Victoria Safford has a poem called “The Gates of Hope”:
Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope—
not the prudent gates of Optimism,
which are somewhat narrower.
Not the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense;
nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness,
which creak on shrill and angry hinges
(people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through)
nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of
“Everything is gonna’ be all right.”
But a different, sometimes lonely place,
the place of truth-telling,
about your own soul first of all and its condition.
The place of resistance and defiance,
the piece of ground from which you see the world
both as it is and as it could be
as it will be;
the place from which you glimpse not only struggle,
but the joy of the struggle.
And we stand there, beckoning and calling,
telling people what we are seeing
asking people what they see.
This poem is about hope. Not a sentimental hope, but a struggling hope, a place of resistance and defiance.
I remained hopeful throughout the General Assembly meeting in Dunedin. An Assembly operates at different layers. Firstly, there is the public, business, voting layer.
The business is important. Joining the ecumenical dialogue with Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists is important. The suspicion that some people in our church have of anything ecumenical that is not ideologically/theologically aligned with their ideology/theology, and the influence that those ‘some people’ have in the Council of Assembly, has been politely and firmly (by a large majority) told that the suspicion is not the view of this Church. Yes, we are now back once again in official ecumenical conversations, as we should always have been.
Interestingly the leaders of Presbyterian Affirm, a conservative grouping that advertises how it wants its member commissioners to vote and the rest of us to live, opposed this ecumenical motion. They lost. Maybe the tail is not wagging the dog like it used to?
Of course, I am not giving you an impartial view of General Assembly, and hope you weren’t expecting me to.
It’s also important that we’ve put aside the fears and reactionary conservatism of the past to say, again by a large majority, that we need a committee to research social issues and support the Moderator in bringing our church once again into the public discussion on important matters such as poverty, homelessness, violence, and war.
Speaking of which Peter Matheson, our friend and able historian, wrote a sobering article in the Otago Daily Times[i] last week on the occasion of foreign warships visiting Auckland to point out that a number of New Zealand businesses are contributing components and technology to the armaments industry. It would have been nice if General Assembly passed a vote of no confidence in the Government for allowing such a situation to arise. Please read Peter’s article.
Maybe this imaginary motion of no confidence could have been followed by organising a large anti-violence march in all the main centres - in tandem with White Ribbon, It’s Not Ok, and the Peace Foundation. Maybe it would then be noticed that we Presbyterians not only exist but have fire in our bellies. Remember our logo of the burning bush - the point of that logo is not to emulate Moses but to be a burning bush, an enflamed company, and disturbing presence.
But I digress. And at Assembly it is easy to digress.
The planning and process of Assembly, strangely to my mind, used dialogue groups to talk about the more passionless proposals – proposals on timing of a National Mission Event, the timing of start of the Moderator’s term of office, etcetera – whereas the more passionate and controversial motions weren’t sent to dialogue groups at all. What’s that about? Are we afraid of close quarter engagement on controversial issues? Or are we afraid of being hurt again?
So only on the floor of Assembly we discussed the matters of same gender marriage and the sexual relationship requirements to be a minister or elder. The former debate concerned whether ministers could take a same gender wedding without potentially evoking the disciplinary procedures of our national Church. In this debate there were only about five speakers on each side before it was put to the vote.
I thought the quality of the speeches were pretty good. It was good to hear the passion. One side claimed that the Bible only supported them, and God was of their opinion too. Someone of conservative leaning claimed it was a ‘life and death’ decision. Whose life and whose death wasn’t clear.
Many speakers revealed considerable ignorance about Scripture and theology. There was no recognition that significant well-researched scholarship exists on both sides of this debate. There are two ways of reading Scripture on this issue, and both have scholastic integrity. It is our experience, the weight we give to science, and our own journey of faith that decides these things.
The debate, in its brevity, was about homosexuality and marriage. I think the debate we should have been engaging in was: can a minority view be allowed and affirmed within the PCANZ. In other words, can the conservative majority be spiritually mature enough to give space/spaciousness to allow minority viewpoint ministers to exercise their conscience before God, and vice versa if the majority were of a liberal/progressive mind?
The motion preventing ministers celebrating same gender marriage needed 60% of the votes to pass. It got 60.15%. That’s one vote! This was much closer than anyone expected. Those of my persuasion had hoped for a third of the votes, and those of Affirm’s persuasion expected much more than what they got. The percentages were similar on the motion to set aside the same gender sexual relationship requirement for ministers and elders; which was lost.
