A new group opposed to gay ordination in the Church of Scotland has been formed on Thursday.
The group, which is named Covenant Fellowship, is pressing for what it deems to be a more “Biblical”, traditionalist stance.
This follows a majority of the Kirk’s presbyteries voting to support an “overture” granting greater acceptance of gay and lesbian ministers within the Church of Scotland.
Subject to a final vote at the Church’s General Assembly in May, local congregations will be able to select gay ministers in civil partnerships.
The Covenant Fellowship is an invention of the euphemistically-named Forward Together campaign, which has predicted a massive exodus of the faithful with serious financial consequences for the Church, due to its policy of ordination of gay and lesbian priests.
The mainly evenglical Forward Together has issued a statement today in which it claims that it “believes that the Church of Scotland is moving away from its roots in Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith. We believe that the time has come for the creation of a ‘Covenant Fellowship’ within the Church. This Covenant Fellowship will draw together those who believe that the Scriptures, in their entirety, are the Word of God and must provide the basis for everything we believe and do.”
The Revd Professor Andrew McGowan, one of the founders of Covenant Fellowship, explained to The Herald the purpose of the new group: “Today, members and adherents of the Church of Scotland are being asked to express support for a Covenant Fellowship. We invite everyone in the Church who feels the same way to stand with us. The hope is that the Covenant Fellowship, which begins today as a protest against recent events, will grow to become an effective campaign group within the Church on behalf of those who believe in Christian orthodoxy.”
He added that “The Church of Scotland is in the midst of a severe crisis. If approved, this overture will extend even further the disruption of the Church of Scotland. Many individual members, elders and ministers have left.”
New statistics, published in The Herald today, show that a mere 18 ministers have left the Kirk since 2009, yet the Church has been growing, with more ministers joining.
The Covenant Fellowship invokes the spirit of the Covenanters who, in 1638, signed a “covenant” rejecting innovations imposed upon the Kirk by the monarch, Charles I.
A key difference between the political situations of then and now is that, on this occasion, the move came from within the Church and an overwhelming majority of the Kirk’s presbyteries have voted to embrace the changes being protested against.
Curiously, the site of the signing of the original Covenant, Greyfriars Church, is now home to an affirming congregation supportive of LGBTI inclusivity.
Stuart Ryan, an openly gay member of the Church of Scotland, told KaleidoScot: “Professor McGowan says he is ‘protesting against recent events’, but what he’s actually protesting is the outcome of a democratic vote. If he wants to preserve unity he’s going an odd way about it. As for comparing themselves to the Covenanters, well…that’s either wishful thinking or being downright disingenuous. No-one is imposing anything on anyone, and the real freedom-fighters are those who want every church to be free to make their own decisions.”
Mr Ryan also asked why Professor McGowan and his allies felt the need to make this move. “It seems like a well-considered publicity stunt to me”, he said. “But, aside from people who still think they live in 1638, who is going to be interested? Why doesn’t someone of the Professor’s obvious abilities put his efforts into more pressing and worthwhile causes?”
Unusually, the Church itself has issued a statement, attacking “inaccuracies” in Professor McGowan’s assumptions. Acting Principal Clerk of the Church of Scotland, Revd Dr George Whyte, said: “The Church of Scotland welcomes Professor McGowan’s continued commitment to remain a member and a minister but there are in his statement accusations which we believe are not accurate.
“The proposed legislation which is the focus of the group’s criticism has been painstakingly considered by the Church across the nation. We know that for many people the discussion has been difficult and it has always been clear that we could never come to a common mind on the matter.
“This pain and disillusionment has been felt by those, like Professor McGowan, who think the Church is going in the wrong direction and those who desperately want a Church which would go further on their chosen route. Yet the issue has to be discussed and we are a Church which recognises ‘liberty of opinion’. Our General Assembly has agreed that this proposal – to allow a congregation [to] call a minister in a civil partnership – falls into that category. It is not, therefore, an attack on the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith.
“We share Professor McGowan’s abhorrence of further disruption and we hope and pray that across Scotland Christians will find ways to continue to work together despite their varied opinions.”
Revd Blair Robertson, from Affirmation Scotland – which supports the ordination of same-sex clergy – told KaleidoScot that this development shows how “the conservative wing of the Kirk is split: there are those who have left; there are those like Forward Together; and there is the more moderate group – perhaps represented by The Church of Scotland Evangelical Network – who seem concerned to maintain that distinctive theological position in the church.” Mr Robertson stressed that “Affirmation Scotland will continue to give voice to the faith and lived experience of LGBTI people in the church; there is still a need to pray for an inclusive church and we will be doing that at the beginning of the General Assembly in May.”