A mixed-up economy

May 21, 2014

Why did the General Assembly decide overwhelmingly to pass legislation that will permit congregations to call a minister who is in a Civil Partnership?  It was not in order to glorify God.  It was not in order to be faithful to scripture.  It was not to keep the evangelicals happy; nor was it to give the revisionists what they want.  The evangelicals opposed the legislation; the revisionist tried to revise it to make calling a minister in a CP easier.  Commissioners passed this legislation because they are persuaded that this is going to put the debate to bed—at least for a few years.

Remember—most members of the Church of Scotland don’t really care one way or the other.  They just want everyone to get along as one big happy family. They are annoyed at Scott Rennie for stirring up a hornets nest in the first place; and they are annoyed at the evangelicals for making such a fuss.  What has been decided is “we are traditional, but you don’t have to be if you don’t want to be”; and to most kirk-folk that’s the perfect solution.  A mixed economy.

Alan Hamilton, Convenor of Legal Questions, is to be congratulated for a masterful performance.  He graciously but effortlessly batted away every ball bowled at him.  Finlay Macdonald (ex-Mod, ex-principal clerk) defeated 351:206.  New Testament scholar, Dr.Paul Middleton, defeated 424:165.  And Jeremy Middleton (no relation) defeated 369:189.

Alan’s committee offered the Church a mixed economy; conceded indeed that there already is a mixed economy in the Church.  He conceded that this brings with it legal risks.  The legislation is a form of discrimination and the only guaranteed way to avoid legal action is not to discriminate at all.  But the law, as it stands, allows Churches some lea-way.  But he could not assure the Assembly that a disappointed minister in a CP who was rejected for a charge might sue the Church successfully.

He was sure that this would not be the last word in the matter; in the future the Church could move in either direction.

During the course of the debate there were the usual plethora of silly faux-legal points and non sequiturs.  Moderator, John Chalmers, dealt with these in his usual patient manner.  One chap cited the recent case in Brazil of three women marrying each other in the one ceremony—had the committee considered how much more mixed the mixed economy might become?

The substantive debate began when Jerry Middleton stood to propose his counter motion which, in summary, sought to return the Church to an undiluted traditional/Biblical position.  I know Jerry, and have heard him speak on several occasions.  He is a formidable debater and clear thinker.  This was Jerry at his best.

He made several excellent points.  He said that we could be setting up candidates in a CP for disappointment: we train them for the ministry but when they seek a charge they could be met with a brick wall.  He feared that the legislation was not legally water-tight.  Fundamentally, it is just plain wrong.  It is illogical to declare one thing (the traditional understanding of human sexuality) and then affirm a practice that runs counter to that understanding.  This is not simply about people having different opinions.  Those who affirm what the Church says is its position (traditional/Biblical) regard as sinful what is being permitted, to be repented of, not a blessing to be celebrated.

There followed a rather good debate in the sense that it was a debate.  I heard Steven Reid and Mark Malcolm speak well in support of Jerry.  I was very sad to hear erstwhile evangelical Neil Dougall (now Convenor of the Ministries Council) oppose Jerry.  I also have to express a certain disappointment in some of what Alan Hamilton said, including that he was quite happy to envisage someone in a CP prayerfully considering God’s calling in their life.  If I had cherished sin within my heart God would not have heard my prayers, comes to mind.  In closing he said that what he and his Committee offered was new ways for new challenges in new times.

The legislation now goes down to the Presbyteries to approve.  If they approve it will come back to next year’s Assembly for final approval.  I am already hearing complaints among evangelicals who have remained within the Kirk that the fact that I and those like me have left will make victory on the floor of Presbyteries harder.  If I thought there was any mileage in winning the debate I would have remained.  It’s because I see no possibility of this legislation being rejected that I decided it was time to go.  Perhaps if those now complaining about our departure had been more vocal and supportive a few years ago we would be in a better place now.

This legislation is simply a way of giving a legal procedure for what is already the reality.  I wonder how long it will be before the revisionists try to liberalise it so that there is no need for Kirk Sessions to follow the complicated procedure.

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Last Sunday I was introduced to Victor.  Victor was an elder in a Church of Scotland congregation which has a name for being evangelically minded.  Victor left the CofS late last year.  Why?  Because his minister and fellow elders refused to engage with the issue of clergy in a same sex relationship.  This was a shock to Victor.  He had assumed that his minister and fellow elders, who like him opposed the idea, would want to translate their opposition into action—some action, any action.  But no.

Victor is not the first former CofS elder to have had his eyes opened in recent months.  Another chap I met asked me back to his home so I could explain to him why his former minister—a second generation evangelical—wasn’t even willing to discuss the matter.  Again, this elder had assumed a mighty uprising of gospel preachers would take place.  Instead, he was told it was too divisive: there are more important matters with which to concern ourselves.

So for the sake of Victor and others like him, within or outwith the CofS, I offer these thoughts on why most evangelicals are not leaving the Kirk.  There may be other reasons—some honourable (a profound sense of calling to be a remnant), some not so honourable (the pay is very good).

