I’ve not had a chance to blog about Saturday night’s session at the General Assembly, but it can’t have escaped your notice that the Church of Scotland are inducting gay ministers. Unforunately, that story, and many others, are reporting a somewhat distorted view of what the session was all about. Stewart gives a fair summary of the bigger picture on his blog (btw – big thumbs-up to Stewart for getting a mention in the Times Online – that’ll be why your web traffic has gone through the roof).
The point, of course, is that this is nothing to do with appointing a homosexual minister. It was a legal case about whether Aberdeen Presbytery had followed church law when it sustained the call. The full motion that was agreed underlines the fact that there has been, as yet, no compromise on the issue of inducting an openly homosexual minister who is living with a partner. That debate is still to be had. Anyway, here’s the wording of the motion:
a) refuse the dissent and complaint of Aitken and others and sustain the decision of the Presbytery of Aberdeen on the basis that the Presbytery followed the vacancy procedure correctly in Act VIII 2003.
b) affirm for the avoidance of doubt that this decision does not alter the Church’s standards of ministerial conduct.
It is clause b) that allowed, I believe, the middle ground to vote for it. Yes, it may be a fudge (as was acknowledged at GA), but it allows the business to be dealt with. But the main argument hasn’t gone away. And nor has the fallout from this decision. For Aberdeen Presbytery to sustain the call they had to declare that they are satisfied with the ‘life and doctrine’ of the minister called to the charge. They may have followed the letter of church law, but they certainly haven’t followed the spirit of it. And because of that, they now leave themselves open to further cases which will examine the ‘life and doctrine’ of the minister. And it seems to me that, regardless of sexual orientation, the church cannot be seen to condone non-marital sexual relationships with its ministers. Being homosexual does not change the ‘standard’ that has been (and still is) applied to intimate relationships.
This, of course, is based on a big assumption – that Scott Rennie is in a sexual relationship with his partner. Scott’s ‘disclosure’ to the congregation in Aberdeen Queen’s Cross seems to have been very carefully worded to avoid any such admission. Aberdeen Presbytery may well have been negligent in not digging too deeply. But that, unfortunately, must be where the legal case must move to.
And, of course, this is the substance of the Lochcarron and Skye overture:
“That this Church shall not accept for training, ordain, admit, re-admit, induct or introduce to any ministry of the Church anyone involved in a sexual relationship outside of faithful marriage between a man and a woman”.
Again, very carefully worded so as to be seen not to be attacking homosexuals and instead holding on to ‘orthodox’ morality. But of course the underlying issue is all too apparent. And in many respects, the Assembly cannot readily disagree with it, despite the underlying reasons behind its purpose.
Anyway, all this is a long way of saying that the stories doing the rounds about how the Church of Scotland can now be considered a forward-thinking church, or suggesting that this is a victory for homosexuals are seriously flawed. This absolutely cannot be read into the decision made on Saturday night and I wonder if, when it all goes a bit pear-shaped for the liberal wing (as I suspect it might – I think the middle-ground is more conservative-leaning than believed), it simply provides an awful lot of ammunition to start throwing around accusations of being ‘let down’ or being ‘victimised’. And all the while, the media revelling in a fight that provides juicy copy for all those secularists who can’t wait to see the church tear itself apart.
There are far more important things that the church needs to focus its energies on. In case it’s escaped anyone’s attention, we’re in the middle of an ethical and moral crisis of epic proportions when you consider the behaviour of those who govern us and those who control our finances. Injustice and poverty sit all around us and we’re squabbling and ripping ourselves apart over issues of sexual orientation.
One of the most disturbing things I read on Saturday night was a Twitter comment that said something like, “The church has finally caught up with secular society.” It was intended as a positive statement about progress in the church, but I can’t help but read it as a damning indictment. The church is not meant to be alinging itself with popular culture and society. It must always be the prophetic voice that stands over and against society. That doesn’t mean that it opposes everything society does, but it always calls society to account for whatever it does. It praises and supports acts of love and generosity; it condemns injustice and prejudice, poverty and moral bankruptcy. It doesn’t do these things from some moral high ground, but it nevertheless has a yardstick with which it must measure itself and others. Regardless of whether your theology is conservative or liberal, there is a single call that determines our decisions – love God and love one another.
The rhetoric coming out of either camp often does justice to neither.
And in the meantime, the world contines to see the church as increasingly irrelevant.