Kirk orders ban on gay minister debate

THE Church of Scotland last night effectively gagged its members from public discussion of gay ministers and postponed a potentially divisive vote on the issue for two years in a desperate bid to avoid a schism.

A debate on a call to ban openly homosexual people from appointment to the ministry was torpedoed by an 11th-hour motion that dominated the General Assembly yesterday.

Instead of proceeding with the vote – which many traditionalists had warned could split the Kirk – members agreed to establish a commission to study the issue and report back in 2011.

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Until then, no more openly gay ministers can be appointed and no members can speak in public on the issue of openly homosexual, non-celibate ministers.

Only the Church and Society, HIV/Aids Project and Mission Discipleship committees can speak out on the broader issue of human sexuality.

One hardliner said last night Kirk members were now "effectively prevented from speaking out in public on this".

The decision came as 121 Kirk ministers and Church members showed their disapproval of the decision to allow the openly gay Scott Rennie to be appointed to a ministry when they signed a notice of dissent.

Before yesterday's General Assembly proceedings were able to start, a point of order was brought by one commissionaire that he wished to dissent against Saturday's decision to allow Mr Rennie to take up his ministry at Queen's Cross Church, Aberdeen.

Moderator Bill Hewitt said a document had been set up for those who wished to dissent on the decision to have their names recorded in the minutes of the assembly.

Although it will have no bearing on the decision itself, it was an expression of the strength of opposition to the crucial vote on Saturday that backed Mr Rennie's appointment. The vote was carried 326 to 267 and it is thought that many of those who opposed it would have signed the petition of dissent.

Ministers yesterday spoke of members being "in mourning" at the decision and in turmoil over whether or not they should leave the Kirk.

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The assembly was yesterday due to debate an overture from Lochcarron-Skye Presbytery to prevent the training and ordination of openly gay individuals.

However, before the discussion on the substantive issue could start, a motion was brought by the Rev Dr John McPake, calling for the formation of a commission to look into the issue, which would not report back until 2011.

The motion also contained a clause calling for a moratorium on any public comment from Kirk courts, committees and ministers on the issue, effectively gagging them. Mr McPake said it was not about creating a silence, but about creating a space for "disciplined dialogue".

In commending the motion, the Rev Angus Morrison said any split in Church ranks would be a "deeply flawed" solution to the issue.

"It is comparatively easy to split a church, but the challenge of healing the divisions is of an entirely different nature," he said. "The notion that these tensions within a church can best be solved by going separate ways is deeply flawed. It is a path rather to the multiplication of problems."

Members backed the establishment of a commission to report in two years on the issues thrown up in recent weeks and the wider issue of same-sex relationships, stating that it would best serve the "peace and unity" of the Church.

However, the motion raised opposition from some parts of the assembly, on the grounds that the Kirk had been debating the issue for too long and that it was an attempt to prevent members discussing the issue.

The Rev Ian Watson, a leading member of the evangelical Forward Together group, called for a decision now.

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"It seems to me we have the opportunity today to make a decision, not just make a decision ourselves, but allow our presbyteries to discuss, debate and reach a definitive decision."

He said the calls for the commission were "insulting" to presbyteries because it proposed only to "consult" them on the issue.

"Give the Church a voice – give us a real voice," he said.

The Rev Cameron Mackenzie agreed, saying: "I would rather we didn't take any longer … people really want to know what we think and care about our decision. There are people out there waiting for our word."

However, there were those who supported the whole of Mr McPake's motion, claiming a pause in the debate was needed to allow "damage limitation" and "healing".

The Rev Peter Johnston, spokesman for the OneKirk group, which has supported Mr Rennie, claimed a moratorium on public comments would create an unwanted vacuum.

The Rev Dr George Whyte, who had spoken for Mr Rennie's appointment, agreed a two-year pause was best.

The Very Rev John Cairns, a former moderator, also supported the motion, saying it was "very balanced" and would give presbyteries a chance to give their opinions and would "let things cool down a little".

