Friday, 27 May 2011

What the Church of Scotland said this week about gay ministers...and what it didn’t

Last week I blogged about the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly – and the need for it to make the right decision on the ordination of gay ministers, both in the interests of an inclusive church and for LGBT rights in Scotland.

The General Assembly met to discuss the issue on Monday, after which a great deal has been written in the press – much of it speculative and contradictory. So what was actually decided on Monday – and is this really a step forward or a further example of an undecided church sitting on the fence?

Firstly, I’d like to deal with what was reported in the supposedly responsible media (i.e. The Scotsman and The Herald). The Herald, taking the sensationalist line it has adopted throughout, reported that “Kirk split looms as members vote to back gay ministers”, arguing that “the result throws up the prospect of schism within the Church” and quoting from a Lewis minister who likes to use the word “liberalism” as a term of abuse and appeared to have an apocalyptic vision of Scotland’s churches being forced to induct swarms of gay clergy. The Scotsman, more soberly but equally inaccurately, led with “Kirk lifts ban on appointing gay ministers” and focused its energies on unravelling the confused logic of the verdict as well as the human rights issue at the heart of the matter. It chose to quote a more liberal minister from Orkney, who stated “I can’t go on living with discrimination.”

Effectively, to understand precisely the nature of the challenges facing the Church (and attitudes within it) is was necessary to read both reports – it would also probably have helped if the press were prepared to speak to some ordinary C of S members for whom the sexuality of ministers pales into insignificance compared to their leadership skills and compassion.

But it’s not strictly true to say that the Church of Scotland has “lifted the ban”. The Guardian roared that the Kirk "had voted to allow gay minsters". If only it had. What has actually happened is, according to the church’s website, far less radical. It has - wait for it - “vot[ed] for more dialogue”. That seems a bit strange to people like myself who have argued for a more open debate within the church with limited success. I hope the "dialogue" the church is seeking is more constructive, more inclusive, more engaging and less polarised than what we have witnessed in the previous few years.

Essentially, the General Assembly voted by 351 voted to 294 to adopt a position of “acceptance for training, induction and ordination of those in same-sex relationships for the ministry.” It also voted, by a margin of 393 to 252, to allow gay ministers ordained before 2009 to be inducted into pastoral charges – a move obviously designed to ensure the right thing is done in respect to the Rev Scott Rennie. However, while this move away from the Church’s “traditional” position is welcome, the reality is that all the Kirk has done is to “decide on a trajectory” (according to its report) and to have instructed a further two-year theological Commission to prepare a report for the 2013 General Assembly on issues of same-sex relationships.

So no – there is no ban that has been lifted. Instead, we have a further two years of indecision. It’s not what I would have wanted or voted for. The Church has, however, at least agreed not to inhibit induction of ministers such as Rev Rennie who was ordained prior to 2009 – and this bodes well for the future.

The problem with the Kirk’s position is the inconsistency of it. The General Assembly has decided, predictably, to put off making a real decision for as long as possible. They’re following a “trajectory” instead of mustering the courage to abide by their convictions and do something genuinely positive here and now. In doing so, the General Assembly has decided that a church can have a gay minister so long as that person has been ordained for two years and is “openly” gay. This final stipulation demonstrates how intellectually unsustainable the Kirk’s new position is, and how it continues to retain a discriminatory nature. Why this restriction? What about bisexual people? What about gay people who don’t wish to declare their sexuality openly? I certainly don’t feel the need to openly discuss mine, and neither should I.

I am pleased for Scott Rennie and I hope there will be many more gay Christians becoming ministers in the future. I want to be part of a more inclusive church. But whether any gay people will be ordained in the future depends on decisions made in 2013, and so the optimistic headlines in The Scotsman and The Guardian are well short of the mark.

I would like to make a few points about the decision and the process. Firstly, I am disappointed but not altogether surprised by the compromised verdict, and it least it is a step in the right direction. It will be difficult for the General Assembly in 2013 to deny opportunities to gay people when there will already be some actively serving as ministers. And it is certainly vastly preferable to other options the Church could have taken.

