rev. Eldon Hay)

It occurred to me that some background information might be helpful, so I am reprinting my final essay for a course on church polity.

Tradition/Prophecy:A Balancing Act

by Cathy Scott April 4, 2011

Reading of the Presbyterian Church in Canada Report on Human Sexuality (A&P 1994, pp. 251-274) without further investigation into the process by which the report came into being, the discussion and responses at the time of its approval as PCC doctrine, and subsequent work done on the issues of human sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular, may leave one determined that the PCC may be reformed, but is not reforming.  This conclusion, through further research, proves to be false.

To start with, prior to OVERTURE NO. 22, 1987 – PRESBYTERY OF
(A&P 1987, p. 468-69, 17,) the Presbyterian Church in
Canada did not have any specific written statement of doctrine on human
sexuality and it is unlikely that discussion of things like masturbation were
ever heard on the floor of General Assembly.  By putting forward this overture, the Presbytery of Westminster was encouraging an examination of the way that our church handles issues of sexuality in what was, at the time, the late C20th.  This provision in the Book of Forms for presbyteries to bring forward doctrinal issues for study by the church as a whole is, in itself, evidence of the church reforming.  The General Assembly in 1987 referred overture no. 22 to the Committee on Church Doctrine giving instructions to, “produce a statement defining the Church’s position on human sexuality” (A&P 1987, pp. 17, 468-469; cf. Appendix to this Report).

Prior to this document reaching the floor of General Assembly for approval in 1994 issues related to it came up at two other assemblies.  Following the collection of responses to a draft document  from 35 of 44 Presbyteries and ¼ of the 996 Sessions, a draft report was presented to General Assembly in 1992 along with “Recommendation No. 1 (amended, page 34; reworded, page 47; adopted, page 47) That the Committee on Church Doctrine undertake to clarify, amplify and revise the Report on Human Sexuality in response to the submissions received, recognizing that the Report on Human Sexuality has been adopted as an interim statement by the 1992 General Assembly and that a large majority of presbyteries and sessions replying have approved the Report, and that the Committee report to a future Assembly.”

Before venturing to look for the balance between tradition and prophetic voice in the 1994 document one must first acknowledge that this balancing has been
challenging people of faith from the earliest times as the people of God were
uprooted and moved around from present day Iraq to Canaan, Egypt, Assyria and back.  It is easy enough to understand that tradition refers to the practice of those who came before us, which is represented in the word of God in the Bible and the work of scholars over the centuries, and one’s experience within the church.  Prophetic voice is usually assumed to be the voice for change, whether subtle or radical change. One needs to be ever aware that not all prophecy is for “forward change” but may also be prophecy of the need to return to traditional practices.  Whatever other message prophets carried from God to the people, the
first thing was the need to repent of our sins. That being said, for the purpose of this report let us consider the prophetic voice to be that encouraging a change to a more liberal doctrine, and the traditional to be the status quo.

In terms of expression of tradition, the Report on Human Sexuality states, “1.3 In presenting this statement the Committee seeks to avoid being swept along by the tide of current beliefs and practices. It is essential, in response to the
challenges confronting us, to explore and state our Church’s position in contemporary terms as clearly and as persuasively as possible.”  References used for this traditional side include the Bible, Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession of Faith etc.  Tradition is also brought in with the discussion of the former view of Christian churches that all sexual activity is inherently sinful and was to be struggled against (Augustine).

Expressions of prophetic voice are referred to in reference to prayer for direction from the Holy Spirit and by the inclusion of some of the possible stances the church might take prior to the statement of the conclusion of the question.  The fact that the report took us as far as considering that homosexual people are not aberrations but people of value to God and to the church, and that indeed some homosexual couples are stronger than heterosexual couples shows great movement from tradition.

Balance might be represented by statements such as, “2.1.2 Scripture, tradition, reason and experience each have a role to play in discerning God’s will. Yet our
ultimate authority and our primary source for our knowledge of God’s will
remains the revelation of God, in Jesus Christ, witnessed to in Holy Scripture,
speaking to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. A Christian sexual ethic
will make wise use of tradition, reason and experience, but will evaluate these
in the light of the witness of Scripture. Experience and rational reflection
may act as spurs which drive us back to Scripture to look again at neglected or
misunderstood aspects of the biblical revelation.”

Since the adoption of the report as doctrine there has been further action.  In “ 2001, 127 GA Committee on Bills and Overtures presented Recommendation No. 3 …That Overture No. 15 (p. 561) re using the 1994 statement on human sexuality as basis of work for the Special Committee on Sexual Orientation be referred to the Special Committee on Sexual Orientation. Adopted.”[i]  The issues of human sexuality were also addressed in the Social Action Handbook, published by the Life and Mission Agency in 2004, which summarizes the doctrine as it stands.

Another area of our polity that allows for balance is the provision for recording one’s dissent along with written reasons to be included in the Acts &
Proceedings.  It is interesting to note that one member of the committee resigned and four had their dissent recorded at the end of Recommendation 7 and prior to discussion at GA.  Following the vote to adopt Recommendation 7, there were 39 individual commissioners who had their dissent recorded.  Many of these people turned in written explanation for the dissent signed by two commissioners.  The dissents cited many issues including; questions of the exegesis cited in the document, noting concern for the negative effect it may have on relationships in congregations, a focus on creation rather than the example of Christ, lack of medical and scientific focus, a focus on perfectionism over grace, and the requirement of homosexuals to deny their innate sexuality, and more. (1994 A&P p56-62)

On the whole, regardless of one’s personal feeling about the content of the Report on Human Sexuality, through the process which led to its creation, the study and deliberation of the committee over many years, the chance for presbyteries and sessions to respond, the discussion at GA and the option to dissent in writing, balance is maintained between the traditional and the prophetic voice in this document.  Controversial issues, such as this, will always involve strong feelings and probably always end up with a mild sense of disappointment on both sides; one feeling we have gone too far, while the other feels we have not gone far enough.  There is no doubt that human sexuality, and
specifically homosexual relationships will come to the General Assembly again
and one trusts that once again our polity will safeguard balance.


Re: Using the 1994 statement on human sexuality as basis of work for the Special Committee on Sexual Orientation (Referred to the
Special Committee on Sexual Orientation, p. 15) WHEREAS, after
prolonged study across the whole Church, the 120th General Assembly adopted a
comprehensive and satisfactory statement on human sexuality (A&P 1994, p. 251-72), and WHEREAS, the 126th General Assembly, in reviewing the report of the current Special Committee re Sexual Orientation, found that there were significant definitions in the report which the General Assembly could not accept or endorse, and found it necessary to state so, in a resolution adopted by an overwhelming majority (A&P 2000, p. 49, additional motion by C.D. Cameron), the Presbytery of St. John humbly overtures the Venerable, the 127th General Assembly, to advise and direct the Special Committee re Sexual Orientation to utilize the statement on human sexuality adopted by the 120th General Assembly as a basis for its work, or to do otherwise as the General Assembly, in its wisdom, may deem best.


One response to “The great divide: Challenges in reforming the church

  1. Good essay. It’s also hjelpful to point out that the whole phrase is properly “Reformata et semper reformanda Secundum Verbum Dei” Reformed, and ever reforming, according to the word of God…



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