A few years ago, a friend of mine who is a minister of The Presbyterian Church in Canada (The PCC) lamented where the denomination seemed to be going in the mind of the public. He wished that the Presbyterian Church would be known as the church that is against poverty, or something like that, rather than the only thing that it seems to get in the news for: as a church that is against homosexuality.
Alas, The PCC is at it again; at least, one congregation is making news for actions done and statements made concerning homosexuality. First Presbyterian Church, New Westminster, British Columbia, according to reports, called in a seventeen-year-old leader from their youth group to complain about her very visible volunteer work on behalf of a local Pride event. The minister and another adult (I would assume an elder) met with her in the minister’s study, and asked her to quit her involvement with the Pride group. She quit the congregation instead, the church where she had been baptized and attended ever since.
The various newspaper articles to which the reporting blog links all note that they wanted to interview the minister of the congregation, but were unable to arrange a time before he went on holiday. So maybe there is more to the story than what appears. Who knows?
But what appears is the attempted quashing of a young woman’s faith, and the heaping of pain and suffering upon her by people who are supposed to show compassion and love.
Reading through the reports, I was surprised to see references to The PCC’s Social Action Handbook (which may be downloaded here), considering I am pretty that even some congregations do not know or pretty much deny that it exists. This is certainly the first time that I have seen such a reference in any newspaper. Kudos to whoever brought the document to the reporter’s attention. Kudos also to Colin Carmichael, the denomination’s Associate Secretary of Communications, for noting that events as reported seem inconsistent with Presbyterian policy.
Here is the extract from the Handbook which has been quoted as addressing the issue:
The church does not limit the roles of its members on the basis of their sexual orientation.
These roles include church school teachers, musicians, youth leaders, ruling elders,
teaching elders and members of the Order of Diaconal Ministries (p. 39 of the .pdf).
Ah ha! Perhaps The PCC is not against homosexuality after all, and my friend can be happy again.
But you see it, too, don’t you? That phrase ‘on the basis of their sexual orientation’. Thus the church will not discriminate on the basis of what a person feels; however, if you do anything about your feelings, well, that changes everything. The Social Action Handbook basically is a compendium of the various statements made by the church’s General Assembly concerning social justice issues. This means that on the same page as the statement against discrimination, which is a page summing up the excerpts to follow, one also reads that ‘Homosexual orientation is not a sin’ and that ‘Scripture treats homosexual practice as a departure from God’s created order’. The last statement in the summary concerns ordination: ‘The Presbyterian Church in Canada is not prepared to ordain self-avowed, practicing [sic] homosexuals or to allow public worship services blessing same-sex relationships.’ In other words, as long as you stay in the closet or provide blessings on the sly everything is fine. At least one gets the feeling that the sentence was written with a pinch of grudging hope that things will be different some day, when The PCC will be prepared to do such things; it practically screams ‘at this time’ between the lines. But this time is what we have.
I’m not the only one who notes some of the discordant elements here. A response to the invocation of the Social Action Handbook has appeared here, essentially taking the church to task for the injustice caused by the constraints of its policies. Theological theory is only as good as its practice.
Now, I myself, after several years of pursuing a doctorate in theology, am once again seeking a call to minister either in a congregational or an academic role. I talk about justice. I talk about hope. But sometimes one gets the impression that it would be better with certain church committees for a minister to advocate overthrowing the government rather than express support for same-sex marriage even in a country where that is legal. What is it about sexuality that unsettles people so much? Perhaps it’s the messiness, the sheer unruliness of embodied desire. Perhaps it reminds us too much of our human foibles and frailties. Perhaps we fear the strength of the pull, the way that relationships cannot be pinned down and controlled, not really.
Whatever it is, this unsettling dogs the process of seeking a call. Not because of what might or might not be suspected about anyone in particular, but because the whole thing hangs on trust. People in pastoral relationships have to trust one another, by whatever faith they have been given. Creating an abyss between theory and praxis, between what is allowable in public and what in private, can undermine the necessary trust.
Maybe what is needed is less a church that is against something, anything, and more a church that does. A church that seeks justice and attempts to hope, a church that strives to apply its social action handbook to itself in a self-critical, penitential way: that is a church which I would like to be up to the task of serving.