Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Church of Scotland General Assembly:Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry

The book of reports to the Church of Scotland's General Assembly has now been in the hands of Commissioners (participants) for a few weeks. The report which will attract the lion's share of interest is the one on same-sex relationships and the ministry, (section 20 of the book, "The Blue Book" to the cognoscenti).

I made the mistake of starting to read the report from the end, (well I always like to see how it's going to turn out...) and so came across the case against same-sex relationships in the penultimate section, and made the mistake of thinking that it was the report's conclusion, and was therefore incensed at what I took to be such a one sided view. However, after a pause for thought, (of a day or 2), I decided to go back for another peek, and found to my relief that the case for people in same-sex relationships in the ministry was being made in the section previous. Sections 20/6 and 20/7 of the report, which in total takes up almost 100 pages.

Obviously the Commission was so representative of both sides of the debate, that they could not agree on a   settled position for the whole church, which is a disappointment, but perhaps inevitable, given the issue at stake here. So instead, those for, (styled Revisionists), wrote section 6 and those against, (Traditionalists) wrote section 7. The Deliverances, (motions), reflect this division, and are presented in an either or fashion, i.e. either the Assembly votes for 2 (a) OR 2 (b) etc. It will be interesting to see how the Assembly deals with this. 

The 2 sections represent the arguments on both sides of the debate extremely well. They are clear, simply put, and therefore easy to understand. They also look at the issues in a way which seems to encompass all the positive points either side would want to bring, without criticising the approach of the other. There was a small nod of the head towards scaremongering in the traditionalist argument, in section 7.7.3, which gives us the following: "The Church is thus faced with a Disruption, something which has not occurred since 1843." This I was distinctly unimpressed by, and wondered if at that point they had been feeling the weakness of their own argument, that they had to resort to this. They based that conclusion on the exit so far of two congregations with ministers, and the resignations of sundry other individuals, some few ministers and members of congregations.

Having had a good opportunity to read the arguments, I find the Traditionalist case extremely weak. It rests in the main, on the Biblical textual evidence, particularly that of the New Testament. The textual evidence in itself is strong. Every passage which refers to same-sex relationships is condemnatory. But that is not how we do theology, nor have we ever done theology entirely on proof texts. And this is a matter of theology, which is why the case for is so strong, because it comes at the argument from a theological point of view. Moreover, New Testament proof texts would have us keeping women in submission in church, not speaking or having leadership over men, and covering their heads. Admittedly there are not as many texts in support of these arguments, but I would not expect the Traditionalists to be playing a numbers game with the texts.

There is another interesting argument, which neither side of the debate has really explored, but which I think needs airing and debating, perhaps as an issue in its own right. It's the question, what is it that makes something wrong, or sinful? Is a thing wrong simply and solely because the Bible says it is, or does there have to be an independent moral argument which shows us how or why something is wrong, if there isn't a prima facie case in the prohibition itself, as with, "Don't steal."  If the Bible itself buys into this argument, i.e. that its prohibitions are there for good reasons, even if those reasons have now disappeared, been lost, or have changed with the change of cultures and times, then this would not only commend the Bible as having a moral integrity which could appeal even to people who didn't believe in God, but it would be a way of understanding why what was once condemned, now need not be.

Needless to say, I look forward to the debate with great interest. I hope that the way the issue is debated will be gracious and kindly, and reflect well on the Kirk as a church which is struggling to air and handle deep and important and contentious things.

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