After several hours of debate yesterday, commissioners at the Church of Scotland General Assembly voted by 351 to 294 to adopt a proposal which means a move towards the acceptance for training, induction and ordination of those in same-sex relationships for the ministry. The Assembly also voted by 393 to 252 to allow ministers and deacons in same-sex relationships ordained before 2009 to be inducted into pastoral charges.
A theological commission will be set up to bring recommendations to the 2013 General Assembly, as well as considering whether ministers should have freedom of conscience to bless civil partnerships and possible liturgy for such occasions. As nothing has been formally enacted, the proposals do not need to consult the Kirk’s 46 presbyteries under the Barrier Act, but it does mark a significant departure from the Church’s traditional teaching, as acknowledged by the Commission’s report.
In presenting the report of the Special Commission, the convenor, Lord Patrick Hodge, reported that the commission had received a letter from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland confirming that their position was that sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman are sinful. The PCI Moderator, Dr Norman Hamilton, spoke in the debate yesterday and affirmed the position of the Irish Presbyterian Church.
While the debate was well managed by the Moderator, Dr David Arnott, some of the speeches confirmed my worst fears about the views of many within the Church of Scotland. “We know better than the Bible” was the tone of one speech, and, as one speaker said, since the Bible had got it wrong on slavery, the role of women, and the death penalty for adultery, we should not be afraid to discard what it says about homosexuality. The speaker insisted that current scientific evidence makes it clear that homosexuality is perfectly natural and not sinful, and therefore homosexuals should not be barred from leadership in the church. Another speaker referred to the pastoral and prophetic insights of bisexual and transgender people.
One feels for the many conservative and evangelical people within the Church of Scotland who must be very hurt and depressed by their Assembly’s decision. The conservative voice was not prominent in the debate and an amendment by Rev Martin Allen was overwhelmingly rejected. What the response of the conservative wing of the Church of Scotland will be is unclear, but if ministers, elders and congregations withdraw in numbers as a result of this decision, it may seriously damage the Kirk. The evidence is that this kind of schism has not happened in the recent past, and may not happen now.
Undoubtedly this decision will affect how Irish Presbyterians view their Scottish counterparts, and the links with both the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) following their recent decisions may become an issue for debate and discussion within PCI.