The Farming Life

March 31, 2009

It’s been a rather unusual day today.  I am a trustee of trust that looks after a couple of farms and we had our annual meeting today.  Apparantly the trust deed calls for a minister to be a trustee and they couldn’t find anyone else.  Anyway, it’s interesting because it gives me a window into a world I know little about. 

We’re surrounded by farm here, but we only have a couple in our congregation.  They are not an easy bunch to reach with the gospel.  My friend Alistair who was minister in a very rural community always maintained that most farmers follow a religion that is nearer paganism than Christianity – very fatalistic.  And I remember reading about the 18th century preacher Ebineezer Erskine, that he was such a powerful prayer that even the farmers would come to hear him mid-week. 

Talking to farmers makes you realize how difficult a world they live in.  I heard that the price of sheep has risen dramatically.  Good news for those still in business; but that’s the point.  One reason the price has shot up is that so many farmers left the business becaue it was just not economical.

It can be a lonely existence, and the famers appreciate market days for the chance to socialise. 

Normally we only celebrate the work of our farmers at Harvest.  But since we eat what they produce every day, perhaps we should be more appreciative.

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Shootings in Carthage

March 29, 2009

We’ve become used to hearing about shootings in the USA.  It’s always shocking.  But when the location is somewhere familiar the shock takes on an extra dimension.

In the late 1990s I was an intern pastor at Bethesda Presbyterian Church, in Aberdeen, North Carolina, not far from Carthage, where the shootings took place.  Carthage is a quiet county town.  I got to know the young Presbyterian pastor there at the time.  North Carolina is the only part of the US where the Presbyterians out-number the Baptists. 

These are people descended from the Scots who emigrated there in the 1700s.  They have names like Munro, Macdonald, McNeil, Logan, Johnston, Macleod.  If they walked out of a Glasgow close you wouldn’t bat an eye-lip.  It’s only when they open their mouths and you hear that melodic  drawl that you realize that these people are from the South.  They are hard-working, family-orientated people – and God fearing too. 

But I could never understand the American love of guns.  I recall opening a glove compartment for some reason and being shocked by the sight of a gun. 

I want to assure the people of Moore County of our prayers and love.

TYING UP THE LOOSE ENDS

March 29, 2009

John 21

 

INTRODUCTION

It’s a rare story that doesn’t leave us wondering what happens next once we’ve come to the end.  After a series of misunderstandings, the hapless couple finally fall into each other’s arms, and the curtain closes.  The assumption is that they live happily ever-after.  But do they?  Does the romance last?  Where do they settle?  Do they have children? 

 

When the great detective leaves the room with the murderer in handcuffs, the one we never suspected, what happens to the rest of the characters?  How do they rebuild their lives without the victim?  How do they come to terms with the knowledge that the murderer was one of them?  That they were the next victim on the list? 

 

When the boys come back from the war, fewer now than when the war began, how do they adjust to civilian life?  How do they cope with the horrific memories of what they had seen and done? 

 

We often find ourselves coming to the end of a book wanting to know more; wondering what happens next.

 

BRIDGE

Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel provides us with the perfect ending to his story of Jesus.  The crucified one has risen from the dead.  Everything Jesus said about himself has been demonstrated to be true.  Only the Son of God, the Word who became flesh, could conquer death. 

 

He has appeared to his disciples; he has proved the cynic wrong; he has commissioned the disciples for mission; he has bequeathed them the power of the Holy Spirit: what else is there to say?  The closing verses of chapter are the perfect end to a Gospel. Anything else, surely, is going to be an anti-climax.

 

Yet a couple of questions remain. What about this mission which Jesus has instructed?  Do they go?  And if they go, how successful are they?

 

Then there’s Peter.  What about Peter?  What happens to him, who denied knowing Jesus not once but three times?  Does he ever receive forgiveness?  Does he ever find peace?  Does he still have a role to play in the Church?

 

These are a few of the big questions John deals with in this epilogue to his Gospel.  And as we read the chapter carefully we’ll discover more; more nuggets of gold to encourage us in our faith, to convince us that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

 

TEXT

Fishing

Let’s look at the text to see what happens.

Afterwards, Jesus appeared again to his disciples by the Sea of Tiberius.