Number One: Getting on with the job

The attitude of most evangelical ministers is that the issue of clergy in a same-sex relationship does not concern them.  Nor do they expect to be troubled by elders or members coming out of the closet.  As Czechoslovakia was to Neville Chamberlin (a country far away and of which we know little) so is the question of same sex relationships within the Church.  “It will never happen here,” and therefore let’s get on with the job of preaching the gospel.

They may well be right.  Though they ought to speak to Paul Gibson, now of Perth Free Church.  When Paul went to Tain Parish Church he was following on from a very long and faithful evangelical ministry.  Within weeks he discovered that his Session Clerk was in a homosexual relationship.  He assumed that the Kirk Session would back him when he tried to exercise discipline—it didn’t.  He assumed the Presbytery would support him when he took the matter there—it didn’t.  The advice he received was just to keep preaching the gospel.

It seems to me that at the root of this attitude is a theology of the church which is more congregational than Presbyterian.  I have heard it said in the same breath, “We like being part of the National Church but what happens in Aberdeen has nothing do with us.”  The vast majority of Church of Scotland ministers and members belong to that Church simply because it is the National Church.  If they had been born south of the border they would be Anglican; if they had been born in Sweden they’d be Lutheran; if in Italy, Roman Catholic.  In Scotland the Church of Scotland is the default church.

Very, very few of its members and ministers are Presbyterian by conviction.  Thus, the concept of connectivity which lies at the heart of Presbyterianism is by and large alien.  As long as we can do our thing in our parish then why should we leave?

Number Two: The best place to fish from

Related to Number One is Number Two, that the Church of Scotland is the best place to fish from; ie it is the best church from which to conduct mission.  Because the Kirk is the biggest denomination in Scotland, because it is the default church for Protestant Scots, it provides opportunities not afforded to other denominations.  To a certain extent this is true, particularly when it comes to funerals, though less so than in the past.  But school chaplaincies are no longer the exclusive domain of the parish minister.  Head teachers are more impressed with those who can communicate relevantly to children regardless of their denomination.  There are plenty of parish ministers who don’t get through the door of their local school.

I wonder how the average church member would react to this attitude.  Does she realize that her  minister does not regard her as a Christian but as a pagan requiring to be converted?  Are mourners attune to the nuance that the minister has not said anything about their dearly beloved departed having entered through the pearly gates?

My point is this, to remain within the Church of Scotland in the belief that it is the best place to fish from is self-deceiving.  If it is true, why, despite the increase in evangelical ministries, are there still so few evangelical congregations?  Why is Kirk membership plummeting?  Why are there so few candidates for the ministry?

Number Three: They have no-where else to go

All that said, there are evangelical ministers who are greatly distressed with the direction the Kirk is taking.  But what can they do?  Where can they go?

Those from outside the Church of Scotland need to understand that most evangelical ministers are not dyed-in-the-wool Calvinists.  Most do not hold whole-heartedly to the Westminster Confession of Faith.  They may have subscribed to it at their ordination, but most did so never having even read the Confession.  None of us ever received lessons in its theology.  We were told that the liberty of opinion clause was our “get out of jail free” card.  Most evangelical ministers in the Church of Scotland are, in practice, Arminian.  Most have ordained women to the eldership.  Most are happy to participate in ecumenical services.

Therefore, the Free Church of Scotland is not an option.  Nor is the United Free since they have too few congregations able to support a full-time ministry.  The International Presbyterian Church now has three congregations in Scotland but though Presbyterian in name, de facto they are independent.  Some have become independent and this is the route that Holyrood Abbey, St. Catherine’s, and St. James’ (Broughty Ferry) are taking for the time-being.  I truly hope they will soon return to the Presbyterian fold and join us in the Free Church.

Which draws attention to the fact that because there are so few evangelical congregations, even if a man were minded to leave the Kirk, he would be leaving to go to nothing.  Don’t under-estimate how hard that is.  Those who have done it are the bravest of the brave.

Very few of us are in the position to take a congregation with us.  In Kirkmuirhill it was half a congregation, and this was after 60 years of evangelical ministry.  Those of us in leadership there were genuinely shocked to hear members state that the reason they attend Kirkmuirhill Parish is because it is the parish church.  And I thought it was because they liked my preaching!!  This was their church and it mattered not one whit who the minister was or what s/he believed or preached.  It’s because of 60 years of Biblical ministry that half the congregation left; it’s because we were still a parish church that half the members remained.  And so far it’s only been churches with a similar history which have split.

Someone asked me if I knew of any other churches planning to split from the CofS.  After the three mentioned above, no.  That might be it.  The threat of one-third of ministers demitting was always a media myth.  I certainly never said that.  The truth is, most evangelicals will just get on with the job of preaching the gospel, hoping that the militant revisionists will leave them alone.  I wish them well.  My only question is this: if, by the grace of God, people are converted under your ministry, and you teach them that the Bible is the Word of God, our rule of faith and practice, what are you going to say to them when they start questioning you about what scripture teaches about sex and marriage?

