The death of John Allison has taken from the Presbyterian Church in Canada one of the last of those Evangelical stalwarts who did so much to keep the spiritual life of the denomination alive in the 1970s and 1980s. John was a man of God who walked humbly before the Lord and sought justice and reconciliation to all.
He was the only child of a man of deep principle, a Highlander who left Scotland in that mass emigration after the First World War to work in the mines in Trail, British Columbia. For his sabbatarian principles, and his refusal to treat Sunday like any other workday, he lost his job and was reduced to poverty. John’s parents moved to Calgary where his mother Penny served in domestic work. After John M Alison Sr.’s early death Penny married Rev Clarence Pickup.
John showed early academic promise, with great discipline in his work. He went on to study at the University of Toronto and was a 1960 prize-winning graduate of Knox College. The following year he pursued graduate study in Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. He later received a D. Min. from Fuller Seminary.
In 1961 Robert Taylor of Medicine Hat was elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the PCC and during his busy moderatorial year John became his assistant. The position had an important consequence when John married Pat Taylor, his daughter. John was ordained and served at St Andrew’s Kimberley, a congregation in the Kootenays, where he succeeded Ed McKinlay. From there in 1969 he went to Cheyne Church, Stoney Creek, ON, again succeeding a gifted evangelical, Merrill Reside. His ministry at Cheyne saw growth both spiritual and numerical. He moved on in 1984 to St Andrew’s Islington Toronto where he spent twelve years with a strong pulpit presence and warm pastoral compassion. At Islington he provided a home for the Renewal Fellowship Within The Presbyterian Church in Canada. In 1996 Pat and John left for the Synod of the Atlantic provinces to become Youth Consultant for ten years and John was Interim Pastor for five charges in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. He retired after thirteen years due to advancing Multiple Sclerosis. Pat then served for three years at St Andrews, Moncton, and was also regional representative of Interserve. Recently they moved to Smithville on the Niagara peninsula to be near family. “The highest calling we’ve experienced,” Pat reflected in retrospect, “is that of prayer, prayer for youth, families, congregations and the advancing of the gospel globally.”
As one who lived with John as room-mate during his year at Westminster Seminary I can testify to his essential goodness and godliness. I have a vivid memory of John, who occupied the lower of the bunk beds we shared, every morning getting up at 6:00 to pray. The image of the soles of his carpet slippers as he kneeled by his bed has stayed with me (and rebuked me) all of my ministry. Another picture of John I treasure is seeing him in his study at Islington with his Hebrew Old Testament open, preparing a gospel message. All John’s life was lived in the glow of his Lord and Master. Nowhere was that faith more authenticated and confirmed than in his final years of suffering. I last saw John six weeks before his death and through his pain it was the same John: a faint twinkle in his eye, that familiar nervous laugh, the same patient devotion to his Master as we prayed together.
John and Pat had four children: Naomi married to Mark Young, Rev. Andrew married to Colleen and lead pastor at St Paul’s Leaskdale, Sean married to Lezlie, since 1997 a Wycliffe Bible translator in northern Cameroon and recently as well an instructor at the Wycliffe training school in Langley, BC, and Bonnie, married to Mike Hamilton.
In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as Christian approaches the Celestial City he shouts out to Hopeful “Be of good cheer, my brother: I feel the bottom, and it is good.” At the end, after years of suffering, John Allison felt the bottom and it was good. He is receiving his reward for years of faithful and Christ-honouring ministry and his children, as they did at his funeral 17 August, rise up and call him blessed as do many of his spiritual offspring.
(On 4 July 2014 a memorial service for Yvonne Woods was held at Knox Church, Toronto. Yvonne’s great-nephew, Rev Robbie Symons, senior pastor of Harvest Bible Church, Oakville, presided and preached a powerful message from Rev. 3:20, the text that led Yvonne to accept Christ as her Saviour and Lord as a child. I was asked by the family to say some unscripted words at the reception afterwards).
