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125 and counting: 125th General Assembly.

June 6 - 11, 1999

Kitchener, Ontario

Moderator sees bright future for the church The out-going Moderator, William Klempa, spoke to a packed church at the opening worship of the 125th General Assembly in Kitchener, Ontario's downtown St. Andrew's Church. He compared our present situation to that of Joshua and the children of Israel approaching the Promised Land. Both are asked to go where they have not gone before. The words of Joshua, "Be strong and courageous," are meant for us, too. If we respond, the future will be bright.

Klempa stated we should approach the new century with humility. The church had been too optimistic at the beginning of this century. A popular magazine, The Christian Century, still witnesses to the hope Christians held for the century. "We need to put behind us the 100 years of wars, many of them religious, and ask God for forgiveness," Klempa said. We are called to practise forgiveness in the year of Jubilee.

He expressed the conviction that Canada still needs a biblical and Christ-centred church. In 1925, Presbyterians did not say no to unity but to a unity that failed to bind us to our confessions. He expressed the belief that trendiness goes hand-in-hand with decline. Churches that hold to Reformed theology prosper, as he had witnessed in Eastern Europe.

Klempa said he was pleased both the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are making mission a priority. The FLAMES initiative calls us to do the same. He noted that both The Presbyterian Church in Canada and The United Church of Canada are approximately the same size today as in 1925. "We need to become a purpose-focused church, to downplay Christianity and concentrate on the gospel."

"You must all believe in grace or how else would I have become Moderator." With those words, Arthur Van Seters greeted the Assembly after being installed as Moderator of the 125th General Assembly. After paying tribute to his home congregation, Armour Heights in Toronto, and announcing its minister as his chaplain for the Assembly, he turned to matters of dress. He said he might have worn the T-shirt given to him by Knox College students which had emblazoned on it, "If you ain't Dutch, you ain't much." But it wouldn't fit. The college encouraged him to wear his principal's gown although he is no longer the principal. He also wore a small wooden cross from India given to him by missionary Pauline Brown. He would wear it as a constant reminder of the suffering Indian Christians face today.

When the Assembly turned to business, Van Seters quickly faced breaking a tied vote. "Do I deserve this?" he exclaimed.

Before the Assembly began, a rumour circulated that the sanctuary was air-conditioned. The large number of sweaty bodies and the bright television lights conspired to leave this promise limp on the floor -- the first, but not the last hope of this Assembly to go unrealized. By 10 p.m., commissioners were ready to slither out of their pews into the humid night air to seek refreshments in various parts of the church or to head for their rooms at the University of Waterloo.

For whom the Bell toils

"For good or for evil," according to John Bell, this year's recipient of the E. H. Johnson Award, "what we sing is what we end up believing." So why are church people against change? he asked the audience. Because they sing hymns about a changeless God and a changeless church. He pointed to a line in "Abide With Me" -- "Change and decay in all around I see" -- that forges "the association of change with decay through our hymnody." In fact, what the church needs most today is a theology of change rooted in the Resurrection. In the Resurrection, God declares, "Change or die."

Bell is a minister in the Church of Scotland. Since his ordination in 1978, he has served as youth adviser in the Presbytery of Glasgow and, subsequently, as youth co-ordinator and worship resource worker of the Iona Community. Several of his hymns appear in our latest Book of Praise. Much of his work has been with disadvantaged folk in poor urban areas.

With humour and delightful examples, he hammered home the fact that faith is shaped and communicated by what we say, especially what we say in church.

Bell's brief address began and ended with him teaching, then leading the group in singing a chorus in three-part harmony without accompaniment. In a magical few moments, he illustrated what he had talked about. For that alone, he deserved this award. The E. H. Johnson Award is given annually to someone engaged in mission "on the cutting edge."

Bell intends to return to Canada in November to conduct a series of workshops on worship for The Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Ecumenical visitors

Hae Joong Kyung is the first woman ordained by the Korean Christian Church in Japan (KCCJ) and the first woman Moderator of any Asian church. She noted that her church has existed 90 years, 70 of those years in partnership with The Presbyterian Church in Canada. As a small denomination, she said, there are things it can do "to promote harmony in Korea." She thanked Canadian Presbyterians for supporting her church's work in seeking the reunification of Korea. Rev. Young Il Kang, the general secretary of the KCCJ, accompanied the Moderator.

Rev. James Peter Jones introduced Brigadier General, the Ven. Gerald Peddle, Anglican minister and chaplain general of the Canadian Forces. Peddle noted that, as he spoke, Canadians were on their way to Macedonia -- including two chaplains. At present, 140 chaplains serve the regular Forces. He said he sees his role as head of an ecumenical team to which each chaplain brings his or her own identity and shares it in what, for many, becomes a transforming experience.