 

Afterwards—but we’re not told how long afterwards.  We know from Acts 1 that Jesus appeared to his disciples several times over the course of forty days before finally ascending to heaven.  Acts 1:3:

After his suffering he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.  He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke to them about the kingdom of God.

 

They needed these many convincing proofs.  They may have lived 2000 years ago but they weren’t stupid.  It was as hard for them to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead as it is for us.  Harder.  They didn’t have 2000 years of church history behind them; 2000 years of witness and testimony to the extraordinary exploits of men and women whose lives have been transformed by faith in this same risen Lord Jesus. 

 

The Sea of Tiberias was the Roman name for Lake Galilee.  So they are back home.  We read in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus had told them before his arrest that this is what he wanted them to do and the angel at the empty tomb had repeated this command.  So they are where they are supposed to be. 

 

They are home and they are safe.  They are back where it all began, three years previously.  What three years!  What they had seen, what they had heard; they had ridden the emotional roller coaster.  As the very last verse of the book says:

Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down I supposed that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

 

But being back on home-turf is not just about them feeling comfortable.  It’s not the end of the story; they’ve hardly begun.  Jesus has to bring them back to basics; back to what it has all been about. 

 

And what has it all been about?  Why did Jesus call these men in the first place?  John hasn’t told us anything about the background of the disciples.  He first introduces us to them when they are already followers of John the Baptist.  His is the last of the four Gospels to be written so he assumes we know about their fishing past.  He tells us this final story assuming that we know that what is happening is that the disciples are returning to their old way of life. 

 

And his assumption is right.  Because we’ve read Matthew, Mark and Luke already, we know the story of Jesus walking along the shore of Lake Galilee, coming across Peter and Andrew and James and John and saying to them: Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.  (Mt.4:19).  We know that immediately they left their nets and followed Jesus.

 

Well, here they are back in Galilee, waiting for they know-not-what, and Peter says,

I’m going out to fish.  And the rest say, “Good idea.”

 

Now, in their defence we might say that they were better doing something than nothing.  They had to eat; they had to make money somehow. 

 

But surely the fact that despite fishing all night they caught nothing speaks volumes.  And not just that they had forgotten how to fish.  Remember what Jesus had told them (15:5):

apart from me you can do nothing. 

 

Not: apart from me you will achieve less; apart from me it won’t be as good.

Apart from me you can do nothing. 

 

But Lord, we’re going out in mission, conducting surveys, knocking on doors.  Everyone is really impressed—apart from me you can do nothing.

But Lord, look how the youth group is growing, and the Sunday School is thriving, and we’re preparing for the biggest Holiday Club ever—apart from me you can do nothing.

Lord, look at how we’re making a stand for your Word, speaking up against the enemies of the gospel, seeking to protect the church of all that is unholy—apart from me you can do nothing.

 

When will we ever learn that when we go it alone without the Lord, relying on our own wisdom, our own know-how, our own clout, our own finances, we do nothing?  We achieve nothing for God’s kingdom; we build nothing of eternal value. 

 

So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

How frustrating.  How disappointing.  But isn’t it often the case that it’s in the midst of frustrations and disappointments that the Lord makes himself known to us?

 

There’s a stranger on the shore.  It’s Jesus but the disciples don’t recognize him.  He shouts out: Friends, haven’t you any fish. (v.5)  Their answer is abrupt: No.

The stranger calls, Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some. (v.6)

 

Fishermen are used to receiving unwanted advice.  For some reason, whether in hope or because they have nothing to lose, they heed the advice.  And we read:

When they did they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. 

Later we learn that they had caught 153 fish. 

 

Why is John telling us this story? Is this one last miracle for the road?  No, I don’t think so.  We’ve had the ultimate miracle, Jesus rising from the dead. This is small fry compared to that.

 

What John is doing is using a familiar metaphor for evangelism, namely fishing, to teach us that success still depends on Christ, even though he is no longer physically with us.  Apart from him we can do nothing.  But dependant on Christ, the gospel nets fill up.  Yet they never break.

