Monday 20 May 2013

Church of Scotland - Religious progress one fudge at a time

The General Assembly crawled to consensus
Today, the Church of Scotland at the General Assembly received a report from the Theological Commission concerning the ordination of ministers who are in civil partnerships. That report offered two, greatly divergent options.

There was the "revisionist" proposal (2A), which would have (subject to ratification by a majority of Presbyteries, and then the General Assembly of 2014) enabled ministers who were in civil partnerships to be ordained and to serve as ministers, but to permit individual congregations formally to opt-out of calling ministers to their charge in such relationships on the grounds of their "active" sexuality, and to excuse other ministers in the same Presbytery from taking positive steps to sustain the call. Put simply, it would have ended both the doctrinal and the practical impediment to the ordination of those in legally recognised same-sex relationships.

The "traditional" option (2B), would re-affirm the Church's historical doctrine holding homosexual relationships to be contrary to scripture and thus, by extension, formally to make it a disciplinary matter and a bar to ordination as a minister, for those in civil partnerships.

In addition to this, two further alternatives were put forward. A hyper-liberal position (2C), later withdrawn, would have effectively dropped the requirement for same-sex couples to be in a civil partnership. There was the suggestion that this would have created an inconsistency with the Church's more general teachings and requirements placed upon heterosexual ministers, for whom it is a disciplinary matter to have a sexual relationship with someone outside of marriage. A final alternative (2D) proposed that the doctrinal opposition to same-sex relationships be retained, but that individual congregations would be permitted to opt-in to recruiting ministers in same-sex couples without facing disciplinary action from Presbytery.

That final motion was proposed by members of the traditionalist wing of the Church of Scotland, no doubt mindful of the potential of a strongly liberal vote to split the Kirk, and perhaps fearing that the 2B proposal was unlikely to succeed at all. In the end, 2D was adopted comprehensively by the General Assembly, with the 2B proposal losing comprehensively at the first ballot, and 2D trumping 2A fairly comfortably on the second. It certainly seems to be the case that some liberals crowded around the 2D proposal as a consensus option.

The Kirk formally remains critical of same-sex relationships, and has pursued what many will see as a classic fudge, the like of which the Kirk has become all too familiar with. Moreover, the 2D proposal will facilitate ordination and calling of ministers in civil partnerships at least a year later than planned. Because the motion was submitted so late, there is not yet a legal framework onto which to map the proposal to make it compatible with church and civil law (especially employment law and Art 8 ECHR); that has been left to the Legal Questions Committee to address at the next General Assembly in 2014. There will then be the need to pass that proposal, if approved, by a majority of Presbyteries in 2014-15, and the General Assembly to approve it again in 2015, under the terms of the Barrier Act. It is a piece of Church legislation that safeguards against unintended and radical departures from established doctrine, worship, discipline and governance.

Had 2A have passed, it would have meant its set of proposals were in force after the 2014. Many liberal Christians will rightly be critical of what has been decided, in that it fudges questions of doctrine instead of unambiguously promulgating a message of equality and inclusivity, and because 2D represents a delay. It is even possible that at the next General Assembly, the whole principles of the debate will be re-opened and disputed, even if the Legal Questions Committee report is tightly drafted. However, it is at least arguable that 2D is more likely to be approved by conservative Presbyteries, especially in the Highlands and Islands, given that the motion was on the initiative of the more evangelical wing. As a proposal it was specifically designed to prevent a split in the Church, and if it succeeds, it will achieve many of the practical aims of long-time liberal campaigners.

There remain considerable problems with the new compromise, including potential fault-lines in linked charges where one congregation seeks to opt-out of default Kirk doctrine and another does not. Moreover, it creates a conservative assumption that congregations will not seek to depart from the traditionalist perspective.

The Kirk is, in many respects, still far behind the rest of Scottish society on questions of sexuality, including equal marriage. It faces a constant dilemma of trying to accommodate its position as a "national" church with views at least as divergent as in any other denomination around the globe. Though it has a habit for innovative solutions to its internal conflicts, from the "spiritual independence" of the Church of Scotland Act 1921 to the theological commission itself, it does suggest a compromise that all will accept, but none will be especially pleased about. In much the same way as equal rights campaigners considered civil partnerships themselves progress, but an inadequate and awkward half-way house, so too that is what the Church of Scotland has done today. Hard though it is for liberals to accept, sometimes social progress in our institutions come not by great strides forward, but one fudge after another.

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