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Reflections on the 2012 General Assembly of the PCANZ

October 8, 2012

As always this years General Assembly provided plenty of food for thought on the nature of the curious institution we call the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. It is clearly not only an institution which prides itself on its mode of church government, but also one which gives that government and its complex legal structure (requiring the service of professional lawyers) enormous pride of place in its national life. Institutionally it gives the distinct impression of a people who, although saved by grace, live by law – a people who have forgotten what Paul discovered, namely, that “the law kills”. As a legally focussed body (albeit with other roles) the assembly is structured for conflict rather than consensus, and so our behaviour conforms to our institutional forms, often in spite of the best efforts of most involved. In classic modernist mode we underestimate the power of group dynamics to create forms of violence. It makes me wonder whether such a structure really allows us to speak the truth in love rather than merely with good intention.

All of this leads me to a second observation about our ecclesiology. We seem to have an overblown notion of what the denomination called PCANZ really is. In this assembly it was highlighted by overblown conceptions of the role of the Moderator. Proposals to make the Moderator a full-time paid position as a “mission leader” were passed on for discussion by the wider church. At the time I argued that the PCANZ is not a missional church it is a structure to support missional church as it occurs in congregations and communities led by Christ through Word and Sacrament. The church exists as COMMUNITY where Christ saves people by reconciling them to one another and to God in life together, forgiving one another 70 x 7 and, in a journey of accountability to one another, discerning together the nature of discipleship.

When we address the Assembly as “church” we demonstrate that we do not understand this. It may be that our ecclesiology differs. Perhaps we use the term ‘church’ to identify any institution which has historical continuity with the tradition of the apostles, or any group which claims to be church, or any group which practices preaching and sacraments, or even the sum total of those, who by virtue of certain acts or belief are “saved” and have their ticket to go to heaven when they die. Whatever it is, the process of reconciliation which forms community to embody the mission and kingdom of God is not our tacit ecclesiology.

We betray these assumptions every time bow and scrape to our moderators and when we seek to make them our leaders. The church has one leader – a guy who speaks and breaks bread in communities across the country every Sunday. We do not need a “king like the nations”. It is not an accident that our legal structures of “courts” reflects the Westminster government of the nations in which we live. This issue was also highlighted in a speech by Peter McKenzie on behalf of UCANZ when he asked the Assembly whether PCANZ was the church. The response was a chorus of ‘Yes’, to which he responded with the comment that it might better be conceived as a fragment on the fingernail of the body of Christ. The response is admittedly a quantitative one which may still fail ecclesiologically. But the question highlighted the tacit assumptions and the overblown and overdramatic sense we have of the significance of our National Assembly.

As in previous years the combative dynamics of our structure expressed themselves in another debate on homosexuality which continued to offer lots of heat but little light. We rejected the possibility that marriage, hitherto an institution structuring heterosexual relations might be extended to structure the sexual lives of same sex couples. Such changes were a bridge too far for about 75% of the Assembly.

However what struck me as deeply revealing is that a debate which has to date led to regulations conceived in relations to practices – sexual acts, relations, practices outside of heterosexual marriage – has now moved on to one about orientation. When asked whether Assembly would disallow discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation it voted NO. In other words, those who previously limited their concern to the morality of sexual acts, are now prepared to allow discrimination on the basis of realities for which people are not morally responsible.

A further observation that struck me from the perspective of my involvement in the Doctrine Core Group is that although we may not be officially fundamentalist as a church organisation we continue to operate with language suggestive of that tradition’s foundationalist epistemology. Hence the debate about Liberty of Conviction (re ordination) and Gay Marriage continues to revolve around what is or is not a ‘Fundamental Doctrine of the Reformed Faith’. As a result the reformed faith appears as a system of beliefs or propositions and there is little conversation about the basis for deciding which beliefs are more important than than others for Christian life and mission. Christology is domesticated – a wild thing broken so it can live indoors (as Tim Keel might put it).

In spite of all of this, the Assembly was nevertheless, for the most part a rich and positive experience. On many occasions the character of Jesus shone through it all. I will report on some of these occasions that stood out for me before returning to my natural melancholic default setting to report on the final (arguably) heretical moment with which the Assembly concluded.

