The Minister writes from the General Assembly…
The media are reporting that the Church of Scotland General Assembly have voted to allow gay ministers. But is that what has happened? And how did it happen?
The Theological Commission on same-sex relationships and the ministry set up in 2011 had, unsurprisingly, been unable to come to one mind on the subject. There were two reports, and two proposals which the Commission asked the Assembly to choose between.
The Commissions first option recognised that the Assembly of 2011 had set the church on a ‘trajectory’ towards the ensuring that persons in same-sex relationships are eligible to serve in any role within the church, including as ministers of word and sacrament. It offered a ‘declaratory act’, drawing on historic Church of Scotland principles that its officebearers are entitled to freedom of conscience in matters which are not fundamental to the Christian faith. It offered detailed proposals to allow those in civil partnerships to be trained, ordained and inducted, and even a proposed liturgy for the blessing of a civil partnership.
However, it also gave a number of guarantees to individuals and congregations within the church who take a more conservative line on the issue, so that conservative congregations would be able to decide, as a matter of principle, that they would not to accept a minister in a civil partnerships. We can refer to this as the Commission’s ‘revisionist’ proposal (using the language of their report).
Their second proposal was an affirmation that the historic stance of the church was that sexual activity was only appropriate within the context of heterosexual marriage, and that those in civil partnerships should not be ministers. This proposal needed to include a provision that gay clergy appointed perviously would nevertheless have their employment protected should the church take this line. This was the commission’s ‘traditionalist’ proposal.
As the Assembly began, a third proposal was on the table. The Very Rev John Cairns, a former Moderator, had a counter motion against both proposals of the theological commission. This took the revisionist proposal much further, in order to ensure that those in civil partnerships would be treated exactly the same as heterosexual clergy, and omitting the theological commission’s proposal to give the guarantees to conservatives, including the provision to allow congregations to decide not to accept gay clergy.
John Cairns spoke to his proposal, but then surprised the Assembly by withdrawing it because, it seems, he had been persuaded that the lack of guarantees for conservatives would be detrimental to the peace of the Church. In effect, the most liberal proposal was being withdrawn in order to gain conservative support for the theological commission’s ‘revisionist’ proposal.
The next major surprise was a proposal from immediate past moderator, the Very Rev Albert Bogle. Bogle has been a popular and personable Moderator, a liberal evangelical with a populist approach. Describing himself as a traditionalist in matters of sexuality, he said he was himself, perhaps wrongly, unable to go as far as his more liberal colleagues in accepting the those in same-sex relationships in the ministry. However, he proposed what he saw as a pragmatic proposal to allow the church to move on, in which the church affirms traditional views of homosexuality, but allows congregations to do otherwise. i.e. allowing liberal congregations to appoint ministers in civil partnerships.
At the end, the Assembly was faced with a three way vote. On the first vote, the tradionalist proposal fell. They were now left with two proposals which would allow the appointment of gay clergy, but which came from different wings of the church. The commission’s proposal, affirming that the gay issue was a matter of conscience and not a fundamental doctrine, stood against Bogle’s which affirmed that the traditionalist view still stood, but that for the sake of the peace of the church congregations would be allowed to choose to appoint clergy in civil partnerships. On the second round of voting many conservative and moderate votes seem to have swung behind Bogle, and it is his proposal which succeeded.
Bogle’s proposal, however, came without the detailed legislation needed to make it work. Therefore it will need to come back next year in a more detailed form (when the Assembly could reject it) and be sent down to Presbyteries afterwards (where it could also be rejected). Yet it was a brave move by Bogle, who may well have lost friends on his conservative wing of the church. However it leaves the church still on the way towards being able to appoint clergy in civil partnerships to congregations on the Kirk (albeit that some congregations can decide not to accept them, in a situation analogous to that of women clergy in the Church of England).
Liberals will worry that the traditional view of sexuality will be seen as the ‘norm’, and will regret the loss of the statement about freedom of conscience (which also protected conservatives). They will also be disappointed that the legal structures to allow the appointment of clergy in civil partnerships is delayed by another year.
It will seem strange to many that a church can decide that its doctrine says one thing but that it will allow practices at variance with that doctrine. However, at an early stage in the debate, the Assembly accepted a proposal from Dr David Fergusson, Professor of Divinity at Edinburgh University, that the church’s Theological Forum examine the theological basis of what has been called this ‘mixed economy’ approach to ecclesiology. Fergusson, seconded by former Princeton Seminary president Ian Torrance, suggested that the mixed economy approach had historical precedents, and was perhaps the only possibility to allow the church to live with a debate which may not be concluded for decades. The hope will be that the Theological Forum will investigate historical and contemporary instances in which churches, riven with fundamental differences, have nevertheless found ways to live together.
It was not the outcome anyone predicted, but perhaps the Church of Scotland is about to find a way through the conundrum faced by mainline churches across the western world- how to allow for greater inclusion of LGBT Christians in the life of the church without completely alienating conservatives Christians.