WHEN Rev Iain Whyte conducted a blessing ceremony for a relationship between two gay men in 2004, he was prepared to encounter opposition from others in the Kirk.
What he didn't expect, however, were the letters that came through his door from closeted gay ministers describing the life of fear they lived as they struggled to reconcile their role in the Church with their sexuality.
He recalls: "One of the things that saddened me at the time was not the opposition. The sad thing for me was that I got letters from good ministers who were in a gay relationship and said 'We're so frightened, thank you for doing that, because we can't be open'."
That ceremony was an early shot across the bows for the Kirk, which is now grappling with the issue of openly gay ministers head-on.
On 23 May, its General Assembly will meet in Edinburgh, and in a vote which could split the Kirk, will decide whether to approve an appeal against the appointment of Rev Scott Rennie as minister to Queen's Cross Church in Aberdeen.
The appeal has been lodged by 12 members of the Aberdeen presbytery, and has now attracted a petition of support signed by around 6000 people, including some 305 Church of Scotland ministers.
Mr Rennie is not new to the Church, to the ministry, or newly outed. He has been living with his partner David for some time and was a popular minister at Brechin Cathedral before his appointment to Queen's Cross, but it seems the Church has decided that this is the time for a public debate on what has previously been a private issue.
Mr Rennie met his partner at the General Assembly in the Capital when David was a student at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the congregation at St George's West Church in Shandwick Place.
The church's Reverend, Peter Macdonald, says the couple have his full support: "I've been David's minister and I know what a great guy he is. He's served in the courts of our church, he's a man of great faith and great integrity. He's a lovely, lovely guy."
While acknowledging that there is the danger of a split in the Church over the issue, Mr Macdonald welcomes the chance for an open debate: "I think now folk obviously feel that this is the time for the Church to have that discussion, so in some ways I'm glad. And if we can do it in a proper, true Christian spirit, then it's possible that the Christian faith and the Church can come out of this well.
"It could be so damaging for the reputation of the Church if the way in which we discuss this is seen to be by smear, by innuendo – and that's on all sides."
Mr Macdonald says Mr Rennie is just one of many ministers to have struggled with the same issues over many years: "As a parish minister I have witnessed the problems that are caused by an interpretation of the Bible which turns the words of scripture into a kind of ideology that addresses the realities and complexities of people's lives simply by trying to get them to conform and to control human sexuality.
"I've known situations of ministers who have struggled with this and who have tried to live and lie and who have ended up leaving the Church and that's damaging to all concerned."
Mr Macdonald decided some time ago to explain his beliefs to his congregation from the pulpit, and says he was gladdened by their response: "I expected some flak at the door and quite the opposite – I discovered that for my congregation this is really not an issue, it's not about the form of the relationship, it's about the quality of the relationship."
The day after the General Assembly's vote, his congregation will hold a special service in conjunction with Affirmation Scotland, a charity which supports lesbian and gay members of the Kirk – an event which they hope will be a celebration.
The Church itself is making no official comment on the issue, and while 12 Edinburgh and Lothians ministers have put their names to the public petition against Mr Rennie's appointment, many are reluctant to speak in public.
The Rev Philip Hair, the minister at Holyrood Abbey Church in Edinburgh, is one of the signatories, along with nearly 30 members of his congregation, six elders of the church and one member of staff – but is reluctant to elaborate on his reasons. "I always make it my policy not to comment to newspapers," he says.
However, another of the signatories, Dr Calum MacKellar, an elder at North Leith Parish Church, is happy to talk, and insists the petitioners are not anti-gay.
He acknowledges that the controversy could split already dwindling congregations and affect future intake of ministers, but insists the debate is vital, and about more than simply a dispute over sexuality: "The 'conservative' side of the Church would recognise that a homosexual relationship can be very positive and take away loneliness. However, the problem is whether that view takes God into account and whether or not it would hurt him."
Dr MacKellar, a biochemist who is director of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, believes a split is almost unavoidable and says that some candidates to the ministry are already considering a move to the Free Church of Scotland over the issue.