 

Earlier we read from Ezekiel 47.  Ezekiel, in exile in Babylon, mourning the destruction of all he held dear, was given a vision of a river flowing from the temple in Jerusalem.  At first it’s just a trickle.  Then it becomes a burn and then it’s ankle deep.  Each 1000 cubits further down stream sees the river widening and deepening.  It becomes knee-deep, then it’s up the waist.  Eventually, it’s a torrent, deep enough to swim in, but too wide to cross.

 

Son of man, do you see this? 

 

This is a river of blessing.  A river that floods the Dead Sea with fresh water.  It’s a life-giving river.  v.9,10:

 Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows.  There will be large numbers of fish because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.  Fishermen will stand along the shore, from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will places for spreading nets.  The fish will be of many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. 

Ezekiel is telling us the same as John—cast your nets into the water and a catch is guaranteed.  For Jesus Christ is Lord of the harvest, the gospel harvest. 

 

Surely this is emphasised all the more when we notice that Jesus is already cooking breakfast for them on the shore.  Where did he get the fish?  You see, the Lord doesn’t actually need our help.  He will bring people to himself himself if he so chooses.  It is only by grace that he allows us to partner him. 

 

Isn’t it wonderful that the Lord Jesus says to us: Bring some of the fish you have just caught

Bring to me those you have witnessed to, those you have helped to faith, those who were won by watching how you lived your life. 

 

And didn’t the symbolism become reality for Peter and the disciples on the Day of Pentecost, when 3000 souls were saved.  There were only 120 disciples up till then.  Imagine 3000 being added to our number in one day.  Yet it didn’t break the church.  Instead, the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.  (Acts 2:47)

 

Oh let us make it our prayer: Lord, make us fishers of men. 

 

Peter

There remains one last piece of business; one loose end that still needs to be tied up: Peter.  If Peter is going to be part of the future his past has to be dealt with.  Three times he had denied knowing Jesus; three times Jesus makes him say the words:

you know that I love you…you know that I love you…you know that I love you

each affirmation cancelling out each denial. 

 

After the sea-side breakfast Jesus turns to Peter, in front of the others, and says:

Simon son of John do you truly love me more than these?

Interesting that Jesus calls him by the old name, Simon.  Not Peter the Rock; but Simon. 

 

Jesus’ question can be taken three ways.  He might be looking at the other disciples and saying, Do you love me more than you love these friends of yours?  Certainly, the true disciple of Christ must love his Lord more than anyone else, even family.  That means that when a conflict arises between what our friends and family want from us and what we know is the Lord’s will for us, the Lord wins, every time. 

 

Alternatively it might be that Jesus is pointing to the fishing nets drying on the sand.  Do you love me more than you love the old life, the secure life, the steady income, the status that comes with having your own business? 

 

Again, the committed disciple of Christ lives lightly to the things of this world.  Not everyone is called to give up their career to go to the mission field, for example.  But if you were called, would you go?  People nowadays are willing to put their career on hold for the sake of family, for the sake of sanity!  What if the Lord asked you to forego promotion in order to devote more time to his kingdom?  Would you do it? 

 

It’s possible to read what the Lord is saying to Peter in either of those two ways.  But there is a third alternative which I want to suggest to you; which is that the Lord is saying:

Do you love me more than the other disciples love me?

 

In the past Peter had made big claims for his love and loyalty to Jesus. 

Though everyone else desert you, I will never desert you.

I will lay down my life for you.

And let’s be fair, he did draw a sword to defend Jesus against those sent to arrest him. 

 

But all that bravado disappeared in the high priest’s court-yard. 

 

The Lord Jesus is giving Peter the chance to express what is really in his heart.  He does love his Master.  Look how quickly he jumps into the water as soon he realizes it is Jesus standing on the shore.  Peter is going to play a pre-eminent role among the disciples.  They have to know that Peter is no longer all talk and hot air.  They need to know that Jesus himself accepts Peter’s devotion.  They need to know that Peter’s love for the Lord will never be in question again.

 

Matthew Henry says:

We should all study to excel in our love to Christ.  It is not breach of the peace to strive which will love Christ best 

 

The way the Lord handles Peter is masterful.  I’m no psychologist, but there must be something very healing, very restorative for Peter in hearing himself say out loud you know I love you.

