Tuesday , 17 October 2017

Affirmation Scotland – seeking to create a more inclusive church

Representatives of Affirmation Scotland at Glasgow Pride - Lindsay Biddle is second from left, Blair Robertson second from right
Representatives of Affirmation Scotland at Glasgow Pride – Lindsay Biddle is second from left, Blair Robertson second from right

The Rev Lindsay Biddle is a character more colourful than the rainbow flag. A  writer of hymns, blogs and novels, and a Presbyterian minister, Lindsay has experienced first-hand the humanity-diminishing effects of segregation while growing up in the Southern United States. Now ordained by the Presbyterian Church (USA) – which has recently declared its support for same-sex marriage – Lindsay is currently a locum minister for a Glasgow Church of Scotland congregation. But Lindsay is no ordinary parish minister; her radical theology and personal sense of mission, combined with her infectious love of both life and humanity, find expression in her role as chaplain for Affirmation Scotland.

Affirmation Scotland is an organisation working within the Church of Scotland which one would be forgiven for being unaware of. Largely overlooked by a mainstream media more interested in the shrill, narrow perspectives of rampant intolerance – and conspicuous by its absence within the pages of Life and Work – Affirmation Scotland nonetheless has a strong and influential voice. Founded in 2006 to allow for civil partnerships to be blessed by ministers and deacons within “affirming” churches, Affirmation Scotland has emerged from the momentum of the 2009 General Assembly (at which the openly gay Rev Scott Rennie’s appointment was ratified) to grow beyond its original purpose, and it now campaigns for a truly inclusive Church of Scotland.

Affirmation Scotland is, however, more than a mere campaigning group. Its principal purpose is to give voice to the faith, life and experience of LGBT Christians, while serving as a network for LGBT people within the Church of Scotland, their friends and supporters. It aims to cultivate a sense of belonging through meeting together and sharing stories, seeking to repair the disconnection often felt between the life of the church and the life of family. While its focus is on the Church of Scotland and issues pertaining to the Kirk, it is a genuinely inclusive and open body in which people from all denominations (and none) are welcome – welcome, in the words of Affirmation Scotland convenor Rev Blair Robertson, to “a place where they can be themselves without fear”.

A former parish minister currently working as a healthcare chaplain for Greater Glasgow Health Board (“I’m proud to work for an affirming employer”, he says) Blair is keen to outline the growth and successes of Affirmation Scotland during our meeting at Lindsay’s house in Glasgow. The group already has in excess of 160 individual members and 14 affiliated congregations from Avonbridge to Aberdeen (others are supportive but non-attached). He points out that this makes it the largest LGBTI Christian group in Scotland and that while others, such as Church of England dominated Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, have members in Scotland, Affirmation Scotland is the only distinctively Scottish organisation for LGBTI Christians. He points to the annual presence of Affirmation Scotland at the General Assembly and observes the progress that has been made within the last few years, against the backdrop of a traditionally conservative Kirk position on equality. He reminds me of the fact that homosexuality in Scotland remained criminalised until 1980 (unlike England, whose legislation has legalised same-sex relations in 1967), largely due to Church of Scotland resistance, and we also reflect on the toxic legacy of the Section 2A (clause 28) “debate” of 1999-2000 and how quickly attitudes have become more progressive. “It took the American Presbyterian Church 30 years to get to where it is today. When you consider how much has been accomplished in 8 years, there’s reason to be optimistic that we can achieve the same in much less time”, he adds.

Affirmation Scotland is reaching out to new people. Lindsay is particularly proud of the “Affirming Parents” initiative, which offers valuable support to parents of people who have “come out”. It has also been working to highlight the issues experienced by intersex and trans people – often through either educational workshops or testimony at is meetings – and to facilitate understanding through breaking down stereotypes (of both LGBTI people and Christians). However, it is clear to see that Lindsay’s passions are not merely in providing support but also in what she terms “helping the process of thinking…assisting and empowering congregations to make decisions [to become more inclusive]”.

Creating an atmosphere in which LGBTI people and their allies can feel welcomed and included is of particular importance to Affirmation Scotland. “The Church of Scotland is not a safe place for LGBTI people”, Blair claims. “The rhetoric often used in relation to LGBTI issues is patriarchal and its structure is the same as that used against women in times past. There remains a fair amount of antagonism…what Affirmation Scotland seeks to do is create a church where we are comfortable with differences. We take our example from the table ministry of Jesus, who either welcomed at the table or welcomed people to it. It was open to everyone. Some chose not to respond, but Jesus never excluded. That is the dynamic of inclusion.”

Asked what Affirmation Scotland’s immediate priorities are in relation to action, Lindsay stated that the group must pro-actively respond to the General Assembly. Pointing to the telling votes of 2011 and 2013 assemblies in relation to gay clergy, she insists the issue will not go away. There may well be a few more uncomfortable years, but the momentum is surely with the reformers and fully deserves to be. When full equality is finally accomplished within the Kirk, it will be due in no small way to the efforts of this band of pioneers.

About Andrew Page

Andrew Page
Andrew is KaleidoScot's sports editor and photographer. An experienced blogger, Andrew was raised in the Hebrides and currently lives in Renfrewshire. Andrew became an active equality campaigner at the time of the Section 28 debate, and has particular interests in faith issues and promoting LGBTI equality in sport. Andrew was shortlisted for the Icon Award's 2015 Journalist of the Year.

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