May 252011

With all the focus on the issue of same-sex partnerships and ministry at the 2011 General Assembly, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing else of any significance on the agenda. Far from it. Without wanting to downplay the importance of that discussion, there are matters before the Assembly on Wednesday and Thursday which could have major impact on the way the Church of Scotland operates.

Wednesday sees the report of the Panel on Review and Reform. It is proposing a major shake-up of how presbyteries are structured, their purpose and function. Now some may suggest that focusing on how the Kirk does business is a distraction from the church’s business, the business of Christ’s mission. But that’s a simplistic view and ignores the fact that that how the Kirk does business very much affects its effectiveness in performing the church’s business. There is a danger that already overstretched ministers and elders will have to deal with further layers of bureaucracy – although the stated aim of the Panel is to make the ‘layers’ more focused and efficient. I struggle with the concept of increased complexity bringing greater efficiency and effectiveness, but I’m just a cynic at heart. Either way, this is not a trivial issue for the Kirk either.

Then, on Thursday, another mould-breaking day (or at least the potential for it) comes through the report from the Ministries Council. This report calls for a major re-visioning of ministry provision throughout Scotland. It is, in part, a response to the financial realities faced by the Kirk. But it is also an opportunity to find enabling paths to ministry for those with the gifts to serve in this way. It’s of particular interest to me, not simply because it impacts directly on ministry, but it is the context into which my MTh research was targeted.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to follow Wednesday’s debate as I am out and about doing the business of the church. But I do hope to be at GA on Thursday to catch the Ministries Council debate. I can’t help but think you get a better view watching it online, but I’m keen to get a sense of the atmosphere as well.

And yes, the post title is ironic.

May 232011

Today, at the Kirk’s General Assembly, a pretty hefty debate took place over the Kirk’s future direction in its relationship with partnered homosexuals in ordained leadership. Unfortunately, due to ‘real’ church business, I was unable to sit through the entire debate, but caught the gist of it and the key vote.

The GA was presented with two ‘trajectories’. One kept to the traditionalist position and extended the moratorium on ordination of partnered homosexuals for an indefinite period. The other set out on a revisionist path which aims to lead to reconciliation with the LGBT community and to open leadership doors to those who are in a same-sex relationship.

It’s not quite the liberal triumph some may be suggesting (nor, for that matter, is it the road to doom and destruction others are suggesting). It simply sets out a possible path towards that reconciliation and opening up of leadership.

The decision allows for a theological commission to explore the issues around what this decision means. From the beginning of this phase of the debate I’ve always advocated the need for the Kirk to set in order its understanding of marriage and partnership as a prerequisite for any decision. If heterosexual marriage and same-sex partnerships can be brought to an equitable footing then there is no further debate to be had. This, I think, was the understanding behind the former Principal Clerk’s amendment to the ‘trajectory choice’ deliverance. I would have been happy for this to have been approved – it would satisfy the systematic theologian in me and help lay the theological foundations for further progress. Just to be clear – it has always been on this point that I have objected to same-sex partnerships in the manse, just as I would object to an unmarried heterosexual couple in the manse. Marriage is the defining structure within which we place committed partnerships. It’s not scriptural – it’s a legal issue. So, unless the Kirk was to make a serious u-turn on its approach to marriage then I always saw this as the primary issue to be addressed.

However, I also note that such a delay would have been entirely unsatisfactory on a number of fronts. Any opportunity to move away from discrimination and oppression ought to be taken at the earliest opportunity. The choice made today doesn’t quite meet that need either, but there is at least a glimmer of hope where there was little or nothing before. And certainly the other choice would pretty much have snuffed it out entirely.

One bigger candle of hope from today was the affirmation of sexual orientation not being a bar to ordination and training. Although it does raise interesting issues on what should happen if a subsequent partnership were to form. Do I detect the rattle of small pebbles precipitating an avalanche?

My biggest fear though is the threat of schism. There have already been rumblings that a vote for the revisionist trajectory would prompt some departures from the Church of Scotland. I’m not sure that a ‘trajectory’ really justifies that and would far prefer to see those voices stay with the Kirk, participate in the ongoing debates which need to happen and hopefully, along with everyone else, grow in grace. I don’t mean that to be ‘Christian-ese’ for ‘agree with me or you’re not a real Christian’, but rather work out how we can agree to disagree yet remain one. I know that there will be some who would say ‘good riddance’, but I think it would be very sad if any sort of schism were to happen.

So, back to the title. Is the trajectory set out upon today enough to satisfy those of a revisionist persuasion? Will there be patience to see through the next couple of years. working towards a more harmonious goal? And will a trajectory be enough to maintain a degree of unity in the Kirk?

May 272009

The minutes of Monday’s GA session are available online and the wording of the so-called ‘gagging clause’ read as follows:

Instruct all Courts, Councils and Committees of the Church not to issue press statements or otherwise talk to the media or to make decisions in relation to contentious matters of human sexuality, with respect to Ordination and Induction to the Ministry of the Church of Scotland, until 31 May 2011;

There were, of course, some get-out clauses for some projects and councils. It seems to me that this is aimed primarily at the official bodies of the Kirk and not at individuals. In other words, there cannot be an ‘official response’ to the discussion, but personal opinion should be allowed.


I just caught, on the webcast, a statement about the moratorium. It is, as yet, a draft but it states that individuals are also expected to comply with the spirit of the agreed motion.

So, whilst not a hard and fast ruling on individuals, there is an expectation that individuals won’t make statements to the press. It still leaves a bit of wriggle-room to allow public discussion.

May 262009

Does anyone have the definitive version of Dr McPake’s motion (as amended) from Saturday night at GA?

I’ve seen so many variants of who can comment and who can’t and under what circumstances that I’d really like to see the actual words. My impression is that the ‘gagging order’ is aimed at the councils and committees of the church, but I’d like to know if it extends to all who are under the discipline of church courts.

May 252009

To steal a phrase from my placement supervisor, the Church of Scotland has managed to kick the ball into the long grass again, but they’re running out of long grass. In a ‘compromise’ motion, which I suspect the Assembly was only too happy to go for, the Church will set up a special commission to consult with presbyteries and Kirk sessions and report back in 2011.

I guess it wasn’t entirely unexpected and I don’t think that this assembly was the time or the place to discuss the matter, especially with emotions running high over the Scott Rennie situation. It is a little disappointing though that the debate continues to trundle on. That said, the debate, in reality, will trundle on forever because there will always be a group at one end or the other who will not accept the views of the other. I do hope though, that the opportunity will be taken for ‘proper’ dialogue on the whole issue, largely so that the ‘middle majority’ in congregations can actually be exposed to the understanding of all aspects of this issue and not simply exposed to the rhetoric that comes from either extreme.

I’ll also be interested to see what the implications of the second clause in the motion are. Maybe this’ll be my last blog on the issue?!

I’d been following the debate via the webcast, the online updates and Twitter (who says men can’t multi-task). I was almost tempted to sign up for Twitter when I read some of the comments appearing after the motion was accepted.  Apparently the CofS is now an apostate church and all the ‘real Christians’ will leave. Apart from finding this comment extremely offensive, my concern is that this is now reflective of a growing view of the Church.

I think the Special Commission has the potential to do a lot of good, particularly if it encourages the right sort of open dialogue. I do pray that the Church will use this opportunity to put to rest a lot of the homophobia that surrounds this issue and that, even if positions aren’t accepted, they are at least respected. Furthermore, it has the potential for great education in theology and Biblical interpretation, because these are at the heart of the debate.

Anyway, off to find the correct wording of section 2 which spoke about the moratorium on press releases and other such public disclosure.

Update: I think the amended section 2 (if I’ve followed the amendments correctly) reads as follows:

Instruct all Courts, Councils and Committees of the Church not to issue press statements or talk to the media or to make decisions in relation to contentious matters of human sexuality, with respect to Ordination and Induction to the Ministry of the Church of Scotland, until 31 May 2011

Update 2: This from the CofS website:

There is a moratorium on direct public discussion until May 2011 but in a way which allows councils of the church to carry on with their necessary work.

Hmm.. this is more than a little concerning. I think I’d still need to see the final wording to know whether I can continue to blog on it – after all I am under the courts of the church.

May 242009

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).

Continue reading »

May 082009

Warning: (some) sarcasm/irony ahead – read with discernment.

I’m wondering if Lochcarron and Skye didn’t miss a trick with their overture. Or indeed, if those in Aberdeen presbytery didn’t miss the same trick. Rather than re-ignite the homosexuality debate, perhaps it would have been much safer ground to oppose Rev Scott Rennie’s appointment on the much plainer Biblical (and indeed, plainly dominical) stance on divorce. After all, Jesus had nothing specific to say on homosexuality, but he did condemn, most strongly, divorce.

And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery. Matthew 19:9 (NRSV)

Actually, on second thoughts, maybe that wouldn’t have worked in their favour. After all, Scott Rennie hasn’t remarried (arguably), so his lawyers would have a field day with that one. But then again, he did divorce for reasons other than ‘unchastity’ or ‘marital unfaithfulness’ so there may still be good grounds here.

OK. Time to switch off the sarcam/irony.

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May 052009

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.