May 18, 2014

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.



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