Thursday, 19 May 2011

Will the Kirk make the right decision on gay clergy?

And so, the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly gets under way in Edinburgh. Unusually, this year what is being discussed is likely to attract more than a little interest from the media – not least because on Monday church leaders will spend the day discussing the report by the Special Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry. I don't normally write on religious issues, but the importance of the Assembly's verdict is such that I feel compelled to speak out in advance.

The special commission, established two years ago after the General Assembly voted by 326 votes to 267 to appoint openly gay minister Scott Rennie to an Aberdeen church, issued a report a few weeks ago and recommended a number of “trajectories” the church could take.

Following the unnecessary controversy surrounding Rev Rennie’s appointment, the Kirk reversed its original decision and instead announced a two-year moratorium on any further appointments of openly gay ministers until the special commission completed its report. Now that the report is complete, the Kirk must now make an overdue decision that will not only affect Rev Rennie and other gay clergy, but gay rights more generally and the church’s standing within Scotland.

So, what does the report recommend? Nothing frighteningly positive to be honest. The first “trajectory” is to implement a ban on gay people training to be ministers — despite such discrimination being illegal. I have concluded that this has been recommended as an option simply to placate some of the traditionalists and will not be taken seriously. The second is to allow people in a same-sex relationship to train for the ministry but set up a theological commission to come up with a definitive answer in 2013. This is the option I can see the church taking – more sitting on the fence and refusing to make a firm decision.

The General Assembly is not necessarily bound by the recommendations of the report and is free to consider other possibilities, such as welcoming gay people as ministers. The church has many gay members and the report recommends that “people who are homosexual by orientation should not be barred from membership of the Church or taking up leadership roles in it”. So why should there be a distinction made between the membership and the clergy? The position is not only morally reprehensible, it is intellectually unsustainable. Homosexual orientation is acceptable, apparently, but homosexual relationships are not – at least for ministers. I don’t comprehend this: why would we not want gay people to give expression to their sexuality in loving acts? Why don’t we use the same criteria to judge same-sex relationships that we use to judge whether heterosexual relationships are whole?

The report recommends Christians “should not be hostile to homosexuals”. That’s nice. But short of the positive, tolerant and inclusive message I was hoping for. It also states that the Church “should regard homophobia as a sin”. This again is welcome, but inconsistent with the thrust of the “trajectories” it recommends, which are both by nature promoting discrimination. This is a confused stance theologically and simply demonstrates how the church has been rendered intellectually impotent by the fear of division on homosexuality. The Kirk simply lacks the ability, or the will, to make a firm decision.

As someone who has campaigned for increased LGBT rights and has a Christian faith (I attend my local Church of Scotland, although irregularly) I have a message for the General Assembly. It is this: you need to be strong and stand by your convictions. You made the right decision two years ago and you have back-pedalled, bullied and intimidated by those who refuse to accept your progressive and tolerant approach. "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him." (James 1:12). Instead of persevering you have buckled under the slightest pressure and have succumbed to the temptation to take the easiest of options (i.e. to pass through the wide gate, Matthew 7: 13).

The confused doctrine of separation currently being advocated in the Kirk is a false gospel and a form of spiritual apartheid. Labelling a section of society as inherently “sinful” on the basis of orientation is dehumanising. How can you speak to people about a God who loves them when you actively treat them as second-rate or when you suggest that value and personhood lies in only one expression of sexuality?

Those who advocate continued discrimination towards gay people, or any other minority, are defending the indefensible. Because discrimination of this type is evil, evil beyond question. It is immoral and unchristian. I can not see how such treatment is consistent with the message of Jesus Christ who said “inasmuch as you did unto the least of these, so you did to me.” (Matthew 25:40) The Jesus I read about is not likely to collaborate with those who persecute an already oppressed minority.

The Kirk’s current position may be confused, but it continues to actively promote discrimination. And it is a form of apartheid, because it discriminates against people on the basis of something they can not change. Enforcing celibacy on ministers of homosexual but not heterosexual orientation is logically unsustainable. It also undermines the church’s moral position, as oppression naturally dehumanises the oppressor as much as the oppressed.

Instead, the Kirk should be awakening an instrinsic sense of worth among all people as children of God. It should be witnessing on the side of the weak, the powerless, the exploited and the discriminated against. If people are created in God’s image, as the church believes, to allow such people to suffer is not simply wrong, it is blasphemous. As Desmond Tutu insisted, homophobia is a “crime against humanity”; it is “to spit in the face of God."

