Lines that rule out; circles that embrace.

CircleI do not write on behalf of any group, I write from my own perspective as a follower of Jesus, and a member (and elder) of a Presbyterian church.

After the General Assembly’s vote on Wednesday, not to invite the moderator of the Church of Scotland to future General Assemblies, I had a whole other blog written. Then came today’s decision.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s doctrine committee reported to the General Assembly, “In light of our understanding of scripture and the Church’s understanding of a credible profession of faith, it is clear that same-sex couples are not eligible for communicant membership nor are they qualified to receive baptism for their children. We believe that their outward conduct and lifestyle is at variance with a life of obedience to Christ.”

The subsequent vote means that the church has adopted a new policy; anyone in a same-sex relationship cannot be a full member of the Church and their children cannot be baptised.

Fear is playing a huge part in the General Assembly’s decision making. The world is changing fast, other churches are changing, and PCI is struggling to come to terms with its place, making erratic changes in response. The General Assembly are circling the wagons; siege mentality comes easily to us Presbyterians.

But while the General Assembly is the ruling body of PCI, and is in some ways democratic, it is not wholly representative. For a start, it includes more ministers than non-ministers (each congregation also sends one ‘elder’, a member of the elected church leadership). It is overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly ‘older’ in that the elders sent are often (though not always) more ‘senior’, established people, and are frequently retired and can therefore attend Assembly business during the day. There is also anecdotal evidence that suggests many ministers/elders stay away from these kinds of debates, whereas those who feel very strongly about them never miss.

There is also no way of knowing how representative today’s decision is, in relation to what people are thinking in the church pews. What is known, however, is that the church is shrinking. There are figures to show young people are not staying, and older people are leaving.

What is also known is that while the General Assembly might confidently say that anyone in a same sex relationship cannot make “a creditable profession of faith”, this is not accepted by everyone in the pews. I do not accept it. Many Presbyterians (and I have no idea how many, but I know plenty) despite being told by some ministers (though by no means all) that same sex relationships are sinful and destructive, know plenty of people in flourishing same sex relationships. A General Assembly vote can’t affect that.

My first reaction at reading today’s news was one of indescribable sadness. I am deeply sorry to all gay and lesbian people that my church has voted to exclude you.

My second thought was of resignation.

And then I caught it.

That’s a knee-jerk response, just like the Assembly’s decision. It’s time to think this through. I’m not ruling it out for ever more, but the Assembly chose to draw a line in the sand and rule people out. So, should my response be to draw another line and rule myself out too?

I thought ahead to Sunday. We are trialling an ‘Epic Service’. (Yep, that’s what we’re calling it!) In response to surveying our members and a desire for greater community on a Sunday morning, we are having an extended gathering. There will be time all together in the church, but also time in small groups talking together, time to have coffee together, time to have lunch together, time for everyone, everyone, to have communion. In short, there will be time to be with each other. I love our diverse, crazy little community, who (as our minister says) tumble and stumble after Jesus. I think it might just be epic.

The challenge now isn’t to step away from that. The challenge is not to create any more lines, this can’t be changed by an alternative siege mentality; it’s time to create circles and invite people, all people, in. The Assembly vote can be overturned in time, but right now, the best way to defeat it is to declare the values of the kingdom of God and live them; to forgive outrageously and love unconditionally.

It’s too early to say what’s going to happen next. But those of us who desire the Presbyterian church to be a place of welcome and belonging are going to have to find new metaphors. We’re not ‘saddling up’, we’re not ‘going to war’, we’re going to have to find how to love our enemies into submission. This is the way of Jesus.

And Jesus’ way is never easy. We’re going to need to rediscover our dissenting tradition and invite everyone not only to the table but to our church community, come what may. We’re going to have to be braver and more vocal than ever before. We’re going to have to take criticism like we’ve never taken it before. And be patient like never before. (I’m going to struggle with that one.) We’re going to have be more loving, both in our disagreements with each other and in our welcome to gay and lesbian people than ever before.

Thankfully, we do none of this by ourselves, we do so in the strength, but also the gentility of the Holy Spirit.

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