Presbyterians prepare for a theological battle
The history of the church is littered with theological battlefields. In the distant past, churches debated, and divided over, questions about the person and work of Christ, and the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the other persons of the Trinity. In the medieval world, churches devided over the metaphysics of the eucharist, and issues of power and authority. In the twentieth century, churches divided over the role of women in the church, and the politics of race. Then came ethical debates about abortion. But in recent years, particularly within Protestantism, homosexuality has become the key battleground issue. The presence and role of gay and lesbian Christians within churches has not only divided liberals and evangelicals, it has also divided 'conservative evangelicals' from 'progressive evangelicals'.
Homosexuality is now, without doubt, the most divisive theological issue facing the world's major Protestant denominations. The argument within Anglicanism has been likened by some to a theological civil war -- with no sign of a ceasefire anytime soon. Now, the Church of Scotland, Scotland's national church and the mother church of Irish Presbyterianism, is about to face its most challenging debate about homosexuality to date. Some say this debate has brought the Church of Scotland closer to schism than any other issue since the Year of Disruption in 1843. Next week, its General Assembly votes on whether a gay minister can be appointed to a parish in Aberdeen.
The Reverend Scott Rennie (pictured)has served as minister of Brechin Cathedral since 1999. But his election, last year, as minister of Queen's Cross Parish Church in Aberdeen has been challenged in the church's courts by conservative evangelicals who say the appointment is inconsistent with biblical theology. Scott Rennie is openly gay and has a partner; and says the couple plan to live together in the church's manse. Church outsiders may wonder why there is now a controversy, given that Mr Rennie is serving already as an openly gay minister in a congregation that supports his ministry. The answer to that question goes to the nature of Presbyterian local goverance. When a congregation elects a new minister, that appointment must be approved by a Presbytery, a regional court of the church. In this case, conservatives within the church are appealing the Presbytery of Aberdeen's decision to approve that appointment.
Forward Together, an evangelical campaign group within the Church of Scotland, say this public controversy represents the 'biggest crisis' facing the church since 1843 year, when a third of the Church left to form the Free Church of Scotland. Next week the General Assembly will debate the issue; and a third of its ministers have already signed a petition calling for a ban on gay ordinations.
Earlier this week, a conservative Scottish minister, the Reverend Ian Watson, outraged many campaigners in Scotland with a sermon, published on his personal blog, that compared anti-gay campaigning to the battle against the Nazis. Scott Rennie's defenders say the conservative opposition to his appointment is 'prejudice and bigotry disguised as theological debate'.
In this lengthy discussion, two Church of Scotland ministers debate the theological issues involved in this very public row within the Kirk. Scott Rennie writes here about his experience as a gay Christian minister.
The Reverend Louis Kinsey, an outspoken evangelical opponent of Scott Rennie's appointment, blogs here.
(On an entirely separate issue, why is the Church of Scotland's website light years ahead of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's? I recently judged another denomination's website awards and even local congregations had more interesting, more informative, more interactive, and more attractive web presences than PCI has managed. I realise that these things require staff and resources, but so does everything else that's important. The Church of Scotland's website is quite excellent, and the Kirk has embraced new online technologies in making their Assembly's proceedings available to every member of their church, wherever they live. Is it time for PCI to discover web 2.0?)