Too little too late

January 8, 2015

The official confirmation for the Church of Scotland that the majority of their presbyteries have backed legislation which will allow the appointment of ministers in a same-sex relationship comes as no surprise. The legislation also makes clear that being in a same-sex relationship is no bar to becoming a candidate for the ministry. While the presbytery head-count of 54.6% to 45.4% may seem rather close, the final affirmation required by the 2015 General Assembly will be far more decisive. Assemblies tend to be more liberal than the church membership at large. We can also expect moves that will allow same-sex weddings in parish churches.

While radicals in the Kirk will be celebrating, what of the evangelicals? I was never one of those who predicted a mass exodus of congregations. Of those who left the Church of Scotland, only a handful have done so en mass. Most such congregations have split. By and large, there have been handfuls of members leaving on their own, disillusioned by the lack of fortitude shown by their minister. Anyone who imagines that a minister leaving the Church of Scotland is taking the easy option needs to think again. As well as losing their home and a job from which they could not be sacked (unless for some gross misdemeanour), there is a massive reduction in salary no matter what other denomination they go to. Those who have demitted their charges have acted with great faith and courage. Those who remain complain that we have left them to continue the fight. Our reply is, What fight? There was no fight to speak of. Rather there was only compromise.

And yet, what if there had been a fight? What if evangelicals had been better organised, more willing to raise the stakes if the radicals got their way? The closeness of the headcount at presbytery level suggests that Albert Bogle’s compromise might not have been necessary. If the Biblical principle for sexual union as being exclusively between one man and one woman had been as well argued throughout presbyteries and congregations as it was on the floor of the Assembly in 2014 there might have been a ground-swell against the radicals. We will never know.

Andrew McGowan has formed the Covenant Fellowship which allows church members to register their dis-satisfaction at the Kirk’s trajectory. Sadly this is fifty years too late. The fact that acting principal clerk George Whyte has welcomed the formation of this new group speaks volumes. They can angrily jump up and down like Rumpelstiltskin but they have surrendered their trump card—that they will never leave the Kirk; and that’s all 121 George Street cares about.


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.

We’ve been Bogled

September 25, 2013

To be Bogled: where an evangelical church, which is uniformly against the revisionist trajectory, splits because some are persuaded to remain in the Church of Scotland because officially nothing has changed, while others can see through the compromise.  Logies have been Bogled.  So has Larbet Old, Newmilns and Coatbridge. 

This only happens in churches with an evangelical ethos.  Nominal congregations couldn’t care one way or the other; revisionist-minded folk have what they want. 

Only evangelicals can find themselves Bogled.  In fact, it is the natural outcome of decades of evangelical ministry.  Those ministers who were products of the Stillite movement worked hard to build up their congregations.  They didn’t flit around.  They were steadfast and immoveable.  They taught their people to worship, to pray, to witness, to give sacrificially, and most of all, to love the Bible.  Who, then, can be surprised, when these Bible-loving people start to question decisions taken at their General Assembly?  It is the natural outcome of evangelical ministry.

This is something my colleagues who wish to remain within the Church of Scotland have failed to appreciate.  Many of them, quite honourably, wish to remain in order to build up an evangelical congregation.  But look what happens—the day comes when the congregation start asking: Why are we part of, why are we supporting, a denomination which denies everything we are being taught? 

I can understand the distress of men of Alistair Morrice’s generation.  Everything they worked for is being unravelled.  Men like myself, influenced by them, thought they were working to build God’s kingdom.  It seems that they were only working to build up the Church of Scotland.  If only Alistair and Eric et al had rallied us to the cause of Christ in Scotland, evangelical congregations would have been united.  Instead, they are scattered.  Who needs wolves? 

Can God save the Church of Scotland?  Of course he can.  But first He expects us to put the Word we preach into practice—like disciplining sin and challenging heresy.  I haven’t heard Alistair or anyone from his group denounce the revisionists. 

My own view is that the Church of Scotland will always tolerate evangelicals so long as they remain loyal to the denomination.  Evangelicals will always lose the vote.  At the Assembly of 2012 I narrowly failed to persuade the Commissioners to legislate that only Christian worship should take place on our premises.  I lost by a couple of dozen votes.  Even to have lost by one vote would have been enough.    Meanwhile, look out for more Bogled congregations.

Here’s an article from yesterday’s Herald about last Friday’s case.  Hardly up-to-date news!  Why do they keep calling evangelicals “hardliners”.  The pro-gay lobby are just as hardline on what they believe.  Why not just evangelicals?  Or “the orthodox” members of the Kirk. 

Hardline opponents have won a key victory to stop the ordination of gay ministers in the Church of Scotland. A special Kirk court upheld a complaint that one of the largest presbyteries broke the moratorium appointing gay clergy when it agreed to allow a man in a civil partnership to begin training for ministry.

The Kirk Commission of Assembly voted 43 to 38 that Hamilton Presbytery was wrong when it agreed that Dimitri Ross should begin training. Mr Ross was appointed on the proviso that meets any student – that they are not guaranteed employment at the end of training – and so was at first thought not to have broken the moratorium.