  • At all points Malcolm Gordon’s worship leading transcended the pettiness with simplicity and depth that restored our souls
  • Mark Johnston captured some important theological points about the place of embodied practices in Christian life and witness by a novel liturgical moment – swapping an item of clothing with our neighbours
  • Tim Keel’s impressive communication skills were slicker than many kiwis are comfortable with but he had important things to say which stood out because of their cognitive dissonance with the background of much of the argument on the floor of the Assembly. He drew heavily from psychological and social theory, however that is not to say that his theoretical tools lacked theological control. Space does not permit in-depth critical engagement. And my lack of notes means I can’t recall sufficient detail, however this text will presumably be available on the PCANZ website and will be worth checking out. His themes were: Lostness (a kind of phenomenological/theological reflection, Liminality (I was busy writing a speech during this talk), Leadership (a mixture of systems theory and NT Wright) and Everything (an impossibly ambitious attempt to offer a whole theological overview of the bible under the headings of Creation, Exodus, Exile, Priesthood. He made some good points along the way drawing from a wide range of contemporary thinking, especially about the domestication of the gospel and the invisibility of the kingdom/church due to a failure of theological imagination)
  • Wonderful stories of Christchurch people receiving generosity and being able to pass it on to their earthquake ravaged neighbours
  • The story of St Columba churches adventure in feeding breakfast to the local school and eliminating truancy, involving the parents in serving breakfast and facilitating a tutor system between their low socio-economic school and the wealthy St Kentigern’s
  • The recognition of the huge amount of work our previous Moderator, Peter Cheyne
  • The warm leadership of Ray Coster, honed with a fine sense of compassion and justice
  • The call from Pacific churches to take action on climate change and the wise comment from Jono Ryan that speaking to government on these matters means nothing if we are not addressing these issues practically in the life of our church (perhaps if we are serious we could follow the lead of the German Protestant church and set a goal of a 40% reduction of carbon footprint)
  • The small gathering of 8 people who gathered one lunch time to form a Presbyterian Anabaptist Network to explore how an Anabaptist theology and practice might develop in a Presbyterian context
  • The moment when Martin Stewart – tasked with bringing the collective wisdom of the Council of Assembly, recommending annual rather than biannual assemblies – was greeted by total silence (no votes in favour, not even from the council members who put forward the proposal or from his own wife). It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person!
  • A wonderful speech from Wayne Te Kaawa who caught us all by surprise by first offering a tense challenge to the process of responding to the global warming crisis facing Pacific nations(you should be talking to the Tangata Whenua (indigenous people) first) and then making a dramatic and powerful main speech offering a poignant tale of the bicultural journey our church has taken so far and ultimately embracing the establishment of the new PI Synod. Just when I was expecting a bitter rehearsal of the Biculturalism vs Multiculturalism debate we received instead a moment of grace and hospitality.
  • Another courageous stand by Margie Mayman for liberty of conscience on the matter of leadership and sexual morality. In this she was ably supported by Sue Fenton who talked of her own evangelical background and how knowing gay people affects her way of approaching the matter.
  • A powerful and terse speech by the incoming Moderator designate who made public confession to the Assembly after telling how early on in his relationship to David Clark (a well-known openly gay Presbyterian minister recently-deceased) he crossed the road in order avoid meeting him face to face, but how later they became good friends