Rev. Eui-Woong Yu, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK), addressed the Assembly. He thanked Canadian Presbyterians for sending missionaries to Korea in the past and praised our meaningful relationship today. The PCK has adopted a theme for entering the next century: "Earth as a community of life, where all creation lives together in harmony for the glory of God." He reported a "mood of reconciliation" among the various branches of Presbyterianism in Korea, his branch strongly favouring unity in the future. The PCK believes the government should stop its economic sanctions against North Korea and work for reconciliation and peace between the two Koreas. He expressed appreciation for the care Canadian Presbyterians have shown toward North Korea.

Phillip King, a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, is on a year's exchange with a United Church congregation. He gave a humorous account of adjusting to life in Canada in the winter. He brought greetings from "a land of three and one-half million people and 60 million sheep." He said his denomination is concentrating on congregations as the primary unit of mission but is also wrestling with the same issues we are -- biblical authority and sexuality.

Benebo Fubara-Manuel, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Nigeria, is a scholarship student of The Presbyterian Church in Canada studying at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He spoke of the continuing economic and social difficulties in Nigeria. He pointed to the irony that, "although Nigeria is one of the world's five largest oil producers, it takes half a month's pay of a graduate to fill up his car with gas." He spoke of the revived hope Nigerians have in the re-establishment of a fragile democracy led by a Christian president. When he returns to Nigeria, he said he would report that "the various tribes that make up The Presbyterian Church in Canada get along quite well."

Vissers' vision

John Vissers was unanimously endorsed as the new principal of The Presbyterian College, Montreal. He has served in a number of congregations, most recently as senior minister of Knox Church on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. Since 1987, he has served on the faculty of Tyndale Seminary (formerly Ontario Theological Seminary) where he taught systematic theology. His thesis for his doctoral degree was on the theology of Walter W. Bryden, a former principal of Knox College and leader in the church after the Church Union controversy of 1925.

Vissers says he looks forward "to participating in the theological education of our students. My vision for the college," he says, "is that it be strengthened as an evangelical and ecumenical centre in the Reformed tradition." He also hopes the college will become known as a centre for the development of leaders for the 21st century.

And justice for all

The late Rev. John Robson spent most of his ministry fighting the demons of Toronto's inner city. In a unique move, the Committee on International Affairs dedicated its report to his memory. In the words of Carol Smith, the convener, John was "a passionate advocate of global justice."

The report began with an exposition of the Beatitudes under the title "Signs of the Kingdom." It then addressed the issues of trade and human rights, asking the Canadian government to make human rights central to its policy.

The report requested prayer and support for a number of countries, such as Malawi and India, struggling with debt, poverty and civil unrest.

The committee added to the vast array of letters the Moderator has been requested to write on behalf of the church. Among these is one to the minister of foreign affairs urging the Government of Canada to use its position on the United Nations Security Council to search for creative initiatives to end the impasse over Iraq. He will also write to urge the federal government to reinvigorate the peace process in Sudan.

Applause greeted the convener's announcement, during the presentation of her report, that a peace agreement had been reached in Kosovo. The Moderator led the Assembly in prayer for all parties involved in this conflict, including Canadian soidiers and chaplains. The Presbyterian Church had already spoken out about this conflict with other members of the Canadian Council of Churches (see News, June Record).

Don't bet on it!

In September 1998, our church and other members of the Canadian Council of Churches wrote to Canada's justice minister, Anne McLellan, recommending that the federal government establish a national and independent task force to review the impact of state-sponsored gambling. The minister replied that the government has no plans to establish such a task force.

The Assembly recommended that, where relevant, synods and presbyteries write to provincial premiers stating the church's opposition to video lottery terminals, other forms of electronic gambling, and the proposed introduction of dice games and betting on cruise ships. The Assembly also agreed the Moderator should write to the prime minister strongly recommending that the federal government establish a task force to assess the social, ethical, legal and economic impact of the expansion in gambling.

A just resolution

The Presbytery of East Toronto requested the General Assembly to set up a commission to deal with the perceived injustices in the dismissal of Lee McKenna duCharme as associate secretary of Justice Ministries of the Life and Mission Agency in April 1997. However, citing questions about the accuracy of some items in the overture and whether or not the full process had been carried out, the committee on bills and overtures recommended the matter be referred to the Assembly Council for resolution and report to the next Assembly.

