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Presbyterians prepare for a theological battle

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William Crawley | 15:08 UK time, Friday, 15 May 2009

scott-360_470799a.jpg.jpegThe 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?)


  • Comment number 1.


    Presbyterian or not (and I am) I'm staying out of this one!

  • Comment number 2.

    Well I reject the idea that the opposition to gay ministers is simply 'prejudice and bigotry disguised as theological debate'. There are people who are not especially prejudiced or bigoted toward gay people who simply have theological problems with homosexuality. That theology may be based on the misapplication of a certain view of the bible, or may speak from a wider theological ineptitude and closed-mindedness, but it isn't born out of bigotry. Not EVERY politically incorrect thought is a hate crime.

    That said, as you can tell, I think they're fundamentally wrong about the reasons they disapprove of homosexuality or gay clergy. I wouldn't, unfortunately, expect there to be a balanced, neutral debate about this within Presbyterianism anytime soon: it presents a challenge to some precious religious tradition, from which no dissent is easily tolerated.

  • Comment number 3.

    This debate cuts across lines from one religion to another, lines between Protestants and Catholics for example. Clearly, religion like politics makes for strange bedfellows.

    Sorry I just couldn't resist the temptation, the opportunity was too ripe. The devil made me do it :-)

  • Comment number 4.

    These theological situations arise because the world is setting dangerous standards within the church as there are uncalled worldly men and women occupying the pulpits of the Church and fleshly elders sitting in the session room, impostors who have crept into the church unaware, wolves dressed as sheep who are theologically terrorising the sheep the Israel of God, Gods elect the remnant that is sounding the shofar, the watchmen on the wall, who have a trowel in one hand and the Sword of the Lord in the other protecting the sheep from those that pervert the Word of God.

  • Comment number 5.

    the petition is here:-



    Members of Aberdeen's Queen's Cross Church voted overwhelmingly to appoint the Rev Scott Rennie.

    So is it not the fault of our fellow Christians that this man was elected to his postion? (Some of the comments on this make for interesting reading)

  • Comment number 6.

    The congregation of Queen's Cross Church elected Scott Rennie as their minister. He served there previously as their assistant minister. The Presbytery of Aberdeen approved the election after long debate and deliberation. Both bodies knew Scott Rennie was gay with a partner and both decided that his vocation was valid. That's presbyterian government in action. Now comes a group of fundamentalists who want to reverse a decision of two courts of the church. They will not succeed. My friends in Scotland tell me that the Assembly is likely to either set aside their appeal as out of order, or, if it debates it, to agree with the Presbytery that nothing in church law stands in the way of this appointment. What, then, will the fundamentalists do? Will they walk away from the Church of Scotland, and their manses and salaries, on a point of principle? Not in a million years. They will return to their parishes and life will return to normal and Scott Rennie will move to his new church in Aberdeen, and the heavens will not fall. Some of the people on this petition list opposed, and continue to oppose, the ordination of women to the ministry. They didn't leave the church over that point of principle either. It's the 21st century, but some of them would be more at home in the 16th century.

  • Comment number 7.

    The problem I have with this issue is people's reaction to it. The church often finds it difficult to multi-task due to an inability to prioritise. No doubt people up and down the country will be debating it, which is great, but many will be consumed by it and it will have an overshadowing impact on the real problems the church should be tackling.

    Whats the worst that can happen? People will leave the church, but are unlikely to loose their faith, since they are probably basing their judgement on their own personal statement of faith. The worst that can happen is that two people in a loving relationship will feel too guilt ridden, by the condemnation of the very organisation that is supposed to promote love, to continue for fear of loosing their salvation. As if salvation is some kind of winning lottery ticket that you must cling onto for dear life until judgement-day comes. Death not being a ticketless airline, leaving those who have lost their ticket, stuck in London stansted (or wherever you perceive hell to be).

  • Comment number 8.

    fleshly elders

    I love it! Suppressing anything, Puritan? I know a "very lovely" psychiatrist who might like to have a word with you :-)

    Oh, with any luck, the whole stupid shebang will collapse. Look, folks, there IS no god; theology is a study discipline without a subject. A god who doesn't exist doesn't mind whether you're gay or straight, or even whether you have a Labrador or a Staffy. Get over it already, as Bishop Eugene would say.

    Is he a good bloke? Does he do good for his community? Does he care about people? Yes? Then let him do that good.


