UP TO 50 congregations may leave the Church of Scotland if the General Assembly votes next month to allow the ordination of openly gay ministers.
Two congregations and a number of ministers have already left over the issue.
Now the Kirk is braced for a potential haemorrhage of evangelical members if the proposal is passed, in protest at what they consider is a breach with biblical teachings.
Sources within the more fundamentalist Free Kirk have revealed that representatives of 50 congregations around Scotland have held initial discussions about splitting from the Church of Scotland in advance of the debate and vote on gay ordination in May.
Although the Church of Scotland has more than 1,400 congregations, such an exodus would represent the biggest split in its ranks since the 19th-century schism which led to the Free Kirk’s formation.
If such an exodus were to go ahead, the Free Kirk would almost double in size. The source said: “Representatives from the Free Church have spoken to many different ministers, elders and members in the Church of Scotland who are mulling over their options – amounting to some 50 congregations.
“Obviously, a lot hinges on what happens at the General Assembly, and the current vibe is that it does not look good at all for the evangelical position.”
The debate was sparked by the Rev Scott Rennie, an openly gay minister who was appointed to Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen in 2009. Two years ago the General Assembly put off a formal decision on the issue by setting up a Theological Commission. Although the seven-strong commission, drawn from both traditionalist and revisionist sides of the debate, reported last week, it declined to put forward a recommended option in its 92-page report on Same-sex Relationships and the Ministry.
Instead it offered contrasting interpretations by both sides and guidelines depending on how the General Assembly might vote.
The report goes on to recognise that a new schism is possible if the ordination of gay ministers is allowed. “If the revisionist trajectory is upheld,” it warns, “many Christians will feel that the Church has called ‘good’ what the Bible calls ‘sin’ and will feel the need to leave the Church.”
The congregation of St George’s Tron in Glasgow elected to leave the Kirk in December, followed in February by Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen.
The Rev Paul Gibson, minister of Perth Free Church, who joined the Free Kirk last October, said: “I think evangelicals will feel the report simply demonstrates what has been known for a long time – namely that within the Kirk are not two Christian perspectives but, in fact, two distinct religions, both of which are incompatible with the other. One is called Christianity and submits to the Bible as the word of God and the other is called ‘liberalism’ and does not.”
A Free Church of Scotland spokesman said “It is our hope and prayer that if there are those brothers and sisters who feel they cannot stay in the Church of Scotland, that, rather than form yet another Presbyterian church in Scotland, they will join with those of us who have every sympathy with them and support their stance. A working group from the Free Church has spoken to a range of parties and our aim is to work with fellow Christians wherever we find them.”
A Church of Scotland spokesman said: “We regret and are saddened that any ministers or individuals feel they are obliged to, or feel the need to, leave over this issue but no-one knows how the General Assembly will vote or what it will decide until the day of the debate.”