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Membership still has its privileges: voting for elders, ministers off-limits for adherents.

Over two days of discussion, the 130th General Assembly wrestled with the differences between members and adherents and the rights both parties should enjoy within the congregation. After several calls for amendments were defeated, the assembly agreed with a proposal from the clerks not to allow adherents to be elected as elders or to vote in the election of elders and ministers. The clerks were responding to two overtures from the session of Knox, Oakville, Ont., last year that were referred to the clerks of assembly for further study.

"Our response was largely based on the classic understanding of membership," said Rev. Don Muir, deputy clerk. "Members enter into a covenant relationship with the congregation based on vows and promises. Adherents don't do that."

The proposed changes prompted much discussion. Rev. Harry McWilliams of the Presbytery of Brampton led the debate. He said the Book of Forms provides rationale for such changes, allowing adherents to vote on virtually every other aspect of church life. He argued that their voting power should be extended to these remaining areas. He also said becoming an elder is a call of God and, therefore, anyone--member or adherent--who feels so called has the right to be one.

Some commissioners supported this position, saying adherents can be as strongly connected and active in the congregation as members are, or more so. Such dedicated service and concern for the church should give adherents the right to decide what goes on within it. "Adherents are not to be considered casually connected to the congregation," said Mr. McWilliams. "There is a bond there," Some commissioners compared active adherents to members who are on the roll but rarely show up in the pews--such members can still vote on major happenings in the church.

Dwindling numbers on the roll caused other commissioners to support the proposed change. Being more receptive to adherents and honouring their work in the congregation might help the church regain its footing by encouraging others to enter the church. But this rationale doesn't seem right to Rev. Stephen Kendall, principal clerk. In a post-assembly interview, he said he doesn't think changing the laws around membership is an effective church growth strategy. However, encouraging adherents to graduate to membership as a natural progression and maturing of their faith may be a possible growth mechanism.

Mr. McWilliams proposed an amendment asking the clerks to make the necessary changes to the legislation that would give adherents the right to vote and submit this to presbyteries for study. The motion was defeated.

This type of change would only dilute the meaning of membership, said Mr. Muir. He said rewriting the laws to allow adherents to vote on electing elders and ministers and to become elders themselves could not be done without losing the value of this special relationship.

Commissioners who did not want to see the changes argued that adherents choose not to be members for specific reasons. Rev. Dr. Morley Mitchell of Pickering presbytery said people make a conscious decision not to become members and, therefore, not to enjoy the rights and privileges of membership. "Their faith, practice, actions or gifts are not in question," said Mr. Mitchell, but adherents are freely choosing not to align themselves with the national church and be identified as Presbyterian. That they are not subject to the discipline of the church or held accountable to it is another reason not to grant adherents certain privileges.

The hot debate signalled significant unrest within the church on the idea of membership and whether or not the PCC's definition is outdated. A motion to refer the issue back to the clerks was made by Rev. Scott McAndless, Presbytery of Essex-Kent. He wanted the clerks to comment more fully on the role of membership and how that notion may need to change in order to adapt to the church's new situation. After much debate, the motion was defeated.

Mr. Kendall affirms the role of adherents, saying they are a vital part of the church. However, this does not warrant the privileges that come along with official membership--a covenant relationship that intimately attaches a person to the congregation.

If future discussion ensues, Mr. Kendall said, it may be a matter of church doctrine and the church doctrine committee might become involved. "We feel the legislation needs to reflect what we believe," he said. "Doctrine and practice need to go in tandem."

"The fact that some people have a hard time explaining to adherents why they should become members means we may be losing some of our understanding of the covenant nature of membership" said Mr. Muir. "Perhaps the significance of membership needs to be reflected on more by us all."

What's in a name?

The assembly gave its approval to three bodies to change their names. The Presbytery of Sarnia became the Presbytery of Lambton-West Middlesex. The presbytery and the Synod of Southwestern Ontario agree the new name more accurately reflects the boundaries it serves.

The Synod of Toronto and Kingston was given authority to change its name to the Synod of Central and Northeastern Ontario, effective January 1, 2005. The new name is different than what was proposed at the 129th General Assembly (which did not accurately reflect the synod's boundaries). If the synod disagrees with the name recommended by the clerks of assembly, the original name will remain and a report will be brought to next year's assembly.

The Committee on Ecumenical Relations, which wants to initiate dialogue with other faiths, changed its name to the Committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. The importance of Christian-Muslim and Christian-Jewish dialogue was highlighted and given as one reason for the change. The committee's official mandate and responsibilities were expanded to reflect this.

New catechism approved as teaching resource

A Catechism for Today was commended to the church to be used as a teaching resource. The recommendation came from the Church Doctrine Committee. There was some debate that parts of the document were not inclusive enough, used too literal an interpretation of God's actions in history and failed to demonstrate a broad 'enough understanding of certain biblical ideas. A motion to refer the document back to the committee for further study was defeated. The assembly did make an amendment to the original recommendation, which asked the assembly to "adopt" the document and "commend it to church use." The term "adopt" was subsequently removed as some commissioners felt that adopting the document was a strong statement that suggested the catechism is a final word from the church rather than a resource meant to encourage discussion and debate. The committee will produce the document in written and electronic form.
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Title Annotation:130th General Assembly 2004
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Jul 1, 2004
Words:1107
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