Ian Swanson: Gay debate again set to dominate at Kirk meeting

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SEX will be top of the agenda again at the Church of 
Scotland’s General Assembly, which opens on Saturday. Four years after its first debate on whether or not to accept gay ministers, the question still dominates the Kirk’s deliberations.

It may be an issue which leaves most non-church people bemused. But it has the potential to cause the biggest split in the Kirk since the Disruption in 1843 when more than a third of the church’s ministers left.

The General Assembly of 2011 appointed a special commission to look into the theological issues at the heart of the controversy. Its report, due to be debated by the ministers and elders on The Mound on Monday, sets out the arguments on both sides without coming to any conclusion.

One Kirk insider says it is no 
surprise that there is no recommendation from the commission. “It was set up to be balanced between the two sides, so it was always going to end up like this.”

In fact, the Assembly debate two years ago did agree to “steer” the commission in favour of allowing gay ministers and also voted by 351 to 294 to allow all gay ministers appointed before 2009 to remain in their 
current posts.

That was far from the final word, but it was enough to prompt some evangelical ministers and congregations to re-examine their future in the Church of Scotland. So far, two congregations – one in Aberdeen and one in Glasgow – and a further six 
ministers have left. There has been speculation that as many as 50 congregations could leave if the ordination of gay ministers is approved, but many in the Kirk believe such reports are exaggerated.

The commission’s report suggests that if the Assembly does opt to accept gay ministers, there should be a range of “safeguards” including making it clear that if they are sexually active they should be in a civil partnership and allowing congregations to refuse to have a gay minister.

A senior Kirk insider says: “The commission has worked hard to get a compromise. There are clearly some who believe this must not happen at all, but the commission has tried to address the concerns of the 
traditionalists.”

This insider expects the Assembly to back the so-called “revisionist” stance rather than the “traditionalist” one.

“The issue is not really which side is right – the church has acknowledged both views can be justified on the basis of scripture. The big question is, does the church have to split over it? Can we make it happen in a way that preserves freedom of conscience?”

Even if the Assembly does vote for gay ordination at the end of Monday’s debate, that is still not the end of it. Under Kirk procedures, such a major change would have to go down to local level for approval by the church’s 46 presbyteries.

And the result there could easily go the other way, not least because each presbytery carries the same weight regardless of their size. Edinburgh presbytery, which is more likely to take a liberal view, will have just one vote, the same as smaller, more 
conservative presbyteries.

So the debate could well have some time yet to run. It may be that taking more time will help the two sides in the Kirk to reach some kind of compromise and avoid a damaging split. It could be both sides will want to call time on the issue. The danger, however, is that a continuing row makes the church look more and more out of touch with the rest of society, where homosexuality and gay relationships are no longer regarded as matters of controversy.