The decision means that no gay ministers will be appointed until 2011 when the issue will be re-examined at the highest level after anger at the appointment of the Rev Scott Rennie, who is openly gay, to a post in Aberdeen. The Kirk commissioners now have agreed that the moratorium includes training for the ministry, “which, by its very nature looks towards ordination and induction”.

Some Kirk members reacted bitterly when Mr Ross was appointed and he withdrew from training. It is unclear whether his traineeship would have been terminated, but the Kirk confirmed yesterday no more gay candidates will be allowed until 2011. The Church spokesman would not provide details of the complaint by the Rev Iain Murdoch of Wishaw that led to the decision over trainees and declined to comment further. Hamilton Presbytery declined to comment.

The decision also means those unhappy with the principle and length of the moratorium will not force a debate at next year’s General Assembly. Under the moratorium, ministers are also barred from speaking in public about any aspect of human sexuality while the high-level Special Commission gathers its evidence ahead of the 2011 debate, except in Kirk courts or for social care such as discussing helping Aids victims.

One of a group of defiant ministers to have spoken out over the ban in online blogs is the Rev Ian Watson, of Kirkmuirhill, Lanarkshire, who was also a commissioner at the court hearing. He said: “He (Mr Ross) had already received advice from the central Church that the moratorium did not cover training for the ministry and that being in a same-sex relationship was no bar to his becoming a candidate. “Those who argued for the Presbytery insisted that what the deliverance said was precisely what they had meant, no more no less.” Evangelicals against gay ordination were said to be growing in confidence after the vote. Some feel the momentum is such that agreement cannot be reached in 2011, and rather than leaving the Kirk the movement will make a stand when the clash comes.

Privately one said: “We are the main body of the Kirk.” Others have pointed towards the fact that 56 congregations against gay ordination have signed covenants saying so under the auspices of the Fellowship of Confessing Churches. Affirmation Scotland, which supports gay ordination, has nine congregations signed up. But it is only a small representation of the 1400 congregations.

More on the Commission

November 16, 2009

Here’s a more detailed version of events.  I’ve tried to keep it factual.  The outcome raises so many issues but at this stage it’s best not to get into that. 

 The end result was that the Commission decided to uphold the dissent and complaint against the Presbytery of Hamilton.  The practical result is that the deliverance brought in the name of Rev. Dr. John McPake at May’s General Assembly (amended after long debate)—the moratorium—is to be interpreted broadly and not restrictively.  When it instructs Courts, Councils and Committees of the Church not “to make decisions in relation to contentious matters of sexuality, with respect to Ordination and Induction” that includes training for the ministry, which, by its very nature looks towards ordination and induction.   Should a Court, Council or Committee be faced with making a decision in this regard they must decline to do so, sisting the matter if appropriate, until 31st May 2011. 

The history of the case, briefly, is that a man living in a civil partnership applied to the Presbytery of Hamilton to be nominated as a candidate for the ministry at their September meeting.  He had already received advice from the central church—the Principal Clerk’s office, the Ministries Council executive—that the moratorium did not cover training for the ministry and that being in a same-sex relationship was no bar to his becoming a candidate. 

When the Presbytery’s Ministry Committee first considered the application they concluded that the effect of the moratorium meant they must sist the application until May 2011.  

Between making that decision and the night of the Presbytery meeting the Presbytery Clerk received advice from the Principal Clerk that to decide not to nominate (ie, to sist) was in fact making a decision, and therefore in breach of the moratorium.  The moratorium only covered ordinations and inductions and nothing else. 

Therefore, on the night of the Presbytery meeting, the Presbytery’s Ministry Committee met and decided to change its recommendation to Presbytery, to the effect that the application be accepted, with the rider that it was subject to the outcome of the 2011 Assembly.  This would allow the prospective candidate to begin training in the full knowledge that at a future date he may not be able to proceed to ordination.

This recommendation was accepted by the Presbytery. 

 While it might seem that the Presbytery had reached a wise compromise, it presented the wider church with a problem.  Was this indeed the outcome May’s General Assembly had in mind?  Some felt that this was too narrow an interpretation.  While Hamilton Presbytery might wish to add a rider to their acceptance of the candidate, other Presbyteries might not.   Were this decision to go unchallenged, it would appear that the Church of Scotland had not decided not to train sexually active homosexuals for the ministry. 

Many believe that the moratorium provided the church with the chance to calm down.  The relative peace which has descended upon the church would be endangered if it become known that the moratorium was being applied so strictly as to be null and void for all practical purposes. 

The case for the complainers was presented by Rev. Iain Murdoch, graciously and meticulously.  With the help of a printed transcript of the three hour long “McPake debate” he and others reminded the Commission of the atmosphere that afternoon.  The peace and unity of the church was the Assembly’s greatest desire.   Nothing was to happen, nothing at all “in respect to Ordination and Induction.” 

Those who argued for the Presbytery insisted that what the deliverance said was precisely what they had meant—no more no less. 

