General Ass Part 2 updated

The first part of this entry was before the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand General Assembly – this second part is a few days after…
I said in the first entry that we take it all too seriously and I still think so. Actually, I think that ‘it’ takes itself all too seriously and that is the worry. The General Assembly becomes an ‘it’ – an entity – a power – and it sometimes manifests behaviours that we wouldn’t countenance or expect of ourselves when it does its thing.
I spent four days with some of the loveliest people around – women and men who seek to do their best to live in Christ (and by his Spirit, Christ seeks to live in all of them – and me – and manages to some degree from what I can see!). I like these people – they are my whanau (my family) and, as always, the snippets of conversation (not much time for much more than the odd snippet darn it!) were always interesting. Thank you all you lovely people for being who you are!  I learned how to walk in your company and I limp with you still.
In so many ways we all get caught up in something by being together that is at times very special: the laughter, the tears and the aroha – especially at Te Maungarongo marae, through the preaching and leadership of the Moderator Ray Coster, through the quite startlingly real and potent and attentive worship leading from Malcolm Gordon (and his cellist, keyboardist & drummer), through the provocative prodding of Tim Keel, through the prophetic, humble, and hopeful witness of Mod-elect Andrew Norton, and during the presentation of the PI Synod gaining Presbytery power, this was us at our best.  The Te Aka Puaho Moderator, Rev Wayne TeKaawa’s speech of welcome to the Pacific Islanders was us at our very best.  At times we climbed so very very high.  Or was it that we were lifted?
But I also spent some moments in these days struggling with some downright ugliness.  Our church is a curious beast.  I attended an Assembly for the first time in 1982.  I was a youth rep in the days when there were just four of them.  We were an experiment.  I observed some patterns in the debates (and there were a lot of debates – days and days of them!) that were ugly.  It seemed that whenever a person of a more conservative persuasion got up to speak that the majority of others seemed to find it amusing when procedural motions (like, ‘I move that we proceed to the next business’) were put and won.  There was chuckling and back-slapping.  It was a mob victimising the minority voices.  It was prejudice.  It was bullying.
These days, the tables have turned – the more conservative positions have a clear majority in our church.  They now hold power.  The victim becoming victor is dangerous ground though.  Will the one who was beaten now beat?  I can honestly say that it is not as ugly as it once was.  I think there is less vitriol than there was in 1982.  I think that the more conservative folk work harder at trying to be Christ-like in their personal conduct.  But there is still an ugly side when there is a crowd.  And there is bullying.  I find it increasingly sickening the way the Presbyterian Affirm machine works.  I understand that the connections in that circle are encouraging to many. But some of the manifestations of the machine offend me.  The pattern over the years has been that several characters insert themselves into most debates in ways that are designed to instruct other people how to vote – green light/red light.  They might claim that they don’t do this but I am not convinced.  Let the truth be at the surface!  I think that we can be better than this.  It is a form of ‘ism’ – the Assembly becoming an ‘it’ – a power and, at times, a graceless victimising mob.  I am reminded of the haunting words of John 11: 49-50 “But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.”  Here was the dominant religious institution justifying becoming a mob that would single out a scapegoat.  Didn’t that one man go to his cross that we might be free of any justification for institutional or other violence?  Thus can I ask this: is it right for the majority in the church to ostracise the minority?  Doesn’t the very thing they hope to protect – the gospel – become lost in these very acts of ungraciousness?  The Rev Margaret Schrader prophesied many years ago that there will be a ‘third way’ that God will make clear.  I still long for and pray for that day.
The worst expression of ‘it’ has been identified clearly by my friend Bruce Hamill in when the Assembly wouldn’t disallow discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  What have we become?  We have become a mob and we hunted out, on more than one occasion, people different from the majority of us.  We hunted them out and we pushed them further out into the margins.  No room in our inn!  No conversation to be had.  Go to jail, go directly to jail… I hope and pray that these people can understand that the Gospel is bigger than how our church behaves.  I hope the day will come when the impulse of our church is not as God’s gatekeepers as if God needs a babysitter!  (or as Bono puts it: ‘Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady!’).  I know that some feel that the very gospel itself is at risk if we think that some carefully held points of view can be questioned – even changed.  But behind that is an assumption that everything is either or with God.  We are products of some very questionable modernist dualisms and we operate out of them all too readily.  The gospel needs to be rescued from cultural enslavement!  Maybe we need to learn how to genuinely listen to each other and ‘walk in each other’s shoes’ before we are ready to make laws and rules (which we Presbyterians think is our birthright to protect with laws and rules!).
Those issues notwithstanding, I treasure much from this Assembly.  I detect what I have been longing for all of my ministry, that there is an increasing willingness among many to talk and struggle together and even disagree, but to do so with an attitude of humility and respect and an expectation of keeping communion.  I look forward with hope to the day when we can freely admit that we don’t know very much at all really – we might be right, but we might be wrong –that one day we might be able to say something like this:  ‘In you, my friend on the other side of the argument, in you I see the face of Christ, in you I might hear his voice, and because of that, I am committed to you and I am willing to give myself for you just as Jesus calls me to.’
The last word is a quote from one of our ministers in training in her excellent blog entry Turangawewae – a place to stand – and her identifying just where Jesus stands:


One thought on “General Ass Part 2 updated

  1. Hi Martin, it has been both interesting and enlightening to read your reflections. There is still a lot for me to learn about the in’s and out’s of GA. But the more I think about it the more I find myself singing the beautiful song Katie and Zoe wrote for us; “open our eyes, Lord, let us see…help us to hear the truth that you speak, may it be in the words that we bring. Spirit guide us, our hearts are open. Jesus teach us, in you we’re growing.” These words can help us when we’re celebrating, and when we’re speaking, and when we’re being silent. Cate 🙂

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