  • Comment number 9.

    Helio- Oh, didn't you get the memo? Doing good won't get you anywhere. It's repeating after the minister, "I have sinned, would you please come into my heart Jesus, Amen" that makes you righteous. Unless you're gay. In which case, you can do the good of Mother Theresa AND say the aforementioned lines, and you're STILL an unrighteous pit-viper.

  • Comment number 10.

    Oh - yes, forgot that Original Stonewashed Sin thing. We're all depraved nasties - Jesus even admitted as much himself. There goes that sinless lamb of god notion then.

    Mind you, I have to say that the Rev Thingy isn't exactly front page material for Gay Times, is he? I mean, come on - where's the six-pack? We're talking *beer cans* here, not Melton Mowbray pies!

    Now let us join together in praise: today's chorus is Mission Praise II, 1987 edn, No 319.

  • Comment number 11.

    Heliopolitan - I realise that everything we post here represents our own views/opinions and not neccessarily fact. However, if you make statements like 'Look, folks, there IS no god' you will be expected to back it up.

    Can you back this up?

  • Comment number 12.

    cynical pinnacle

    You ask if Helio can back up his *belief* that there is no God. (If you have followed this blog much you will know that writing the word 'belief' surrounded by an asterisk or two is extremely important to him.)

    The answer of course is that Helio can back up this claim and it therefore follows that anyone who like me thinks there is a God is deluded. The evidence for such a claim though, devastating as it is upon the world of faith, ought to be taken seriously and it is this. Seemingly, one Sunday in Jerusalem, oh about 2000 years ago, there happened to be two donkeys, doing their donkey thing near the temple. Two donkeys equals no God, so there you have it recant now, the games up.

    Here we come, walkin'
    Down the street.
    We get the funniest looks from
    Ev'ry one we meet.
    Hey, hey, we're the Donkees
    And people say we donkey around.
    But we're too busy donkeying
    To put anybody down.

    We go wherever we want to,
    do what we like to do
    We don't have time to get restless,
    There's always something new.
    Hey, hey, we're the Donkees
    And people say we donkey around.
    But we're too busy donkeying
    To put anybody down.

    We're just tryin' to be friendly,
    Come and watch us frolic and play,
    We're the young generation,
    And we've got something to say.

    Any time, Or anywhere,
    Just look over your shoulder
    Guess who'll be standing there - (Jesus perhaps?)

    Hey, hey, we're the Donkees
    And people say we donkey around.
    But we're too busy donkeying
    To put anybody down.


    Hey, hey, we're the Donkees
    And people say we donkey around.
    But we're too busy singing
    To put anybody down.

    We're just tryin' to be friendly,
    Come and watch us sing and play,
    We're the young generation,
    And we've got something to say.

    Hey, hey, we're the Donkees
    Hey, hey, we're the Donkees
    [repeat and fade]

    extra verse:

    Hey, hey, we're the Donkees,
    You never know where we'll be found. (or how many of us there's gonna be)
    so you'd better get ready,
    We may be comin' to your town.

  • Comment number 13.

    Donkee. Love it.

  • Comment number 14.

    Well, chappies, we'll know soon enough, and when you find out that I'm right, don't come running to me :-)

    Peter - you have talent. It's a pity you weren't writing the gospels instead of the fakers and over-eggers who god actually got to do the job :-)

  • Comment number 15.

    Peter, he (in this blog), didn't write the word the belief. I can understand if someone left out a word, thats ok. The thing is, this interweb is full of people making claims they can't back up. So I sometimes ask people, to do, just that.

  • Comment number 16.

    Im sure im not the only one who is getting frustrated with conservatives appealing to out of date and uninformed theologies to defend their homophobia. that's what this petition is ultimately about. Its about hatred of gay people because they represent the unacceptable 'other'. In every age, the church has decided that the 'other' was to be rejected, whether it was for race reasons, politics, ideology, theology or gender. Now the issue of sexuality. We will get through this phase too and the church will come through it pro-gay in the end, just as the church is pro-women (for the most part) today.

  • Comment number 17.

    cynical pinnacle

    I know Helio didn't use the word belief on this thread, I used it deliberately, I reckon Helio knows I used it deliberately, it's sort of been a running thing between us! I was only being mischievous, I however would like you be interested to hear his reply.