The Commission agreed with the complainers, by 43 votes to 38.


November 13, 2009

This is a very quick note to let you know what happened at today’s Commission of Assembly regarding the Hamilton Presbytery case.  At very short notice I was asked to be a commissioner so I had a front row seat and in the end was the one who moved the motion that the appeal be upheld.

And it was – by 43 votes to 38.  Talk about a close call.  At first I thought we’d lost and nearly asked for a recount.  But then I realized my motion was the counter-motion and the Moderator was saying that the counter-motion was carried.

When I get a chance I’ll go through the arguments.  But should know that the hero of the day was Iain Murdoch of Wishaw who had the courage to bring the appeal in the first place and at great personal cost (in terms of time, energy and spirit) prepared a meticulous case. 

The result is that the Commission has interpreted the moritorium of May 2009 as having wide rather than narrow scope.  The moritorium on ordinations and inductions extends to training for the ministry too and anyone who is actively homosexual who applies to be a candidate for the ministry must have their application sisted (ie. put on ice) until May 2011.

A year is long enough

October 28, 2009

Here is an editorial from the Times in which they argue that the Moderator’s term in office should be more than just one year.  It’s quite flattering that such an august organ as the Times should even be giving the Moderator more than a passing nod.  That they have even taken the trouble to consider how the kirk can better engage with society is a wonder in itself.  We didn’t know you cared. 

Is their analysis right?  I myself heard one of our most respected ex-Mods, John Miller, make this arguement.  He said that it takes a year to get into the swing of things; that one hardly has time to develop relationships or become press-savvy.  He recommended three years. 

All these things are true.  But I for one don’t want the role of Moderator to become any more than merely honourary.  In some ways, I think the modern Mod still does too much.  S/he goes round the country, like an ecclesiastical cheer-leader, speaking to large congregations (because everyone turns out for the Mod), telling us that the kirk is “in good heart”.  S/he goes abroad representing the kirk, and is always received politely, just as one would an elderly aunt.  No one is interested in what she has to say; but we’ve got to keep up the pretence–after all the Church of Scotland is the “mither kirk”. 

If the Church of Scotland is going to  engage better with modern society it won’t be through an extended moderatorial year.  It will be through the effective communication of the gospel from her 1200 parishes up and down the land.  It will be from well-taught, highly motivated Christians, who love the Lord Jesus and love Scotland.  And if ministers are going to give some kind of lead, these will emerge naturally (or spiritually). 

Moderators tend to be establishment figures.    They don’t take risks.  They don’t rock the boat.  They don’t offend, even if it is for the gospel’s sake.  I’m afraid John C Christie will be more of the same.

Anyway, here is the editorial. 

The Church of Scotland yesterday revealed the name of the man who will head the Church next year. Or rather, in the terms the Kirk prefers, it put forward its selection of John Cairns Christie as the Moderator Designate of the General Assembly of the Kirk (see page 25). His name will be considered next May by delegates to the assembly and almost certainly accepted.

The news of an appointment of such significance might have been expected to arouse keen interest north of the Border. This, after all, is the man who will be responsible for leading a church whose membership comprises around 10 per cent of the population of Scotland, and though that membership has fallen below the 500,000 mark it is still considered to be the national church of Scotland, a body that has represented the faithful since the Reformation.

It is, however, unlikely that Mr Christie’s nomination will raise widespread interest or comment. Unlike the selection of a new Scottish cardinal within the Catholic Church, or the appointment of an Archbishop of Canterbury to represent Anglicans, the emergence of a new Moderator has rarely commanded much attention.

The reasons have nothing to do with the calibre of the candidates. There have been some formidable appointees in the past — intellectuals such as Iain Torrance in 2003, dedicated communitarians such as John Miller in 2001, the first woman moderator, Alison Elliot in 2004.

What counts against them is that they have just one year in which to fulfil their office. One year, in which a programme of visits, speeches and occasional tours abroad are arranged. Not surprisingly most people feel that, however hard the incumbents may strive to convey a message, they are simply not around long enough to make an impact. By the time they have completed their programme, they are in line for replacement.

This means two things. First, they do not have the time to build a relationship with the outside world; to create the recognition factor that is so important today; to become familiar to those they need to reach most — the Scottish public. Second, a year is simply an inadequate period in which to draw out and explain what may be a complex series of moral messages. Dealing with some of the urgent issues that face Scotland today — whether they concern family relationships, youth behaviour, crime, sex, or medical ethics — requires more than just a quick-fire response.

The Kirk should be providing clear leadership and guidance of the kind that builds confidence in its judgment. How much more readily that can be done when a familiar figurehead is providing that guidance. It is, perhaps, not surprising that Catholics in Scotland feel they know their cardinals far better than the Kirk’s adherents know their moderator. Of course, there are historical reasons for this; the Kirk is nothing if not democratic and has always set its heart against the emergence of a hierarchy. But in striving for egalitarianism it may be losing something more important — the ability to reach out to its congregations at a time when a shrinking membership needs moral leadership more than it has ever needed it before.