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.

Church of Scotland Special Commission

There is a piece in the Herald on and apparent leak of the report of the Church of Scotland’s Special Commission. This was the commission that was set up after the debate about whether a presbytery could induct a minister who is living in a civil partnership.

The exact remit was this:

“A Special Commission composed of nine persons, representative of the breadth and unity of the Church, to consult with all Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions and to prepare a study on Ordination and Induction to the Ministry of the Church of Scotland in the light of the issues (a) addressed in a Report welcomed by the General Assembly of 2007: “A challenge to unity: same-sex relationships as an issue in theology and human sexuality”, and (b) raised by the case of Aitken et al v the Presbytery of Aberdeen, and to report to the General Assembly of 2011.”

If the Herald is to be believed, then I was not far wrong in what I predicted at New Year. At that time, I said that:

The Church of Scotland will have a rocky General Assembly with a moderately conservative report from their Special Commission. (No more gay ministers, no questions to be asked about sexuality of office bearers but also no removing anyone currently in any post on the grounds of their sexuality).

It is said in the Herald that they will recommend a new commission for a couple of years, a ban on further inductions of partnered gay clerics, a ban on training for gay candidates in same-sex partnerships and also a renewed ban on C of S people talking about it in public. (This last ban in the so-called moratorium, which is and always was madness, if you ask me). Oh, and no removing people already in post.

There is a lot of discussion in the Herald about who would leave the Kirk if different policy decisions were made. If I understood the report correctly, just over 20% of session members said they would leave the church if gay clergy were allowed to proceed to ministry whilst just under 10% would leave if the opposite held true. This leads to the schism-alert headlines that we’ve come to know very well within Anglicanism.

The trouble with this approach to the issue is that it makes doctrine the captive of the bully. It also creates false “extreme” wings and an equally false central position which tries to play off each side. It also fails to capture the reality which is that good hearted liberals slip away in the wars of attrition – leaving because they simply cannot stomach what they perceive as the intolerance of a church which does not represent their values and ethics. How many gay folk have left the C of S already? How many family members? How may young people? People like that slip away. In my experience, those who take a less tolerant view of gay people in the church are more likely to work together to make the big threats about taking their money or members away en bloc.

What will be most interesting will be to read the report in full – it is reported to be 50 pages worth and the Church of Scotland tend to do that kind of theological reporting better than anyone else.

The figures we have so far are really only figures that can generate hysterical headlines. What will be really interesting will be to see the breakdown, if it is published, from one presbytery to another.

The really shocking headline that the Herald might have run with today is that if gay clergy were allowed to be appointed unimpeded then 80% of the kirk elders would stay loyally in place living the gospel in their parishes. That would not always have been so and represents an astonishing period of change over the last 20 years or so, the time that I have known the Church of Scotland.