On 20 May, the BBC news web site reported, ‘The Church of Scotland’s ruling General Assembly has voted to allow actively gay men and women to become ministers’.1 This vote has caused much confusion and this article hopes to make clear what has been going on.
At the time of writing, the Kirk officially upholds the ‘traditionalist’ (biblical) understanding of marriage. In response to the Scottish government’s consultation on redefining marriage, a press statement was issued which read: ‘It [marriage] is a relationship between one man and one woman.
‘In common with the historic position of the Christian church, the Church of Scotland has always viewed marriage as being between one man and one woman. Scriptural references to marriage, whether literal or metaphorical, all operate under this understanding’.2
Queen’s Cross Church
However, in 2009, a minister was called by the congregation of Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen. He had previously informed the congregation that he was gay and intended to live in the manse with his male partner.3
At the time, twelve ministers in the Aberdeen presbytery dissented4 and the case was referred to the General Assembly for a final decision. The call was upheld by 326 votes against 267.5
Separately, an overture had been submitted to the same Assembly by ministers in the Skye and Lochcarron presbytery, calling for the Church not to train or induct ministers involved in a sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage.
This was to be debated on the same day as the Aberdeen case, but provision was made for a special commission to explore this question further and the overture was withdrawn.6
The special commission reported to the General Assembly of 2011. It presented a choice between postponing indefinitely the ordination of ministers in practising same-sex relationships, or considering allowing such persons to enter the ministry and undertaking a further theological commission.
Essentially it was a decision between two trajectories — the traditionalist, keeping things as they are; the revisionist, discussing further the possibilities of inducting practising homosexual ministers.
The Assembly voted 351 to 294 in favour of the revisionist trajectory (119 added their names to a motion of dissent).7 The Moderator stated: ‘The Church has agreed to embark on a path that will allow us in two years time to consider lifting the moratorium on acceptance for training and ordination of people in a same-sex relationship’.8
The theological commission was a balance of those holding ‘traditionalist’ and ‘revisionist’ views. The ‘traditionalists’ argued that to continue further along the revisionist trajectory would be to go against Scripture, and be harmful to the unity of the Church of Scotland at home and with other ‘traditionalist’ denominations worldwide.9
Again, the Assembly had to choose between the two trajectories. However, at the last minute, a ‘compromise’ motion was proposed. This reaffirmed the traditional, biblical position of the church, but allowed individual congregations to ‘opt out’ of the official position and call a minister in a same-sex partnership.
All three positions were put to the Assembly. The first round of voting saw the traditionalist position defeated and eliminated. In the second round, the ‘compromise’ motion was carried. This compromise was hailed by the Moderator as a ‘massive vote for the peace and unity of the Church’.10
There is to be further discussion about the ecclesiological and legal issues and one more overture will be presented to the Assembly of 2014. If this confirms again the revisionist trajectory, it will probably be then voted on at presbytery level.
Should this succeed, it will return to the 2015 Assembly for final approval, before becoming church law.
How have evangelicals responded?
The direction that the Kirk is travelling in has caused great concern among evangelicals, concerned for the authority of Scripture and integrity of the gospel.
Most would recognise that the Church of Scotland, whilst officially defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, is also moving towards the full acceptance of practising homosexuals in Christian leadership.
However, different people have responded and are responding in different ways, and it would be accurate to say that there is tension between evangelical brothers and sisters in the Kirk at this time.
Some individual members, elders and ministers simply left the Church after the 2009 Assembly. Other leaders sought to lead their congregations out of the Church of Scotland after the 2011 Assembly.
In the wake of the 2013 vote, others left or are seeking to exit the denomination. However, this is no easy task. As we have seen, the peace and unity of this ‘broad’ church is of central importance to the denominational leadership; churches which seek to leave are told that no final decision has been taken and a congregation cannot leave as a unit.
In several congregations there have been a number of elders and members who wish to remain in the Kirk, with the result that the buildings have been retained by the denomination for their use, while those who wish to go must seek alternative accommodation.
Some ministers, lacking the backing of their elders and congregations, have had no option but to demit (resign) their posts and move elsewhere. The psychological and emotional cost on ministers and their families is exceedingly high.
Amongst those wishing to stay in, an ‘Evangelical Network’ has recently been established, with the intention of working for the reformation and renewal of the Church of Scotland.11
Both those who wish to leave and those who wish to remain recognise that the ‘train is going in the wrong direction’. The former believe it is better to leave now and seek a more like-minded denomination; the latter believe the Church of Scotland occupies a unique role in the nation and can yet be restored to its biblical foundation.
The situation is acutely painful. Church leaders and their families are under great pressure. Christians who wrestle with same-sex attraction, but are determined to live holy, celibate lives, are deeply confused.
The Church does seem intent on going against the clear teaching of the Bible and true brothers and sisters in Christ are finding their fellowship strained by their differing strategies. Please pray that real gospel unity is not lost in the attempt to save denominational unity.
7. The authority of the Bible and same-sex relationships and the ministry — a strategy to take us forward; Forward together.
9. Theological commission on same-sex relationships and the ministry, 20/89-90.