THE Church of Scotland will today face one of its biggest crises in 150 years as a vote on gay clergy could drive the Kirk into schism with the loss of thousands of ministers, elders and members.
The spectre of the "Disruption" of 1843, when 474 ministers broke away from the established Church to found the Free Church of Scotland, will hover over the General Assembly this morning when it votes on the controversial issue of the ordination of homosexual ministers who are in same-sex relationships.
In a case of "damned if they do, damned if they don't" the Church could face desertion by huge numbers of supporters, either on the traditional wing who oppose ordination of gay ministers or among liberals, depending on which side triumphs in today's vote.
A report by the special commission into the issue has already suggested that up to 4,300 ministers, elders, deacons and key parishioners, a fifth of Kirk leaders, could leave, along with as many as 100,000 parishioners, if the Church of Scotland admits gay people into the ministry.
Some 1,800 Church leaders and 40,000 parishioners said they would feel obligated to leave if the Church did not admit the ordination of gays.
In a desperate attempt to postpone any split, the Very Rev Dr Finlay Macdonald, a former Kirk moderator, will today call for a final decision to be delayed for a further two years. However, this has only served to unite both sides who view it as a fudge and could yet trigger its own departure by members of both liberal and traditional wings.
• Leader: Kirk cannot fudge its claim to moral leadership
• Few suitable choices for worshippers who want to find new theological home
"Either way the vote goes there will be people and congregations who are likely to leave," said Dr Bill Naphy of the University of Aberdeen, an expert on the history of sexuality and Calvinism. "I think if they allow the ordination of gay ministers there will probably be whole congregations that leave. I think it's less likely that whole congregations will leave if it goes the other way. It is more likely that individuals will walk away."
Harry Reid, author of Outside Verdict, a book on the Church of Scotland as well as a history of the Reformation said: "This is a very, very serious issue. I don't think it will happen as dramatically as 1843 but there are legitimate comparisons. I think they will do everything they can to prevent a schism happening, but the more prevarication and fudging that takes place, the more some kind of succession becomes almost inevitable."
The issue of the ordination of practising homosexuals was raised in 2009 when the General Assembly upheld the appointment of Scott Rennie, an openly gay minister to Queen's Cross Church in Aberdeen. However, it then immediately ordered a moratorium on any further openly gay students being accepted for training and ordination in the Kirk until a special theological commission had reported its findings, which will be the subject of today's debate.
During the past two years, public discussion by any member of the Church of Scotland has been strictly forbidden, a ban lifted for today's debate, but whose shutter will slam down as of Tuesday for a further two years regardless of the outcome.
"I do think the moratorium they have had against public discussion by clergy and Church members is absolutely disgraceful," Mr Reid said. "Can you imagine John Knox being told he can't say anything on a contentious issue?"
However, two retired ministers have flouted the ban. For the Rev David Randall, today's debate is about the very legitimacy of the Church of Scotland, which he believes rests on its fidelity to the teaching of the Bible.
"I think it is a very serious issue and many people are going to be seriously considering their part in a church that would, if it does go the wrong way, have turned its back on its title deeds in the Bible," he said.
He argues that the Bible is quite clear in its prohibition of homosexual activity and that this is the line the Church of Scotland must follow.
The Rev Johnston Mackay believes that, as scientific research has revealed homosexuality to be a consequence of birth, not a moral choice, so the Bible should be reinterpreted. He said: "It is perfectly clear to a very large amount of New Testament scholars that what St Paul said about homosexual practice is about those who choose homosexual activity while they themselves are heterosexual."
A consultation process carried out as part of the report found that Mr Randall's view was shared by almost 58 per cent of presbytery members, while 36 per cent supported the ordination of gay members.
Neither side believes, whatever the outcome, there will be an immediate walkout. But both have said that the shock waves will be felt in the following weeks and months as churches decide whether they can live with the repercussions. One senior Kirk member offered a potential solution that local churches and presbyteries be allowed to make up their minds individually on the issue.
"Would it not be a good idea in the coming two years, as well as looking at the theological side, to look at the politics and working out of things in the Church and say 'is there some way that we can live together with this very significant disagreement?"
He added that setting up such a commission to look at the mechanics would not be a fudge, rather "a work in progress" that would help to keep people within the Church.
Mr Mackay said he believed the issue should be settled today. "The General Assembly is not here to follow the membership of the Church but to give a lead and make decisions about truth and justice."
However, all concerned agreed that if the Kirk was to take a traditionalist stance at the end of today, even though the report describes homophobia as "sinful", the Church's position in wider society could be damaged.
One progressive source said that the Church's ethical position could only be shown through its treatment of individual issues, and if the Kirk was perceived from its handling of the report by wider society to be homophobic "then how can we deny them from their assumption that that is what the Church is".
The conservative source acknowledged that there was a "danger" of being "misunderstood" but insisted that they were not being homophobic and were against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. He said that scripture taught them that people "should live celibate lives in regards to homosexuality".
A Church of Scotland spokesperson said: "The Church will not be making any comment on the Special Commission Report on Same Sex Relationships and the Ministry until the General Assembly has debated the matter."
Fierce first split healed by time and faith
ON 18 May, 1843, 190 ministers of the Church of Scotland marched out of the General Assembly and into the pages of Scottish history as the founder members of the Free Church of Scotland, whose first moderator, Thomas Chalmers, they elected that same day.
The "Disruption" or "Great Disruption", depending on how it was viewed, was the result of ten years of tension within the Church of Scotland over how the ministers were appointed.
Ever since the Patronage Act of 1712, the local laird had had the right to appoint the minister of the parish, regardless of the views of the congregation. While many among the Church of Scotland were content to accept the status quo, there were those among the Evangelical party who were increasingly resistant to what they viewed as an abuse of power.
While 190 ministers left in one day, eventually 474 out of 1,203 ministers - one third - quit the Church of Scotland, which was left weaker both in terms of financial support and in the intellectual strength of its remaining ministers.
A popular rhyme at the time went: "The Free Kirk, the wee Kirk, the kirk without the steeple; the auld kirk, the cauld kirk, the kirk without the people."
The "Disruption" led to tensions in communities across Scotland, as those who had once sat side by side in the pews were separated on Sundays and many friendships were lost.
However, the split also proved to be a catalyst with those in both churches striving to put their faith into practice and help tackle the problems created by the industrial revolution. Like a family split, time healed the wounds and a re-unification movement which began 50 years later was successful in returning many members to the Church of Scotland.
Other churches' views on same-sex relationships and the ministry
United Free Church of Scotland: has not discussed specifically the issue of the ordination of openly homosexual Christians or of ministers living in homosexual partnerships.
Church of Sweden: makes no distinction based on the sexuality of people living in partnership. It has taken the stance: "The homosexual orientation of a life in a registered partnership is not ground for refusing ordination for service in the church."
United Church of Canada: makes no distinction based on the sexuality of people living in a partnership.
United Church of Christ in the United States: recognises same-sex marriages.
Methodist Church: in 1993 "recognised, affirmed and celebrated the participation and ministry of homosexual men and women in the church".
Roman Catholic Church: will not accept openly gay people for ministry.
Free Church of Scotland: had not discussed the issue of the ordination of openly homosexual clergy living in partnership. It considers that homosexual activity "was contrary to scriptural norms".
Lutheran World Federation: will be discussing the issue in 2012 but does not see it as "one of the burning issues of the day".
Presbyterian Church (USA): allows openly gay people to be considered for ordination.
Presbyterian Church in America: says same-sex behaviour is incompatible with biblical morality.