To understand why Yvonne was such a remarkable woman you have to grasp the world into which she was born the first year of the Great War. The Toronto of 1915 was an outpost of the Empire, a colonial city described as “Toronto the Good,” strongly Christian and conservative, the mirror opposite of today’s metropolis. Yvonne was born into an upper middle class family, her great-grandfather William McDougall was a father of Canadian confederation. Her own father, a lawyer, died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 leaving her mother in straitened circumstances, reduced to taking boarders into their large home on Spadina Road. Yvonne was shaped by the heritage of Ellen Knox, first headmistress of Havergal College (named for the hymnwriter) which she attended. Havergal was described, when founded in 1894, as “uniting Evangelical spiritual influences with a thorough intellectual cultural” preparation. As recently as 2010, when she was 95, Yvonne contributed to to the Ellen Knox Fund at Havergal. When Stacey arrivwed in Toronto in 1934 to take up the reins of the struggling Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship it was Yvonne’s mother, Joyce Ritchie, who was his stalwart associate. At every point Joyce was there for Stacey and it was not long before he noticed her daughter had the same qualities of leadership and resilience, The courtship stood the test of a six month separation as Yvonne and sister Jocelyn made a trip to Europe with their mother. The relationship thrived and on 30 April 1938 Stacey and Yvonne were married at the Anglican Church of the Redeemer at Bloor and Avenue Rd. where the Ritchies worshipped. Their rector preached the sermon that the Holy Spirit used to lead her to the Lord. Stacey later acknowledged that “I did one thing right. I prayed for the wife I needed and God gave me the wife He knew I needed.” For forty-five years Yvonne stood by Stacey, providing his tempestuous spirit with all the stamina and encouragement that he required to do a great work for God. As her son Stefano stated at the memorial service, in their late teens her sons could be critical of her excuses for their father but that later disappeared as they (and theirs) also received unconditional love and acceptance through their various marriages.
The story of Stacey’s years with IVCF in Canada, the founding of the movement in the United States, and relocation to Switzerland, are all told in my biography for which Yvonne provided both practical and moral support: “warts and all” was her blank cheque. She was exemplary for a biographer of a spouse. On Stacey’s death in 1983 Yvonne did not crumple but seemed to get a fresh breath of energy and maintained for the next quarter century a global circle of friends, prayer partners, and young admirers. She was the grand dame of the IFES quadrennial when it was held in Ancaster, Ontario, in 2007, basking in the new biography of her husband, just out. Her last days were not easy, she was eager to go home, but in those final months no-one was more supportive than her son Geoffrey, the closest geographically of the three, and kept in regular communication with all of us who were privileged to call Yvonne a friend. We will miss her but most all we will miss her prayers.
The death of Murray Graham in Moncton Hospital on 13 March, while not unexpected, leaves one with a great sense of loss and marks the end of an era in the Maritime Presbyterian Church in Canada. Murray represented all that is good in our denomination: from his roots in an unusual church in rural eastern Ontario to a lifetime ministry spent in small congregations, which he faithfully served, in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. His quiet commitments, his Christ-likeness, his contagious laugh, and his refusal to take himself too seriously while regarding gospel ministry as a sacred calling, made a profound impression. Murray came out of Knox Church, South Mountain, Ontario, and was born into a deeply religious clan. His father Sam and his uncle were pioneers in Presbyterian Men in the late 1950s, an organization that held much promise for spiritual renewal in the denomination until it succumbed to denominational indifference. I was student minister in nearby Morrisburg in the summer of 1960 and Murray’s family, whom I met for the first time, gave great encouragement to me by their articulate faith and piety as I was about to begin at seminary. Murray was a 1956 graduate of Toronto Bible College and eventually went to Montreal and took classes at Sir George Williams College (now a part of Concordia University) and graduated in 1963 from Presbyterian College. The General Board of Missions appointed him to their number one priority in the Atlantic Provinces, St