    H, how do you know there's no God?

    Like Frasier Crane says, "I'm listening"

  • Comment number 18.

    Augustine- Precisely. One day the homophobes making up the current majority of the church will look very silly.

  • Comment number 19.

    Pinnacle & Peter, if you define god as an omnipresent omniscient omnipotent being, then, YES, I can back up the non-existence of such a ridiculous notion.

    If you define god as a worm at the bottom of the garden, well, then, I guess I do accept that such a thing probably exists. But I suppose you may mean Yahweh, who is in the same category as Wotan and Hermes and Shiva, in which case I don't really think there's a lot to be said. The burden of proof is on you.

    There is a worm [Our Father]
    At the bottom of the garden [Which art in heaven]
    And his name is Wiggly-Woo [Hallowed be thy name]
    etc. Amen.


  • Comment number 20.


    Have you joined a mushroom cult or something?

    Or taken one of Alister McGraths arguments seriously?
    You know, one of his gems like "There are no facts!Just interpretations!"
    "Nature is a social construction!"
    If you've been listening to Alister, I can understand that Wiggly Worm reference. Otherwise, whatever your smoking, pass it along.

  • Comment number 21.


    This is the first time this blog site has actually discussed an issue (since I've been on it) which is going to be voted on, on Saturday, an issue which will have huge ramifications for 'your' church.

    So far, your contibutions have been, "I'm staying out of this", a poem about a donkee, how we use the word 'belief' and a few comments about universalism.

    Benny has now become real in the shape of a young man in Aberdeen and maybe he deserves more from you than what you are giving him on the last three threads. Maybe not.

  • Comment number 22.


    Goodness me, what is there to say. Have you forgotten the many many comments on the 'fundamentalism' thread? Have you forgotten that I hold to a view of sexuality based on the traditional Christian one of husband, wife, hopefully kids (I think that's how I previously described it). Is it possible that you might relate my initial comment on post one to these facts. Must you, like OT, push me on my point of view again?

    It might interest you to note that I have no vote in the upcoming Assembly, I, for my sins, and against my better judgement and accident of birth, am a member of PCI, and even if the vote were to be taken in Assembly Buildings Belfast, I would have no vote there either. I will further add that my ecclesiastical preference is for a church with no, priests, no ministers, no Presidents and no Pope, however they are thin on the ground and so I persevere! Church on the beach makes sense to me, or church in a pub, church in a living room, church with no hierarchy, no robes, no titles, and if there ever comes a time when I am forced to act according to my conscience I shall quietly walk away. I shall raise no protest, initiate no petition, outline no resolution and discriminate against no one other than myself. I shall not point the finger, I shall not condemn another and shall only outline my personal point of view if I am asked. If 'my church' chooses to go in a direction which is different to my own thinking, it has a perfect right to do so, I shall not stand in its way, merely suggest that I be allowed to stay at home if I so choose.

    Can you understand RJB that it is possible to disagree which another person on issues which are fundamental to their lives and yet NOT discriminate against them. RJB I happen to disagree with Scott Rennie's understanding of the bible on this issue, I'm quite sure he disagrees with me, but I am happy to life in peace with my fellow man, wonder if that is allowed?

    Amazing, isn't it, how one can be hounded for tolerance.

  • Comment number 23.


    I take it the answer to my question about the guy in Aberdeen is no then.

    I am very aware of what you have stated on other threads, especially with regard to the mythical Benny. Therefore confused at your silence when Benny becomes real in the shape of Scott Rennie, when the situation becomes concrete. As you stated to OT, its real people we are talking about here, real pain, real hurt.

    Hounded? Are you serious? If you want to know what hounded is, ask Scott Rennie.

  • Comment number 24.


    What is confusing about saying, I disagree with Scott Rennie on this issue but I'm not out to get him? In terms of the bigger picture, Presbyterian, Anglican, European, American, African etc. my view is that it is probably going to be necessary for the churches to go their separate ways, obviously some are going to be 'right' about the issue and some are going to be 'wrong' but I can't see any other way forward.

    No, I wasn't serious about being 'hounded'. I should have put it in quote marks. Sorry.

  • Comment number 25.


    May I put this another way? I disagree with Scott Rennie on this issue and yet I have no wish to condemn him. I disagree, but have no wish to point the finger. I disagree, but maybe I'm wrong? I also, as you know, happen to think that there are others who would like nothing better than to humiliate Scott Rennie, I think this would be wrong.

