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General Assembly 2006

June 2006

Dear Friends

It has been a joy to hear from so many postal readers as we discern whether to continue including daily Bible readings as part of the Record. We hold these connections dear, send you our greetings and covet your prayers.

To Sandyford members I draw attention to a series starting on Wednesday 12th July. We shall be looking on six alternate Wednesdays at the Christian teaching about the Bible and our interpretation of it. Each evening starts with a video introduction from All Soul’s church in London and will have opportunity for questions and discussion.

The General Assembly is about as clear a window as we can get on the state of the Kirk, and as you know both Ken Rolwegan and I were Commissioners this year. I append below his overview of the week; in this letter I draw attention to some of its more momentous decisions. May they inform our prayers.

1. Stem Cell research and the sacredness of human life. Stem cells are mostly taken from human embryos left over (too many are made, unnecessarily and therefore irreverently it seems to me) in the course of fertility treatment. Since spare embryos end up killed, the Committee proposed they could acceptably be used in research up to 14 days old.

We appreciate the argument: that embryos are at that stage a microscopic circle of cells, not conscious and feeling no pain. Humanness, goes the argument, is a developing thing.

Or are embryos people to whom we have responsibilities? What gives us our dignity before God? Not our maturity (or why protect those who never mature?), but God’s relating to us, is what makes us so significant. Our humanness appears to be a ‘becoming’ thing but it is not by age, but by God’s gift, that we are loved as individuals. He has plans for us before we are born:
'Your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.' (Psalm 139:16)
The problem is, we have no warrant for choosing a date or stage before which that truth is not true. The church has felt that a human’s identity to God is ‘indivisible:’ not able to be divided into a before and after, before which it is stuff to experiment on and after which she is a person before God.

It’s an agonising decision, but I felt bound to vote against. The Assembly decided the other way, for the sake of medical advance.

On the same issue and with stronger conviction I proposed that the Assembly delete the second half of the next decision. It opposed deliberately making human embryos for research, except into serious diseases and only under exceptional circumstances.

I spoke against the exception clause because it seems wrong to me to make a human being, even a little one, just to experiment on it. Why did we feel abhorrence at the experiments of the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele on human subjects? Did we not sense that ‘utilitarian ethics’ (this person is here for me to make use of - the medical knowledge justifies the experiment) were sacrilegious?

The Assembly disagreed and chose the whole deliverance. Wherever God’s will lies in this tender area, let us pray that He will raise a sense of the inviolable sanctity of human life among us.

2. HIV/AIDS and the place of morality. The Kirk has a working group generally doing a great job supporting those with HIV/AIDS and relating to other agencies all over the world. Part of the work is to formulate prevention strategies for the disease.

HIV/AIDS is a terrible scourge, caused mostly by men choosing multiple sexual partners whether or not the women want that. Yet the project resisted my motion to include the matter of chastity outside marriage, and faithfulness within it, as one factor when discussing prevention strategies.

My motion received support from both men and women and the presentation that lunchtime was a devastating illustration from Malawi that disregarding my point is the main reason for the spread of HIV/AIDS worldwide.

What I proposed is, I understand from UN reports, the only strategy that has actually reduced the incidence of HIV/AIDS anywhere in the world. I am still puzzled that the committee resisted it and the Assembly voted against it.

Not to moralise is to moralise. HIV/AIDS is preventable simply by all living by Christian standards: our faith has a literally life or death contribution to make. I am grieved that the Kirk refuses to make it, and intend to meet the project leader soon to discuss it.

3. The Tiberias Hotel and the proper use of our offerings. The Kirk has a plot of land beside the Sea of Galilee through former missionary work. We recently built a fairly plush hotel there and it runs at a big loss: we subsidise it to the tune of over £300,000 per year, money that comes from congregational offerings. Such large expenditure reduces our missionary endeavour; we could send a dozen missionaries abroad on that money.

Should the Christian church be in the Hotel trade? Nine of every ten customers are well-off Americans, Europeans and Israelis; is subsidising their holidays the best way to spend our offerings? It also makes local Arab Christians feel the Church of Scotland lets them down.

My speech mostly proposed that we make even that Hotel operate in line with the Council’s objectives of evangelism, reconciliation and the alleviation of poverty. I am glad to say that the new Convener of World Mission, Rev Colin Renwick of Jordanhill Church, asked for a copy of my speech so as to include its thinking as they plan.

4. The blessing of civil partnerships (same-sex marriage). Remarkably, the General Assembly voted by a majority of only 8 (322 to 314) in favour; and only agreed to proceed down this road if the wider church approves as shown by Presbyteries voting during the next 9 months.

We believe there is a good chance that the proposals will fall for 5 years as a result of this consultation, and I urge us to pray that this will happen.

Revs Gordon Kennedy and Ian Watson of Forward Together were quite outstanding in that debate. Forward Together is quite a small society whose aims are:
1. to reach people with the Gospel;
2. to support all evangelicals within the Church of Scotland in their witness;
3. to promote unity among evangelicals;
4. to present a Biblical perspective on the life and work of the Church of Scotland, especially on contemporary issues of debate.

They played a vital role before and at the Assembly and printed an excellent booklet for all commissioners. They deserve our support and, at this time, need it financially.

I think it would be great if every Sandyford member and Scottish reader of the Record would support their work by joining Forward Together (only £5 for unwaged, £10 for those in employment) and so I have included a membership application form in this Record.

Forward Together also ran a helpful lunchtime meeting where a Christian lawyer gave advice on the new legislation forbidding vilifying people’s religious feelings.

5. Phasing Out of ‘Additional Voluntary Contributions’. These are a small addition to the minister’s stipend which congregations with large incomes have been allowed to make if they wish. There have been many problems with the scheme; not least, that worthy ministers working all hours in priority areas like housing schemes almost never serve congregations with high enough incomes to warrant the additional stipend. When the Scriptures say ‘church supervisors doing an excellent job can be given double stipends’, how can it be right to make that distinction only on grounds of a congregation’s ability to pay? The scheme has been going for three years; I benefitted in two of them thanks to your liberality and my stipend went down in the middle year; it’s a good thing that the scheme is being phased out and that is how I voted.

Other ideas that stimulated me were suggestions about ensuring personal links with Kirk missionaries; stronger congregations making definite ‘twinning’ arrangements to support and be in friendship with a congregation in a needy area; and the importance of ensuring that our young people are really made part of the congregation’s life.

Both Mr Philip and I have worked to play our part in the courts of the Church, as befits Presbyterian church government; but it is the work done by local congregations that constitutes the heart of life and outreach. It is you whom I serve, and God’s Word is our main pastor and minister; I covet your prayers for that ministry above all.

Yours sincerely

C Peter White

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