That decision

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.

6 responses to “That decision”

  1. I, too, thought the press (as usual) had misreported Saturday’s decission. The “big” decission, in my opinion, is today’s, based on the overture.

    As regards life and doctrine of ministers – that has always been vague enough to be open to intepretation. That said, I do agree marriage is most appropriate for a minister in a sexual relationship. Whether marriage is interpreted in a more liberal sense as also including civil partnerships…that I think is something GA needs to discuss. That said, there has been a lot of assuming Scott Rennie is in a sexual reationship with his partner. I’ll leave that open, though.

    I complelely agree about the twitter comment. That is not what the church should ever be for, no matter what the secular issue of the day is. The church should be leading society, not the other way around. Also, the church is very relevant to the world during the current ethical and moral crisis, we just need to show the world how much we are relevant. That can only be done through unity, with each other to lead the world through this crisis. We can’t do that when we bicker among ourselves…

  2. John,
    There are many examples where churches had to catch up with secular society: i.e. treatment of women. Until the 19th century the church (in general in the west, and in particular in Scotland) was at the forefront of social ‘advancement’ (I know it could be seen as a controversial statement). Unfortunately in terms of equality the church today still needs to catch up with the secular society, which in many instances can be said are closer to the spirit of Christ than some practices in most of the churches.

  3. Hi Nelu,
    You’re quite correct. Society has indeed often been more ‘advanced’ than the church in many areas. However, my point, albeit poorly expressed, is that it is not the church’s role to simply follow whatever society is doing and thereby endorse it. Mrs G suggests that the church must lead, but in many instances the church must be reactionary as its duty is, first and foremost, to follow God. In so doing, it undoubtedly will take a lead at times. It’s treatment of the poor or those with illnesses, whilst not always exemplary, has often been in the vanguard of social conscience and response. But nevertheless, it must not be led by society. I’m also not convinced that it must ‘lead’ society. To do so implies a position of authority rather than that of servant. But it also cannot simply tag along  and be reactive. The church has a distinctive role to play. By being proactive in our communities, rather than simply reactive, the church can be a leader or guide or example. But, above all, by being distinctive, rather than simply becoming another facet of established society, it can stand over and against that which it encounters and continue to be a prophetic voice.

  4. Interesting stuff. It;s worth noting in passing that many of the great reforming moments in secular society have been led by Christians….Wilberforce, Fry, MLK…
    Lochcarron withdrew their overture today, but I have some sympathy with them in that they were hamstrung at every turn. I write this having just returned from Edinburgh and the passions are running a bit high.. In essence the GA have put back formal decisions for two years to allow a special commission to consult and report back in 2011. The debate is far from resolved, and at one point today, writing this would have brought me under the discipline of the church !
    You summarise Saturday’s debate pretty well. Just goes to show that you can’t belive what you read in the papers, especially certain Sunday ones !

  5. John, I probably did not express myself clear enough. David refered to some specific areas which indicate how the church was ‘leading’ the society. I am very suspicious of power and authority. They corrupt. In some way my point sought to align with your statement that the church should be prophetic: speaking the truth to power and society, and standing along the marginalised and oppressed. As David pointed out the church of Scotland was at the forefront in changing attitudes in society, and political habits, to be truthful. But often in the recent past the church has actually been shamed by the ‘secular’ society, as I said, in particular in equality. I have worked in equality area for the church for 6 years and I often had to bow my head when attending meeting, conferences, etc. where ‘secular’ bodies were leading the ‘prophecy’.
    You probably recall the session on disability we had in one of the candidates’ conferences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *