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A Code of Ethics?


The following text first appeared in
Theological Digest & Outlook (Burlington) in July of 1996.

A Code of Ethics?

On December 1, 1995, the secretary of Ministry Personnel Policy, on behalf of the General Council Pastoral Relations Committee, sent to Conference and Presbytery Secretaries, as well as to Theological Education Centres and DMPE Standing committees, A Working Document on Ethical Conduct for Ministry Personnel in The United Church of Canada.

The General Council’s Committee has issued the “Code of Ethics” inasmuch as urgent need for such a code has surfaced throughout the denomination. Plainly, ministry personnel have failed to regulate their private, public and professional lives; they have damaged themselves, the church’s reputation, and the women and men entrusted to them; now they need assistance in recognizing and repudiating those irregularities that have proved shameful, embarrassing, and hurtful.

In view of the swelling reports of clergy misconduct, any who oppose such a code appear to endorse unacceptable behaviour. Certainly I do not endorse clergy conduct that dishonours the Lord by whom the clergy are called and in whose name they exercise their ministry; neither do I dismiss cavalierly behaviours that harm and hinder the people whom the clergy are to edify and nurture.

At the same time, however, I cannot append my signature to the document that is now before the church, for the document appears to (i) reinforce the anti-gospel theology and practice of the denomination, (ii) aim at suppressing dissent born of gospel-conviction.

If the decade-long history of the denomination were other than it is, then a charitable reader in the renewal movement of the church might interpret the document favourably; but given what has transpired for the last ten years, the judicious reader must suspect words and expressions that are manifestly ambiguous.

Consider, for instance, the item, “I will support those movements, agencies, practices and products that serve the cause of justice and care for creation.” While at first glance it may appear to be no more than wise affirmation of responsibility for the environment, it is indisputable that “justice” has been the rallying-cry and the chief ground for the homosexual agenda of the denomination. (“It’s a justice issue!” has been the foundation of the agenda rather than “It’s a scripture issue!”) Plainly, clergy who endorsed the code would thereby commit themselves to upholding all that the denomination has deemed to be a justice issue. No one in the renewal groups of The United Church could pledge to uphold “movements” and “practices” associated with what the church courts have been deemed to be justice issues.

Or reflect upon the following: “I will seek to know and to understand the various points of view within The United Church of Canada, and to respect the right of those who hold views different from my own to hold those views, recognizing that our theological, ethical and moral perspectives are constantly being formed, reformed and informed.” Admittedly, there is a profound sense in which our ethical perspectives are constantly being reformed — just as there is a profound sense in which they can never be. Ethical perspectives, after all, are generated from theological convictions; and some theological convictions are non-negotiable. The most primitive Christian conviction, “Jesus is Lord”, is one such; so is the conviction that Jesus Christ is the world’s sole, sufficient Saviour; so is the conviction that we are “justified” (set right with God) by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone. Similarly non-negotiable is the conviction that God wills faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness (“marriage” being understood, as the state understands it, as a monogamous relation between two people of opposite gender, which relation the state sanctions). If the ethical perspective just mentioned is “constantly being…reformed”, we can only ask, “Reformed into what? What could it be reformed into except its negation?”

Furthermore, are the rights of those who hold “different views” — in this case, the rights of those who oppose recent denominational promulgations (same-gender sexual activity as God-willed) and denominational practices (funding delegates to the Sophia conference) — are the rights of dissidents respected in the church courts? (Note that the “code” nowhere explicitly discusses the church courts.) Members of renewal movements within The United Church are especially wary of pronouncements about respecting the right of others when “the spirit of Fergus” (the Fergus General Council’s statement that the denomination would respect diversity) seems never to have appeared.

What are people of scriptural conviction to do but wince when they read, “I will live a life that honours the commitments in all my relationships”? Glaringly absent is any deployment of “spousal”, “marital” or “familial”. What if the relationship to which the “code” aims at pledging clergy is an illicit relationship? What if it is a commitment to a genitalized relationship between two persons of the same gender? to a mistress (or the male equivalent thereof?) to an adolescent? The “code” fails to understand that there are commitments that should not be honoured but rather renounced!

Again, discerning readers will see the hollowness of “I will regard all persons with respect and concern, and undertake to minister to and with them impartially.” Have the church courts demonstrated an impartiality that elicits the trust of those in the denomination who insist on “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3)? The fact that so many clergy have had to resort to the civil courts in the pursuit of justice suggests the contrary.

Overstatement is evident in the presumptuous item, “I will stand in a respectful, supportive relationship with my colleagues in ministry.” With all my colleagues? on all issues? at all times? When the late Dr. Howard Mills pulled the plug on the loudspeaker at the Community of Concern’s rally (London General Council, 1990), who respectfully supported ministerial colleagues taking part in the rally? Just as the apostles stated, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29 NRSV), so many clergy will be unable “support respectfully” those who uphold a theology believed to be blasphemous and ethics deemed to be unconscionable.

Particularly ominous is, “I will not actively recruit members or adherents of other congregations, denominations or faiths.” Of course manipulation, coercion and exploitation are always and everywhere to be eschewed. Still, the gospel is inherently mission-oriented. I have just returned from India where I taught seminary students who all had backgrounds in Hinduism. They did not see large commonalities or clear continuities between Hinduism and Christian faith. They thanked God, rather, that they had been delivered from error and illusion. Are we to forego “actively” inviting people of different religious orientations to come to the same discernment?

While huge questions must be asked of virtually all 23 promises (“I will…”) some of the most subtle questions pertain to the clergy’s promising to seek institutional counsel (e.g., from presbytery or conference or even General Council Staff) “should divisive tensions threaten the relationship between myself and those with whom I minister.” Any divisive tension? Three times in John’s gospel we are told, following Christ’s pronouncement, “There was a division among them”. If he divides, then it must be admitted that divisive tension may be the result of his activity! Wherever Jesus Christ is attested, he acts; and wherever he acts, he divides.

Furthermore, could those in the renewal movements seek “carte blanche” the counsel of institutional appointees? What can we reasonably expect at the hands of those who have appeared hostile to date?

It remains to be seen how many clergy will refuse to sign the “code”, just as it remains to be seen what the repercussions will be. In any case, Peter and John have established a precedent: “…they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the name.” (Acts 5:41)

Victor Shepherd