There can scarcely be any reader of the Congregational Record who has not heard of the decision of the General Assembly on Monday 20th May in response to the Report of the Theological Commission on the ordination of ministers in same-sex relationships. However, given the influx of people to Sandyford it is perhaps worthwhile to go over the major issues. The terms used, like ‘revisionist’, ‘traditionalist’, ‘mixed economy’ are drawn from those used at the Assembly. Without particularly approving of the terms used in the Assembly’s own economy of language, Sandyford would see itself as traditionalist.
Two proposals were put forward by the Theological Commission for consideration by the commissioners at the Assembly: the revisionist position, a ‘mixed economy’, in which actively gay ministers in civil partnerships could be ordained, but with a conscience clause for traditionalists who wished to opt out; the traditionalist position, which would not have allowed any new appointments of ministers in same-sex relationships, but which offered legal protection for any of them appointed before 2009. A third, ultra-revisionist position, put forward and subsequently withdrawn by a former Moderator, would have made no distinction between active gay and heterosexual ministers and would have denied an opt-out clause to traditionalist congregations. However, the Assembly adopted a counter-motion, proposed by the previous Moderator, Albert Bogle, and seconded by Alan Hamilton, which was a mirror image of the revisionist position:
Affirm the Church’s historic and current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality, nonetheless permit those Kirk Sessions who wish to depart from doctrine and practice to do so.
The moratorium on training and appointing ministers in same-sex relationships has been extended until the final outcome of the above proposal, following a successful motion proposed by Graham Thain and seconded by Ramsay Shields.
The decision has generally been welcomed by the liberal wing of the church, and commended by both the current Moderator and the Principal Clerk of the General Assembly as ‘a massive vote for the peace and unity of the Church’. Conservative evangelicals have expressed sadness, and, in some cases, profound grief, at the decision. However, even within this group, reactions are divided. Some have expressed the view that the decision is not as bad as it might have been, and that the proposal may be workable. (And one cannot doubt that the aim of those devising the proposal was to try to break the impasse by finding a median path between the two conflictual positions, or the heaviness of heart which characterized their presentation.) Others are already counting the cost of the line drawn in the sand which marks an explicit departure from the fundamental basis of the Church of Scotland, its acceptance of, and belief in, the Bible as the ‘supreme authority’ in matters of faith and doctrine. Some commissioners and bloggers have described the decision as ‘theologically incoherent’, ‘confused and inconsistent’, and have questioned whether, far from preserving the unity of the church, the decision might be sounding its death knell. It may be easy to dismiss as schadenfreude the strictures of a well-known Free Church polemicist, David Robertson. In his blog entitled ‘The Church of Scotland, RIP?’, he suggests that the ‘Church of Scotland wrote its own suicide note’. There is, nevertheless, amid the rhetoric which makes his blogs so readable, a love for the Church of Scotland, which is arguably greater than that experienced by some of its members.
However, it is hard not to empathise with the heart-felt comments of Louis Kinsey, who has already lost his Session Clerk and a number of elders from his church over the decision of the 2011 Assembly with regard to this issue: Something has died, and I think it is the Church of Scotland as we have known it […] There was just no theological basis for the counter-proposal. No biblical warrant for it. No logical coherency about it. It makes no intellectual sense. […] The ‘Mixed Economy’ that is now our ecclesiology is just a recipe for anarchy. […] It is the relativisation of the Church of Scotland. The Congregations and Kirk Sessions can now do whatever they like.
We can have sympathy, too, for those serving on the Theological Commission, whose two years of hard work was set aside in an afternoon in favour of a proposal, summarily devised. It may not be as easy in future for the General Assembly to take Christian leaders away from their normal duties if there is no guarantee that their work will form a major basis for the decision-making.
The next steps
However, while it is unlikely, given that it emanated from two evangelical ministers, the proposal could yet be defeated at one of the next two Assemblies. The proposal will be fleshed out into an Overture to the General Assembly in 2014. The Legal Questions Committee will try to devise a framework which will accommodate the breadth of the proposal and to anticipate and resolve the major problems from the ‘mixed economy’. If the 2014 Assembly ratifies the proposal, it will still require the approval of Presbyteries (under the Barrier Act) before the proposal can become church law in 2015.
Challenges for Sandyford
As the Congregational Record will be printed before the next meeting of the Kirk Session, which will be held on 10th June, any response from the elders cannot be included in this issue. We will, as before, keep the congregation fully informed of our discussions.
From a congregational perspective, however, four immediate challenges suggest themselves. The first is to press on with our search for a minister. Who knows how the decision made at the Assembly may affect the process. The first meeting of the Nominating Committee was essentially relational with much of the time being devoted to prayer.
The second challenge is to respect the responses of other churches with whom we have pledged a partnership in the gospel. The considered view of the Kirk Session in Sandyford in 2011 was not to leave the Church of Scotland but to keep a watching brief on the situation. However, we have not failed, week by week, to remember those who have seceded, along with those who have elected to stay within the denomination. The unity of congregations committed to a systematic biblical ministry and to corporate prayer will be, as Jerry Middleton, the Chair of the Crieff Trust, has exhorted us, of vital significance:
How we each respond to Monday’s decision will inevitably vary. We have different perspectives and different personalities: we are set in different contexts and we will come to different conclusions. But whatever the future will hold for us all, we must strive to ensure that the different responses we make never blind us to the fact that we share the same concern for the honour and glory of Christ, and the same commitment to partner one another in the work of the gospel. We surely need each other now more than ever.
The third challenge will be (without prejudice to what the Kirk Session decides at future meetings) to press on with the vision that God has given us, in particular, with the gospel witness to those around us (see Douglas Humphris’s report). We could so easily have spent the last two years trying to second guess what the Assembly might do. That does not mean that we should not contend for the faith. In fact, it is essential for all staying within the denomination to speak up for biblical truth. This has been the position in the two notable postwar ministries in Sandyford of George Philip and Peter White, who were willing, often to their cost, to challenge proposals which they considered contrary to biblical principles.
The fourth challenge is the invitation to trust God amid the seeming confusion and uncertainty. At the start of our vacancy on 1st May 2011 we recognized that the only way forward was to seek to develop a culture of dependency on God. While one can deplore at times the self-referentiality which has become the hallmark of postmodernist thinking, may I be excused for citing from the close of the first letter of the vacancy (written before the May Assembly in 2011), which set out the way ahead:
…all these arrangements will be of little value without the Lord’s oversight of our congregation in the next year. As a dual motif, two verses have become our watchword. ‘Without God we can do nothing’ (John 15: 5) will preface the prayer meeting news each week during the vacancy; ‘Ebenezer’ (I Samuel 7: 12), the stone of help, reminding us of God’s goodness in the past, and of his infinite capacity to help in the future, will be the spiritual memorial of all who join in worship.
If the recognition of our need of God’s help was at the top of our congregational agenda in May 2011, how much more does it need to be in the days to come! May God help us to prove him in these ongoing challenges.
With very best wishes
Noël Peacock, Session ClerkView All Letters