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General Assembly: A Memoir

October 8, 2014

imageHi everyone… I’m just back from five days in a strange country. It goes by the title of the General Assembly of the PCANZ. Now I need to write about it in order to move on. Otherwise it will possess me.

Some of the nicest people I know are New Zealand Presbyterians. And spending five days with them is always a delight. There was probably more celebration than anything else. It was richly multicultural with a deep bicultural vein running through it all. Our leader (moderator) for this particular jaunt was the passionate and poetic Andrew Norton. Music was a delight – lifting the roof on several occasions. One particularly spine tingling performance by a Auckland Chinese choir of a piece called Lord Have Mercy will stay with me for a long time.

imageThe Keynote Speaker was Steve Taylor. He was the other highlight of the gathering for me. Both his insights and his means of communicating were equally memorable. His theme was “Hospitality: Your Place or Mine?” He reflected on receiving hospitality at “their place” based in the sending of the 72 In Luke 10 and then on hospitality at “our place” based on Luke 14 and “throwing feasts” and finally on Luke 19, Jesus constant cross-cultural engagement, drawing on the short movie “The lost thing”

And yet the contrast between the celebration/keynote addresses and the debate couldn’t have been more extreme – from the sublime to the ridiculous at times. The subjects up for debate varied widely from internal ecclesiastical matters to broader socio-political matters. If you were there and I miss out something you feel was important, please don’t be offended. These are just the things that stick in my memory.

I will summarise some of the more internal decisions that I can recall:

  • We agreed to allow congregations (north of the Waitaki) to upgrade their buildings to 34% rather than 67% of NBS
  • We agreed to a system which will to free up some of the significant wealth of the PCANZ tied up in buildings for mission projects (Who could disagree with this?)
  • We declared ourselves a “cross-cultural church” (What else could we be with a gospel of “reconciliation”?)
  • We agreed to change the model for representation at the General Assembly to one based more on the individual members within a Presbytery rather than on congregations. (This seems to be inconsistent with the idea that the congregation is the fundamental unit of our mission and that membership is first of all in a congregation and only secondly in the PCANZ, therefore not transferable. There may well be an issue for further theological reflection here.

Turning to some of the broader issues we addressed:

  • Mr Paul Barber moved that “the GA call on political leaders to commit to active initiatives to promote peace through non-violent conflict resolution and to oppose armed conflict.” The motion was lost.
  • Dr Glen Pettigrove gave an inspiring presentation in support of including the Belhar Confession (a significant reformed confessional statement arising out of the struggle against Apartheid and prophetically addressing issues of racism) in the list of authoritative statements of our reformed heritage. The motion was lost. (I heard two arguments in opposition i. this statement could potentially used to support the cause of homosexuals ii. this statement comes from a different context … (i.e. Like all such statements on our list)). For me this was truly the low point of Assembly. The thought that we could reject Belhar for these reasons makes me want to walk away from the PCANZ.
  • Rev Dr Bruce Hamill and Rev Anne Thompson presented a proposal to (among other things) request Presbyterian investors and members to divest from the fossil fuel industry (from i. Coal, Oil or Gas Companies listed on the NZ Stock Exchange who’s main business is the extraction and/or production of fossil fuels and ii. the 100 largest global coal companies and the 100 largest oil and gas companies.) The Assembly agreed. This was the high point of the assembly for me.
  • Rev Hamish Galloway, in one of two moments when he showed significant and impressive leadership, moved that the group of motions on sexuality, leadership and marriage be addressed by a special commission rather than debate at Assembly. The motion was lost and I added my name to the dissenters.
  • A motion in the name of Penelope Stevenson, to uphold a minister’s “freedom of conscience” in relation to officiating at any marriage was withdrawn. I have no idea why this happened and would have liked to know. In anticipation I had prepared the following little speech to offer, but the opportunity never arose:

“Moderator, I support this motion. And in so doing I want to say something about the difference between an evangelical church and a legalistic one (because I believe this debate touches on the heart of what it means to be church). An evangelical church is founded on and defined by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a church has rules… But these rules are merely for the purpose of good order. They are not and ought not be absolute. They are not of the substance of the reformed faith. There must always be room for freedom of conscience and the possibility of conscientious objection to these rules and to any statement the church makes which is not a confession of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If these rules and statements, which are not our confession of the gospel become absolute in this sense,then we have become a legalistic church. If you want to remain an evangelical church and not merely a club, I urge you to support this motion”

  • Mr Paul Barber moved a motion to affirm the leadership of “people in gay, lesbian, bisexual, or de facto relationships or in Civil Unions”. Early in this debate Rev Hamish Galloway gave a powerful speech neither supporting nor opposing the motion. He spoke however about the wrongness of this mode of discernment and addressing these issues. He announced that he was putting down his voting cards and leaving the Assembly for the observation gallery. I and 1/3 of commissioners joined him there. Leaving just 200 still debating. There was considerable emotion and the Moderator himself was visibly distressed.
  • Three motions to ensure that Ministers “may only solemnise a marriage for the union of a man and a woman” (via special legislative procedure, adopted ad interim) were then presented by Rev Stuart Lange and Rev Martin Macaulay. The word “solemnise” was introduced as a legal term referring to what a state approved celebrant does. During this debate I decided, with some hesitation to return to the floor. However, the moderator was keeping debate to a minimum and I did not have the opportunity to offer the following short speech:

“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is no male and female” (Gal 3:28). Not even the great complementarity of male and female defines the new world of life in the body of Christ. What there is according to the writer to the Ephesians is a practice called marriage which signifies the mystery of Christ’s relationship to the church. (Eph 5:32)… Both a witness to Gods love and a practice in which we learn to love, in all the intimacy of our bodily existence, our nearest neighbour. I oppose this motion because I do not want to deprive homosexual people of the opportunity to share in this witness, this asceticism, this practice in holiness and hope. Jesus made the reform of a range of institutions into an art form. I believe he is calling us to reform our understanding and practice of marriage, not to set it in ecclesiastical concrete. I urge this assembly to remember the spacious love of Christ.”

And so it all ended on Tuesday afternoon with many of us exhausted and semi-depressed (as usual) in spite of all the celebrations and energy with which it all began

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2014 12:59 am

    Why I abandoned the floor at GA 2014

    The reflection on this general Assembly is accurate, even – handed, and thoughtful. It is also gut-wrenchingly sad. I was one of those commissioners who abandoned the floor during that sad and contentious time. I cannot speak for others who did the same- quite properly, as this action was not an orchestrated political ploy, but a move of many hearts as one.

    My intention was never to show contempt for the Moderator or the order of the House. It was only to show in the only way it was possible, that this was not the time, or the place, or the way to find a way forward.

    Paul Barber had issued a call for political leaders to promote peace through non – violent conflict resolution. Our Moderator had asked us to open our hearts and minds to the spacious love of God. We did not want to fight, and many of us demonstrated this by laying down our weapons, such as they were, and leaving the floor.

    Were we right? Were we wrong? There is no way of knowing, but the truth is that whichever way the vote had gone, there would have been no winners. Not God. Not God’s children. We are all sisters and brothers in Christ, each soul loved and valued by God. We are a family, and unlike the contestants on “The Block” or “Master Chef” we don’t vote each other off. Whatever the process might be for dealing with issues of conscience it is not this one, which has all the benefit of dissecting an apple blossom with a sledge-hammer.

    In Matthew 22:34 one of the Pharisees asked Jesus which commandment in law was the greatest? He said to him,” You shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

    I understand that there are now faithful, followers of Christ, not just gay people, but their friends, family and loved ones, asking themselves “How can we say that this institution has taken a stand- but it does not speak for us?”

    I cannot speak for the future. We have another two years before we are asked as an Assembly to put our love to the test. As for “Freedom of Conscience? I believe that is a gift of God, to each of us, and as such it is not for sale, barter, or theft by another. For someone to regulate on the issue of my liberty of concience is like selling their neighbour’s ox or the Syndney Harbour bridge!

    Go with God, Folks! Lee

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  1. PCANZ GA Says Ministers May Only Solemnize Marriage Between A Man And A Woman | The GA Junkie

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