 

Note how he appeal to the Lord’s knowledge.  He doesn’t ask the others for a character reference.  Perhaps with Judas in mind, he knows that we can so easily misjudge someone, one way or the other.  No.  The Lord Jesus knows all things.  He knows who are the hypocrites and who, despite their failures, are sincere. 

 

As a pastor, I’m forced to admit that Jesus is far more forgiving than I am.  The world at large is a very unforgiving place.  Politicians, social workers, teachers, the police, celebrities—anyone in the public eye who puts a foot wrong can expect to feel the wrath of the British press.  (Journalists seem to be exempt!)

 

We’re not much different in the church.  We’re not very tolerant of failure, spiritual failure, especially in our leaders.  We expect them, rightly, to set us an example of righteousness and holiness.  We have high expectations of their integrity, perhaps too high.  When they fall, we’re shocked and horrified.  As if ordination renders a man perfect. 

 

On the other hand, we don’t appreciate our own sins being brought to our attention.  Who would dare point out our selfishness, or our tendency to gossip or be economical with the truth?  Who would be brave enough to question how we spend our time or our money?  Or to challenge a spirit of anger or bitterness within us? 

 

I can do it from the safety of the pulpit; but I can only speak generally.  I don’t name names.  I can only pray that the Holy Spirit will speak to those who need spoken to.  

 

The Lord Jesus shows us that there are times when sin has to be dealt with personally.  For the good of the church it cannot be swept under the carpet.  It will hurt, as it hurt Peter.  But if we love the Lord Jesus we will accept the rebuke.  Indeed, if holiness is our heart’s desire, we will welcome the rebuke.  We will see it for what it is: a wound from a friend who has our best interests at heart.

Jesus insists on confronting Peter with his sin.  But he doesn’t go in with all guns blazing.  His words are coated with love, not condemnation.  His purpose is not to destroy, but to restore.  That should always be the aim of Christian discipline.  We want to see an erring brother, an erring sister brought back to Christ. 

 

And if they repent, praise God.  If the Lord Jesus was willing to accept Peter as an apostle, how can we refuse to accept a penitent believer as a brother or sister?    

Great God of wonders all thy ways/Display thy attributes divine

But countless acts of pardoning grace/Beyond thy other wonders shine

Who is a pardoning God like thee?/Or who has grace so rich, so free?

 

And listen to what Jesus calls Peter:

Feed my lambs…Take care of my sheep…Feed my sheep.

 

He doesn’t call Peter to an office.  He doesn’t say: be a minister, be an elder, be a bishop.  Jesus calls him to a task—Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep.

 

This is no menial task, no back-room job where he is well out of harms way.  It is, without minimising the importance of all ministries within the church, the key ministry; the ministry without which there are no other ministries.  Feed my sheep.  If the sheep aren’t strong and healthy they are good for nothing. 

 

What I do in the pulpit prepares you for what you do the rest of the week.  These days preaching gets a bad name.  “Don’t preach at me,” people will say if they feel someone is nagging them.  Even the word “sermonise” has negative connotations. 

 

And that feeling has wormed its way into the church so that there is a crisis of confidence among those who are called to be preachers of God’s word.  Many of my colleagues question the value of preaching sermons.  Surely it would be a better use of their time to be out in the community, helping at the youth club, running a drug rehabilitation clinic; or being active in alleviating Third World poverty.  These are worthy and necessary causes; causes at the heart of God’s kingdom.  And the world approves of such activity.  What good does preaching sermons do?

 

The thought crosses my mind frequently.  But then I look at the churches where the minister has taken this approach.  Strangely, I don’t always see active, thriving congregations.  I don’t often see highly motivated people also giving their time and energy to these kingdom causes.  Instead, I see a dwindling congregation, with little appetite for God’s work.

 

Why?  Because no one is feeding the sheep.  The shepherd is too busy running round the field, acting like one of the flock. 

 

Peter’s calling was clear; and so is mine: Feed my sheep. 

They are my sheep, says Jesus, and therefore you have no right to decide what’s best for them.  I want them fed.  Feed my sheep so that they may have the spiritual strength and energy to live for me in the world; witnessing to their faith not just by words but in acts of kindness, patience, and self-sacrifice.

 

And then, there on the shore of Lake Galilee, the Lord Jesus reiterates his first and fundamental call: Follow me. 

