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.