Rev. Bill Middleton (East Toronto) spoke of "the arduous process' through which the presbytery had gone over this matter. He said the presbytery had been accused of "flying in the face of the Assembly." He assured commissioners that nothing could be further from the truth. The presbytery had acted out of deep pastoral concern for Ms. duCharme "who had felt diminished, indeed destroyed" through what had happened. The presbytery was simply seeking justice for her, justice that appeared to have been denied. He believed that giving the matter to the Assembly Council would delay action.

Retiring

* Geoffrey Johnston, director of pastoral studies, The Presbyterian College, Montreal, after 14 years.

* Helen Goggin, professor of Christian education, Knox College, Toronto.

* Raymond Humphries, professor of New Testament language and literature, Knox College, after 20 years.

* Arthur Van Seters, principal of Knox College, after six years.

The Assembly agreed, appointing a commission to investigate carefully and bring the matter to a speedy, just and final resolution.

Religion and the CBC

The session of First Church, Regina, with the support of the presbyteries of Assiniboia and Northern Saskatchewan, asked the Assembly to consider CBC-TV's actions in deleting religious programming such as Hymn Sing and Meeting Place from its schedule.

The Assembly appointed a committee that reported later in the week. The committee recognized that many cuts may have been driven by economic factors and that many Canadians now have access to specialty channels such as Vision TV and Crossroads. As well, specialty channels of the CBC such as Newsworld carry some religious programming. Yet, many Canadians still do not have access to these specialty channels. Therefore, the committee believes the CBC has an obligation to carry some religious programs on its main network. It therefore asked the Moderator to write a letter of concern regarding the lack of religious programs on the main network of the CBC and urged sessions to do the same.

Dollars and sense

In 1998, the church experienced a $1,383,611 "surplus" due largely to the fact that Assembly had determined it was no longer necessary for Presbyterians Sharing... to contribute to the pension fund. In response, the Assembly Council presented a list of 29 projects. It included items such as an administrator for mission tours, a legal defense fund, scholarships for pastors in Africa, an update of the social action handbook plus a wide variety of other events and projects in both Canada and overseas.

Many commissioners seemed unhappy with this approach. Rev. Tom Rodger (Presbytery of Sarnia) proposed that, in the spirit of Jubilee, the Moderator name a special committee to distribute these funds in ways to help the needs of the poor, hungry and homeless in Canada, and that all funds be expended by the end of 2001.

Rev. Beth McCutcheon (Winnipeg) proposed that 50 per cent be given to overseas projects and 50 per cent to mission in Canada, the latter to be distributed to synods on a percentage basis of their contributions to Presbyterians Sharing... in 1998.

A number of commissioners spoke to the amendments. Rev. Joyce Davis (Pickering) argued that the intent of the amendments would be fulfilled through the original list proposed by the Assembly Council. Rev. Will Ingram (West Toronto) said that, during the debate, he had tried to balance vigilance and trust. He believed we must trust the Assembly Council that is made up of representatives of the whole church. Rev. Ian Morrison (Pickering) said he despairs when he sees amendments like these. We are trying to make the Assembly do things that have been mandated to other bodies, he argued. "Both amendments," Rev. Stephen Farris (Pickering) commented, "are full of good intentions but good intentions are never good enough." He said that, although he might not agree with some of the items in the list, a representative group from the church, that knows the larger picture, had drawn it up.

Both amendments were then decisively defeated. A further amendment to give half to Presbyterian World Service and Development and half to the Assembly Council also went down to defeat.

After several hours of spirited debate, the original motion passed.

When it came to adopting the budget for 2000, normally a routine event, commissioners spoke of giving back to the congregations the money that would previously have been collected through Presbyterians Sharing... for the pension fund. Rev. Alan McPherson (Hamilton) said that, when people in his congregation first questioned him about these funds, he assured them they would be returned in some form to the congregation. He believes this is the only just thing to do and, so, proposed that the budget for 2000 be reduced by $650,000 from congregational contributions. Rev. Patricia Van Gelder (Lanark and Renfrew) said her whole ministry had been with small congregations who had never been able to meet their Presbyterians Sharing... budget despite their best efforts. If this motion were passed, it would give them that opportunity. Others spoke of this as an opportunity to put money back into the hands of congregations for mission.

The motion to reduce the budget in 2000 by $650,000 passed by a large majority.

Plus all the jellied salads you can eat

The Assembly agreed to increase the minimum stipend for ministers as of January 1, 2000, by $575 (two per cent of the fourth level minimum stipend). This will also apply to executive and support staff of the General Assembly and to professional staff at the colleges.

