This follows the appointment of the Rev Scott Rennie to Queens Cross Church in Aberdeen six years ago, and the recent vote of the Church’s 45 presbyteries to approve the “overture” – essentially a compromise position allowing individual churches to “opt out” of the Church’s official policy on homosexuality.
There are those who hail the vote as a significant victory for religious progressives and for equality more generally. There are others – not least the Rev David Robertson from the Free Church of Scotland, who the media can always depend on to make a few asides at the Kirk – who take the view that this demonstrates how far the Church has moved away from “Biblical” thinking. Neither are correct. It is, as Nick Clegg once famously described the Alternative Vote, a “miserable little compromise”.
Let’s make one thing clear – the Church of Scotland has not adopted a new liberal theology in relation to LGBTI equality. It has not embraced inclusion. It has not even gone as far as accepting clergy who are in same-sex marriages – although there is a separate vote on that later in the week, which could prove to be more controversial still as the Church has not yet accepted any definition of marriage that sees it as anything other than being a union “between a man and a woman”. It still maintains a “traditionalist” position while allowing some congregations to appoint deacons and ministers in civil partnerships. That this very small measure has created so much controversy says a great deal about the existential crisis with the Church of Scotland at present.
If the outcome of the vote, and the debate that preceded it, tells us anything, it’s how divided the church is. The debate itself saw discussion constricted around such questions as whether “marriage between one man and one woman is the only right and proper context for sexual relations”, and it is also clear that factions are emerging within the Kirk including the ultra-traditionalist Covenant Fellowship. The fact that the vote was passed by 309 votes in favour with 182 against might seem quite comfortable, but it highlights the strength of opposition.
All this was highlighted by the outgoing Moderator, the Very Rev John Chalmers, who – in calling for calm – failed to get to grips with the substantive issue. He said: “we cannot go on suffering the pain of internal attacks which are designed to undermine the work or the place of others. It’s time to play for the team. And let me be very clear here – I am not speaking to one side or another of the theological spectrum. I am speaking to both ends and middle. It is time to stop calling each other names, time to shun the idea that we should define ourselves by our differences and instead define ourselves by what we hold in common – our baptism into Christ, our dependence on God’s grace, our will to serve the poor and so on.”
He is putting the unity of the church first, while failing to appreciate that compromise after compromise does not bring unity, but simply irks both sides equally. It is a pity the Moderator does not seem to have learned the lessons of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who failed in his attempts to unify by seeking to be all things to all people. He is also wrong in seeking to diminish the issue as if it is simply some minor theological point – Christians are not only called to serve the poor, but also the suffering, the oppressed, the marginalised, and those who are wilfully discriminated against. At the heart of the matter is a question of social justice. The “unity above everything” approach is misguided, unrealistic and ultimately doomed to failure; furthermore, the Moderator’s headmaster-like instructions for the respective “sides” to stop “name-calling” looks like the desperate intervention of a man who is not in control of the situation.
I’m not going to deny this is a step forward. It is. A small one, but not entirely insignificant. Momentum, I think, is with the progressives. I’m also not going to deny that compromises and gradualist solutions can be positive, but it’s taken us six years to get to this stage – how much longer will it take for the Kirk to accept the legal definition of marriage in this country, let alone realise the need to create a genuinely inclusive church?
The outcome of the vote was the right one, and it is one that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. For such things we must be grateful. But it is not a vote for equality – far from it. Rather, represents merely the reluctant acceptance that there are gay, lesbian and bisexual people within the church who are in civil partnerships.
Yesterday I attended a prayer meeting for IDAHO with some pro-equality Christians from various churches. Some were gay and bisexual, others were “allies” – but what was clear is that none of them regarded Saturday’s vote as a great blow for inclusivity. The meeting took place at the house of my friends Alan and Sheila, who are members of the Church of Scotland – who were at pains to point out that the meeting was entirely “unofficial” and unconnected to the Kirk. This is understandable but seems such a shame: surely the Kirk should be praying (and working) to end homophobia at home and abroad? The contrast between the prayer meeting and the General Assembly was painfully obvious: while one was open to all, inclusive and focused on challenging attitudes that demean us all, the other looks inward, caring principally for institutional unity.
The Kirk will debate whether to extend this measure to same-sex couples in marriages later this week. I expect this will be more contentious, with even more argument centred around the church’s definition of marriage. For those of us who care deeply about creating an inclusive church, such debate is inevitably painful – but perhaps once this very small and logical step has been approved the Church can finally put this unnecessarily divisive process behind it.
Maybe, just maybe, it could then turn its attentions to challenging discrimination and promoting inclusivity?
Andrew Page is a member of Affirmation Scotland, but writes here in a personal capacity.