Has the Church of Scotland voted to allow actively gay ministers or not?

The Church is often accused of being obsessed with sex (or at least a dislike of it under certain circumstances) and it’s not too hard to see why.  Yesterday’s news was filled with the gay marriage bill and surprise, surprise those who were shown to be complaining the most were Christians outside parliament.  We also saw the Church of Scotland’s ruling General Assembly voting on whether to allow actively gay men and women to become ministers.

I don’t believe that the majority of Christians are obsessed with sex, but the media does love to jump on anything that involves the Church and sex in any form.  In one sense I suspect that this blog also contributes to that image of  Christians, as I tend to talk about issues of sexuality a lot.  The problem is that this is one clear area where biblical teaching and traditional Christian views are in conflict with general attitudes in society.  If you add to that disagreements within the Church, there is undoubtedly plenty that can be discussed and given the chosen subject matter that I’ve chosen to write about, it’s difficult to ignore it.

So apologies for bringing it up again, but having provided some thoughts on the gay marriage bill yesterday, I’m now going to turn my attention to yesterday’s events in Scotland.

Last night the BBC announced along with a number of the newspapers that the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly had voted to allow practising gay people to become clergy.  As with most decisions by church ruling bodies, it wasn’t quite that simple and straightforward.  The BBC article does explain itself as it goes along, but it’s worth looking at what led up to this point in order to make sense of what the vote means for the Church of Scotland.

Back in 2011 the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly met and debated the direction it should go regarding the acceptance of clergy in same-sex relationships.  The first option was the ‘traditionalist’ stance of keeping the moratorium that was in place on the acceptance for training and ordination of persons in a same-sex relationships thus maintaining the traditional position of the Church. The second ‘revisionist’ option was to resolve to consider further the lifting of the moratorium and instruct the church’s Theological Commission to prepare a report for the General Assembly of 2013 considering the relevant issues.  You can read about this in more depth here.

The General Assembly voted in favour of the ‘revisionist’ option, thereby potentially paving the way for the acceptance of active gay clergy.  Last month the Theological Commission’s report was published.  It is a long and full examination of both the revisionist and traditionalist arguments for and against same-sex relationships.  The commission was unable to reach agreement over which one should be recommended to the General Assembly.  Unlike the Church of England which has recently affirmed its official stance that those in active same-sex relationships cannot be ordained, the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly was unable to settle on either position, instead opting for a third option which upheld the traditionalist view but gave individual Kirk Sessions (local churches’ governing bodies) the choice to appoint a minister in a civil partnership if it so wished.

This is a subtle change of direction moving away from the fully revisionist direction that the church was potentially heading in 2011.  But even this revisionist opening has a way to go to be fully approved.  The Law & Religion UK blog explains that the next move is for the Committee on Legal Questions to draft an Overture to be considered by the General Assembly of 2014 which, if approved, will be sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act 1697 because the terms of the motion will engage an issue of “doctrine or worship or discipline”.  The change will only be implemented if a majority of presbyteries (the church’s regional bodies) approve the proposal and the General Assembly confirms it in 2015.

There is no guarantee that the motion will make it over all of these hurdles.  The Theological Commission’s report includes research that found that only 35% of members of presbyteries agreed that ‘persons in a same-sex relationship be permitted to be an ordained minister within the church’.  That figure will need to increase considerably of the next year if approval is to be gained.

From one point of view the church has reached a workable compromise where its traditional teachings have been upheld, but for those who disagree with this stance, they have the chance to appoint clergy according to their beliefs.  It could hold the church together over such a divisive issue, but as with most cases where attempts are made to appease two opposing sides, the result is a fudge.  And fudges rarely please anyone.  Kelvin Holdsworth, the provost of St. Mary’s Catheral in Glasgow writes on his blog:

‘This kind of thing does the churches no good. When decisions like this are made it seems like a compromise, which appeals to people who don’t want to hurt or upset anyone and who think that the fundamental thing that needs to be done is to keep the church together.

‘Yesterday the Church of Scotland decided to follow a path towards crucifying its own internal integrity. You can’t expect to flourish if you say that something is doctrinally wrong but that you’ll turn a blind eye to congregations doing it anyway. It means you’ve lost sight of what truth is. And that isn’t really suppose to be an option for God’s people.’

Louis Kinsey, a Church of Scotland minister has also written an open letter berating the General Assembly’s decision.  Here is part of it:

‘Brothers and Sisters in the General Assembly, did you not wonder in the cold light of this morning what had been let out of Pandora’s Box? The effect on our denomination is now utterly unpredictable and the consequences are all simply unforeseeable. The ‘Mixed Economy’ that is now our ecclesiology is just a recipe for anarchy. It really means that anything goes, now. It is to the ecclesiology of the Church of Scotland what the phrase ‘broad Church’ is to the theology of the Kirk. A term that means the absence of doctrinal and moral certainties and boundaries. It is the relativisation of the Church of Scotland. The Congregations and Kirk Sessions can now do whatever they like.

‘It means, constitutionally, that Presbyteries no longer have final authority over congregations when it comes to doctrine and theology. Church discipline is no more. The precedent is set. Local churches can do what they like. It is no good arguing that this only applies to the matter of the same-sex relationships and the ministry. If we say that, we are only acting discriminatorily and arbitrarily. Our supreme rule is no longer scripture. It is unity, at all costs. If an issue causes an unholy rumpus, threatening our unity, the General Assembly has set the precedent that within a mixed economy, anything will be allowed so long as we are all able to continue living under the same Church of Scotland roof.’