Secondly, I am concerned that the Church continues to interpret intolerance and discrimination within its ranks as expressions of “traditionalism”. It is not, and a failure to recognise this gives bigotry some semblance of respectability. Evangelical fundamentalism is a relatively new phenomenon and probably owes far more to the culture of the Holiness movement in the nineteenth century than it does any particular interpretation of scripture. The “traditions” of Christianity as I understand them are love and inclusivity (as witnessed by Christ himself) and a willingness to serve – the kind of things promoted by Scott Rennie rather than his detractors.

Thirdly, it was notable what the General Assembly didn't say. There was no official change in the position that homosexuality is intrinsically sinful. It also refused to be drawn on what exactly it means when it allows for those who are "openly" gay and in same-sex relationships opportunities to train while arguing that "no decisions have yet been taken" about inclusiveness in the future. Is the Kirk really willing to open up training opportunities now, only to deny graduates access to the ministry further down the line?

Fourthly, the General Assembly examined and debated intensely for over six hours on Monday. From what I gather, it seems it was keen to base its decision-making, in part at least, on a document it commissioned on “the biological basis for sexuality”. If the Church of Scotland wishes to embroil itself in scientific arguments then that is its business (although I am also aware that some fringe churches in America use a biological predetermination of sexuality as evidence that homosexuality can be “treated”). But in focusing on this, surely it is overlooking the fact that action isn’t required because gay people are biologically “different”, but because it is unchristian and unethical for the Church to continue in its discriminatory practices? Or perhaps even because inclusiveness is a positive thing that increases the Kirk’s social relevance?

I am hugely disappointed that the General Assembly’s decision was not the more progressive one. But it is clear that momentum is now with the progressives rather than the self-styled “traditionalists”. For that we should all be grateful.


Anonymous said...

Dear Andrew. If you are going to castigate the Kirk for its stance then it behooves you to get your facts straight. You write "Unfortunately, expressing an opinion is something members are currently outlawed from doing by the Kirk’s hierarchy, which prefers restriction and suppression."

Let me quote from the Church of Scotland statement.

"Finally, the Assembly agreed that until the Assembly of 2013 all Courts, Councils and Committees of the Church should not issue press statements or otherwise talk to the media in relation to contentious matters of human sexuality, in respect to Ordination and Induction to the Ministry of the Church of Scotland. Consequently, individuals can speak publicly on these matters; however, it is to be hoped that public contributions of individuals should be offered in the same spirit as was evident at the General Assembly."

In other words members of the church are perfectly at liberty to speak on the subject to whomever they wish, press, public, or private. The ban on talking is on courts councils and committees who in effect cannot speak because they do so largely on behalf of the church. Since the church has not yet come to a mind on the matter it can hardly speak on the matter. You can argue that point back and forward if you like but to say "Unfortunately, expressing an opinion is something members are currently outlawed from doing by the Kirk’s hierarchy, which prefers restriction and suppression." is just plain wrong. I'm afraid if you castigate the press for their inaccuracies you must be prepared to report to a higher standard.

Ayrshire Minister

Andrew said...

Ayrshire Minister - thank you for your comment and correction. I am pepared to report to the highest possible standard but, unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the resources to do much in the way of investigative journalism. i am a mere activist and blogger, not a professional journalist. Unfortunately when I was writing this piece I had a look on the Kirk's website and found only a news feature that explained the Kirk's position and its desire for "further dialogue". Nowhere in that statement did it give the information you have since shared with me, but which I have now found in the "Further statement following the Special Commission on Same Sex Relationships and the Ministry" (which may or may not have been published online at the time I was writing this piece).

I have now amended my article to reflect this, as obviously I believe accuracy in reporting to be of paramount importance. However, the general thrust of my view on the matter remains the same - this decision represents tentative, gradual progress and that the mainstream media should refrain from reducing the complex outcome to such simplicities.

Thank you again for your comment and insights.

Andrew said...

I should add that the misinformation was created by a) what now seems to have been erroneous reporting from the mainstream media and b) uncertainty among church members, many of whom appear to believe that they were not permitted to speak on the matter. Therefore many thanks for taking the time to put the record straight.