GA09 and petitions

It can’t have escaped your attention that there’s a serious row brewing for this year’s General Assembly. It concerns the Rev. Scott Rennie, an openly gay minister living with his partner. He has been called by a congregation in  Aberdeen. Pesbytery have upheld the call, but a significant minority raised an official objection and the case is being heard by GA.

This has all the makings of a row big enough to seriously split the church, for all sorts of reasons. There’s the homosexuality issue; there’s the right of call of a congregation to be considered; there are issues of marriage, and what it is. And the big problem seems to be that there are entrenched views which cannot see past their own agenda – and, as usual, it is the vocal minority, on either side, which makes the headlines.

I’ve just listened to the Radio Scotland phone-in, Morning Extra, and it was fascinating how it seemed (in general) to be the laity who saw in black and white and the ministers who were on being honest about how much of a struggle this was. That said, one lady, a minister’s wife, was most eloquent and patiently explained how we read a translation and we simply don’t fully understand the cultural baggage that underpins the very few verses that speak about homosexuality and so we cannot know, in that balack and white sense, what was being said. To echo some of the ministers who were on, we seek to follow Christ in our imperfect understanding of God’s Word.

I originally intended posting about Biblical interpretation, or about an overarching moral and ethical framework we discover in Christ, but I’m not sure that rehearsing the same old arguments here will further the discussion at all. Suffice it to say that I don’t think the issue is black and white. The ‘plain meaning of scripture’ is a cop-out that precludes study. Why should this one issue be so clear when virtually everything else taught in scripture results in a tension between different things.

Even if this debate stays at the level of the ‘legalities’ – the right of call or an unmarried couple in the manse – it’s going to be messy. The fallout from it is going to ripple through the entire church and, from what I can see, the wider relationships the CofS has with other denominations. Is this going to be another ‘Anglican Communion’ split issue? I really hope that it can be resolved in a far more amicable and gracious way than it seems to be heading.

Creating online petitions is the entirely wrong way to go about this debate. It simply polarises the issues and creates artificial division. It undermines the authority and purpose of the General Assembly. It says, openly, that the petitioners do not believe that the Assembly can deal with the issue in a balanced, prayerful and gracious manner. It sends the message that they who shout loudest get their way. The tactics of the vocal minority have been morally dubious and legally questionable. Forward Together had to issue an apology for seriously misrepresenting Scott Rennie’s personal history.

This debate has been put off for too long, I believe. The ‘period of reflection’ has been stretched out too far. I think it is time for the discussion, following refelection, to happen. But it needs to be just that – a discussion, not a bullying tirade that seeks to undermine the structures of the church or the work of the majority who struggle daily with how to represent Christ to those to whom they seek to minister.

11 responses to “GA09 and petitions”

  1. Hi John, I was also blogging about this the other day – topical stuff, eh:

    ‘bullying’ – yup, it is just that, John….  I believe the people who complained initially were not actually members of the congregation.

    There’s an interesting ‘catch-22’ – the folks who set up and urge folk to sign an online petition
    [and it’s the same old folk in both the Forward Together and Confessing Churches lot – and I do resent the ‘confessing churches’ term being hijacked, by the way!]
    are the ones who would say all gay folks are promiscuous/ or attack the ‘promiscuous gay lifestyle’ and yet when gay folks say, well, we’d like to live in a committed and loving monogomous relationship for life… are not allowed to.  So, they live in a relationship with their partner and are labelled ‘promiscuous’ or they are single and still given the label.  Not particularly helpful for gay people: the church gives them no option but to have the label whether they are or aren’t promiscuous… and of course, implies that hetersexual people would never be promiscuous…. If one is gay, one is condemned by this group whatever. 
    Oh, and the use of the term ‘lifestyle’ – like someone would actively choose to be persecuted, villified and discriminated on account of who they fall in love with… I really don’t think so.

    And just what is the deal with one presbytery interfering in the business of another’s?  And, er, don’t they realise it works both ways and could rebound right back at Lochcarron and Skye if they are asked why there are so few women -oh sorry I meant ‘no’  women- in charges in their presbytery… don’t you think?

    Plain meaning of scripture… good point.  It is plainly stated that homosexuals should be stoned, but I don’t see any of these folks obeying scripture and stoning gay people.  How inconsistent is that?  :p
    Um, rant over….!

  2. Thanks for your thoughts John. This view is in danger of catching, particularly on the blogosphere. It ties in with what I’ve been saying and also a few others (such as Stewart Cutler who I see you link to). I’m not sure I agree that ministers are staying out of the black and white parts of the debate given how many have signed the petition though. The problem is, if people have a problem with petitions how do you effectively counter the argument in a way which is heard, if only to say you think those voices are too loud and too angry. It seems to be one case where those who shout loudest drown out the other voices. It’s very hard to know what those attending the Assembly are going to hear.

  3. Thanks for this post and speaking for the silent majority who are getting on with life at the coal face… particularly I agree that petitions are the wrong way to debate this issue – they are divisive and  worse they discourage people from thinking for themselves. Its easy to sign your name to something  – so much harder to deal with the human consequencies.

