What the Kirk Did (and Didn’t) Decide

You may have seen the news reports in the papers on the decisions made yesterday at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). Take, for example, this story in the Guardian.

Scotland‘s largest protestant church has voted to allow gay men and lesbians to become ministers.

This is wrong.

What the Kirk did yesterday was to debate and then vote on a series of “Deliverances” (motions for those of us less Knoxically inclined) which received a report produced by a Special Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry and then accepted a number of other actions. The key battle was over two of the eight Deliverances, the wording of which changed the status quo in the Kirk.

Up till this point there has been a moratorium of both ordaining for the first time those involved in a sexual relationship outside of marriage and installing into a new position someone already ordained and in this situation. This was after the events two years ago when one Presbytery installed a minister involved in a gay relationship. After the semi-crisis of Scott Rennie’s acceptance to a church given his sexual activity, the Kirk set-up the Commission that reported yesterday whilst insisting that until the Commission had completed its work no-one in a similar situation should be ordained or installed.

The Deliverances discussed yesterday contained two key portions. Firstly, section four.

During the moratorium set out in 8 below, allow the induction into pastoral charges of ministers and deacons ordained before May 2009 who are in a same-sex relationship.

This Deliverance was laid out as a pastoral response, that whilst the Kirk was still coming to a conclusion on these matters those who were in a similar situation to Scott Rennie should not be disbarred from moving to a new position (which was the situation that the moratorium had installed, but more importantly for the traditionalists, was meant to be the official position of the Kirk before the Rennie case came to the fore). As some pointed out very clearly during the debate (like Louis Kinsey), what this Deliverance was creating was a de facto position (even if just for two years) that changed the stance of the Kirk from “sex outside of marriage is not permitted for ministers” to “sex outside of marriage is OK for ministers”. Why should the Kirk change from it’s Biblical stance during the deliberations as to whether to change from the Biblical stance? Surely, the argument came, the stance should not be changed until the theology had been done?

One can see the problem with this. Two years of clergy movements, and those clergy who moved could be utterly open about their sexual relationships, would produce the “facts on the ground” that worked so effectively in moving ECUSA from a Biblical stance to the current hyper-revisionist one. Once clergy in sexual relationships outside of marriage were publicly in place, having been publicly accepted by their relevant congregations, it would be egregious in the extreme for the Kirk to then rule that they couldn’t be ministers after all. This deliverance produces a pastoral trap of high inginuity.

The other Deliverance of contention was section 7, of which there were two options to be considered.

EITHER:

(a) Resolve to consider further the implementation of an indefinite moratorium on the acceptance for training and ordination of persons in a same-sex relationship thus maintaining the traditional position of the Church, and to that end:

(1)  instruct the Ministries Council and the Legal Questions Committee in collaboration to address the pastoral and procedural implications of such a moratorium on (i) the selection process, (ii) discipline, and (iii) the position of ministers who were ordained and inducted prior to May 2009; and to report to the General Assembly of 2012.
(2)  instruct the Theological Commission to continue the process of discernment initiated by the Report received by the General Assembly of 2007: “A Challenge to Unity: Same-sex relationships as an Issue in Theology and Human Sexuality”, taking account of the further work of the Working Group on Human Sexuality, with respect to Being Single and Marriage, and to report to a future General Assembly.

OR:

(b)  Resolve to consider further the lifting of the moratorium on the acceptance for training and ordination of persons in a same-sex relationship, and to that end instruct the Theological Commission to prepare a report for the General Assembly of 2013 containing:

(i)  a theological discussion of issues around same-sex relationships, civil partnerships and marriage;
(ii)  an examination of whether, if the Church were to allow its ministers freedom of conscience in deciding whether to bless same-sex relationships involving life-long commitments, the recognition of such lifelong relationships should take the form of a blessing of a civil partnership or should involve a liturgy to recognise and celebrate commitments which the parties enter into in a Church service in addition to the civil partnership, and if so to recommend liturgy therefor;
(iii)  an examination of whether persons, who have entered into a civil partnership and have made lifelong commitments in a Church ceremony, should be eligible for admission for training, ordination and induction as ministers of Word and Sacrament or deacons in the context that no member of Presbytery will be required to take part in such ordination or induction against his or her conscience; and to report to the General Assembly of 2013.

The Kirk, after a very long discussion, chose to go with 7(b) and in doing so chose to set a trajectory of affirming gay relationships. The two deliverances in combination produce a situation where those in sexual relationships outside of marriage can, with impunity, make those relationships public and still be installed into new positions. Furthermore, when the Commission reports back in two years time it will very likely be with recommendations to formalise such arrangements and to work towards liturgies blessing same-sex relationships.

So, whilst it is true that the Kirk has not formally accepted and recognised gay relationships, it cannot be argued that with these deliverances it has done anything but formally permit them for its clergy (do you see the difference?). The status quo in the Kirk is now to permit clergy in same-sex relationships and I find it very hard to believe that this will be reversed in two years time. If the revisionist groups in the Kirk know what they’re doing, I expect numerous “facts on the ground” to be established before the 2013 General Assembly in order to provide a compelling “pastoral case” for this status quo to be transformed into official policy.

Of course, that assumes that the Kirk gets to the 2013 General Assembly in one piece.

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