"This is not a question of homophobia," he says, "it's a question of relationships and what would hurt God. This will have a very big impact on the Church and I am praying for unity. But I don't see how a solution is going to come about.
"Neither side wants to see the Church split over this issue. But it is very black and white situation – and it's not just about homosexuality, it's about the authority of the Bible and the Church.
"The Bible is the word of God and even though you don't understand why God is opposed to something, you just accept it."
Others, however, say that arguments based on scripture are misguided.
Dr Whyte, who before his retirement was a parish minister, university chaplain, and mental health community chaplain, says: "Plenty of people in the last century and a half have justified slavery on Biblical grounds but the Church of Scotland said very early on that this was wrong.
"It was realised that although it was justified in the Bible – and it's very difficult to avoid that – the whole spirit of Christianity was opposed to that.
"Scripture forbids you from wearing a coat of many fibres and tells you to stone your rebellious son, but do we do that?
Dr Whyte adds: "Of course it may cause a split but I would argue that the people who are causing a split are the people who are wanting to stop the church calling Scott Rennie. If they want to leave the Church, okay – the Church has been split on issues before.
"The fact is that there's a climate of fear that's prevented good ministers from being honest about themselves and their personal relationships."
ADOPTING A CONTROVERSIAL STANCE
THE Scottish Catholic Church has had its own controversy over homosexuality recently, albeit over gay adoption and fostering rather than priests.
The law on same-sex couples adopting children was changed by the previous Labour/Liberal Democrat administration, granting gay people the same adoption rights as heterosexual couples.
Now a ban on same-sex foster parents is also set to be lifted. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, has warned that the changes will put the welfare of thousands of youngsters in danger.
Cardinal O'Brien, who resigned last year as the president of the St Andrew's Children's Society, a fostering and adoption agency, because of the change in adoption laws, has said the alterations to fostering rights were also unacceptable.
"The proposals are as misguided as the change to allow same-sex adoption," he has said.
Scotland currently has a shortage of more than 4500 foster carers, and ministers say the new regulations will give more children a better chance in life.
The Catholic Church was also involved in the ongoing row involving two children from Edinburgh who were taken from their grandparents and placed with a gay couple.
A consortium of businessmen and professionals were believed to be funding a legal challenge to prevent the brother and sister, whose mother is a drug addict, being adopted by the two men.
The Catholic Church in Scotland played a key role in arranging the challenge.
A spokesman for the Catholic Church said at the time: "Allowing two men to adopt children against the wishes of their grandparents who want to care for them is positively wicked."
Edinburgh City Council has since admitted that mistakes were made in the way it dealt with the grandparents.
VOICING THEIR CONCERN
THE online petition against the appointment of the Rev Scott Rennie is being organised by the Fellowship of Confessing Churches.
The group insists that it is not a breakaway faction, merely "alarmed at the determination of some within our denomination to force heterodox teaching and practice into the churches".
On its website, it says: "If the Assembly votes to support the Presbytery of Aberdeen, it will publicly declare such behaviour as acceptable and honourable for a leader in Christ's church. This would mark a historic departure for our church from the teaching of the Catholic Christian faith, and a radical deviation from the clear Scriptural pattern that recognises the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman as the only proper place for sexual intimacy.
The Church of Scotland ministers from Lothian who have signed the petition so far are:
• Rev David Court, the minister at New Restalrig Church
• Rev Dr Robin Sydserff, the minister at St Catherine's Argyle
• Rev Jim Patterson, the minister at Bristo Memorial Church
• Rev Andrew Dick, the minister at St Michael's Inveresk, Musselburgh
• Rev Philip Hair, the minister at Holyrood Abbey Church of Scotland
• Rev James Dewar, the minister at Juniper Green Church
• Rev Jonathan de Groot, the minister at St Stephen's Comely Bank Church
• Rev Jeremy Middleton, the minister at Davidson's Mains Parish Church
• Rev Ian Wells, the minister at Ratho Parish Church
• Rev Peter Barber, the minister at Gorgie Parish Church
• Rev Ian McQuarrie, the minister at Colinton Mains Church
• Rev Michael Frew, the minister at Slateford-Longstone Church