The Church of Scotland debates gay ministers

The General Assembly will be held next month. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The General Assembly will be held next month. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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MINISTER Scott Rennie’s decision to move from Brechin Cathedral, where he’d spent nine years serving his flock, some of them with his partner David at his side, to Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen, was inspired by a sense of mission, a belief that it was time to take up a new challenge in a new community.

Refusing to conceal his homosexuality, he tackled the issue head-on and was welcomed by his new parishioners; but his insistence on honesty was to plunge both his own life and the Church of Scotland into a state of ongoing turmoil. Very soon, he was facing hostility and abuse from members who opposed his appointment, and a wedge was being driven between its traditional and liberal wings. Where the ­ordination of women had caused a mere ripple of controversy north of the Border, the idea of a minister in a same-sex relationship battered the pillars of the Kirk.

With threats to leave prompting fears of a schism on a scale not seen since the Disruption of 1843 when nearly 40 per cent of the ministry and a third of the congregations broke away to form the Free Church, the Church imposed a moratorium on actively gay ministers, then later voted to accept them so long as they had declared their sexuality and were ordained before 2009. But a decision on the future ordination of ministers in a same-sex relationship was deferred until an inquiry into the issue had been carried out. As a result the row has mostly rumbled on beneath the surface, breaking through only when an evangelical congregation – such as St George’s Tron Church in Glasgow – has seceded from the Kirk in protest.

But now, nearly four years on, the clash of religious cultures is finally coming to a head; last week, the long-awaited report from the Theology Commission on Same Sex Relationships in the Ministry outlined two possible courses of action, and next month, at the General Assembly, the Church is expected to choose either to allow the ordination of actively gay ministers who are in a civil partnership, or to reaffirm the Church’s belief that the only appropriate expression of sex is within a marriage between a man and a woman.

Whatever the General Assembly decides, there will be repercussions; two years ago a survey suggested one in five members of Kirk sessions would resign if it was agreed ministers in a same-sex relationship could be ordained, while one in 10 would leave if they couldn’t. And today Scotland on Sunday reveals up to 50 congregations are already in talks with the Free Church over possible defections if the vote goes against them; such a move would almost double the number of Free Church congregations.

The current crisis comes at a time when the Church of Scotland is already in decline. Membership has fallen by more than two-thirds in the past 40 years and the number of baptisms has dropped from 17,000 in 1991 to 6,000 in 2009. Last week, the Humanist Society of Scotland claimed there would soon be more humanist weddings than Church of Scotland weddings north of the Border.

Harry Reid, author of Outside Verdict, a book on the Church of Scotland, suggests the crisis could signal the end of the Kirk in its current form; instead of a national institution it could become a loose federation of Presbyterian congregations ranging from “liberal progressive” to “conservative evangelical”. ­Others believe that while the number of ministers/congregations that break away will be comparatively low, the issue will contribute to the weakening of the Church as a force in Scottish life.

The protracted debate may have been essential, but it has had a damaging ­effect on morale, with both sides feeling undermined and alienated. “Both liberals and conservatives feel they are being misrepresented,” says Ron Ferguson, religious writer and former leader of the Iona community. “There’s a lot of passion about this debate and people feel they are in a corner fighting. The Church of Scotland has always been a broad church – the question is how far can that go before some people want to leave?”

According to Ferguson, militant ­conservatives had been looking for a ­defining issue on which it could pin its opposition to the perceived liberalisation of the Church for some time before 2009. The ordination of women ministers in the 1970s proved to be a damp squib as many evangelicals were not ­opposed to it. But when Rennie was called to Queen’s Cross, the scene was set for a battle royal, particularly as ­Rennie had been married before coming to terms with his sexuality.

Rennie and his wife Ruth, with whom he has a daughter, divorced while he was at Brechin Cathedral. As Rennie faced up to the collapse of his marriage he realised he needed to confront his own sexuality. Later he met his partner David, a teacher, and they moved in together. After applying for the post at Queen’s Cross in 2009, Rennie addressed parishioners, outlining the way events in his domestic life had unfolded; he was declared Minister Elect by 128 votes to 28, and 236 members of the Church and 13 other adherents signed the call. The call was upheld by the Presbytery of Aberdeen, but shortly afterwards, a group of 12 ministers and elders dissented and the case was eventually referred to the General Assembly, the Church of Scotland’s supreme court, for judgment. It was the first time that a presbytery’s ­decision to sustain the call of a minister had been challenged in the Church’s ­supreme court since the Disruption.

