Mood shift points to gay clergy for the Kirk
- 23 May 2011
- From the section Scotland
As delegates to the Church of Scotland's General Assembly left the building they were greeted by protesters from a conservative Baptist church.
In rain and blustery winds, a dozen or so people brandished posters calling on the Kirk, the Presbyterian church shaped by the Scottish Reformation, to repent.
When the Assembly voted to look further into lifting its ban on the training and ordination of gay people as ministers, it seemed a modest enough step.
But it also signifies a shifting tide in one of the UK's largest churches on one of the most bitterly contested issues of recent times.
It set the Church on what it called a new "trajectory", away from a traditional conviction that active homosexuality was simply outlawed by the Bible, towards an assumption that scripture could be interpreted in radically different ways within the same church.
Can such a mild-mannered resolution really be read as being so far-reaching?
There are other signs of a sea-change in the Kirk.
In the 2001 census, about 42% of Scots identified themselves as Church of Scotland by religion.
However, the numbers who regularly attend are much smaller.
The current crisis began two years ago with the appointment of an openly gay minister, Scott Rennie, by a congregation in Aberdeen.
The General Assembly confirmed Mr Rennie in his post but imposed a two-year moratorium on training or ordaining other gay clergy.
But at its meeting on Monday, the Assembly voted to allow ministers who were already ordained at the same time as Mr Rennie was elected in Aberdeen, and already known to be gay, to be appointed to new jobs despite their homosexuality.
The symbolism of the vote was not lost on traditionalists, who angrily denounced it as a "surreptitious" changing of the Church's teaching.
Another vote confirmed that the Church had no problem with homosexual inclinations among clergy.
In a report about gay clergy commissioned for Monday's meeting, it is acknowledged that homosexuality is something people are born with, not something they choose.
It seemed a far cry from 2006 when civil partnerships were decisively rejected, and a sign of shifting attitudes among the elders and ministers who make up the Assembly.
Each side in the debate has spoken of a watershed moment in the Church's history, with even a modest shift down the road towards ordaining gay people likely to change its character.
Other churches have completed that journey - including most recently the Presbyterian Church of the USA, which decided last week that gay and lesbian people could be ordained.
But the Church would become the first large, mainstream, denomination in the UK to do so.
Even the Church of England, contradictory and confused though its approach is, formally insists that clergy should have sex only within marriage.
Traditionalists in the Kirk are keenly aware of the shifting mood.
A significant number have said they would leave the Church rather than endorse actively homosexual clergy.
Any who do leave their manses - and their salaries and pensions - will tend to be disproportionately in the more traditionalist north and west of Scotland.
That could leave the Kirk unrepresented in large areas of the country, and undermine its claim to be Scotland's national church.
Another potent sign of change is that a motion to buy more time to think about gay ministers without any commitment to change was narrowly defeated.
It seems that in this progressive mood, sitting on the fence has become increasingly uncomfortable.