Saturday, October 13, 2012

General Assembly 2012

I appreciated attending the 2012 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) last week in Rotorua.  There were some great times of worshipping God together with elders and ministers from all around the country.  Ray Coster has made a great start as our new moderator, which is a kind of national leader.  His theme for the next two years is "Reviving the Flame: Living in the Power of God's Presence and the Presence of God's Power."  For the Sunday morning worship service, assembly met outdoors in the centre of Rotorua's streets - a fitting place for a church in mission to meet.  I thought Ray led with much warmth and grace, and preached with much passion, biblical insight, humility and real life application.  I valued the way Malcolm Gordon led us in song and prayer, and it was a delight having my daughter Sophie in the music team.  One key highlight for me was catching up with many people I knew and sharing stories of what God is doing.

I had a real sense of God at work through much of the assembly - I'm sure he was at work throughout - so thank you for praying!

I thought Assembly showed that the PCANZ is seeking to move from being a settled, somewhat inward focused church, to a mission church on the move and looking to join in with what God is doing in the world (here in NZ and around the globe).  There are some encouraging signs.  The Presbyterian Youth Ministry presentation was inspiring (and I saw many people from East Taieri in their photos).  The titles of their national programmes communicate that they are on mission: Going Further, Going Deeper, Going Global...

Assembly is sending out discussion papers to parishes and presbyteries about various efforts to focus more on mission.  There is a proposal for a four year, full-time term for the moderator who would become more of a missional leader.  I don't aspire to ever being moderator, but I'll know East Taieri have had enough of me if they nominate me for moderator as this four year term would necessitate ministers leaving their current parish.  Assembly affirmed that the purpose of the Church's property is to serve God's mission, and that the accumulation of significant wealth in church property and investments raises important biblical, ethical and financial issues.  It is proposed that in the future, a percentage of church property sales will go into a mission enterprise fund, that will make grants toward mission projects around NZ.  I thought this could have been approved there and then, but assembly was more cautious and decided to consult with parishes and presbyteries.  I do think we have to be prepared to trust people enough to get a move on with this.

Levels of trust are not increased by the difficult debates we encounter at assembly.  Every Assembly some liberal parishes bring proposals to fall from the 2006 ruling prohibiting those in sexual relationships outside of faithful marriage between a man and a woman from being ministers or elders.  This time there were three and each one was defeated.  These debates are emotional and often torrid, leaving everyone feeling bruised.  It is important to understand that those in favour of people living in gay and lesbian relationships being ministers and elders see this as an issue of justice, liberty of opinion, keeping up with the times, and avoiding discrimination.  The majority of assembly seemed to believe that the Bible teaches us that God calls us to his standard for sexual relationships as within heterosexual marriage.  As I voted with that majority, I reflected that being in the majority can easily lead to a harsh judgementalism of those who are different.  Christians are called to both grace and truth (John 1).  We must demonstrate love while standing for biblical values.  Is it possible to welcome gay and lesbian people into churches while saying we believe a homosexual lifestyle falls short of God's standards?  Gay and lesbian people would say that isn't possible.  I would argue that we welcome all people, and all are challenged to repentance in some area or other.  But the "love the sinner, hate the sin" argument isn't easy to live out in practice.  My challenge to myself and to all who believe that a homosexual lifestyle is sinful is: How many gay and lesbian people are you showing the love of God to?

In a related debate, Assembly voted by a large majority to affirm the historic Christian understanding of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and urged Parliament not to proceed with the "same-sex marriage" bill.  A submission from the PCANZ will be made to the select committee.  Assembly was one vote short of passing a resolution to restrict ministers to conducting marriage services to only a man and woman.  Was such a resolution necessary?  Can we rely on all ministers of the church to abide by the stated position of the General Assembly on marriage?  The answer will become obvious if Parliament passes the "same-sex marriage" bill.  I do encourage people to have their say by writing a positive, respectful, constructive letter to the select committee and also to their MP.  The East Taieri elders are also making a submission.

Some people claim that we must find a third way through such debates.  But neither side has been able to do so in over 20 years of study, dialogue and debate.  I think the issue is whether or not God has given definite boundaries for sexual relationships.  It is hard to find a third way of answering that.  Having said that, I believe we must not hate or fear people who believe different things to us.  Jesus even calls us to love our enemies! 

I have allocated too much of this post to the debate on marriage and sexuality.  Sadly it also took too much of the assembly time.  It is important because it reflects basic understandings of the nature of the Bible and of human beings created in the image of God.  However, I look forward to the day when I don't come home from an assembly feeling battered and drained from such issues.

Assembly made other decisions.  The Pacific Islands Synod gained the status of a presbytery which is a hugely encouraging decision for the large PI section of the church.  The new contemporary confession of faith, the Kupu Whakapono, was formally adopted.  We have used the Kupu Whakapono in worship at East Taieri on several occassions.  Assembly also agreed to work for the interests of vulnerable children; endorsed the concept of a living wage; and agreed to advocate for climate change refugees in the Pacific.  The moderator-designate who will take over from Ray Coster in two years was elected.  He is Andrew Norton, minister of St Columba (Botany, East Auckland).  I think Andrew will make a fine moderator.