    What am I to do?

  • Comment number 26.

    Helio -

    Since you originally wrote: 'Look, folks, there IS no god'

    I believe the purden of proof is on you. Unless you want me to disproove the concept that you CAN back up what you say. Its still a concept at the minute.

    Still listening.

  • Comment number 27.

    Cyn-pin, since you seem determined to worry this one like a little terrier, I suppose I should put you out of your misery. I do not *know* that there is not a god. It is not possible for me to scientifically prove that there is not a god or that there *is* a god (and philosophical "proofs" are only as good as their premises - a fact that seems lost on Billy Lame Craig and Alvin Stardinga). However, my state of knowledge of the facts does not change the facts themselves, and I humbly and most respectfully suggest that there is a very high probability that the fact is that the system referred to by the learned gentlechappies who call themselves "theologians" does not in fact exist. The assemblage prayed to daily by multitudes of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, Voodooists etc likewise does not exist.

    A non-existent entity has no concern over human sexuality, nor indeed any aspect of human behaviour, so I suggest we quit paying any heed to the views ascribed to same by superstitious people in primitive times, and work out these things for ourselves.

    So, regardless of our state of knowledge as to whether or not there is a god, that does not change the fact that it does not exist. If I am wrong, it can sue me.


  • Comment number 28.

    It is only right that high moral standards are expected of those taking up leadership positions in the Christian Church. It is therefore inconsistent for a minister to preach repentance and forgiveness in Christ if he himself openly continues in an immoral relationship. The church is for repentant sinners, not defiant ones.

    Seems to me the Church of Scotland is not the only one needing to face this issue with an open Bible in their hands.

  • Comment number 29.

    In fairness Pastor Phillip, revisionists do need to be replied to.
    They generally offer arguments that try to establish
    (a) The Bible does not condemn all forms of homosexual practice - merely homosexual liasons, or abusive homosexual relationships, or homosexual prostitution or homosexuality connected with idol worship.
    (b) That the Bible does not condemn homosexual unions between those with a set homosexual orientation as the ancients did not have a concept of sexual orientation.

    Now it seems very clear to me that a careful look at the context and Pauline arguments rules very cearly against such interpretations. That is there is no reason to challenge the "common sense" reading of Scripture on this issue. In fact, very few scholars who are not bound by Scritural authority have been swayed by such interpretations.

    But I don't think that we can simply ignore the case against, or dismiss it. In fact Paul was prepared to offer arguments that drew on the secular philosophers of his day, rater than just rule on the issue. So we might be warranted to follow his example.


  • Comment number 30.


    I think everyone can feel "hounded" on this issue. But there is an important point to be made about power struggles in the Church. When theological and ethical controversies sound more and more like political struggles for supremacy, it's time for one group to do the gracious thing and *leave*.

    Another bitter Church row involving Evangelicals is the last thing that the Scottish Church needs. But that's never stopped them before. My bet is that this will get very nasty, and get nasty for Mr Rennie, if the Donald MacCleod affair is anything to go by.


  • Comment number 31.

    The man did say he came to bring fire, a sword, division. However, I'll direct you to post 33 on the Irish Church Leaders.... thread.

  • Comment number 32.

    Here is the thing for me.

    As I have walked around Glasgow, I do not know of one member of the public who is even thinking about this, even less debating on it. This just seems to be a church thing.

    The world moves along as a religious institution kicks itself in the teeth and they wonder what it's all about.

    I look at the list of denominations on the petition and wonder how many of them could worship together, pray together, take communion together.

    But they are quite happy to condemn together.

    I wonder how many Christians would sign a petition calling for the end of Churches storing more money than they will ever need. Or how about the richer churches giving away the legacies and surpluses every year to the poor. Or how about handing over buildings to charity groups...Oh, I can see the rush now

    Jesus who put love and understanding at the centre of his Gospel is replaced by a religion of rules and division....and all the while a world outside is bleeding to death.

    'Jesus Wept.'

  • Comment number 33.


    The denominations cant worship together etc.. but they are happy to condemn together.

    Absolutely spot on!!

  • Comment number 34.

    Helio -

    I knew you couldn't, we all did. I just wanted you to say you couldn't.

    Apologies to all for going off topic.


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