When I compare the two General Assemblies I’ve attended (2014, 2016), and when I conferred with those who have attended many more, it is not an exaggeration or substance-less to feel a wind, a good and fair wind, a hopeful spirit blowing gently in our Church. Part of this hope is in the young commissioners who dared to speak a different truth than their elders. Part of this hope is due to the courage of Te Aka Puaho. Te Aka Puaho absented themselves from the discussion and vote. But, guided by Ngai Tahu, our Moderator had the wisdom to ask why, and Te Aka Puaho graced us with their reasoning. Simply, humbly, the Tuhoe group said, ‘We have a history of being made vulnerable, of being hurt, of being excluded, and we cannot be part of a decision the outcome of which may be where others are treated similarly’.
I suspect that was the voice of the gospel and we should have all stopped and changed everything we were doing to listen to the excluded. But we missed the chance.
Of course there were other business matters too. The motion about the earthquake building rating lost, so the Property Trustees status quo remains. That was kind of Auckland against the rest. Having an earthquake last week didn’t help.
The idea of a National Mission Event lost, as did the idea of the Moderator starting her term at the end of General Assembly and not at the beginning. Note there hasn’t been a ‘her’ lay moderator since our Joan Anderson.
The short term ministry appointments proposal sailed on through. As did the Beneficiary Fund changes.
But this business layer of the Assembly is just the outer garment. There are other layers: Like welcoming and connecting with other churches (Korea, Vanuatu, & Taiwan). We do this very well.
Like talking with each other, eating together, praying together. We do that well too. At Assembly we feel like a national Church.
Like listening to key note speakers: Rod Wilson was pretty good for a Regent’s College Vancouver evangelical. The practice of hope, he said, requires risky imagination.
Maybe the most controversial action of the Assembly was to appoint for the first time in our history a moderator-elect who has been moderator before. Andrew Norton was reappointed – after a good debate on the principle (or was it on the person?). And, to his great credit, his acceptance speech was the speech we needed to hear.
A friend of mine has a theory. Moderators, like ministers, just by being who they are earn ‘poker chips’. You earn them by building trust. But, says my friend, many moderators and ministers don’t spend them. ‘Spending them’ means asking people to trust you even if they disagree with you. It means stepping out, stepping away from safety and safe issues. This takes courage.
Andrew in his acceptance speech spent a bunch of chips he’s earned in the last couple of years. He said that spiritual vitally is our number one issue. Number two issue is the theology of biblical discernment. Where, he asked, in the Scriptures is the mandate for excluding members by a 60/40 split? Everyone knew the debate he was referring to. Andrew went on: Does not the Holy Spirit speak through all of us? Could not those who abstained, like Te Aka Puaho, be the ones who the Holy Spirit is speaking through? Number three issue: What are the really important matters that need attending to? Our decisions at this General Assembly this year have not cut the mustard.
I was somewhat amused by the lengthy speech at the beginning of Assembly telling us that the press would be present and how we were to respond if questioned. The implicit message was: what we will be talking about is inflammatory and dangerous. I cast my eyes down the agenda. There was nothing on it that addressed anything to do with the critical issues of our society today. Nobody, except largely us and other Christians, cared about the things on our agenda.
Nobody referred to the armaments industry. Nobody seemed to know that today is transgender remembrance day – the day of honouring the courage of those men and women who time and again are bashed, sexually violated, and impoverished for being different. Nobody said anything about those Matthew’s Gospel refers to who were sick or hungry or in prison, and what we might be doing or doing better. Sometimes I think Presbyterian Support or Te Aka Puaho should run the whole Assembly so that their concerns are the dominant ones.
We did though care about Brian Tamaki, he of apocalyptic theology fame. Brian, in relation to last week’s earthquake, which sure rocked the place I was staying in at Hokitika, said it was God’s judgement on sexual immorality. So, we Presbyterians passed a motion disagreeing with him. Interestingly though some one third of commissioners were of the opinion that natural disasters were a form of divine punishment. I have never met someone who thought God was responsible for natural disasters, or that human morality had the power to shake the earth. It was right up there with the commissioner who thought demons had infiltrated Assembly to convince us that homosexuality might not be as wicked as that commissioner fantasized it to be. Unbelievable!
I want to finish this sermon thinking about those on the edge, like transgender people. When a Boston friend told her Moderator equivalent that she was transitioning to being male the Moderator, an old guy who didn’t know much about modern science and gender, said “I’m old enough now that when I feel discomfit that probably means that God wants me to pay attention to this.” That’s the voice of faith.
God speaks through the little ones, those on the boundaries, those who are excluded, the suffering. May we take a place beside them – in resistance, in defiance, in solidarity, in our hearts, actions, and theology – and glimpse the hope, the crack that will let the light in.