Monday, 27 May 2013

The Church of Scotland and ministers in same-sex relationships - Post General Assembly 2013

The General Assembly debated the issue surrounding ministers in same sex relationships last week. It did so in a way which reflected well on the church, thankfully. The press coverage as a result has been positive. It emerged, during the debate, that the polarities of a blanket "yes" or an all consuming "no", were not really where the Assembly wanted to be. In the end, a third way was found. A motion declaring the traditional view of the church to be what it has always been, (not pro gay, but really by default), but allowing congregations so minded, to be able to call a minister in a same sex relationship. Such legislation is said to be "permissive", and it reflects the way the C of S has often handled contentious issues in the past. This position has the distinct advantage of giving the traditionalist ground prime place, so that traditionalists do not have to make a special case to exempt themselves from ordaining or inducting non celibate gay clergy. Rather, it's the new radicals who will be the "special" case. Which given the current state of development of the thinking about these issues, reflects the position well.
The outcome rather begs the question why the Theological Commission didn't come up with a third way. The fact that it was evenly composed of passionate supporters of both sides of the argument does not mean they couldn't have hammered out a compromise. The voting for the three motions was interesting. The "yes" vote gained more votes than the other two, though not a majority of the votes cast. The "no" vote gained the least, so it dropped. I'm tempted to think that had there only been the 2 original motions then those who voted for the compromise may well have, albeit reluctantly, voted "no". I'm tempted to think this because in the second round of voting, the "no" vote basically switched to the compromise motion, giving it the clear majority. I may of course be mistaken, and indeed, there were many traditionalists who thought they would lose the vote had it been between only the 2 originals. They knew however that had that been the case, they would have won the argument under the Barrier Act, which is a procedure which sends down new innovative legislation from the General Assembly to the Presbyteries, for a second round of voting. The Presbyteries are very conservative, especially the smaller ones in the north and west. Their vote, even if they only have under 10 ministers, is equal to that of enormous Presbyteries like Glasgow and Edinburgh. The last time legislation concerning the gay issue came down to Presbyteries, the vote went against it.
So what now? The current proposals still have to go down to Presbyteries under the Barrier Act, but I believe they will pass it, as a viable and judicious compromise. If that is the case, and if subsequent General Assemblies don't overturn the proposals, then we will end up in a church which accepts that some congregations may ordain gay clergy in civil partnerships to the ministry. There remain those in the church who are totally opposed to this and would fight it tooth and nail, for to be part of a church which tolerates such Biblically anathematised conduct would be a contamination by association one step too far. However this group will not amount to entire congregations in my view. We may still see a small erosion of membership and clergy in the next year or two, but I doubt if it will be a schism or even a massive hemorrhage.
A final comment on the General Assembly itself. During the debate on clergy in same sex relationships, some voices expressed exasperation that we were spending so much time on this when we had far more important things to debate and do, and this received considerable endorsement from around the hall. In the days following, these more important debates took place, but never to as full a house as the less important one. Importance is no guarantee of a subject's winning our attention obviously. 

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