Church of Scotland General Assembly Decision

I’ve got a huge amount of respect for the way that the Church of Scotland does its business. That comes from having been a corresponding member of the Presbytery of Perth in my formative years as a priest. I came to the conclusion there that a good moderator could get through more business in 2 hours than our General Synod takes two and a half days to get through. Furthermore, the business at Presbytery would be conducted with everyone having had their say and a great deal of kindness and charity expressed. (And if I noticed a slight tendency towards clerical camp in the debates, I managed to suppress a smile and keep an appropriately earnest visage throughout).

So, it was with some degree of hopefulness that I watched the debate last night from the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall on gay clergy. They decided to impose a ban on gay clergy being ordained or inducted into parishes for two years. That was disappointing but not unexpected. I was just as disappointed that the debate seemed quite confused. I watch a bit of the Assembly every year and know the procedure fairly well. (I have done so to better inform my contribution to the Organizational Review Committee in the Scottish Episcopal Church which until now has been given the task of making suggestions to make our own synods better). To see frustrated people at the end of the debate who had expected a final vote and felt deprived of one was not the highpoint of C of S business. I don’t think it was the Assembly at its best.

The real sting in the tail of the ban on gay people being ordained in the C of S was a gagging clause seeking to stop courts, committees and councils of the Church and those subject to their discipline making any public comment. This is presumed to include ministers and others in the church blogging or making comments on blogs and also making statements to the press.

The Church of Scotland has simply the best educated and most articulate leaders that any church could hope for. To gag them seems like madness from outside the church. I expect there will be an outbreak of anonymous comments and blogging and people speaking to the media but refusing to be quoted directly. All in the name of encouraging debate. The media coverage that the C of S has had recently has been excellent. Any chance of directly influencing the way the media report on this aspect of the life of the C of S has been surprisingly squandered. There will be no way to correct bad reporting and that is hardly going to help. And blogging is a way of encouraging debate. Stifle at your peril, I say.

The actual decision about clergy was all too predictable. Yesterday was a day on which some of those most opposed to gay clergy were reported as bullying the Church of Scotland with the threat of withdrawing financial resources. The church then took the decision to scapegoat gay people who have vocations and to ban them from taking up public office and all the while silencing those most affected.

Welcome to our world, sisters and brothers. Welcome to our world.


  1. Dear Kelvin

    I found your take on the debate interesting in light of my own comments.

    Either I am more objective because of my distance from the debate or you are more accurate because of how close you are. Perhaps a little bit of both…

    I am no expert on the substantive issues involved and this is something that you feel very strongly about. As such your sentiments must attract greater weight than my own “objective” take on the debate.

    Despite this I do take issue with the way in which you have conveyed your own conclusions in this post. The debate that I heard was sensitive to gay and lesbian people who have a calling to ministry. To force the Kirk to determine the substantive debate at this time would surely have led to a split and this would not have been good. Unity is not the highest virtue but I think we can agree it is one to which we are called.

    Is it wrong to seek whatever concensus or compromise that can be reached by taking more time over this issue? It must be remembered that whatever happens, and especially if there is a substantive doctrinal shift, that this will affect many more people than gay clergy. It will have a significant impact on ecumenical relations, the position of marriage within the Church and, of course, the source of authority within the Church and of the Church.

    With the greatest of respect to your own views which are both considered and held in good conscience I feel it is unhelpful to “spin” what happened at the General Assembley by using, frankly, inflammatory language such as “bully”, “scapegoat”, “ban” and “silencing”.

    We are called to lead a life worthy of our calling with “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3, NRSV)

    Your own radically inclusive church appears to be a wonderful example of how the love of God embraces all broken people regardless of their sexuality. You should preach what you have so wonderfully put into practice…

    Your brother in Christ,


  2. Thanks for your comment Steven.

    Gay clergy are indeed banned from taking up new appointments for two years. Gay people have been banned from being ordained during that time. That is what the Assembly did and it did so knowing clearly what it was doing.

    I don’t believe that the Assembly was ever asked to comment on marriage. Presumably it still thinks, as I do, that it is a jolly good thing.

    Some evangelicals have threatened to withdraw their funds unless they get their own way. (Some threats were not made in the debate but from pulpits, online and through news organizations and would have been known by some of the commissioners yesterday). That kind of bullying is something that Anglicans have become familiar with.

    I’ve friends who already feel constrained by what they can say online.

    I note that on the blog of at least one member of the Assembly, the injuction not to comment is already being referred to as a gagging order. The word “silencing” is one that I’ve often applied to what has happened in my own church. I’m saddened to see public debate being stifled, ironically by people calling for a debate.

    I watched the debate too, and with great affection for presbyterian friends and a deep respect for the way they do business, stand by what I’ve said.

  3. Hi Kelvin,
    I came across your blog from your tweet on GA2009. I appreciate your post and, as one who is both a blogger and subject to the courts of the CofS, I too find the ‘gagging order’ to be extremely concerning and not a little frustrating. That said, I still haven’t had sight of the definitive wording of the second clause of that motion and so it may not be as restrictive as it seems to be getting portrayed. I suspect that the church clerks will also be inundated with requests for clarification and some guidelines will need to be issued.
    And I don’t think that your language was inflammatory. I think you’ve called it rightly – some of the tactics are nothing short of bullying and manipulative. And that goes for either side of this debate. Neither has achieved the moral high ground despite what they’d have you believe.

  4. Dear Kelvin

    Thank you for your clear (and rapid!) response.

    I undertstand the points that you make and bow, again, to the fact that you are closer to the coalface.

    Further delay is justified because, as you note, the Assembley was not asked nor was it in a position to deal with the broader implications (including regarding marriage) of any substantive change of mind regarding sexuality and the Christian faith.

    My criticism of your post was in the choice of particular words to convey criticism, even if much of that criticism is, itself, justified.

    I agree that a blanket gagging order is not a good idea. I agree that any threat of financial sanction is a disgrace.

    But when I hold your words up to Paul’s exhortation I still find them wanting. Robust debate (whether public or private) of all these issues is to be encouraged but comments that polarise by setting the “goodies” against the “badies” are unhelpful if my view.

    How should Christians debate contentious issues in your view?

    What would you have liked to see the Assembley do on these issues right now?

    What should have been the next step if you disagree with further delay?



  5. Elizabeth says

    Thanks for posting this Kelvin. It is indeed very disappointing, both as regards to the ban on ordination and the stifling of debate.

  6. Kelvin,

    Just to be clear, there is no moratorium on gay people being ordained or getting new jobs. The moratorium is on those whose manner of life would cause a difficulty. There is a huge difference between those two.

  7. The moratoria are on “decision-making in relation to contentious matters of human sexuality,” and “on ordination and inductions which might appear to prejudice the Special Commission”

  8. Exactly my point. A deliberately celibate person strolls up for a job. What’s contentious about that? What’s he/she done that would prejudice the Special Commission?

Speak Your Mind