Scott Rennie is certainly a more devout man than most who called for action to be taken against him. The only concern the church should have in respect to gay clergy is whether the individuals concerned can lead effectively. If the church is serious about its mission to be an instrument of peace then it should make the only logical and sensible decision at its disposal. Rejection of discrimination is an obligation implicit in the profession of Christian faith. Jesus Christ identified with the downtrodden, the prostitutes, the drug addicts and homosexuals – so too should his professed adherents.

Scotland needs a new Kirk – non-segregated, tolerant, inclusive, participatory and just; a powerful witness in a new Scotland of one people living together. The General Assembly has an important choice to make: does it opt for further indecision or courageously move to outlaw the oppressive and unjust discriminatory practices it simultaneously opposes and champions? The Kirk has the power to drive Scotland forward on the matter of LGBT rights. If only it knew it. If only it knew what to do with it.


Stephen Glenn said...

Very well written assessment of the issues that need to be discussed, whether they will be or not is up to the General Assembly.

Andrew said...

Many thanks, Stephen.

Jennie Kermode said...

As a non-religious person I frequently find myself defending Christianity against accusations made by those who conflate this kind of institutional discrimination with the viewpoint of all Christians (having read the Bible, I don't even accept it as an official line). I hope Kirk leaders are aware of the damage they do to the wider moral standing of their institution by continuing to rule in a manner perceived as homophobic. They make the Kirk look at best irrelevant to the public discourse on moral issues.

Andrew said...

Thanks Jennie. I'm not the world's most religious person but I do have my beliefs and I see no reason why anyone should be disqualified from Christian service on the basis of their sexuality. Like you, I don't accept that an intolerance towards gay people is "Christian" - the Bible in any case says very little about it(and where it does this if often open to a range of interpretations) and institutional homophobia is hardly consistent with the kind of behaviour advocated by Jesus.

As you say, there is a very real danger of the Kirk becoming socially irrelevant. All this because the leadership lacks the courage to stand up to the intolerant vioews of a minority. Further indecision or an unwillingness to tackle homophobia within its ranks will do the Kirk serious damage - and neither I nor many of my friends would not want to be part of a non-inclusive church.

Anonymous said...

Presumably you are a Kirk member and also gay so you deserve a lot of credit for speaking out. It seems there will always be Christians who want to go backwards to the kind of attitudes and nastiness we saw in the section 28 debate all those years ago. You are right and the church should not be frightened by these shortsighted people and their intolerant fundamentalism. I am an atheist but I am proud of christians like you in the church and I hope the sensible views of the majority are acted upon tomorrow. I think they will be because if they're not then the Kirk has nowhere else to go but into the past and will become more and more irrelevant to most Scots.

Andrew said...

Anonymous, I'm not actually a member of the Church of Scotland, just someone who attends when I can. So I've not been under the same restrictions to keep silent as many others with strong viewpoints on the matter. I also don't feel the need to declare my sexuality; I don't define myself by it in any case but I also fail to see why anyone else should be interested!

It's the intolerant fundamentalism you refer to that I am most concerned about. I feel the Kirk wants to take a stand but is afraid of doing so. Tomorrow I'm sure we'll find out how courageous the General Assembly is prepared to be.

John said...

It's interesting that someone who only occasionally attends church feels that he is in any way qualified to pronounce on a matter of Christian doctrine. Knowing a few verses from the Bible (which are not particularly relevant) is not really a basis for making an informed theological decision. And if you want to see how thin your arguments are try substituting ‘paedophile’ for ‘homosexual’ and then see if you still find what you are saying makes much sense. (And in case anybody jumps to the totally false conclusion that I am equating paedophiles and homosexuals, forget it.) What you are basically arguing is that the Christian Church should always amend its doctrines to agree with whatever is currently considered acceptable by secular society. Again, try putting that argument in the context of 1930s Germany or any other society you disapprove of. The Christian Church exists to change society not to adapt to society.

Andrew said...

Well John, the reason I don't attend church regularly is that I work on Sundays - and I have actually had some theological training. Obviously I am not writing on here as a theologian and therefore focus on the matter of equality (I think my readers would tire of my theological musings very quickly!). As a liberal, I believe in the need to create a more liberal society, and it is from that angle I approach this issue.