The Church of Scotland faces a difficult and unpredictable future.  Compromise in the name of inclusivity is a dangerous path to take and the Church now needs to tread carefully over the next year or so if it is to avoid implosion.  A reading of the message in Revelation to the Church in Laodicea would be wise at this time.  The Theological Commission in the conclusion of its report affirms that the  Bible’s account of God’s nature should inform the understanding of what it is to be the church.  I’m not convinced that trying to please all of the people at the same time is it.

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Categories: Church, Homosexuality, Theology

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7 replies

  1. Excellent article as usual – but I have to take issue with your phrase ‘one clear area’ . I have read and read, and have come to the conclusion that the bible is anything but clear on the matter of sexual ethics. It clearly says something like ‘sexual immorality is a bad thing’ but it is wild and varied in what that looks like.

    • I agree with you Tracy that things are not as simple on these issues as some Christians might like to think, but there are attitudes towards sexual behaviour (I’m not talking about homosexuality here) that are generally accepted in society that I find hard to match to biblical passages on the respect for our bodies and those of others.

      • It’s not that I disagree with the principle. Bt we have a history of being on the wrong of science for far too long- eg Galileo. In the name of compassion, we need to get the science sorted and accept it. I maintain that scripture is unclear. Rape is sanctioned as though a woman is property. Polygamy is a norm, as is polygamy and multiple mistresses. Surrogacy is a norm. The further on we go, a population destroying celibacy is exhorted as an aim.

  2. Am puzzled over comments of lack of clarity as have returned from Bible group wherein leader and another briefly referred to this issue. As each of us should be a sanctuary for Holy Spirit within, when our heart and hands are pure and clean then He will dwell within. (Whenever we are not, then He and His Word will not abide with us.) That is, “Be holy as I Am holy”. As I’ve stressed before – the personal encounter makes all the difference!

    My own rule of thumb on the matter may help: follow as first priority what the Living Word Himself said, including what He directly told the persecutor of his followers. After that, this converted extremist’s and the chief followers instructions take a slightly lower priority. But in reality their writings were inspired by the same Word and, thereby, just as authoritative.

    Whenever we’re stuck we have the extra advantage of being able to ask the Author direct for clarification. If there’s any blockage it’s our responsibility to clear the ‘noise’ off the line.

  3. The Church of Scotland have, it appears, tried to hold their church together by stating that gay clergy can be appointed to minister in churches, but that individual churches can choose either gay or heterosexual ministers. They can opt in or opt out as they desire. In other words by retaining the heterosexual stance AND now permitting gay clergy, they have tried to please everyone. However, trying to please everyone does not mean that everyone will be pleased. By trying to please everyone they have also ended up creating a contradiction as a matter of policy.

    While I’m sure the Assembly’s underlying reasoning is to hold the CoS together, presumably hoping that the drip drip effect of several churches (St George’s Tron, Gilcomston South) having already left the CoS, can be stemmed, it could be argued that they have also tried to call the evangelical’s bluff by saying that although they now accept gay clergy, individual churches can ‘opt out’ of this. They may have thought/hoped that this will be enough to stop a mass exodus, which would be damaging to the CoS as a whole. No one will be compelled to appoint a minister they disagree with on theological grounds. If no one will have a gay minister forced on them, what’s the problem, one might ask? Why leave the CoS then?

    If more congregations do leave the CoS over this, the CoS can say they made provision for those congregations so the CoS is without fault.

    The real issues are the authority of the Bible, the interpretation of the Bible and the place of the changing trends of society in dictating the direction the church goes in.

    However, if you feel that the CoS has now ‘opened the doors’ for something which is clearly against the Bible’s teaching, then it is difficult for individual congregations to remain in that denomination. Evangelicals can equally argue that they have been placed in an impossible position, or even forced out, to take a more extreme line of logic. In an ironic twist on the ‘in the world but not of it’ verse, congregations remaining in the CoS would have to adhere to a new creed stating they were ‘in the Church of Scotland but not of it’. But then such an unholy alliance has existed within the CoS for many years already.

    I find it curious that the evangelicals have decided to make this their ‘line in the sand’ issue. There have been gay ministers in the church long before now, just not ‘officially’. There have also been women ministers appointed to churches, which many traditionalist evangelical congregations have also been strongly opposed to.

    I find it curious not only that the gay clergy issue has potential to split the CoS, but that, by allowing individual churches to ‘opt in or out’, it also has the potential now to cause discord within the evangelical community itself.

    If the CoS has called the evangelical’s bluff, it could be that the evangelical congregations will now find themselves in the position of having to maintain their own unity.

    The mind boggles.

  4. This is an excellent attempt to describe what happened at the Assembly. For a report from someone who was a commissioner, see my blog: http://oldhighststephens.com/2013/05/21/general-assembly-how-did-the-vote-for-gay-clergy-happen/
    Just to clarify- the revisionist option originally proposed by the Theological Commission was not passed. Instead, the Assembly voted for a new motion, apparently put together hurriedly by conservatives, which says the church maintains its traditional stance on sexuality but makes provision for congregations to do otherwise if they wish. Legislation, and a theological grounding for this ‘mixed economy’ approach, will come to next year’s assembly. This solution inevitably does not please those on either ‘wing’ of the church, who do not get all that they would wish. But it probably will be welcomed by the majority in the ‘centre’ of the church, who would like to get on with other matters!

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