Church of Scotland 2012 General Assembly: Gay marriage to expose Kirk divisions

Politics met religion at the Kirk's General Assembly on The Mound in Edinburgh yesterday, where First Minister Alex Salmond joked and chatted with guests and delegates.  Photograph: Toby Williams
Politics met religion at the Kirk's General Assembly on The Mound in Edinburgh yesterday, where First Minister Alex Salmond joked and chatted with guests and delegates. Photograph: Toby Williams
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THE deep divisions in the Church of Scotland over same-sex marriage are expected to resurface this week when the General Assembly is asked to endorse the Kirk’s opposition.

With the Scottish Government expected to outline its position on gay weddings shortly, homosexuality remains a difficult issue for the Kirk.

Traditionalists, who believe that same-sex relationships go against the Bible’s teachings, have already clashed with ministers with a more liberal attitude towards homosexuality.

But Kirk insiders suggested that a debate on a report on “Issues in Human Sexuality” will present a chance for the traditionalists to reassert their opposition to same-sex marriage.

“What you might find is that, under the marriage report, somebody will propose that the Church should welcome marriage [between a man and a woman] or people should back the [anti] gay marriage campaign. That’s very possible,” said one insider yesterday.

The report, from the Kirk’s mission and discipleship committee, itself acknowledges differing strands of opinion within Scotland’s national church. “Clearly the many people in the Church who do not think same-sex sexual activity is ever an appropriate form of behaviour will think it wrong for marriage to be extended to same-sex couples,” it says.

“There also many in the Church who, while open to same-sex couples living in sexual partnership, do not feel that marriage is the right context for or description of their relationship.

“Christian marriage has always been between one man and a woman,” it says, before concluding: “While extending marriage to same-sex couples is beginning to be debated in society and the Church, this would constitute a major break with scripture and Church practice through the ages.”

Last year, the Kirk’s submission to the government’s same-sex marriage consultation said the Kirk could not agree with gay weddings.

The Kirk argued that a change in law to allow same-sex weddings would fundamentally alter the understanding of marriage as the union of one man with one woman. That uncompromising stance led to dismay from the liberal wing of the Kirk, even though the submission emphasised that it regarded homophobia as sinful and said all would be ministered to regardless of their sexual orientation.

The first openly homosexual Kirk minister, Rev Scott Rennie of Queen’s Cross Church, Aberdeen, warned that the anti-gay wedding position would lead to worshippers leaving.

The Scottish Government has indicated that it intends to support a change in the law to recognise gay marriage, but will give religious denominations the freedom to choose whether they should conduct the ceremonies.

Inside the Assembly Hall on The Mound in Edinburgh this week, Church finances will be another issue to dominate the main business.

The Kirk has made serious inroads into cutting its debt, but it is still £5.4 million in the red. That bleak financial position has led to a campaign to increase congregational giving by more than £600,000 a year.

The issue of congregational giving is likely to continue to be a hot topic over the coming year. Traditionally it has been the more evangelical congregations who have tended to be the most generous fundraisers.

One possibility is that they may withhold cash if they feel that the Kirk is not sympathetic to their beliefs.

Those within the hierarchy have said that the next few months will see the Kirk examine its stewardship of funds.

Reforming the way committees and councils account for expenditure will be looked at, as will insisting that commissioners attend at least 80 per cent of Assembly sessions if they want to claim expenses.