A recommendation from the Assembly Council to raise the salary of the principal clerk, chief financial officer and general secretary of the Life and Mission Agency 10 per cent as of July 1, 1999, and that of associate secretaries five per cent as of January 1, 2000, proved more controversial. This increase would be on top of adjustments for inflation and cost of living and would be considered an interim measure.

These recommendations arose out of a study of compensation for all positions at church offices being undertaken by the Personnel Policy Committee of the Assembly Council. They found that base stipends in church offices are well below the average first quartile reported stipends for clergy in the Toronto area.

Rev. Glenn Cooper (Pictou) argued he was not sure "the ministries of church offices need to be among the highest paid of our congregational clergy. He also said he feared the church was moving away "from our understanding of servants in the church toward a model that is patterned after corporate Canada." He also worried about giving general secretaries an increase while getting to support staff "some time in the future." Any increase should await the final review being undertaken by the Personnel Policy Committee.

He moved that the two recommendations be referred back to the Assembly Council in consultation with the Committee on Church Doctrine. Assembly agreed by a narrow margin.

Pensions rising

Under normal circumstances, when the Pension and Benefits Board reports, many commissioners yawn and go for coffee. This year was different. Most commissioners were aware Presbyterians Sharing... has a huge "surplus" due in large part to the fact it no longer contributes to the church pension plan. It's not that the pension plan no longer needs this money, but a larger amount will come from the employer and employee.

In a complex and convoluted report, the Pension Board reported that, since 1989, the maximum pensionable earnings had been calculated at less than minimum remuneration when travel allowance is taken into account. As a result, pensions for those retiring since 1989 and through to 2003, or for their dependants, have not been as high as they should have been. Assembly agreed to pay these arrears without interest by December 31, 1999. The cost of doing this will reduce the surplus in the pension plan by about $3.7 million.

In an odd turn of events, the convener of the Pension and Benefits Board, Crawford Laing, indicated he could not support all the recommendations of the board. The main point of contention was how fast the contributions of members and congregations should rise to six per cent and three per cent of the dollar base respectively. Despite a healthy surplus in the plan, Laing favoured a slightly faster rise in rates to the higher figures in order to ensure the integrity of the fund. After a lengthy and, at times, confusing debate, the Assembly sided with the convener.

Members' contributions to the pension fund will be 4.4 per cent in 2000 and rise to six per cent by 2004. Meanwhile, contributions by congregations were set at 2.2 per cent for 2000, rising to three per cent by 2004.

The new way of calculating maximum pensionable income since 1989, taking into account additional benefits, will now be applied to all those receiving pensions and will mean an overall increase for all those receiving benefits from the plan.

Numbers, Chapter 1

Rev. Clyde Ervine (West Toronto) drew the Assembly's attention to the statistical report for the past year that indicated an alarming decline in membership from 143,784 in 1997 to 136,289 in 1998 (as of May 25, 1999). He pointed out this was a significant statistical decline and proposed that the Life and Mission Agency convene a study group to research the causes of the decline and present proposals for the recovery of congregational health to the 2001 Assembly.

Donald Johnson (Brandon) argued we already know the causes; the issue is to take action. Others echoed that view. Rev. Bruce Miles (Winnipeg) suggested we should accept our vocation as "a limping church." In the end, the motion passed by a narrow margin with the proviso added that the study should cover the past five years.

Although not mentioned during the Assembly, congregations tend to be slow in reporting their statistics. Part of the decline may have resulted from a particularly slow response.

Briefly noted

* The position of associate secretary of the General Assembly office, currently held by Barbara McLean, was restored to a fulltime position as of July 1.

* February 27, 2000, has been designated Journey to Wholeness Sunday.

* As of General Assembly, gifts to Kosovo relief through Presbyterian World Service and Development amounted to $253,000.

* Presbyterians donated $630,000 for Central America in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. This is the largest response to an appeal in the history of Presbyterian World Service and Development.

* Total givings by Presbyterians to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank have risen from $155,439 in 1996 to $437,398 in 1998.

* In 1998, Presbyterians Sharing... allocated $790,000 to theological education, divided as follows: Knox College, Toronto, $553,000 (70%); St. Andrew's Hall, Vancouver, $110,600 (14%); The Presbyterian College, Montreal, $126,400 (16%).

* In Canada in 1998, three new congregations were started; in 1999, four.

* Rowena and Arthur Van Seters celebrated their 41st anniversary by attending the Monday night banquet and responding to the tinkling glasses of the guests.

* Assembly extended a vote of appreciation to Judee Archer Green for her work in worship and music while serving in an interim position with the Life and Mission Agency.

