The same might be said for theologians. The Church of Scotland has got its ecclesiastical knickers in a twist once more; this time over the question of whether a gay or lesbian Christian in a civil partnership can be ordained to the ministry. The issue will come to a head on May 21 at the Kirk’s General Assembly in Edinburgh, where a report by a theological commission on same-sex relationships and the ministry will be presented. However, after two years of study, the only conclusion that the commission has come to is that it cannot reach a conclusion.
Here’s the back story: the Church of Scotland, like many other churches, is divided on the issue of homosexuality. There are two main groupings, usually identified as “liberals” and “conservative evangelicals”, but which the commission labels “revisionists” and “traditionalists”.
Revisionists take the Bible seriously, but not literally. They point to contradictions within the sacred text, and argue that while the Bible is an inspired treasury of spiritual wisdom and is indispensable written testimony to the foundational events of Christian faith, parts of it deal with historical situations that have no direct relevance for today. Traditionalists love scripture and fear that a revisionist-dominated Kirk would emasculate the Christian gospel and turn it into a mirror of the world rather than providing an alternative critique.
Traditionalists and revisionists have managed to coexist in the Church of Scotland for a long time, maintaining the Kirk’s reputation as a broad national church. But tensions over interpretation of scripture have increased over the last few decades. In the 1960s, many traditionalists wanted to draw a line in the sand over the ordination of women.
When, in 2008, the Rev Scott Rennie – a gay man in a same-sex partnership – accepted an invitation from Aberdeen’s Queen’s Cross Church to be its minister, the fiery cross went out through the traditionalist heartlands. Here, at last, was a defining issue around which they could rally. In 2009, the General Assembly supported Aberdeen presbytery’s decision to allow Rennie’s ordination to go ahead.
Anyone hoping that the theological commission’s report on the matter would provide guidance to the Kirk as to the best way forward will be disappointed. Acknowledging that the commission itself was divided, its members simply laid out two different scenarios, offering the General Assembly “a choice of either legislating to allow for such ordinations or reaffirming the traditional understanding that it is inappropriate to ordain ministers who are in same-sex relationships”. In Edinburgh, you’ll have had your guidance.
How will it go on May 21? I have no idea. All I know is the stakes are high. There may be a schism, though Scottish Presbyterianism needs another Disruption like it needs a Moderator to be found in a Leith sauna with his breeches down.
What do I hope will happen at the Assembly? Before answering that question, I should sketch in some personal background. After seven years in journalism, I studied at St Andrews, Edinburgh and Duke universities with a view to the ministry of the Church of Scotland. I learned Hebrew and Greek. Specialising in New Testament language and literature, I was soon faced with the problems raised by Holy Writ as well as its glory and inspiration. Traditionalists could not answer the questions I was asking.
Eight years working as a minister in Easterhouse presented further challenges. Exposed to poverty and deprivation on a large scale, I realised that personal changes were not enough. Political change was needed if the structural and social problems that destroyed communities were to be seriously addressed. Although I respected the integrity of friends in the evangelical world – and still do – I needed a religious philosophy that held prayer and political action together. It was the Iona Community that gave me the richer vocabulary of faith I was seeking.
Homosexuality wasn’t much on my radar at that time. Any fleeting thoughts I had about it were conventional, unreflective and negative. Without knowing very much about homosexuality, I was against it. It was a Bad Thing. What changed my mind was meeting Christian gays and lesbians. I think here, for instance, of a fantastic couple who have been in a relationship for more than 40 years. The two women – one a Quaker, the other a Church of Scotland evangelical – met when they worked in an orphanage in Vietnam. They adopted a homeless girl. Now happily married, their daughter could not have been brought up in a more loving Christian home.
I was angered when I learned about the treatment that people in same-sex relationships suffered at the hands of the Church. What surprised me was not how few gay and lesbian people went to church, but how many attended, despite the fact that they had to endure rants from the pulpit about how evil homosexuality was and how they would end up in hell if they did not repent.
And one of the flaws in the Kirk’s consultation process was the lack of instructions to Kirk sessions and presbyteries to sit down and listen to real-life Christians in same-sex relationships. I find that an astonishing omission.