    Also the issue is being clouded by the ill conceived and unworkable overture from Lochcarron and Skye. It is certainly time for more moderate voices to be heard! I am deeply saddened at the media coverage … usually the GA barely merits a mention in passing.  But hey start talking about sex and sexuality and suddenly emails from the Sunday Times/headline coverage/interviews/and Jackie Bird! Perhaps we could channel all the passion that is going into this debate into preaching Christ crucified and resurrected … now that really would be something worth covering!

  4. Nikki,
    I think you’ve highlighted an important issue (and one which Danny picks up on) – the ‘discussions’ are about stereotypes, not real people. The number of times I have heard, “Well, they’re all…” and yet the same people will also say, “But, so-and-so’s not like that of course.”

    I think you’re right about many ministers being in the ‘black and white zone’. I had in mind, as I was writing, the phone calls on Morning Extra which were far more moderate.

    I would hope that my somewhat pessimistic outlook is unjustified and that GA will indeed, as they have in the past, handle the issue with grace and understanding. Either way, the media will have a field day – either about rifts in the church or its lack of positive leadership. And, as Danny suggests, in the meanwhile, Christ is not being glorified and the Gospel is trodden under in the stampede to vilify the liberal church or the intransigent conservatives.

  5. Seems to be a topical subject right enough…
    Another issue (and one I’ve blogged about) is the tension between the church being a prophetic body and the church being moulded by a world view. ‘In the world but not of it’ puts the church between a rock and a hard place.
    I was on the Commission of Assembly that voted to bring the matter to the GA and there was a strong view that the situation that presented itself in Aberdeen was ‘novel’ in the sense of new. The issue in Aberdeen is as much with procedure as it is with civil partnerships. Information came to the congregation late in the day and quite a few of the congregation were unaware of the issue as they voted. This may not have meant a jot in the final outcome, but when something is as contentious as this, then all i’s have to be dotted and t’s crossed. And this doesn’t appear to be the case.
    John, you write about a decision being required. The folks from Aberdeen have backed the GA into a corner and a decision must now be taken (one long overdue – either way).
    I’ll be there at the GA and what is difficult now for the commissioners is for clear debate to happen. Various papers have fanned the flames of caricature and those attending have to base decisions of what they hear in the hall, not through the press.
    It’s likely to be passionate and fiery and not having sight of the Lochcarron and Skye overture I can’t respond to that, but I can probably guess what they are seeking. 

  6. I agree, petitions aren’t the way forward. Not only is this matter potentially underminding GA, it has already undermind the local congregation. The only positive (and I use that word exceptionally loosely) of this matter is it is forcing GA to really say something about this issue and stop sweeping it under the carpet by asking commissioners to “prayfully reflect”.

    Where did Jesus teach about homosexuality? Where did he teach about divorce? What was his greatest commandment? That’s where I believe the church should be coming from.

  7. David,
    Thank you for the insight into some of the background. I was unaware that the congregation may not have been fully aware of all circumstances (although I suspect that such news gets passed around pretty quickly when a sole nominee appears). And, as you say, it may not have mattered in the end.
    The Lochcarron and Skye overture says, in a nutshell, that no-one can be considered for ministry (including training) if they are in a sexual relationship outwith heterosexual marriage. As you say, it’ll be difficult enough to have a debate based on the evidence presented without having the external pressures as well. Having the online petition being bandied around also doesn’t help.

  8. Thanks for clarifying the Lochcarron and Skye issue. I’m not at all surprised by their position, and it’s one that will chime with certain factions in the Kirk.
    I can see from those already blogging with you that trenches are being dug pretty deep !
    There will be those on both sides that will proof text their hearts away. Taking the bigger picture will be very hard to do. How do you resolve texts that are obviously contradictory ? People will want to favour New Testament over Old Testament, Jesus over Paul, and the ranting will go on.
    The trouble with the pro partnership position is that itends to argue from a position of what the Bible doesn’t say, which isn’t really an argument. If the Bible says nothing about something, then you could equally argue the other way, and, indeed, there is an argument that the Bible speaks of marriage, singleness and tends to go against the society of the time which quite happily went along with same sex relationships.
    I’m sure that there will be more inflammatory remarks nearer the time and I quite expect extremists from both sides to encamp on the Mound !

  9. Just a quickie… Jesus does make reference to divorce in the Sermon on the Mount, but does so making it harder of the male to have relationships after marriage.

  10. I am utterly horrified about the way this whole situation has been conducted – in particular having a petition. Two stalwart members of Forward Together have been blogging since Aberdeen Presbytery took the decision, and the tone of some of their epistles has left a bad taste. Yet again the Church and Christians have been made to look intolerant, bullying and homophobic. Putting pressure and the spotlight on one man who has had his life dragged through the press and exposed for all to see is not a Christ-like action as far as I can see. Whether Aberdeen was right in its decision or not is not for me the issue now. The issue is how this disagreement has been conducted. It has been dealt with abominably.

    I am ashamed to be a member (and a candidate in training) of the Church of Scotland.

  11. Well said John. While at one time in my faith journey I was on the side of those who claim the privilege to truth (and the only truth), I am now in the sentiment of Crabbit Beson!


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