* The Assembly agreed to ask the Committee on Ecumenical Relations in consultation with the Committee on Church Doctrine to explore membership in the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Sic transit gloria

No longer will members of Presbyterian Church courts be required to know or learn Latin. No longer will they be able to hold pro re nata meetings or meet in hunc effectum, to alter the res gestae of the meeting or to act pro tempore, or to hold a minister's presbytery certificate in retentis. In presenting this part of the clerk's report, the deputy clerk, Tony Plomp, commented he hoped his motion would not be ruled ultra vires.

The Assembly gave the clerks of Assembly permission to go through the Book of Forms and replace Latin phrases with equivalent English ones. Only one halfhearted voice was raised against this proposal. Through this action, the Presbyterian Church will make it clear to the whole world that it has entered the 17th century. It will also take much of the fun out of church courts.

No papal bull

Some are aware that the Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of the pope in less than flattering terms, suggesting he might be the Antichrist. Two overtures called for a change in the language the confession uses to describe both the pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

Some commissioners argued we should amend the confession or, at least, place a footnote indicating the references to the pope and the Roman Catholic Church were historically conditioned and do not apply today.

Speaking for the Committee on Church Doctrine, Rev. Paul Brown said that, although committee members are unanimous in believing something should be done, they are not yet sure what. He said it has not been the practice of our church to change historical documents. He requested that Assembly give the committee more time to consider this question. Despite a prolonged discussion which included many suggestions and several failed amendments, Assembly decided to leave the matter in the hands of the Committee on Church Doctrine.

Even the pope must wait while the mills of Presbyterian doctrine grind slowly on. It appears he will have to bear the title of Antichrist for one more year -- at least, according to our subordinate standards.

Taxing transitions

The Presbyterian Record's decision to charge for items appearing in its Transitions column precipitated an overture to the past Assembly requesting that this practice cease. In responding to this overture, the Record Committee argued the magazine should not be seen as the official chronicler of the deaths of its servants or, primarily, as a resource for future scholars and researchers. The Record accepted the challenge of a previous General Assembly to become financially self-sufficient. Given the choice of raising subscription rates or charging for Transitions, the magazine chose what it considered to be the lesser of two evils.

The Assembly agreed, without dissent, to allow the Record to continue to consider the Transition column as paid advertising.

If YARs had a million dollars

A highlight of most Assemblies is the report of the Young Adult Representatives on the final evening of the Assembly. This year lived up to expectations.

The centrepiece of their presentation was some original words written to the popular tune "If I Had a Million Dollars" by the Barenaked Ladies. Among the things serious and ridiculous promised if YARs had a million dollars:

I'd donate it to PWS&D

I would buy you a church

Maybe some nice cushioned pews ...

I would pay off all your debts

I'd buy John Calvin's remains

Ooooh, all them crazy theological bones

Would world hunger be no more?

No, it wouldn't, but we'd feed more!

YARs could vote!

In closing

Throughout the Assembly, the Moderator effectively wove in the theme of Jubilee through Scripture and prayer with which he opened most sessions. He helped the commissioners look at the biblical meaning of Jubilee in which God, rather than economic systems or political perspectives, remains central. During business, the Moderator's generosity toward commissioners was not always reciprocated. His requests for guidance from the court were always met with several authoritative but differing views. When he did make a decision, his ruling was frequently challenged -- although never defeated!

This was Stephen Kendall's first Assembly as principal clerk. You would not have guessed it by the way he went about directing the business of the court. He not only knows and respects the law of the church but he is able to interpret it clearly and in a way commissioners can understand and appreciate.

The local arrangements committee under Skeeter Budd always had a drink or shuttle bus ready when needed.

The Celebrate! Committee gave commissioners a genuine reason and opportunity to celebrate.

I found the staff of the university consistently courteous and helpful. If the Assembly were to choose a permanent home, the University of Waterloo would be an excellent choice.

And, finally, a good word for modern technology. For the most part, it proved to be a worthy servant of the church. Through the use of computers, all motions, amendments and amendments to amendments quickly appeared on the huge overhead screen.

The Assembly adjourned shortly before noon on Friday with the traditional singing of "I Joyed When to the House of God" and prayer by the Moderator. He will reconstitute the General Assembly next year in Central Presbyterian Church, Hamilton, Ontario, at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 4, when commissioners will have the opportunity to celebrate 2000 years of Jesus Christ and 125 years of The Presbyterian Church in Canada.
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Author:Congram, John
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Jul 1, 1999
Words:4687
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