It’s a call we need to hear day and daily; a call we need to heed and respond to day and daily: Follow me. 

 

Wherever I lead, Follow me.  For Peter it was to a cross and martyrdom; for John it was old age and exile.  No one can say that one disciple was better than the other; or that one gave more than the other.  They simply followed Jesus.

 

It’s the same for us.  Some of us follow Jesus to the ends of the earth; some of us follow him and find ourselves living in the same town and the same street all our days.  And if anyone should question why that might be we simply quote Jesus (v.22): what is that to you?

What matters is that our eyes are fixed on Jesus; and that we are following him. 

 

CONCLUSION

So John concludes his Gospel with this little statement to the effect that he has only scratched the surface of Jesus’ life; an impression we probably formed anyway the more we read, the more we learned. 

 

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among.  We have seen his glory (1:14)

 

I don’t know about you but there have been times when I’ve been preaching the text of this Gospel that I’ve felt the same.  We have seen his glory

 

Thank you heavenly Father for your servant John

Thank you for inspiring him to write about what he saw and heard

Thank you for his keen eye and spiritual insight

teaching us eternal truths.

And thank you that over the centuries you have used his Gospel

to persuade countless millions that Jesus is the Christ

the Son of God,

thank you that because of this Gospel many have found life,

real life, through faith in his name. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scratching the surface

March 28, 2009

Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret), by Tamar LeviTomorrow I will post my last sermon from John’s Gospel, on chapter 21.  As when I completed the series in Ephesians I can’t help feeling a sense of loss.  This has been a profound journey; a journey that takes us to the heart of God and who he is.  It’s no wonder that John finishes by saying that he has hardly scratched the surface of Jesus’ life: Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

 

We could apply a verse from another chapter to the story of Peter’s restoration: You have saved the best till last.  It’s the one story we can all identify with.  All of us need to confess our love for Christ; all of us need to hear Christ’s words of forgiveness and confidence in us.  It’s what Jesus’ mission is all about: not to condemn the world but to save the world (3:17). 

 

Here are a couple of quotes from Matthew Henry that don’t make it into the sermon.  The first is an observation that the primary qualification for ministry is love for Jesus.  The second refers to glorifying God in our death (v.19)

 

Christ has such tender regard to his flock that he will not trust it with any but those that love him and therefore will love all that are his for his sake.  Those that do not truly love Christ will never truly love the souls of men nor will naturally care for their state as they should nor will that minister love his work that does not love his Master.  Nothing but the love of Christ will constrain ministers to go cheerfully through the difficulties and discouragements they meet in their work. 

 

When we die patiently submitting to the will of Go;, die cheerfully rejoicing in hope of the glory of God; and die usefully witnessing to the truth and goodness of religion and encouraging others, we glorify God in dying

 

More press comment

March 26, 2009

I’ve managed to get a copy of the Scottish Daily Express article.  It even gives us a picture of a smiling Scott Rennie which looks as if it was taken yesterday. 

The interesting thing about this story is that this is the first time any one has mentioned the 1967 report on homosexuality when the Assembly clearly came out against homosexuality as sinful.  I think everyone thought it was so long ago it didn’t count any more! 

The Commission is not a “powerful committee” but 10% of last year’s Commissioners to the Assembly.  The idea is to allow cases to be heard between Assemblies because in the past everyone had to wait till May to have cases resolved. 

 

KIRK IN CRISIS OVER GAY MINISTER

Story Image 

ROW: Scott Rennie is at the centre of a dispute

Thursday March 26,2009

By Judith Duffy

THE Church of Scotland faces its biggest crisis in a century following a row over whether an openly gay minister should be allowed to take up a new post.

Reverend Scott Rennie was appointed as minister at Aberdeen’s Queen’s Cross Church in January with the backing of the congregation.

But the move was blocked following a complaint from around 12 dissenting members of Aberdeen Presbytery on the grounds that they objected to his lifestyle.

Yesterday a powerful Church of Scotland committee voted by 42-41 to pass the appeal to the General Assembly in May for further scrutiny. The outcome is expected to have “huge implications” for the Kirk and threatens to lead to a split between different factions in the church.