As I read through the official summary of Assembly decisions I realise that many more things happened than can be contained in these reflections. So I will not attempt to be comprehensive, but conclude with my promised comments on a final (probable) heresy.  In the Sunday morning worship the Moderator Ray Coster offered some powerful reflection on judgement and the freedom of the gospel from the comparative judgements which hold us in bondage. However his comments on resurrection faith and its relation to the cross of Christ were always going to need unravelling and this culminated rather dramatically in his final words to the Assembly in which he said something to the effect that resurrection faith means no longer sitting under the cross but moving beyond it. In his defence he acknowledged the possibility that this might be heretical but this did not deter him from his message. My suspicion is that he may be so familiar with the reformed interpretation of the cross as a penal transaction for the purchasing of exit tickets that he is reacting against this becoming the sum total of the life of faith. If this is so perhaps he fails to appreciate the more orthodox view of those who advocate for the cruciformity of both the power of God and of Christian life. However, in so reacting he is in danger of a shallow triumphalism. I’m afraid this final speech left me with mixed messages.   As his parting gift Ray handed out small crosses, stones and candles (covering all bases). However his words were the clearest expression yet of ‘leaving the cross behind’. He is right that the cross is indeed an expression of human evil. However, if Johns gospel is to be believed it is also the site of the conquest of evil and, in fact, the glory of God. Ray cannot cut the Gordian knot that easily (especially after 1 Corinthians 2:2). The risen Lord has nails in hands and feet and his followers, empowered by his risen presence in the Spirit, still take up their cross and still follow him in the same cruciform existence. There is no other truly human life.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Gary Mauga permalink
    October 9, 2012 11:50 am

    Thanks Bruce. I must admit, there was plenty you had recorded that I myself missed – good reading though! Hoped for more. Please delete my comment above. Blessings.

  2. October 10, 2012 11:09 am

    Hi Bruce, I think it’s always been about orientation because the practice/orientation separation is a violence that has been imposed on the bodies and spirits of gay people by the church debate. This decision was just more honest than usual. Peace, Margaret

    • October 10, 2012 10:13 pm

      Hi Margaret, a friend of mine claims to have been a celibate gay priest (Anglican) all his life. I understand this to mean that his life has been consistent with the Presbyterian ruling on leadership. If he were Presbyterian I take the current Assembly to be indicating that we are not prepared to protect him from discrimination on the basis of his (albeit celibate) orientation. This, to me is the great moment of hypocrisy and disillusionment to come out of this assembly.

      • October 10, 2012 10:23 pm

        I guess my point is that the distinction is one thing and its enforcement is another. My friend seems to understand the distinction and takes it upon himself, without judging those who do not. In fact I suspect he would be as upset as you about its imposition, but this doesn’t stop him acknowledging that the notion of celibacy is coherent.
        I agree that this decision is more honest than usual. In fact if we as an Assembly had accepted the non-discrimination motion, then I suspect a lawyer would have quickly noticed that our leadership ruling allows exceptions for those ordained prior to its adoption, and those exceptions
        relate to orientation and not practice. Thus the whole motion tacitly acknowledges a discrimination against people on the basis of orientation while simultaneously trying to deny it.

      • October 11, 2012 12:35 am

        From my experience it appears that you would have to declare yourself celibate to be acceptable, but more than that you would have to declare that non-celibate gays are sinful. The debates have been as much about heresy as sexual practice. And if you don’t declare you are celibate, then you are assumed to be sexually active. I have nothing against celibacy as a chosen vocation.

        In 2002, in order to move from St Ninian’s to St Andrew’s I had to sign a paper prepared by the Convenor of the Book of Order Committee to say that I was a “practising homosexual” at the date of the 1996 Assembly. If I had just experienced my orientation as homosexual, I wouldn’t have been covered by the exemption. I am a practising homosexual when I eat my breakfast…so God only knows what it was supposed to mean. It felt violent and offensive to me and one day I’d quite like an apology.

  3. October 11, 2012 1:28 am

    What a strange thing. You had to sign a declaration effectively denouncing your own lifestyle as sinful, even though you had no intention of changing it! That sounds like a high price! To be consistent in the distinction between non-celibacy and orientation they should have made exemptions available for defacto heterosexuals at the point of the ruling.

    • October 11, 2012 1:56 am

      It was discussed but because heterosexuals in de facto relationships could get married it was unacceptable for the movers of the motion to include an exemption for them. Makes an odd theology of marriage when you effectively tell people that you “have to get married.” I know of three clergy who were in de facto relationships who have since married.

      I’m having a delayed reaction to Assembly today, reading the post Assembly reflections. I should go out in the sunshine.

  4. October 11, 2012 9:30 pm

    Bruce and Margaret, I’m not sure what you two are doing up at 1.30 in the morning talking about sex, but I was reading Moby-Dick.

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