The dramatic move testified to the depths of the division between the liberals, many of whom belong to OneKirk, a network which works for “an inclusive, affirming and progressive” church, and the evangelicals, many of whom belong to Forward Together, an organisation which at one stage had to apologise for spreading misinformation about Rennie.

The traditionalists place an emphasis on scripture. They believe the Bible outlaws homosexuality and any move to ordain an actively gay minister would be a breach of God’s word. The liberals ­believe that scientific advances have ­established that being gay is innate as opposed to a lifestyle choice and that the Church needs to adopt a more enlightened approach.

Some traditionalists are convinced the Church has already set itself on a trajectory towards the “normalisation” of same-sex relationships, so much so that two congregations – St George’s Tron Church and Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen – and several ministers have already broken away.

The prospect of more following suit has sparked fears of a land-grab as ­seceding congregations fight to hang on to premises they have spent decades worshipping in. After St George’s Tron Church made its decision to break away, the Kirk took out a court action to evict it from its Glasgow city centre premises, while law officers served papers to retrieve Bibles, hymn books and an organ.

Ferguson says it is impossible to predict the number of ministers and congregations which might secede because the evangelical wing is not a “monolithic group”. “Certainly in the States and in England a number of prominent evangelicals have come out in favour of gay ordination and gay relationships, and that’s quite significant – there have been one or two big hitters in America, and in England there’s an evangelist called ­Steve Chalke who has already announced he’s changed his mind on this issue, so it’s not as simple as just counting evangelical heads,” he says.

Ironically, the evangelical wing has been split by the St George’s Tron and Gilcomston South churches’ decision to leave before next month’s vote as some feel they have jumped the gun. “It’s really hard to say which way the vote will go – it could be very close,” Ferguson says.

Although there are those within the Church who resent the way Rennie handled his move to Queen’s Cross, believing it made an eventual showdown inevitable, Ferguson insists he is to be commended for bringing the issue out into the open. “I think he was brave – he put himself in the firing line,” he says. “He knew there would be controversy, he knew he would get poison pen letters, but he felt quite rightly that this was an issue for the Church and you couldn’t cover it. Covering up issues like this doesn’t work – we’ve seen that in the Catholic Church.”

The Theology Commission report has tried to appease traditionalists, recommending that if the Church goes down the revisionist route, it should accept actively gay ministers only if they are in a civil partnership. Actively gay ministers in other same-sex relationships should not be appointed by presbyteries, it suggests. Moreover, under its proposals, gay ministers could be required by the Kirk Session, ahead of any appointment, to confirm that they are not in a sexual same-sex relationship. None of this is likely to win over hard-liners, however, and could alienate liberal members who disapprove of the unprecedented power it gives Kirk Sessions to veto presbytery appointments.

While observers of the Church accept that whatever happens on 20 May, some ministers are likely to walk away, they remain relatively optimistic. Reid points out that, though nationally the Kirk is flagging, there are many congregations, particularly in cities and towns, with hundreds of regular attenders who are actively engaged in parish life.

“My view is that – whatever the outcome of the vote – it will not be possible for the Church to cohere and hold ­together as a national institution. I think the idea of the Kirk as a national and legalistic body which makes rules all congregations must adhere to and which influences national policy is no longer viable. In the future, I see it as a loose federation of congregations with members choosing to go not to the church which is nearest geographically, but to the one which suits them best.

“I know there are some traditionalists who see this as a recipe for anarchy, but I don’t see why two churches – one ­liberal and one evangelical – couldn’t ­exist side by side, or why the Church couldn’t accommodate a diversity of views as in reality it already does.”

Although he does not share Reid’s ­vision, Ferguson agrees the Church will survive. “Some people say it is washing its dirty linen – I don’t see it that way at all. I think this is a genuine issue dividing the church, we should try to have an honest debate about it,” he says “In the history of churches there have always been ups and downs. The Church has survived a lot of crises. This would be a big one for the Church of Scotland – I’m not trying to minimise that – but there are a lot of good people on both sides of the debate and either way it may not be as damaging as you might think. There’s an argument that if the issue is fully decided, at least there will be clarity. People will be energised by it – they’ll say, ‘Right now, let’s get on with it.’ ”

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1