Divorced father-of-one Mr Rennie, who is minister of Brechin Cathedral, Angus where he lives with his gay partner David, said the decision would cause “continuing distress”.

He said: “The 2009 General Assembly will be a seminal moment for the Kirk, for the many gay people in its membership, and especially for those who serve as ordained elders and ministers. We will discover whether the Church’s own anti-discrimination legislation, passed as recently as 2007, means anything – or whether it is worthless.”

However, Reverend Ian Aitken, of New Stockethill in Aberdeen, who was one of the complainers, argued the anti-discrimination legislation allowed gay ministers to fulfil their position, as long as they did not engage in homosexual acts.

He added: “This debate is crucial and what we need to do is make a decision  whether we should move away from what links us with our sister churches.
“This is not a witch hunt, but we should not be making ad-hoc decisions without considerate reflection.”

Reverend Lindsay Biddle, chaplain of Affirmation Scotland, a pro-gay group in the church set up three years ago, said the decision by the General Assembly would set a “very important precedent”.

She said: “The climate in the Church of Scotland is such that gay and lesbian ministers are not free to be out, especially ministers who have partners. What Scott Rennie has done is brave in making his life and relationship open. This is not just about one man and one church, it’s about all of us.”

Evangelical group Forward Together claimed the situation is the biggest crisis facing the Kirk since 1843, when hundreds of ministers broke away to form the Free Church of Scotland.

Yesterday chairman Reverend Douglas Cranston backed the decision by the Commission of Assembly to refer the case to the General Assembly.

He said: “While the Commission has the power to deal with the case, its outcome carries such wide implications for the whole Church that as representative a constituency as possible should make the final decision.

“For at least 4,000 years, those who have based their ethics on the teachings of the Bible have regarded the practice of homosexuality as inconsistent with the profession of faith of the God of the Bible.”

Same sex marriage has long been a thorny issue for the church.

In 2006, a decision by the General Assembly to allow ministers to conduct civil partnerships was subsequently rejected by local presbyteries.

The Church’s position on homosexuality is derived from a ruling in 1967, which advocated celibacy for gays. It has previously stated there are openly gay ministers within the Church, but this is the first time such an appointment has been challenged.

A spokeswoman for the Church of Scotland said the Commission had decided to refer the case on as it was a matter of “important principle”.

Here is a copy of the first press report of the Aberdeen case, sent to me by avid blog reader, Mike Goss.  The reporter, Stephan Christie, once told me that he was not biased in any way.  What do you think?
PRESS AND JOURNAL Thursday 26th March

Gay minister saddened by new delay in row over post
Decision on appointment will now be made by Kirk’s highest court

By Stephen Christie

Published: 26/03/2009

A gay minister at the centre of a bitter row over his move to preach in Aberdeen last night spoke of his disappointment after it emerged a decision on his future will be passed to the Kirk’s highest court.

Church of Scotland minister the Rev Scott Rennie has been waiting since January to find out if he can fill the vacant post at Queen’s Cross Church in the city’s west end.

His application hit another hurdle yesterday when a powerful committee voted to refer the final decision to the General Assembly – the Kirk’s annual supreme court meeting held in May.

Mr Rennie, 36, an Aberdeen FC fan and a member of the Liberal Democrats, is currently minister at Brechin Cathedral in Angus. The divorced father of one shares the manse there with his partner, David.

Commenting after yesterday’s meeting of the Commission of Assembly in Edinburgh, Mr Rennie said: “I am disappointed at the continuing distress the complaint will cause to the congregation of Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen, Brechin Cathedral, as well as to me and my family.

“I am very grateful, however, for the very many supportive voices inside and outside the Kirk, whose kindness and encouragement gives us all strength, and reminds us what Christianity is all about.”

Mr Rennie, who was born and raised in Aberdeen, said the General Assembly decision will be a “seminal moment” for the Kirk and the “many gay people” in its membership.

“We will discover whether the Church’s own anti-discrimination legislation, passed as recently as 2007, means anything, or whether it is worthless,” he added.

The commission, partly made up of ministers and elders, voted 42-41 in favour of referring the final decision to the assembly, which opens on May 21.

