Where does the Church of Scotland stand?

It has been a pretty confusing 24 hours for the Church of Scotland. My prediction yesterday morning that the news would be reported inaccurately was bang on. There have been very many reports in the media about the Church of Scotland that have been inaccurate. And you know what? The media are not the ones to blame.

Yesterday afternoon after a very long debate the Church of Scotland thanked the Special Theological Commission that it had set up to examine whether blessings of gay couples could be permitted and issues around the ordination of gay clergy in relationships. Rather than accepting either of the proposals from that Commission, they adopted a hastily cobbled together deliverance which I think seemed to the Commissioners to be a compromise.

Then the press got hold of the wrong end of the stick, led by the BBC which reported the news entirely inaccurately. Robert Piggott was on the TV all last night saying that the Church of Scotland had changed its policy on gay ministers but that some congregations could opt not to have them. In fact it was the reverse – they accepted a proposal to bring plans to a subsequent 2 Assemblies to maintain the view that the Church of Scotland does not accept gay relationships but that individual Kirk Sessions (ie the elders in a congregation) could have a minister in a gay relationship anyway if they really wanted one.

I think it is one of the greatest attempts at Doublethink since the Church of England allowed women to be ordained but allowed some people in the Church to think they hadn’t been ordained.

This kind of thing does the churches no good. When decisions like this are made it seems like a compromise, which appeals to people who don’t want to hurt or upset anyone and who think that the fundamental thing that needs to be done is to keep the church together.

Yesterday the Church of Scotland decided to follow a path towards crucifying its own internal integrity. You can’t expect to flourish if you say that something is doctrinally wrong but that you’ll turn a blind eye to congregations doing it anyway. It means you’ve lost sight of what truth is. And that isn’t really suppose to be an option for God’s people.

As an Anglican, I obviously don’t say that from a position of any superiority. Indeed, we tolerate things in the Anglican Churches which are just as bad and worse.

The question was asked yesterday as to what happens if a congregation want a minister who happens to be gay but a presbytery doesn’t want a person who happens to be gay. The answer came from the top table that the presbytery could not overule a kirk session. I find it almost impossible to understand how this will work in practise. A friend gave me the example that currently a presbytery cannot refuse to ordain a woman – being female is not grounds for refusing to ordain or induct according to the highest court of that church so therefore such an ordination cannot be presented. I simply don’t see how a General Assembly can affirm a “traditionalist” anti-gay position and then insist that a presbytery has to ordain someone because a local kirk session demands it.

It is certainly the case that yesterday the Church of Scotland accepted that some people are gay. However, it didn’t really deal with it. It accepted that some people affirm gay people but still affirmed a position which condemns that affirmation.

The Moderator of the General Assembly, Lorna Hood is being quoted as saying “This is a massive vote for the peace and unity of the Church.”

It seems to this outsider looking in on the General Assembly that its own moderator hasn’t understood what it was she was presiding over yesterday. This is a decision that will be challenged next year, challenged at every presbytery through the subsequent year and challenged and fought over at the following Assembly. Then, even if it succeeds, it will be challenged inevitably through cases brought to further Assemblies. This isn’t peace, it is a vote to enshrine the war in the life of the church for the forseeable future.

What the Church of Scotland decided today

Well, a significant debate in the Church of Scotland today on questions relating to ministers in same-sex relationships and also with regard to ministers who are looking to bless couples in same-sex relationships.

They have chosen a very modest step forward. It’s not a great triumph for the cause, but the alternative was worse.

So, how to understand what they actually did? (Don’t read the newspapers, as they are not all accurate. The Guardian is particularly culpable with an inaccurate and ridiculous report on its website claiming that the Church of Scotland has voted to allow gay ministers. It hasn’t).

So, what did they do?
Well, first of all if you want to understand this you need to read the report. You can find it here. At the start of it you can find the “deliverances” which are the various clauses that the church was debating today. I think that they all passed without amendment, so what you see at the start of that report is what they’ve now agreed. Except, and here is the crucial point, they chose option B for Clause 7 not option A.

They’ve agreed to have a new Theological Commission on same-sex issues. I don’t think that many people expect this new Commission to resolve everything, but they have given the Commission a trajectory – suggested a path to follow. What the Assembly agreed today was this:

Resolve to consider further the lifting of the moratorium on the acceptance for training and ordination of persons in a same-sex relationship, and to that end instruct the Theological Commission to prepare a report for the General Assembly of 2013 containing:
(i) a theological discussion of issues around same-sex relationships, civil partnerships and marriage;
(ii) an examination of whether, if the Church were to allow its ministers freedom of conscience in deciding whether to bless same-sex relationships involving life-long commitments, the recognition of such lifelong relationships should take the form of a blessing of a civil partnership or should involve a liturgy to recognise and celebrate commitments which the parties enter into in a Church service in addition to the civil partnership, and if so to recommend liturgy therefor;
(iii) an examination of whether persons, who have entered into a civil partnership and have made lifelong commitments in a Church ceremony, should be eligible for admission for training, ordination and induction as ministers of Word and Sacrament or deacons in the context that no member of Presbytery will be required to take part in such ordination or induction against his or her conscience; and to report to the General Assembly of 2013.

They have also agreed not to inhibit the induction to a congregation of ministers who were ordained before 2009 who happen to be in a same-sex relationship. This means that clergy in that position are not “stuck” in a place unable to consider a call to a new ministry whilst the work of the Theological Commission goes on. It will be for a further Assembly to decide what to do about any such persons. There was considerable debate about this, with many conservative commentators saying that it was going to open the floodgates and that there would be ministers in openly acknowledged same-sex coupledom being inducted in presbyteries up and down the land with all the concommitant fallout that this would bring. One Commissioner even said that the delivererance would allow him to leave his wife, take up with a man and still be inducted to a new charge.

They did make it rather sound as though the Church of Scotland was a hotbed of hitherto undisclosed gay couples in manses and that being gay was such fun that even the straight ministers of the kirk were dying to give it a go.

All in all the best possible outcome. It was a triumph of process rather than a triumph for the gay cause. However each step forward makes the journey possible and my good wishes go to all my presbyterian friends for a well conducted debate and a good outcome.