Luke’s Bathurst NB, then experiencing economic growth. I was appointed the same year to the lowest priority in that synod, based on how long the church had been without a settled minister, and the unlikelihood I would be quickly ordained as a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, a school not in high favour but still not the pariah it later became. Ordained that summer, as I was, Murray served Bathurst faithfully for six years, unusual longevity for an ordained missionary appointment. In 1969 he moved to Campbellton for what was described as “an experimental area” ministry combining Campbellton, Dalhousie and New Mills. The hope was that, by pooling resources and personnel, these large geographic ministries would staunch the slow decline of churches in rural Canada. I had tried a similar approach in Pictou Co., Nova Scotia, five years earlier. Exhausted, I left after four years, Murray lasted for twelve years before opting for Campbellton where he stayed on for another six. Miramichi Presbytery was in continual turmoil during those years: Sunny Corner and Newcastle split and there are separatist congregations all vying for the name “Presbyterian.” The Miramichi virus, which I describe in my Stanford Reid biography, proved very contagious, greatly weakening (and compromising) the Evangelical cause. There had earlier been a strongly Reformed influence as both J. Marcellus Kik and Everett H. Bean during their years on the north shore New Brunswick made a profound impact. Murray remained a denominational loyalist though under considerable pressure to secede, quietly providing with integrity Biblical teaching and pastoral faithfulness. Many of us thought that Murray would be a lifelong bachelor but in 1977 he married Phyllis Martin of Moncton who brought him great happiness and provided all the comforts and encouragements of a woman partnered with her husband in ministry. In 1987 he moved on to River John and Toney River, NS, in Pictou Presbytery, a congregation which needed a steady hand at the helm as Pictou Presbytery was riding out the storm of seismic changes in the popular culture and the old Presbyterian loyalties, reinvigorated after 1925, were showing signs of strain as a new generation and a different culture created many challenges in a declining denomination. In 1997 Murray and Phyllis retired to her home in Moncton, summering in Pointe-du-Chene at a family cottage. They provided yeoman service at St Andrew’s Moncton, which was greatly helped after a schism by Murray’s strong evangelical credentials. At the same time, as a peacemaker, Murray and Phyllis attended evening worship (since St Andrew’s had none) at the breakaway Mt Zion ARP Church. At the marriage feast of the Lamb there will be a seat close to the front for quiet, unassuming, and much loved, faithful pastors like Murray.
The home call on Sunday, 27 October 2013, of Ed McKinlay is a reminder of a whole generation of ministers of the Presbyterian Church in Canada who served during the high noon of the denomination’s growth and expansion and were witnesses to its decline. Ed McKinlay was a Glaswegian, one of many immigrants to Canada leaving the challenges of post-war Britain. He felt a call to the ministry and pursued undergraduate and divinity studies, graduating from Knox College in 1955 as a mature student. He was posted to St Andrew’s Kimberley, British Columbia, where he had an impressive ministry following that of Doug Herron, another able minister though of a different theological stripe. Ed McKinlay had a powerful impact on many of the young miners who were attracted by his personality and pulpit presence. While in Kimberley he connected with Flora, a school teacher from the Peace River who had grown up in Kerrisdale Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, under Harry Lennox and was active in Synod youth organizations. Shortly after their marriage he was called to St Andrew’s Lethbridge, a large congregation with a new building which presented many challenges. After the loss of their first child under tragic circumstances Ed and Flora went to Scotland where she taught as he completed Ph D studies at New College, Edinburgh. researching one of the Disruption worthies, Robert Candlish. I recall, when sitting in Thomas Torrance Sr’s living room in Edinburgh, being told that a Canadian student of his son Tom had just been called to a church in Hamilton. Ed McKinlay served at St Enoch in the steel city for almost a decade. The congregation had ballooned to 1100 members under Mariano DiGangi, and the crowds he attracted were just the kind of people Ed was suited to serve: working class immigrants who wanted a strong pulpit presence. In 1976 he was called to Bridlewood, Scarborough, Toronto, where he had