I am not "basically arguing is that the Christian Church should always amend its doctrines to agree with whatever is currently considered acceptable by secular society" and it is simplistic of you to argue that. Most theologians would not argue that the scriptural position on homosexuality is as clear cut as some would believe, and I have read some well-constructed theological arguments from respected academics stating precisely the opposite (which I am sure you will be interested in googling). Many clergy are revisiting the issue (perhaps because of social change) and are rejecting the traditional arguments, not simply out of convenience, but because on many levels they simply don't convince. Those who genuinely believe that homosexuality is evil are very much a small minority in today's church.

As you will know, the church has always to some degree reflected secular culture - it's how it makes its message culturally relevant. That does not mean that the message itself is cultural, but the means of communicating has to be.

"The Christian Church exists to change society not to adapt to society". I'm afraid I can't agree - church history tells us something completely different. The church will continue to evolve to maintain its social, spiritual and cultural relevance. It has to adapt to society in order to meet its needs. The message, as I say, is always the same - of hope, love, forgiveness and redemption - but the way it communicates this to a 21st century Scottish audience is surely going to be different to how it would to a 1st century church in Palestine.

The church exists for many things, and I hope it does continue to change society (as it should), but change is a two-way thing. And change isn't necessarily bad - and definitely can't always be equated with compromise.

I must confess that much of my argument was derived from the inspirational Desmond Tutu's teachings on the issue. If the former Archbishop of Cape Town struggles to relate to a Christ who approves of institutional intolerance within His church, I don't see why someone as insignificant as myself should disagree.

Stuart said...

John -

So people who "only occasionally attend church" are not either entitled to an opinion or sufficiently informed to formulate one????? I think many non-religious people have a view on what the church is doing at the moment and that is only right. Presumably "matters of Christian doctrine" should only be left to church members, rather than those who might actually be affected by discrimination casued by such doctrines? Your arrogance really is quite breathtaking.

"Try substituting ‘paedophile’ for ‘homosexual’ and then see if you still find what you are saying makes much sense". That is a simply shocking and judgemental thing to say. It's also pretty desperate. Yes - you are equating homosexuality with paedophilia, despite your protestations to the contrary. What you're saying is deeply offensive. Also your need to invoke the demons of Nazi Germany are hardly helpful and the substance of your argument is quite disturbing. To be honest most of us grew out of using the technique of comparing gays to paedophiles and any idea we don't like to Nazism while at primary school.

So these arguments are "thin"? Not at all, they're well argued. Far better argued that your piece of hateful polemic. Thatere's far more substance in what Andrew says here than in slavish obedience to a single interpretation of scripture - which as Andrew says is hardly universally accepted among church leaders. I'd prefer to take Andrew's considered arguments because he shows he can think for himself. Far intellectually superior than your "the Bible says it, I believe it" attitude, especially when the Bible probably doesn't say it anyway.

John - it's a shame you don't have very much faith in the church. You don't think church leaders know what they're doing - you obviously know better! You also have a very low view of the church if you think that it can't change without being corrupted.

Andrew - nice answer. But I think you've mistaken John's comment as intellectual critique when it is simply a misinformed rant.

John said...


Name calling gets you nowhere.

Stuart said...
John -

So people who "only occasionally attend church" are not either entitled to an opinion or sufficiently informed to formulate one????? I think many non-religious people have a view on what the church is doing at the moment and that is only right. Presumably "matters of Christian doctrine" should only be left to church members, rather than those who might actually be affected by discrimination caused by such doctrines? Your arrogance really is quite breathtaking.

And Liberal Democrat policy should be decided by Conservatives, BNP supporters and Monster Raving Loony Party supporters, I suppose. They’ll all be affected by it. Maybe I should get to decided Lib Dem policy as I’ll be affected by it.

Of course, everybody is entitled to their opinion. My point is that Church doctrine should be decided, firstly, by the churches and not by secular society, and secondly by people who are deeply informed on the issue not by people who have only a slight acquaintance with the subject.