 

The annual jamboree that is the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is underway.  Contrary to recent tradition, whereby years ending in an even number have been uncontroversial, this year the issue of clergy in a same sex relationship (from henceforth SSR) comes up.  The matter was supposed to be settled last year. The Assembly was presented with the option of either endorsing provisions to allow clergy in a SSR to enter their pulpits safe in the knowledge that no one would initiate disciplinary proceedings against them; or of rejecting the very idea lock, stock and barrel.  What actually happened was the biggest surprise since Ed Milliband won the Labour leadership.  Terrified that a victory for the revisionists (pro SSR) would force them to make an uncomfortable decision about their future in the CofS, some evangelicals came up with a compromise.  They claimed it was a last minute compromise, cobbled together that very morning on the train from Glasgow.  We now know that wasn’t exactly the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

The primary mover was outgoing Moderator, Albert Bogle, who presented the compromise in his usual stream of consciousness way.  Basically, he presented himself as the “weaker brother” (a la Romans 14) and begged stronger believers (ie those who have no problem with clergy in SSRs) to be patient with him and those like him.  The meat of the argument was presented by Alan Hamilton, a former advocate, and someone who, if not vocal in his opposition to SSRs, has identified with and provided succour to those who are.  Alan suggested that the Legal Questions Committee (of which he is convenor) be instructed to formulate legislation to come before the 2014 General Assembly which would satisfy everyone—to wit, that the Church would declare its adherence to the traditional Christian understanding of human sexuality (ie heterosexual) while finding a way to accommodate those in an active homosexual relationship.

Never mind that a Theological Commission had worked for two years on this project only to see their hard thinking trashed by something that was supposed to be last minute. Commissioners love putting off today what can wait till tomorrow and so grabbed this compromise with both hands.  Some evangelicals voted against it; as did some revisionists.  But as the old saying goes, they make Edinburgh rock, and Assembly fudge.

Earlier this year the Legal Questions unveiled their draft legislation.  True to their instructions, they have come up with something that says one thing but does another.  The draft Act affirms the Church’s historic belief in human sexuality.  Then swiftly moves on. 

Alan Hamilton’s evangelical finger-prints are all over this Act and he is to be commended for trying to make it as hard as possible for a congregation to have a minister in a SSR.  But one wonders if the convenor protesteth too much.  First, the decision to have a minister in a SSR can only be made during a vacancy.  Second, the decision is to be made by the Kirk Session, at two meetings, with a two-thirds majority both times.  Only then would a congregation be allowed to call a minister who is in a SSR.  Talk about hurdles. 

And that’s what makes me wonder.  If I were in the revisionist camp I would be fighting against this draft Act tooth and nail.  Why two Session meetings and not just one?  Why not a simple majority?  I’ve given up trying to predict what the Assembly will do, but I will be amazed if these draconian conditions are not challenged.  But even if they go through; even if they are passed by the Presbyteries under the Barrier Act; there is the Trojan Horse clause: that is shall be no bar to training for the ministry to be in a civil partnership.  The time will come when there will be people eligible for a call, in a SSR, who will cry foul, that they are being discriminated against.  Imagine the scenario—a Nomination Committee has identified the person they want to call; but now they learn this person is in a SSR; and their Kirk Session has never implemented the legislation.  What delays!  And what danger—another congregation, ahead of the game, could snap the candidate up. 

Who will be supporting the draft legislation?  I suspect the main supporters will be those evangelicals who want to be able to say to the rest of the evangelical world: We are in a Church that has a traditional understanding of human sexuality, so please don’t think ill of us. 

There are still evangelicals in the CofS who are thoroughly ashamed of the direction their denomination is taking and on Wednesday Jeremy Middleton, seconded by young John Kennedy, will present a motion that calls on the Church to return to her Biblical roots.  It’s a last-ditched attempt, but it has to be done if for no other reason than to demonstrate to the world at large, and the CofS in particular, that there are still evangelicals within her ranks who have not given up the fight.  I commend them to your prayers.

This time last year, my Kirk Session in Kirkmuirhill had already informed the congregation that if the revisionist argument won the day they would be recommending that we leave the Church of Scotland.  I presented the Bogle/Hamilton compromise to the elders and asked them if they thought it made any difference.  None of those who were previously minded to leave the Kirk thought that it made an iota of a difference.  Not theologically trained, but Biblically literate, they saw through the compromise, and were disgusted.  For to say that you believe one thing, yet work to allow another, is hypocrisy.  The fact is, in the Church of Scotland today, there are clergy, deacons, elders and members who are in active SSRs—some within a civil partnership, some not—and the thought of raising disciplinary proceedings against them is laughable. 

Supporters of this legislation should bear in mind that a fig leaf doesn’t cover up much.