probably his most enduring ministry The congregation had been founded in 1967 and recognized by the Presbytery of East Toronto as an evangelical church, thanks to the generous stipulation of Robert McClintock. A strong Session, the highest per capita giving record of any PCC congregation, and numerous young families (many recent converts) with an appetite for strong preaching made the call a good fit. Thanks to the closing of Cooke’s Church the congregation expanded both in number and in building, reaching 300 members by 1983. As a denominational loyalist, Ed steered Bridlewood through the storms of the Dan MacDougall case. In 1979 Dan, son of a Bridlewood elder and a recent Westminster Seminary graduate, was refused ordination owing to his scruples about the ordination of women. A compromise was reached, Dan was ordained to serve under Everett Bean in Cape Breton and the crisis was averted though the issues it raised remain unanswered. Ed stayed until 1989 when he reached the retirement age of 68. He went on to have a long and fulfilling retirement as he and Flora served short-term a congregation in Caithness, Scotland, and eventually settled at Knox Church, Toronto, where he volunteered as a pastoral visitor and Flora became an elder. In recent years, increasingly challenged in body and mind, Ed was a faithful attender at worship. I last saw him on 14 September 2013 at the funeral of Dr Marguerite Archibald, a long-time Knox member, a week before he slipped and fell, breaking a hip from which he never recovered. So much of what Ed represented will be missed, especially the twinkle in his eye, his friendly chuckle, and his passionate love for Jesus. There was no ambivalence as to where Ed stood theologically. His Biblical preaching was reminiscent of the best of the nineteenth century Free Church of Scotland, more topical than exegetical, with that Scottish piety which reminded one of the days when the pulpit was what made his native Scotland a power to be reckoned with. He will be missed.
Eulogy for Dan MacDougall at his funeral in Collingwood, ON, on 4 October 2013
I have been asked to say something about my friend Dan MacDougall and I want to address my comments particularly to you his grandchildren so that you may know what a remarkable man your grandfather was and how greatly he was admired and respected by all who knew him.
Dan MacDougall, whom we honour today, would not want any honours to go to him but to the Lord he served so faithfully. Last year I had the privilege of spending a Sunday at Mount Lebanon United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. It was there that Dan, in the heyday of Post-World War II churchianity, had a life-changing exposure to Reformed Christianity under the ministry of the remarkable Cary N. Weisiger. Transferred to Kansas City, he became active in Colonial Presbyterian there, serving on the Session as well as being Sunday School superintendent. He later transferred to the Reformed Presbyterian Church over a matter of principle. When Dow Chemical transferred him to Toronto and he and Phyllis built a home in Thornhill he first attended the local Presbyterian church, briefly worshipped at Knox Toronto, before settling into Knox’s daughter congregation, Bridlewood Church in suburban Scarborough where he was a member for over forty years.
In many ways, Dan MacDougall shaped the life of Bridlewood Church by his personal witness, his family life, and his basic spiritual integrity. He came to the then four-year old congregation at a crucial time: a few months earlier there had been a major moral challenge within the community and two significant families left the struggling infant congregation. That summer the Holy Spirit came down in remarkable power and several nominal church people were soundly converted. The MacDougalls help to stabilize matters. Dan’s teaching, always based on his consistent Reformed faith and with a strong emphasis on the doctrines of grace, instructed those new to the Evangelical faith. He and Phyllis had a remarkable gift of hospitality: their home was always open and small district Bible study groups became a feature of his work as elder. Their stewardship inspired others and tithing became a feature of the church which maintained the highest per capita giving in the entire denomination. They were enthusiasts for missions as a high percentage of a church’s budget.
When I left Bridlewood in 1975 to become national (general) director of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship I nominated him for the board of directors, a somewhat dubious honour given the stresses that the ministry was experiencing at the time. Dad’s clear thinking and straight talking stood the organization in good stead for the years he served.