“hateful polemic”???? I would be obliged, Stuart, if you can show me anything which I said which shows any hatred. Using the term ‘hatred’ is usually used by people who have no rational basis for their own argument so they resort to using terms of abuse towards people who disagree with them. Now, that really is not a very good basis for a ‘liberal’ society. (Ditto 'arrogance',‘shocking’, ‘judgemental’ and ‘offensive’.) If you want to deliberately distort what I was saying then that’s up to you, I suppose, but a more careful reading of what I was saying will show you otherwise. (By the way, is it not somewhat judgemental of you to accuse me of arrogance and hateful polemic? Or does this judgemental/non-judgementalism thing only work one way?)

John said...

Let us suppose that you honestly mistook my point about paedophiles. So let me make it clear. My point is this:
Christians believe that God loves everybody.
Therefore Christians believe that God loves paedophiles. (Now is that shocking?)
Does that mean that it follows that paedophiles (and let us be clear that we are talking about active paedophiles) should be allowed to become ministers in the Church of Scotland?
I think not.
My point is that using the argument that God loves homosexuals and that therefore for that reason alone they should be allowed to become ministers is not a very convincing argument. And, therefore, if you want to argue in favour of allowing homosexuals to become ministers you have to find some better argument to use. The point I am making has nothing to do with equating homosexuals and paedophiles (which I have explicitly stated I reject). The point I am making is that arguing in favour of homosexuals (or anybody, come to that) becoming ministers on the basis that God loves them is not a very satisfactory argument. For the simple reason that God’s loves excludes nobody.

Andrew said...

John, I wouldn't use the kind of language Stuart does, but I would defend his right to make the points he does (as I defend your right to do likewise).

I think it was me arguing for a liberal society, not Stuart.

I would like to comment on the following quote, if I may: "Church doctrine should be decided, firstly, by the churches and not by secular society, and secondly by people who are deeply informed on the issue not by people who have only a slight acquaintance with the subject."

Of course I agree. I'm not trying to take the decision out of the Church's hands ; I'm expressing an opinion on the process. There's a world of difference - I wonder what your view is of journalists and LGBT groups making similar comments?

The fact that the decision should be left with the church leadership does not mean that it can not and should not be influenced by those outside it. It should certainly be informed by a range of perspectives, unless you genuinely believe the church should be insular and exclusive. I think party policy should ultimately be decided by party members, but it is informed by a range of independent groups, professionals, lobbyists and members of the public.

I don't believe that homosexual people should be allowed to become ministers simply because God loves them. The point I am making is that I see no Biblical reason to exclude them from ministry - simple. You haven't even attempted to put up any serious argument for continued exclusion, and that is presumably because such arguments are less than convincing - the majority of ministers within the Kirk don't even find that one convincing any longer. And there are huge differences between homosexuality and paedophilia, not least that the latter is illegal.

As for "slight acquaintance with the subect" - presumably you're referring to me. I can assure you I have more than a "slight acquaintance" - you'll just have to take my word on this one! I used to think like you did at one time, but my views evolved after I actually had to apply my theological beliefs to real life situations and revisited the basis for those beliefs by more closely examining what the Bible says, and doesn't say, on the matter. As I've said, I find no Biblical basis for institutional discrimination, and most modern theologians appear to share that view.

Andrew said...

Stuart, I think you've made one particulalry interesting point. That of faith in the church. Obviously it's important that church members continue to have faith in the church and its leadership, and not just on this issue. I have no way of knowing if either of you are Kirk members (presumably not, or you're not respecting the ban on speaking out!) but if you are I hope that whatever your view of the decision that's been made, you don't lose faith in the judgement of the Kirk. It's had a tough decision to make and while I might not be thrilled with the outcome, it represents a significant step forward and at least the Kirk is attempting to get to grips with the matter in a far more dignified way than some other denominations.

Stuart, I do actually have faith in both the Kirk and the process. I'm simply frustrated that progress is so slow.

Andrew said...

John, a final point. In one respect it doesn't matter if you find my arguments, which are shared by many others, unconvincing. What matters is what the church leadership feels about them, as it's precisely these arguments they were attempting to deal with last Monday. I think the final vote reveals a great deal about the Kirk's position and broad acceptance of such arguments as well as the obvious and inescapable fact that church doctrine is being determined to some degree by the church's social conscience.

And the issue facing the Kirk is surely wider then mere doctrine? Presumably it is also about witness, social responsibility and human rights?

Thanks for your comments John, and while I disagree with some of them I always welcome this kind of conversation.