The Church of Scotland has voted overwhelmingly in favour of a proposal to allow local congregations to choose a minister who is gay and in a civil partnership.
The Church’s 46 Scottish presbyteries have been consulted on the matter and have spent the last few months voting on the compromise position put forward by the General Assembly in May.
32 presbyteries have voted for the proposal, with only 14 against. Those not supporting it included Lewis and a number of Highland presbyteries. The Church has yet to formally announce the vote but it is clear those supporting change have comfortably won.
The vote represents an overwhelming expression of support for the General Assembly’s position and almost certainly means that local churches will be able to choose to select ministers in civil partnerships once a final vote is taken at the 2015 General Assembly.
This vote is part of an ongoing conversation on gay ordination within the Church of Scotland, triggered by the appointment of the Rev Scott Rennie to Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen in 2009. Mr Rennie is openly gay and has a civil partner.
Speaking about the result of the vote, Mr Rennie told KaleidoScot “The voting figures are hugely encouraging, and shows the Kirk is moving to a supportive and helpful understanding of modern families in all their shapes and sizes. All over Scotland, churches that offer people an opportunity to explore spirituality in a modern and open setting are growing. The Moderator has called on us to grow our congregations – this can only help.”
Revd Blair Robertson, the convenor of Affirmation Scotland, which is supportive of those in same-sex relationships entering ministry, said “it is heartening that a majority of presbyteries have voted for the overture and Affirmation Scotland naturally hopes the General Assembly will endorse this. Of course, this is not equality for lesbian and gay deacons and ministers but it is a step towards openness and inclusion.”
In relation to the vote itself, Mr Robertson suggested that “debates were often dominated by the ‘traditionalist’ side but when it came to the vote, the ‘revisionist’ position carried. This seems significant and demonstrates that the tide of opinion in the church is following towards acceptability of people in same-sex relationships…it now seems that the silent middle ground has made up its mind and voted for an inclusive, affirming church!”
Stuart Ryan, a member of the Church of Scotland in the Paisley and Greenock presbytery, also welcomed the vote and was critical of media reporting. He told KaleidoScot: “The way this debate has been framed by the media as divisive and controversial shows a lack of understanding. We’re having a democratic conversation within the church. It’s been honest and open; we don’t all agree, but we’re making a decision on how best to go forward and it’s clear that the compromise position has been welcomed by most of us. The press want [Scots] to believe that the church is splitting over ‘gay marriage’ but as only thirteen ministers [from nearly 1,400, representing 0.009%] have left in five years I take a different view.”
“The media like to play up the dissent from presbyteries like Lewis, but the truth is they’ve always been ultra-traditionalist and a bit of a law unto themselves. It’s notable that the same reporters haven’t attached the same significance to the larger number of presbyteries who have voted to support local churches making their own decisions. The outcome of the vote is exactly what I expected and it shows the direction the church is moving in.”
Mr Ryan added that he was pleased the announcement has come on the same day that same-sex marriage becomes legal. “Personally, I’m delighted same-sex couples can now be married. The church’s vote being confirmed on the same day is a happy coincidence, but it also shows that no amount of wishful thinking by the old guard is going to turn back the tide.”
Some traditionalists have expressed their concerns at the outcome including the Forward Together group, which campaigns within the Church of Scotland for a more traditionalist line. A spokesperson, Revd Douglas Cranston, warned of the potential financial ramifications and played up the risk of division: “More people are going to leave and more people are going to stop giving. I know congregations where this is happening. By the very nature of the votes, it is really fairly divisive.”
What is clear is that 70 per cent of the Scottish presbyteries have supported the General Assembly’s proposed change and that unity can only be achieved if all who took part in the “democratic conversation” accept the outcome.