Analysis: Secessionists likely to be trickle not flood

Protesters get their point across over gay ministers during the recent meeting of the Kirk's General Assembly.  Picture: Ian Georgeson
Protesters get their point across over gay ministers during the recent meeting of the Kirk's General Assembly. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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THE news that two Western Isles congregations are considering leaving the Kirk over the possible future ordination of partnered lesbian and gay ministers comes as no great surprise.

Last week, the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly actually voted that such ordinations will remain contrary to its official doctrine. But it also decided that local congregations may choose differently.

For that to happen, a further agreement over enabling legislation is needed next year. In the meantime, the squabbling continues.

Internal opposition to an inclusive Kirk comes in two forms: the “possibilists” are those who believe that the Church should disapprove same-sex relationships (or approve them with the greatest reluctance), but who will back the proposed compromise, because their view still remains the official position. The ‘impossibilists’, a smaller but more vocal number, find it hard to contemplate even talking about accepting gay people, let alone doing it. Their interpretation of the Bible is not shared by most modern scholars. They see their own view as God’s immutable will.

It is the hardliners who are most likely to push for secession. But the largest number of congregations who may threaten to leave is 50, and that is likely to be a very significant exaggeration. In reality, it will likely be a trickle not a flood.

Smaller, rural congregations may be most tempted to go. Larger urban ones of a conservative persuasion will look at the fall-away from the group that broke with St George’s Tron, in Glasgow, and recognise that there is little viability in that direction.

Meanwhile, Kirk leaders are seeking to speak pastorally with those who oppose gay ministers, but do not wish to split the Kirk, or who are frustrated at the sheer intransigence shown by others of their ilk.

In truth, the landscape is changing. Larger numbers may well stay or join the Kirk if it ends its rejection of same-sex relationships, than will leave for the same reason. The refuseniks are looking back, not forward.

• Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia, the religion and society think tank.