The Church of Scotland is to allow openly gay ministers and elders in its parishes in a historic move that may yet split Presbyterian churches across the world and cause deep divisions within the ranks of Protestant Christianity.
Gay people will have to wait for two years, however, before they find out whether they have the fullest freedom to be ordained and participate fully in the life of Scotland’s Kirk.
The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland yesterday voted to delay its final verdict on whether gays will enjoy equal rights until it meets in 2013.
In the meantime, the Assembly has voted to accept gay clergy as long as they have declared their sexual orientation and been ordained before 2009.
The moves are seen as likely to cause a possible schism, with an official estimate that up to 20 per cent of the church’s ministers and elders and 100,000 church members could leave if gay clergy were permitted. On the other hand, up to 1,800 ministers and elders and 40,000 parishioners said they would leave if the Kirk refused to allow gay clergy.
It was two years ago that the Assembly voted to back the induction of openly gay minister, Rev Scott Rennie, to a parish in Aberdeen. But a moratorium was declared on further inductions and ordinations, a ban that was lifted by the Assembly yesterday voting to approve a report by a Special Commission.
However, the Church’s ban on press comments by all its committees and subordinate bodies will continue.
A new Theological Commission is to be set up to look at general issues of homosexuality, such as same-sex relationships and civil partnerships being blessed in church, and specifically to review whether gay people in a relationship should be eligible for the ministry and other offices.
At the start of the debate, Special Commission Convener Lord Patrick Hodge admitted: “The church is very divided over the issue. That’s been clear for some time.”
His commission’s most definite statement (a deliverance in Kirk jargon) was this: “People who are homosexual by orientation are not barred by their orientation from membership of the Church or from taking up leadership roles in the Church, including the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the diaconate and eldership.”
Numerous contributions to the debate emphasised that other churches would have problems with the Kirk’s stance.
Dr Norman Hamilton from Northern Ireland indicated to the Assembly that there would be divisiveness no matter the outcome: “Opinions and preferences have no place in the wise discerning of God’s truth in this or any matter.
“There will be a cost in whatever you decide. It affects us all, right across the Presbyterian family worldwide.”
The Rev. Andrew Coghill from Lewis compared the proposals to a a “hand grenade” and added: “We’re being asked to pull the pin out and it will blow the church apart.”
Hugh Trevor quoted famous Kirk theologian Professor William Barclay’s comments on how Greek and Roman civilisation were damaged by homosexual licentiousness. He added: “Barclay’s words are a warning not to let our civilisation to go down that same road.”
Rev Lindsay Biddle, of the Presbyterian church of the USA, presently working in Glasgow, said: “The Hebrew scriptures and Greek New Testament do not address homosexuality far less condemn it.
“The Church of Scotland does not have to roll away the stone, the stone is already removed. God has always created gay people, God will continue to create gay people.”
Rev Dr Finlay Macdonald said the commission’s findings showed that those polled had not considered the issue of sexuality to be “a matter of faith” and as such it was about opinion.
Mr James Coupar said: “Christian churches used the Bible to condone slavery. The bible clearly says that adulterers, and adulteresses are to be put to death. This is not the word of God.
“Death for eating black pudding – there are screeds of dietary commands. We don’t give a fig for any of them.
“The Bible clearly says that women are not the equal of men. We absolutely reject this.
“Today science tells us that homosexuality is a natural condition that occurs in hundreds of species. Sexual orientation…is a natural part of creation. So that means we have to reject the stuff in the Bible about homosexuality because now we know better.”
Rev Graeme Bell, admitting to uncertainty about how he would vote, said: “I find it very sad that (some people) assume that Jesus accepting homosexuality is something that could be ruled out.”
He pointed out that Jesus went against his local culture to accept different kinds of people that others shunned saying: “Jesus accepts them as they are, he does not expect them to change.”
After the final votes, the Moderator of the General Assembly, the Right Rev David Arnott, then led the General Assembly in a moving prayer in which he asked God to “walk with us now” and added: “Help us to continue to work for the unity and peace of Your church.”