Dan was a no-nonsense sort of person who cut to the chase in conversation and saw issues and their consequences clearly. He could be gruff: he was a foil to me as a less direct person but he was a caring and devoted friend whose support, as a churchman, I could always depend on. I have lost a man whom it was a privilege to know. What endures as a faithful witness to his Lord is to be found in his talented children and the wider circle, a remarkable family who has gone on to serve the Lord and His church. It is to Phyllis, his exceptional life partner, that we extend our sympathy
The final full day of the PCUSA General Assembly was approached by commissioners with a sense of apprehension and foreboding. The Assembly, it was now clear, was divided almost 50 50 with razor sharp numerical divisions. The Rev. Jack Baca from San Diego Presbytery, moderator of the assembly’s Middle East Peacemaking Committee, put a brave face on the previous night’s defeat but it was obviously a disappointment – and surprise – that his majority report was not approved. “We have not retreated from our goal” and the Assembly’s rejection had “spurred a deeper commitment for peace in the Holy Land,” he asserted.
At the end of the morning at worship the preacher was ruling elder Tony De La Rosa, Executive Presbyter for New York City Presbytery, who referenced his mother, his partner, and his partner’s mother. Using once again the lowering of the paralytic he said that “In Christ the barriers to grace are removed once and for all.” It was an agenda-driven sermon. I thought back to Manhatten Presbyterian luminaries such as George Buttrick and Canadian John Sutherland Bonnell, and fundamentalists John Hess McComb and Walter Duncan Buchanan at Broadway Church at 116th St., where I was taken as a child. It’s a different denomination today and it appears not anchored.
In a memorable speech at the beginning of the afternoon Michael Wilson, Chestnut Level Presbyterian Church in the rural heart of conservative Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, stated that he was “proud and it was an honor to serve the PCUSA” and declared his commitment to building a “balanced vital community of faith.” He went on to warn that “narrow legislative victory has not worked well for the church.” “We have not listened to one another.” And he concluded with a plea: “please join us by not sharpening the divisions.” He knows of what he speaks: his Donegal Presbytery has been heavily impacted by departures of significant congregations, but always done in a gracious Christian way.
The recommendation of “Committee 13″ to revise the definition of marriage came in at 2:40 pm. Much of that debate repeated points made in earlier committee sessions on my Monday blog, though Brittany Tamminga of San Diego, a Theological Student Advisory delegate from Princeton Seminary, provided an unusual definition of calling, urging the Assembly not to deny LGBT their calling and asking commissioners to respect God’s calling, an interesting definition of the Reformed doctrine of vocation. The geographical spread seemed predictable: speakers from New York state and the Northeast being outspokenly in favour of revision of the definition of marriage. Overseas delegates pleaded with the Assembly to consider the impact a positive vote would make on relations between their churches and the PCUSA.
By 5:20 pm, after working through (and dismissing) two minority reports, the question was called. The advisory delegates were polled first – the Theological Students were 80% in favour of revision, as were 75% of the Youth Advisory delegates. The ecumenical representatives were split fifty/fifty and the missionaries not unsurprisingly came in at 21% in favour, 71% opposed. The final tally was 48% in favour, 52% opposed. The room emptied quickly, consternation was apparent: the Assembly had looked at the abyss and had failed to jump, deciding not to risk the future of the denomination for the uncertainties of surrendering to the culture. Debate ground on in the evening, completing business at 1:30 Saturday morning. The evening, I was told later (I did not stay), was largely a rubber-stamping of leftover committee recommendations. The next morning delegates returned for a final short session.
In reflecting about what I witnessed in Pittsburgh, I have been struck by the relevance of New York Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat’s just published Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics. “America’s problem,” he states there, ” isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place. Since the 1960s, the institutions that sustained orthodox Christian belief – Catholic and Protestant alike – have entered a state of near terminal decline. The churches with the strongest connection to the Christian past have lost members, money, and authority; the elite that was once at least sympathetic to Christian ideas has become hostile or indifferent; and the culture has turned its back on many of the faith’s precepts and demands.” (p. 3) No more insightful statement on the state of mainline Protestant denominations could be provided.
