Church of Scotland’s historic step towards inclusion
Blair Robertson, Convenor of Affirmation Scotland, gives his assessment of where gay and lesbian ministers in Civil Partnerships now stand in relation to appointments in the Church of Scotland.
Last week, the
General Assembly of The Church of Scotland debated whether the church would be accepting of those in ministry, and those called to ministry, who are gay,lesbian and who may or may not be in a relationship. Were our prayers answered?
That’s always a hard question to answer: the deepest desires of our hearts were not realised, but neither were our worst fears. The report of the Theological Commission presented the Assembly with a clear choice: to put in place a process whereby the church would affirm the ministry of those in a Civil Partnership, but also allow individual congregations to “opt out”; or, to reaffirm the traditional view of the sinfulness of same-sex relationships and take steps to discipline those in the church who are in such. During the debate on these two proposals a third emerged, proposed by the last Moderator, Albert Bogle. He proposed that the traditional view of the church be re-affirmed but that individual congregations may declare, during a vacancy, that they would be willing to select as their minister someone in a same-sex relationship. He also proposed that those in same-sex relationships be accepted for training. The new Theological Forum will also examine and report on what this ‘mixed economy’ means for the church. When the vote came the traditionalist position was defeated, but the Bogle proposal won through. The church law to make all this happen will appear next year, and then go to Presbyteries.
We are in the position then, of the Church of Scotland maintaining the traditional view that same-sex relationships are against God’s ideal, but allowing those in such relationships to be accepted for training, and allowing congregations to “opt-out” of the traditional position. In this way, the Bogle proposal is a mirror image of that of the revisionist section of the report. The traditionalists have their position maintained as the “official” line, but room is created for those who think otherwise.
This is not a hugely satisfactory place to end up, but it is a significant - perhaps even historic - step forward. I don’t believe that taking a step backwards, in the future, will be easy or possible. The traditionalists have had to concede that there are, and there are going to be, lesbian and gay ministers in the church, some of whom will be in relationships. The permission given to congregations to declare that they will be welcoming of a minister (or deacon) in a same-sex relationship will begin a process, set a ball rolling, and it is very likely that more and more will adopt this position. This has happened in the United Reformed Church, and The Presbyterian Church USA has a similar ‘mixed economy.’ It may even transpire that some congregations will go looking for a lesbian or gay minister and not be able to find one: we are not talking about big numbers of people here!
This disconnect between the official position of the church, and practice on the ground, has parallels in other parts of the life of the church. Women are eligible for ordination to eldership and ministry but it’s an open secret that some congregations have no women elders, and would never consider a woman as a minister. We live with that, but it is not satisfactory. The Church of Scotland has in its membership a variety of views on war, politics, Scottish independence and so on - and the conservatives are really unable to explain why the issue of sexuality is the one which is a make or break one. So, yesterday, we saw an affirmation of the diversity of the church, and its unity preserved. That’s no bad thing.
We are not in the promised land of equality yet. We are a step closer. We have made the voices and faith of gay and lesbian Christians heard in the church. We can be thankful for what we have achieved and keep praying.