Leader: Kirk cannot fudge its claim to moral leadership

Today's debate on the ordination of gay priests at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is perhaps the most important for the future of the Kirk since the Disruption of 1843.

Then, the Kirk was divided over patronage; the right of local lairds to choose a minister for a church, and the whether the government had any right to insert any rules in this process.

The dispute led to a walk-out on the opening day of the General Assembly and to about a third of ministers and worshippers breaking away to establish the Free Church of Scotland. The issue 168 years later is also about the rights of a congregation to choose its minister; this time, however, it is about whether they can choose a minister who has declared his or her homosexuality.

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The Kirk has been agonising over this matter since 2009, when members of Queen's Cross Church, Aberdeen, chose gay minister Scott Rennie to lead them. The General Assembly quelled the subsequent uproar by declaring a moratorium on any further such appointments and banning further public discussion while a commission considered the theological issues involved. Today, a decision should be reached.

There is no doubt that Church members are severely divided. A decision for or against the ordination of ministers in same-sex relationships is going to displease those opposed to the outcome. And while a walk-out as dramatic as that in 1843 is thought to be unlikely, there will almost certainly be a haemorrhaging of members in the aftermath of such a decision.

Hence the options suggested in the commission's deliverance look a little obscure. They come close to offering a decision one way or the other, but then leave the door open for further debate behind closed doors which might lead to the decision being changed. Quite a few senior churchmen fear that a fudge is being prepared.

The Assembly should realise that no decision is the worst option. It was continual fudging of the patronage issue by the more dominant moderate faction of the Kirk in 1843 that caused the evangelical wing to prepare for breakaway, the signal for action being eventually provided by the government's rejection of the Church's Claim of Right, seeking freedom from interference in its affairs.

And just as the Disruption ended the Kirk's leading role in Scottish society, so would any decision that rejects the right of homosexuals to play any role in the Kirk's ministries severely reduces the authority of the Kirk to lay claim to moral leadership in Scottish society. The people to whom the Church aspires to minister have long accepted that gay people are fully entitled to be open about their sexuality and to play a full role in society.

At a time when Scotland is struggling to erase the stain of sectarianism, the country does not need the badge of homophobia added to its reputation.