Rabbi Gil Rosenthal of the National Coucil of Synagogues was to start Thursday morning of the General Assembly with “ecumenical” greetings. I had always thought “ecumenical” referred to those specifically Christian but this definition has now been broadened to include an imam and a rabbi. But instead of appealing to the liberals in the denomination by stressing inclusivity, Rosenthal launched into a fiercely partisan denunciation of divestment, something that brought howls of protest from those identifying with a pro-Arab and anti-Israeli position. The worm had indeed turned.
Indeed the issue of divestment dominated the day as the Assembly returned to the subject in the evening. The majority report of the Committee on Middle East and Peacekeeping Issues had called for the church to divest its $1.6 million stock holdings in Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett Packard because of complicity in what was called Israeli repression of Palestinians. The debate, with a minority report, went on for two hours but was, as the Moderators said later, marked by civility. One ruling elder from Peoria who had worked for Caterpillar for 38 years was particularly impassioned. As I said to someone sitting next to me “It’s lucky that they didn’t ask someone from Canada from the other point of view.” Caterpillar has few friends north of the 49th parallel since it bought and closed out Electro-Motive Co of London Ontario and put 450 employees out of work. The final vote was 333 to 331 with two abstentions. An audible gasp could be heard as the numbers were announced. The men with yarmulkes, who seemed at times ubiquitous at Assembly, had done their job.
Two issues testing the openness of the church to constructive dialogue proved significant but provided mixed signals. The first had to do with whether the so-called “property clause” of the Book of Order of the denomination should be retained. Faced with growing numbers of churches leaving the denomination – some say up to 350,000 will finally depart though the total cannot be fully known yet – the question of who owns church property takes on a weighty significance. Speaking in favour of placing property in the hands of congregations was Jeff Garrison, pastor of First Church, Hastings, Michigan, who regretted the expenditure of “money and energy that could have gone toward ministry and mission” was instead diverted to legal costs. Garrison cited Canadian church union in 1925 and the resulting litigation and hassles that remained for years as a warning to Americans. Speaking on the other side, ruling elder Jan Banker of Tampa Bay Presbytery spoke of “Presbyterians behaving badly” and referred to an incident in their presbytery which had been marked by an “egregious act of unfaithfulness.” Knowing those involved far too well, I had to concur.
The “property clause” was retained but encouragingly a commissioner’s overture asking the Board of Pensions to explore a shared benefits program with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (to which most congregations leaving the PCUSA have gone) and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (a new denomination to which many others are going) was approved by a vote of 319 to 311 with 8 abstentions. One woman minister rose to denounce the EPC, saying that the denomination denied the legitimacy of her ordination but that statement was soon disclaimed and it was pointed out that only one presbytery in the EPC now opposes women in ministry. “I would encourage us to do the graceful thing” Jim McCrea, a pastor in Galena, Illinois, opined. It was a promising moment amid the unhappiness of separation and schism.
Fireworks came early this fourth of July when Tara Spuhler McCabe, Vice Moderator, announced her unexpected resignation. From the moment the Presbyterian Outlook revealed that she had performed a same-sex marriage in April questions had been raised. “I think I embody the reality of a growing number of pastors,” she stated, ” who find themselves caught between being pastors … and having a polity that restricts us from living out our pastoral calling.” A gasp of “No” could be heard across the Assembly. Moderator Neal Presa regretfully chose a replacement, Tom Trinidad of Colorado Springs. He assured the Assembly, on being questioned, that again he had chosen a person of different persuasion in regards to solemnizing same sex marriages.
Wednesday afternoon the Assembly got down to business: the new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism, worked out with the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church, was approved. Though not enough presbyteries had approved the addition of the Belhar Confession to the Book of Confessions it was sent down again for approval. It appears that if the voice of the church is not satisfactory another attempt can be made to “right” matters.
