Scotland, Ireland and 'the Aberdeen Case'
The Church of Scotland's debate about the inclusion of gay and lesbian church members will heat up considerably this week, as the denomination approaches its annual General Assembly. The Assembly will not only consider an appeal against the appointment of an openly gay minister, but will also vote on a resolution that would have very serious implications for gay people throughout Scotland's national church. The resolution reads: "This Church shall not accept for training, ordain, admit, re-admit, induct or introduce to any ministry of the Church anyone involved in a sexual relationship outside of faithful marriage between a man and a woman".
You will notice that this resolution, unless amended at the Assembly, would apply not only to ordained ministers and elders of the church, but to any person working in any denominational ministry. I tested this point on yesterday's Sunday Sequence with two ministers from the Church of Scotland, on either side of the debate. The Reverend Peter Johnston, chair of OneKirk, which works for an inclusive church, and the Reverend David Randall of the Forward Together, a conservative evangelical group within the Church of Scotland, were agreed that the resolution, as it stands, would apply to non-ministers and non-eleders. The example we considered was of a qualified social worker who applies to the church's Board of Social Responsibility to work in a church-run hostel. If that social worker is gay or lesbian, this resolution would require the board to exclude him or her from employment. In fact, the resolution could be read to mean that church boards shoudl sack any gay personel they currently employ in 'ministries'.
I suspect that this extended application of the resolution will raise alarms for even some conservatives within the Kirk who are opposed to the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers and elders. There could be an amendment to limit the resolution to ordained clergy and elders, which could carry more support in the Assembly. Another possible outcome -- perhaps the most likely outcome -- is that the house will regard the whole resolution as draconian and rush away from any policy of exclusion. One contact in the Church of Scotland suggested to me that a widely-respected senior minister may step forward at the outset of the debate on Saturday to propose that the Assembly 'pass from the matter'. If the Assembly voted to do that, then the appointment of Scott Rennie would stand.
Whatever happens in Edinburgh next Saturday will have wide-ranging implications for the Church of Scotland. If the Assembly upholds the Presbytery of Aberdeen's decision in the matter of Scott Rennie's appointment, it will have signalled very clearly that the appointment of openly gay and partnered ministers is consistent with the church's law. That outcome will be too much for some conservatives, who may feel the need to consider their own position within the denomination. If the Assembly votes to strike down the Aberdeen decision, it will have struck a blow against the inclusive church movement within its ranks, and, in the judgement of some, the denomination would be locked into an annual debate about sexuality for quite some time (as was the case in the Presbyterian Church USA).
There are issues here for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, too. Irish Presbyterianism was established by the Church of Scotland and, to that extent, PCI is the daughter-church of the Scottish Church. But the relationship between the two has changed significantly over the past few years. The Scottish church has become increasingly 'liberal' (or 'progressive', depending on your perspective), while PCI has remained more traditionally conservative -- indeed, some would say, it has moved in an even more defensively conservative direction in the past two decades. All of which tends to produce a rather odd relationship between the two denominations. The Church of Scotland once processed PCI ministers as candidates for vacant pulpits as though they were Church of Scotland ministers; this is no longer the case. The two churches appear to speak different theological languages, are concerned with quite different social and moral questions, and look across the Irish Sea (or the North Channel) at each other with some suspicion. It's clear from this most recent episode ('The Aberdeen Case', as it's being called), that the Scottish church has a significant conservative minority who are equally concerned about the direction their church is taking. If the Scottish Assembly takes another step in a pro-gay direction, we can expect that some conservatives in PCI will feel it necessary to introduce a their own resolution to prevent a similar 'drift', as they would see it, within the Irish Presbyterian Church.