I have read some abysmal Christian literature, insisting that homosexuality was a lifestyle choice, and that it could be “cured” by prayer. (Why any sane person would choose a way of life that would bring them ridicule and contempt, and sometimes even violence, was not explained.) Clerics told Christian gay people that they would be punished by God if they had sex, because sex had to take place only within marriage. When they asked for marriage, they were told that marriage was restricted to heterosexuals. Gotcha!
How could this go on in the name of a loving God? It struck me that on this issue, the big, bad secular world that some clerics hate so much was way ahead of the churches in terms of compassion and moral sensitivity.
Some traditionalist leaders now agree. In America, three highly regarded conservative theologians – professors Jack Rogers, Paul Achtemeier and Peter Gomes – created waves when they changed their minds on the issue. Several leading evangelists have done the same. In Britain, the conservative Anglican priest Benny Hazlehurst – conscious that many gay evangelical Christians have lived exemplary lives – declared that “there is nothing in the Bible which condemns consensual, loving, committed gay relationships”, and founded a group called Accepting Evangelicals, which is attracting younger Christians.
There were further shockwaves in the traditionalist world in the UK a few weeks ago, when Steve Chalke, a high-profile evangelical preacher and writer, publicly declared his support for same-sex relationships. “When we refuse to make room for gay people to live in loving, stable relationships, we consign them to lives of loneliness, secrecy and fear,” he wrote. “It’s one thing to be critical of a promiscuous lifestyle – but shouldn’t the Church consider nurturing positive models for permanent and monogamous homosexual relationships?”
Chalke argued that those who claim the Bible condemns all forms of homosexuality will eventually become the minority, in the same way that those who advocated biblical justifications for slavery and a secondary role for women have also been outnumbered. I would agree with him. I also think that this has become a generational issue. Many younger Christians simply cannot see what the fuss is about over homosexuality, and fear that the Church will end up on the wrong side of God’s history.
Jesus was both a traditionalist and revisionist. He revered the Jewish law, yet he transcended it. “Ye have heard that it was said – but I say unto you” is like a drumbeat through his teaching. As he prepared for his own death, he told his disciples that he would have new truths to reveal. It would be wrong to attempt to second-guess what Jesus would say about gay ministers, but it is clear that for him, the tradition was no static thing set in stone, but was a living source of new possibilities.
I would like the General Assembly to affirm unequivocally that the Church of Scotland is an inclusive church, one which believes passionately in equality and justice before God. I would also like it to assert that candidates for the ministry will be selected on the basis of their character and commitment, not on their sexuality.
If that happens, some conservative ministers will leave (though not necessarily with their congregations). The Free Church of Scotland has already indicated that they will welcome such ministers. This move would certainly be a better “fit” for some of the more vocal opponents of same-sex Christian partnerships, since many of them, like the Free Kirk, are also opposed to the ordination of women.
There are many good people in the Free Kirk, but it is not entirely a faction-free zone. There are mutterings about “modernisers”. It was also from the ranks of the Free Church some years ago that a small group of “Bible believing” Christians conspired, but failed, to bring down their finest theologian, Professor Donald Macleod. The insatiable quest for ever more purity has splintered the Presbyterian movement in the Highlands and Islands. Maybe those who are determined to leave the Kirk should beware what they pray for.
Many Jeremiahs predict the demise of the Church of Scotland if it does support gay ministers. I believe that those dancing on the Kirk’s grave will be confounded. If the Church of Scotland moves to the clear public position of being an inclusive church, characterised by equality and justice and with a renewed focus on Jesus Christ at its core, it will be re-energised spiritually.
There are those who bemoan the fact that this controversy is being played out in the public domain. I don’t. Secrecy and cover-up have seriously damaged the Roman Catholic Church in recent times. Scott Rennie is a much-loved parish minister. He is also very brave. He could have covered up his situation, but he chose to be truthful, even though he knew it would be a costly decision.
I believe that this apparently arcane debate really matters, not just to the Kirk but to the wider community of Scotland. Presbyterianism has been one very important voice in the shaping of modern Scotland, for better and for worse. How it handles this issue will influence whether Scotland becomes a kinder place, or not.
Now is the time for brave spiritual leadership. I don’t know if we will get it. But I hope.