In an audacious move the Church Growth and Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program recommended that the Assembly commit itself to 1001 new churches. The commissioners came up with additional wording seeking the development of workable strategies, collaboration with congregations in growing new communities of faith and to report back to the 2014 General Assembly. The move appeared to fly in the face of so many congregations leaving the denomination – Assembly was told that in Tropical Florida Presbytery alone sixteen churches have departed with another six in process. Many presbyteries have been decimated, reducing overhead and staff, and even making their continued existence uncertain.
On Wednesday evening the Assembly commissioned 152 Presbyterian mission co-workers and young adult volunteers who have accepted appointments since the last General Assembly. The service had particular resonance for me as my father and mother had served the same Board from 1929 to 1970 as missionaries to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, sponsored by the nearby First Presbyterian Church, now reduced to under 300 members, a sign I fear of the decline of the whole denomination.
When commissioners to the PCUSA General Assembly woke up on 3 July and had their Pittsburgh Post-Gazette delivered to their hotel rooms they were greeted by the front-page headline “Presbyterian divestment proposal spurs heated debate here.” Speaking of what it called “impassioned testimony from American Jews, Palestinian Christians and Presbyterians,” the Chair of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee Brian Ellison was quoted as saying that “the church should not profit from investing … in companies whose actions conflict with church values.” A yeaar ago Ellison was appointed chair of the Covenant Network and at the time had stated “Having given all of my vocational life to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I joined with others in celebrating last year’s constitutional changes permitting sessions and presbyteries to ordain all those whom God calls. ” Political and ordination activism often seems to coalesce to create a high voltage (some say toxic) atmosphere as the merits of positions are reduced to slogans and stereotypes.
This was particularly evident when the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee concluded their debate of the day before with two proposals to be sent to the plenary session on Friday: one that changed the definition of marriage from between a woman and a man to between two people and the other calling for a two-year period of church-wide reflection on the meaning of marriage. The proposal to change the definition of marriage passed by a vote of 28 to 24 amid intense reflection on what its impact might be: the estimate of a thousand churches leaving the denomination had been bandied about. There was an atmosphere of crisis in the room as the vote was announced. Some regarded that as the price the church had to pay for being prophetic and pastoral, others saw it as a suicidal death wish.
That evening the various renewal groups joined as the Presbyterian Coalition to honour Terry Schlossburg. a long-time articulate and winsome advocate for Presbyterians Pro-Life and the broader concerns of those committed to Biblical faithfulness in the denomination. The mood of the evening was both celebratory but also sobering and solemn. Evangelicals who remain in the denomination feel isolated and abandoned as many have defected and their issues of conscience had been ignored or outvoted. In that atmosphere John Huffman, veteran evangelical strategist, addressed the meeting. His fifty years as an ordained PC(USA) minister had given him a unique perspective. He made five points: (1) Everything has changed but nothing has changed. Ministry is tough. The heart of God is broken but He doesn’t give up. (2) No matter how hard we work things will never go back to where they were. The years have taken their toll and we cannot turn back the clock. (3) “I thank God for a great church history, a great theology, a great global mission heritage.” [It is estimated that there are today 92 million Christians in the world as a direct result of Presbyterian (USA) missionary activity.] (4) We have made progress in the past fifty years: there is greater hunger spiritually today than in 1962 when churches were pastor-driven and its activities and program predictable. The emphasis on small groups, the renewal of the church, discipleship training, are all advances which have created a more intentional community-centered church life. He included a list of inspirational leaders in the 1960s and 1970s that re-energized the laity. (6) “I love this church. It’s been good to me. Stay, fight on, serve, and be faithful.” It was a moving speech which I hope will be published.
