The contentious issue of the ordination of gay ministers in the Church of Scotland has cleared a major obstacle following a majority presbytery vote.
Out of a total of 45 presbyteries, 28 voted in favour of a “mixed economy” proposal, with 11 against and six still outstanding.
This means a piece of draft church legislation, known as an overture, can now be referred for final approval at the Kirk’s General Assembly in May.
The proposal affirms the church’s traditional position on marriage but allows congregations to “opt-out” and appoint gay ministers in civil partnerships if they want to.
Asked how he felt the vote will go at the General Assembly, Rev Dr George Whyte, acting principal clerk for the Kirk, said: “It’s likely but by no means certain.”
He also told how the number of ministers to have left the church over the issue has been “a trickle, not a flood” as some had forecast. It is understood that 18 out of 795 ministers and hundreds of members have chosen to leave the church. “I don’t foresee any great schism,” he said.
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“Some ministers have left as a result of the issue; for some the discussion itself was too far. It is clear to all that civil law and public opinion is changing much quicker than the church.
“Many ministers already allow and conduct the blessing of civil partnerships and people who have decided to commit to one another.
“However, this is not happening in a more, let’s say Herbidean setting, but each time we have voted, the gap has grown wider in favour of the proposal.”
Earlier this month, the moderator of the General Assembly, the Rt Rev John Chalmers, challenged those in the Kirk to evolve for the digital age and find 100,000 new members.
Asked how he felt the church’s handling of the ordination of gay ministers might be viewed by potential new members, Dr Whyte said: “I’m sure many young people will be puzzled by some decisions and the pace of ideas.
“However, this issue is not a completely age-based thing: Holyrood Abbey, which left the church last year, has a young congregation. It’s hard to explain to those outside but the majority within the church are open to change and understand the need.”
Three Edinburgh churches – Holyrood Abbey, New Restalrig and St Catherine’s Argyle – chose to quit the Kirk last year over the issue.
The row was first sparked when the Assembly upheld the appointment of the openly gay Rev Scott Rennie to Aberdeen Queen’s Cross Church in 2009.
Rev Bob Brown, of gay rights Christian group Affirmation Scotland, said: “We are very optimistic in relation to the General Assembly vote. From our point of view, this is just a stage in the road which will eventually lead to the church’s acceptance of same-sex marriage.”
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