Tuesday 21 May 2013

Presbyterianism cracking at the seams - the cost of compromise

This post is an addendum to yesterday's post about the General Assembly's decision concerning the ordination of ministers in civil partnerships.

It has been suggested elsewhere, something I forgot to mention in this original post. The structure of the proposal, which the General Assembly agreed, sits very uncomfortably with Presbyterianism. Matters of doctrine are intended to be able to be matters for the General Assembly to determine from time to time, within certain constraints. As a caveat to this, there is an acceptance that ordained ministers may personally dissent on matters which "do not enter into the substance of faith". But acting openly contrary to doctrine adopted and declared by the General Assembly is another thing altogether. The premise of presbyterianism is that once decisions on doctrine have been made, that church courts are to abide by them, even if those composing them disagree with the principles of the relevant doctrine.

What the Church of Scotland has adopted is a proposal which runs counter to the very idea of presbyterian governance as opposed simply to a principle of far looser congregationalism. It is, quite simply, not the same thing "not to have a doctrine" on same-sex relationships, and to have a doctrine with which congregations can disagree and are specifically empowered to act without consequence in direct contravention thereto. Leaving aside the practical differences between the liberal 2A proposal and the traditionalist compromise (2D) this was the essential theological divide between those two propositions. 2A said that the Church should not have a doctrine proclaiming "God's word" to be against same-sex relationships, whereas 2D said that the church SHOULD have such a doctrine but that certain congregations should be able to ignore it. This forms part of the very legitimate dissatisfaction liberals have with this proposal: the symbolic message, even if these proposals go to plan, and congregations can appoint gay clergy free from fear of reproach of Presbytery or higher courts, is that same sex relationships are assumed by the Church to be wrong.

In pushing through 2D, what the so-called traditionalist wing of the Church of Scotland have done, far from protecting the historical institutions and norms of the Kirk, is to erode part of the defining features of presbyterian governance and the relationship between its hierarchy of courts and the determination of doctrine. The average parishioner, and dare I say it, the average clergyman these days, probably does not care much for formal structures and is more concerned about the substantive debates that take place, across yet within most denominations, about theological issues. Yet one is minded of the history and premises behind the Kirk's form of governance and why it exists as a distinct denomination, and why other Presbyterian churches have emulated that approach. The traditionalist motion has, even if unintentionally, attacked presbyterianism, and undermined what "doctrine" actually means in that context.

Dr Thomas Chalmers was the leader of the evangelicals who left the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church in 1843 over what he saw as a "vitiated establishment". He believed at that time that presbyterian establishment had been undermined by the state intervening to let landlords appoint ministers contrary to the wishes of their congregations. There is perhaps an amusing irony that the Church of Scotland has come full circle, and on a question of who may ordain whom to serve in particular congregations, but with the sides reversed! For today it is the evangelicals, not the moderates, who are showing less integrity for the essence of a presbyterian polity. It is they who seek a fudged compromise to preserve a conservative 'establishment'. Meanwhile it is the liberals who articulated the most constitutionally honest option, which would have preserved the fundamentals of presbyterian polity, and which would have more honestly reflected the reality of the Church of Scotland's organised polity. The body of the Kirk, in reality, no longer considers homosexual relationships to be doctrinally unacceptable. That formal position was already becoming untenable given the fundamental disagreement between "traditionalists" and "revisionists". At best, it could only intellectually be considered a matter that some considered immoral and others did not, but which was in no sense susbtantially considered to be at the heart of the substance of faith held across the Kirk's spectrum.

The Kirk's new status quo, propagated by self-described traditionalists, manages to protect neither the intellectual integrity of doctrine, nor the unique governance of the Church of Scotland. If Dr Chalmers had been of this age, he may yet have still been against an open interpretation of scripture that made no assumptions about the morality of same-sex relationships. Yet he would surely also have been deeply disturbed at what the Church has had to become to avoid repeating a split like the one he led himself. This agnostic, brought up in the Church of Scotland (by very liberal ministers for parents), would respectfully suggest that presbyterianism may have over-reached its elastic limit with this compromise.

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