“Our church is like fudge: sweet, with a few nuts.” Brian McClaren, gadfly agent provcateur for recovering evangelicals, addressed commissioners and advisory delegates over breakfast Monday, bringing a message of hope and encouragement for the embattled mainline. “Congtatulations,” he stated, “You are further along than you think you are. ” In a later interview he explained: “You have to do less, sometimes, or you have to have less people, but if you only have constraint without creativity you decline. The only thing that pulls you out of decline is creativity. The assumption that the future will be different from the past is a painful conclusion to reach but once you accept it, again it unleashes creativity.” His prediction about a promising future for Presbyterians: “”There will be thousands if not tens of thousands of young evangelicals who are being driven out of their evangelical church because of hostility to gay people, hostility to immigrants, and carelessness about the environment.”
The American General Assembly always begins with commissioners assigned a committee that will vet all material about a specific issue before it comes to all 500 in the final four days of the gathering. Of the twenty-one committees I joined with the press as a correspondent and with many others for #13 “Civil Union and Marriage” and witnessed a fascinating conversation that showed me just how much the culture has impacted the church. An hour and a half was allotted to the presentations: based on the number of submissions, fifteen minutes for those opposed to a change in the existing definition of marriage in the liturgy and standards as between “a man and a woman” and seventy-five minutes for those calling for re-write.
The group arguing for retention made their familiar case: Biblical authority, refusing to change the creation order, and the impact that opening ordination to non-celebate homosexuals had made on the churches overseas that our missionary efforts had established: the Mexican church being the first to cut their ties after the previous General Assembly, followed by Presbyterians in Ghana and even the Mezo Presbyterian church in India. The presenters seemed despondent and dissiprited as though facing a juggernaut.
The counter arguments will become familiar in the days ahead but some were quite novel to me. They focussed on an issue every church will have to deal with sooner or later: in a sexually broken world, the pastoral care congregations will be called on to provide not only for GLBT’s but their families as well. The argument was for pastoral discretion so that the present definitive interpretation does not shackle a loving response to those who need the church’s care if not necessarily its affirmation. In exercising pastoral discretion disregarding the present strictures can involve costly legal battles, as the lawyer for Jean Southard and Jane Spahr testified – both women having been charged recently solmenizing a wedding prohibited by Presbyterian church law. Can we legally deny use of the building for such ceremonies, particularly with cooperative and shared denominational facilites or union congregations? The real difficulty with the present situation is what to do in the six states and the District of Columba) that have legalized same sex union now called by the state “marriage”? The arguments became intensely personal: we were shown a picture of Van and Ralph, in a relationship for many years and one of whom appears near death. Theircongregation wanted to celebrate their union before that happened. We were told that wethe church is sending such away with a broken heart. The present position, it was affirmed, “denies one group of people the opportunity to worship God.”
Astonishing statements were made. “Scripture reveals no consistent view of marriage.” “”Marriage is different today than one hundred years ago.” True but how and then the kicker: “Gender of couples is not the main point.” “Christ provided no instruction about same gender marriage.” “Jesus Christ teaches us radical inclusivity.” “The harm [the church has] done to GLBT’s is cruel – stop the cycle of harm.” “Are they children of a lesser God?” we were asked. A Czech now living in the United States argued from Calvin’s Book 4 of the Institutes and said that in the Reformation there was no such category as Christian marriage.” These staements, given the format of the presentation, could not be debated or challenged.
The overwhelming sentiment seemed to be that this is the time to change, that decisive action was needed, and that there has been too much delay. Later the General Assembly Offfice was called in to discuss what the impact on the denomination would be if there was a change in the definition of marriage, the present authoritative interpretation reversed, and “gender equality” in marriage affirmed. The committee is now wrestling as to whether a firm recommendation to amend will proceed to the Assembly or caution will prevail. But judging from the number of rainbow scarves I saw in the room among both observers and committee members, there is no doubt which way the wind in blowing. Stay tuned again. This could be a decisive moment in Presbyterian history or simply, as the Brits say, “a damp squid.”