Why should we care? A friend of mine, who happens to be both gay and a regular churchgoer, read this piece in the newspaper and rejected its assertions out of hand. It was exaggeration, he claimed. A product of the imaginations of journalists. And if he doesn’t seem to take much interest in this, why should anyone else?
I’m more than familiar with the imaginations of journalists. But there is an important issue at the heart of the matter. The reason the Kirk is allegedly set for a “schism” is that its Special Commission on Same Sex Relationships has exposed some rather traditionalist (i.e. primitive) attitudes on the part of some of its clergy.
At least the Kirk is finally getting to grips with the matter, rather than constantly dodging it. The appointment of Rev Scott Rennie in Aberdeen sparked controversy and essentially was the trigger for the commission. It seems that over 80% of ministers balloted by the commission are sufficiently liberal-minded and tolerant as to welcome gay and lesbian people as colleagues. So far, so good.
But The Herald fails to give much attention to the tolerant, reasonable minority and instead turns its attention to the 10% who believe that “homosexual orientation is a disorder and homosexual behaviour is sinful. Gay and lesbian people should avoid same-sex relationships and, ideally, seek to be rid of homosexual desires.” It also finds as significant the 19.4% of respondents who “would consider it obligatory to leave the church” if same-sex relationships are given the church’s blessing.
Only 866 people were “commissioned” to take part, which means the number who adhere to the illiberal and intolerant “Christian” interpretation of homosexuality as “a disorder” are a mere 87. I must thank Iris Robinson for agreeing to be surveyed 87 times. The Herald applies this 1:10 ratio to the wider church membership and from this deduces that “at least 100,000 members would leave” the Kirk, presumably to form an anti-Kirk whose raison d’etre is institutional homophobia.
This really is absolute rubbish. Firstly, it's based on the unreasonable and unevidenced logic that the attitudes of 10% of the Kirk's clergy would be shared by an equal proportion of the membership. Secondly, I can’t see the Church of Scotland making a radical shift in its position; it’s more likely to take very small steps on the road to ordination of gay people and would probably allow for local churches to retain some degree of “moral independence” in determining their ministers. The truth is that the Kirk is paralysed by fear of division, hence the reason why a vocal minority have been able to have a disproportionate influence on its decision-making. Thirdly, even if the Kirk was sufficiently courageous to stand up to the traditionalists it is very unlikely that even 5% of members would follow them out. The vast majority of Christians, like the rest of us, have more important things to concern themselves with than the degree of sinfulness in which the church holds homosexuality - or the sexuality of their clergy.
The Herald is clearly suggesting that the Kirk is on course for “the greatest schism in the 451 years since the Reformation”. Even greater than 1843, when the Free Church broke away? Does The Herald really think that many people are motivated by religious matters in the same way they were then? It also suggests, implicitly, that a new breakaway Church of Scottish Homophobes will be established imminently. On which I have to suggest it is highly unlikely, but it isn’t outwith the realms of possibility that a small number of intolerant puritans might establish their own small and insignificant church through which they can continue to peddle their discriminatory doctrines.
Why should the public be concerned? There are two reasons. Firstly is the potential for the creation of a new church, small yet vocal, in which institutional intolerance is not only accepted but is actively cultivated. Such a church would spread seeds of social division not entirely in keeping with my understanding of the Christian ethos. The second is that sections of the Scottish media appear to have an appetite for playing up dissention and giving a disproportionately loud voice to the less progressive wing of the Church – and by doing so are further paralysing an already impotent Kirk, unable to translate its broadly liberal attitudes and good intentions into progressive action.
The Church of Scotland will be making a decision at its General Assembly in May on same-sex relationships. Its actions will have ramifications for gay people both within and outside the Kirk, religious and irreligious. It can make a decision to tackle rampant homophobia or it can opt to succumb to the pressure of traditionalists (with the inevitable media reaction). But either way, it must finally take up a position.
Meanwhile, perhaps The Herald should give less attention to the spin and rhetoric of the traditionalists, and be a little more responsible in its use of statistics.