Will the ‘new Scotland’ allow gay people to be ministers?

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by Kenneth Roy

Reading an obscure document about which we are about to hear a great deal more, I came across one of those dull facts that have landed me in such trouble recently. Among the elders of Scotland’s national church, there are 2,013 people who believe that ‘homosexual orientation is a disorder and homosexual behaviour is sinful’.

It is true that these 2,013 lay officers of the Church of Scotland are a small minority – 9% – of the total, but it is a not wholly insignificant minority. What part do they play in what Gerry Hassan bravely calls the ‘Scottish spring’ – or are they to be regarded merely as an aberration from the progressive norm of a nation destined for maturity and statehood? We will know better on Monday. For it is then that the first test of the new Scotland is due – not in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood but in the Assembly Hall on the Mound when the Church of Scotland determines its policy on the admission of homosexuals to its ministry.

The discussion has been made necessary by the cause celebre of Scott Rennie, a 39-year-old openly gay minister in a stable relationship, whose induction to Queen’s Cross Church, Aberdeen, in 2009, subsequently upheld by the Presbytery of Aberdeen, provoked a challenge to the General Assembly and the imposition of a two-year moratorium on further such appointments. A special commission on ‘same-sex relationships and the ministry’ was appointed with a remit to consult widely within the church and to come before the 2011 General Assembly with a report on its findings.

The results of this consultation reveal a deeply divided church. The special commission is frank about this: its ‘prevailing impression’ is one of division. Although 91% of its elders do not regard homosexual orientation as a disorder or homosexual behaviour as sinful, this is not to say that there is much enthusiasm for the idea of gay people in the ministry.

To the question ‘Should a person in a same-sex relationship be permitted to be an ordained minister?’, 38% (8,545) of Kirk Session members voted ‘yes’, but 56% (12,545) voted ‘no’. I am slightly surprised: I had expected the majority against to be higher, although it is pretty decisive. Perhaps more significantly, when asked ‘Would you consider it obligatory to leave the Church of Scotland if people in committed same-sex relationships were ordained as ministers?’, 19% (4,328) replied ‘yes’. This is a more significant minority than the extreme minority of those who regard homosexuality as a disorder and a sin. It suggests strongly that there is the potential for a disruption.

If the dissenters threatening to pack their bibles and go translated to the church as a whole, we could expect the desertion of 100,000 members of the flock. From a purely commercial point of view – and we should never under-estimate the church’s interest in Mammon – this would be an unmitigated disaster since it is the conservatives who contribute a disproportionate amount of the loot. A church already burdened by financial problems would be crippled. As a national institution, it might well be finished.

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The church cannot easily evade its responsibilities under discrimination law. It is illegal to discriminate in employment against a person on grounds of sexual orientation.
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It is safe to predict, therefore, that every effort will be made on Monday to achieve as adroit a fudge as the unhappy circumstances permit. The matter is so complex for the church – or so awkward; there is a difference – that the appointment of a further special commission, theological in nature, consisting of seven wise persons, is one likely outcome of the painful deliberations. Conveniently, it would be at least another two years before the seven wise persons were able to report back.

Meanwhile, however, the church must decide whether the moratorium is to be lifted or indefinitely extended. If it decides that it should be indefinitely extended, it risks a legal intervention – a test case – being attempted before long. The church cannot easily evade its responsibilities under discrimination law. It is illegal to discriminate in employment against a person on grounds of sexual orientation, as on several other grounds, and the various strategies recently proposed to enable it to wriggle out of its legal obligations – the suggestion, for example, that ministers are not actually in employment – would probably be laughed out of court. On this one, the church is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Although a theological commission seems now to be required, for the rest of us the nature of the division is fairly clear. The traditionalists, sometimes known as the conservatives, argue on the one hand that homosexuality is condemned in scripture and that, throughout the bible, there is a clear message that God’s wish is for the union of a man and a woman. ‘Therefore,’ Genesis tells us, ‘a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh’.

The revisionists, sometimes known as the liberals, argue on the other hand that sexual orientation is not part of the core of the Christian faith (Christ himself never mentioned homosexual practice and acknowledged that marriage was not for everyone) and that Christianity has constantly adapted to ‘the insights of developing human knowledge and social change’ (as the special commission tactfully puts it). Between these two positions, there appears to be no space for compromise.

Next week used to be one of the big weeks of my working year. I covered the General Assembly man and boy, latterly for the BBC when the occasion was still considered important enough to justify live television coverage, even when the most exciting thing on offer was the report of the Woman’s Guild. Although it is easy to mock its pretentions, the assembly has an honourable record in the post-war history of Scotland, a record mostly of social enlightenment and reform. So I will be glad not to be present in the Assembly Hall on Monday. I do not expect it to be one of the Church of Scotland’s finest hours.

 

 

Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review