A spokeswoman for the Church of Scotland yesterday confirmed the commission had met in Edinburgh, where members decided the issue needed further scrutiny, and it had been passed to the assembly.

Evangelical organisation Forward Together has expressed concern over the rift, saying “enormous tremors” had been felt throughout the Kirk.

Last night, the group’s chairman, Douglas Cranstone, said the commission was “wise” to refer the case to the assembly.

“While the commission has the power to deal with the case, its outcome carries such wide implications for the whole Church that as representative a constituency as possible should make the final decision,” he added.

The row erupted in January when 12 members of Aberdeen Presbytery objected to Mr Rennie’s appointment at Queen’s Cross because they did not approve of his lifestyle.

One of the complainers, the Rev Ian Aitken, of New Stockethill, said yesterday: “This is not a witch hunt. It’s just that we should not be making ad hoc decisions without considerate reflection.”

In praise of Dissenters

March 26, 2009

Let us begin by praising those who stood up for what they believe not knowing what kind of reception they would receive.  Let us affirm our admiration and support for Ian Aitken, Louis Kinsey, Nigel Parker, Dominic Smart, and Peter Dickson, all named yesterday, and for the unnamed others who sat behind them at the Commission of Assembly.  Sticking your head above the parapet is never easy.  But they did it and will for ever be remembered for doing so. 

 

Let me tell you what happened.  The dissenters were represented by Ian Aitken.  His opening speech got to the heart of the matter; namely that the induction of an openly gay minister is such a departure from the traditionally held view that it ought to be sanctioned only by the highest court in the land, our General Assembly.  He referred to the Human Sexuality Report of 2007 which recognized that differing views are held within our Church and called for more prayer and dialogue.  By sustaining Scott Rennie’s call the Presbytery were closing the door on debate and in effect creating policy for the whole Church.  Ian rightly kept coming back to this point.  By hold an extraordinary meeting of Presbytery to debate the call (rather than the usual procedure, which according to Ian is done by e-mail and “goes through on the nod”) the Presbytery were well aware of the controversial nature of the call. 

 

What should the Presbytery have done?  They should have upheld the current position of the Church or sought to have changed it in the proper forum.  He recognized the importance of a congregation’s right to call its own minister but this is not an absolute right—hence the requirement for Presbytery to sustain the call.  We are Presbyterians not Congregationalists.

 

It was then the turn of the Presbytery Clerk to speak.  He began by pointing out some of the legal and technical deficiencies in the dissenters’ written pleadings.  He showed that the call from Queen’s Cross Church was well subscribed and that the vote to sustain the call was overwhelming.  He argued that there were different views of homosexuality in the Church and different ways of interpreting Scripture.  He reminded the Commission that it is against the law of the Church to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and questioned whether or not sexual orientation can be distinguished from practice. 

 

He made much of a congregation’s right to call its own minister.  The fact that the Commission was being held in St Andrew’s and St George’s did not escape his notice. 

 

Then, starting with the dissenters, each side was permitted to answer the points made by their opponents.  Not much was added to the debate by this.  Ian Aitken asked the question: What restrictions if any are placed on a minister’s sexual activity?  This is a question I have been asking myself.  Is it ludicrous now to imagine a properly ordained minister from another Presbyterian denomination being accepted into the Church of Scotland who comes from a culture where polygamy is normal?  Can a minister separate from husband or wife, and then bring boy/girl friend into the manse?

 

The only moment of humour came when the joint Presbytery Clerk, John Ferguson, raised the question of what does “partner” mean.  Scott Rennie has stated that he shares a committed relationship with his “partner”.  Ian correctly said that in everyday language this is understood to mean someone we share our life with fully, including sexually.  But John questioned this and raised a muffled guffaw when he said that his fellow Clerk, George Cowie, could be described as his partner!  One wonders how committed they are to each other. 

 

The arguments got a full hearing.  Strange, however, that the one argument that I thought was important was never raised, namely, that only two years ago the Presbyteries had decisively decided not to enact legislation that would allow ministers to mark a Civil Partnership with a religious ceremony.  In other words, the traditional Christian view was upheld.  Surely this allows us to infer the general mind of the Church. 

 

The General Assembly is only two months away.  Once again the old Chinese curse seems to be appropriate: May you live in interesting times.