Following the acceptance of Mr McPake's motion, the Presbytery of Lochcarron-Skye withdrew its overture.

Westminster losing moral authority – Salmond

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THE Westminster parliament is losing its "moral authority" to govern, Alex Salmond told the Church of Scotland yesterday.

The First Minister warned the expenses scandal engulfing the House of Commons was eroding trust in the institution itself.

During an address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on The Mound, Mr Salmond said:

"Some of our core political institutions have lost their moral authority. At the very time that people are seeking reassurance, guidance, leadership, the Westminster system in particular is unable to provide it.

"Trust is a precious quality, an essential quality, and once lost, it's not easy to rebuild. But that work must be done, because that trust is the lifeblood of a decent society and a true currency of democracy."

Mr Salmond praised former Holyrood presiding officer George Reid, in attendance yesterday as Lord High Commissioner at the Assembly, for his role in restoring the reputation of the Scottish Parliament after the outcry that met the 400 million-plus cost of the building. "The Scottish Parliament recovered," Mr Salmond said. "We opened ourselves up to full transparency, we admitted our mistakes and today the Scottish Parliament is much, much stronger for that and provides, perhaps, an example for others to follow."

'We are all guilty if we opt to stay silent'

HUMAN rights, it has been said, may go global by going local. This may also be the case in Scotland, writes George Newlands.

The integrity of the Church is important – but there are different sorts of integrity; of organisation, of doctrine, of identification with those who are discriminated against. Above all, the Church is mandated to maintain integrity with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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What does integrity ask of us? The hospitable God is always there in solidarity with the subjects of inhospitality. The gay issue is minor compared with the huge issues of poverty and environment.

The awkward fact remains that we are all guilty in some degree when discrimination occurs and we stay silent. In Sachsenhausen concentration camp there is a memorial to gay people which simply bears two words: totgeschlagen, totgeschwiegen (murdered, silenced).

Ivory-tower reflection is not enough. The danger on all sides of these dilemmas is that the quest for hospitality may lead to demonising people whose views differ from our own.

Jesus nowhere mentions same-sex relationships. He turns to those beyond the pale, flouting many of the taboos of the time. Touching the leper, the living damned, is the touchstone of God's own hospitality.

The suggestion often remains that God is not uncomfortable with the just punishment of gay and lesbian people. But there is also the serious issue of the unity of the Church.

The disconnect between doctrinal reflection and human experience remains a barrier to recognition of the hospitable God. God's hospitality in incarnation invites us to look again at our political, social, and our church arrangements. We need to be hospitable in turn.

• George Newlands is Professor Emeritus of divinity at Glasgow University

'Third World' credit union plan for Scots

THE Kirk is investigating setting up a credit union based on a model used in the developing world to help people in deprived parts of Scotland start up businesses.

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The church and society committee is examining ways to lend small amounts of money to people to help them create niche companies.

"The way into work for many is even further than it was a year ago.

"We need to find creative ways for people to participate in society and use their ideas and energy," said committee convener Ian Galloway.

The Kirk is considering setting up a company into which it would invest money that will be used as "micro-credit" loans for small business start-ups.

Mr Galloway said he hoped the government would help to set up a pilot scheme to show the idea would work.

"Using people's creativity and potential is a much better way of moving people from welfare to work than punitive measures," he said.

"We think that this would be a much more positive view of the people concerned. Rather than being seen as idle and not to be trusted, they are seen to have enormous potential and creativity."

A business plan would be required, and loans would be made to groups of four or five people, who would take upon themselves to ensure that they would all repay the debt. Admitting that there was the possibility that people could take the money while still claiming benefits, Mr Galloway said the experience of other schemes was that there was a pay-back rate of 98 per cent.

The Kirk will look for potential partners and the Scottish and UK governments will be approached.

It is working with Glasgow Caledonian University on a structure for the scheme.