ONE of the largest Church of Scotland congregations in the country has voted overwhelmingly to split with the Kirk over the issue of gay clergy.
The ballot saw 313 members of Stornoway’s High Church congregation indicate they want to leave the Kirk, with just 72 saying that they want to stay.
Though the vote is non-binding, it precedes the results of an official ballot held by Lewis Presbytery on the congregation’s future, due at the end of the month. Sources within the Kirk say the official vote is likely to produce a similar result.
The Church of Scotland has pledged to maintain a presence on the island after the vote at the weekend. The congregation is one of the largest in Scotland, with 456 members and adherents – accounting for more than half of the total Church of Scotland presence on the island.
Neil Galbraith, the congregation’s treasurer, said that the result showed the strength of feeling among church members.
He added: “The next move is that the session will have to consider the implications, though it is still waiting for the presbytery ballot. It’s only after that there will be a congregational meeting to explain exactly where we stand.”
It is understood talks have been ongoing for years over the possibility of the congregation joining the Free Church of Scotland. Mr Galbraith confirmed that this was a “possibility”.
The vote was sparked by the decision of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly in May to uphold its historic doctrine on same-sex relationships but also consider a policy of permitting individual congregations to choose ministers who are in a same-sex partnership.
The issue has created deep divisions within the Kirk and its congregations since the traditionalist members attempted to block the appointment of openly gay minister Scott Rennie to Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen in 2009.
A small number of congregations and ministers have already chosen to break away. The traditionalist wing is particularly strong in the Highlands and islands. Members have warned the Kirk’s leadership that the Church of Scotland “could be facing extinction in the Western Isles”.
A Church of Scotland spokesperson said: “As Scotland’s national church, we are committed to maintaining our presence in Stornoway. The Presbytery of Lewis is conducting its own official consultation with members and adherents who attend Stornoway high church, and the results of this will not be known until the end of next week.
“While respecting the views raised today, we must stress the consultation carried out by the Kirk session is unofficial and not binding. Until the outcome of the official presbytery consultation is known, we cannot comment further on this matter.”
A Kirk source said that senior church officials had visited the congregation in September to see if there was a way of keeping them within the denomination, but it appeared that the talks were fruitless.
The source said the result of the formal vote was unlikely to differ much from the congregation’s, adding: “The congregation may have taken this vote so that they can make a good case to retain their building if they leave. The Kirk won’t give it away, but they might be able to come to some sort of deal.”