Post General Assembly
We are further dismayed by the recent decision of General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to, again, reject the authority of God’s Word by approving of behaviour which is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture. Last year’s decision to agree that Kirk Sessions could call someone in a same-sex civil partnerships has been extended to cover same-sex marriage resulting in the Rubicon (words of the Principal Clerk) being crossed. Both the denomination and the news media have hailed this as an ‘historic vote’, well aware of the significance of what took place on Saturday 21 May 2016. Of course, this latest decision did not just happen. It was part of a definite trajectory already set by the Church of Scotland. It will not easily be reversed, if ever it can be, and therefore cannot be ignored. This decision has implications for every minister, elder and member of the Church of Scotland. Whether we like it or not, Presbyterianism means that once something has been legislated it is binding on all. It is impossible to state that nothing has changed for us, since decisions taken at the General Assembly define the position of the Church of Scotland, of which we are a part. Therefore, it is worth taking the opportunity to lay out the facts of the current situation relating not merely to the acceptance, but also the affirmation, of same-sex relationships in the ministry of the Church of Scotland. By way of introduction, the fundamental issue throughout these past seven years has been the authority of the Bible and whether or not our denomination has been prepared to uphold its clear teaching. As you will see below, after many opportunities at successive General Assemblies, the Church of Scotland has consistently chosen not to do so. The General Assembly 2009 A case was brought before the GA 2009 regarding a minister in a same-sex relationship. Some within the Presbytery of Aberdeen appealed against the Presbytery’s decision to induct the minister. Without debating the issue in principle, the GA voted by 326 to 267 to appoint the minister to a church in Aberdeen. The GA then set up a Special Commission on ‘Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry’ in order to consult all Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions on this issue. The Special Commission was to report back to GA 2011. At this point, Kirk Sessions were to complete questionnaires and many concerned congregations arranged meetings to discuss, as Sandyford did, aware of what was at stake. The General Assembly 2011 The Special Commission reported to the GA 2011. In the months before the GA, evangelicals worked together to present the clear biblical teaching at the assembly. On the day of debate and in the main deliverance of the Special Commission report, the GA was give a choice of how the CofS should move forward on this issue; either by maintaining the traditionalist position or by changing to adopt a revisionist position (words of the Special Commission). The GA chose a revisionist trajectory and voted to allow ministers and deacons in same-sex relationships ordained before 2009 to be inducted into pastoral charges by 393 to 252. The GA also set up a Theological Commission to bring recommendations to the GA 2013 and to consider if ministers should have the freedom of conscience to bless civil partnerships, as well as produce possible liturgies for such occasions. Many did not think a clear decision had been made and looked to GA 2013 for a formal decision or reversal of the trajectory. The General Assembly 2013 In the lead up to the GA 2013, many ministers and elders were involved in various gatherings throughout Scotland to prepare for this GA. The prayer was for the CofS to affirm its traditional position and for a clear decision to be made after years of uncertainty. When the report by the Theological Commission for GA 2013 was produced, it presented ‘The Revisionist Case’ and ‘The Traditionalist Case’ and invited the General Assembly to consider each and make a decision. It was clear from the report that the CofS could not agree on this issue. However, the report was clear to state that the CofS had a position: it held to a traditionalist (biblical) position on the teaching of the Church in respect to same-sex partnerships. Therefore, GA 2013 was asked to decide whether it would continue on the revisionist trajectory chosen in 2011 or depart from the revisionist trajectory and hold to the traditionalist position. While the report of the Theological Commission presented the conflicting positions of the revisionist case and the traditionalist case, it did however state unity on two points. Firstly, both revisionists and traditionalists concluded that no Biblical text condones same-sex sexual relationships and the only texts which explicitly cover the subject express disapproval or stronger. Secondly, both revisionists and traditionalists viewed a decision by the GA to depart from the traditional teaching of the CofS (that same-sex sexual relationships were not permitted) as an innovation which would require approval under the Barrier Act by two successive General Assemblies and the majority of Presbyteries. At the beginning of the debate on Monday 20 May 2013, there were three formal motions (the revisionist, the traditionalist and another, which was later dropped). A new third motion appeared in print over the lunch-break and was presented by the former Moderator. This third motion sought to affirm the historic and current doctrine and practice of the CofS in relation to human sexuality while allowing Kirk Sessions to ‘opt out’, by indicating that they do wish to depart from the doctrine and practice of the Church. The GA were asked to vote on the three motions (A-Revisionist, B-Traditionalist, C-Third). On the first vote (which presented all three motions) the votes were cast 270 for A, 191 for C and 163 for B (this seemed to split the ‘evangelical’ vote). Accordingly B dropped out and a further vote between A and C on which votes were cast 340 for C an 282 for A. The decision by a clear majority was in favour of the third motion. The key part stated: “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 that doctrine and practice to do so.” Again, many did not think a clear decision had been made and many accepted this compromised position with the belief that the church was still ‘traditional’ in its teaching. The General Assembly 2014 At the GA 2014 an ‘Overture’ enacting the principles agreed by GA 2013 was presented by the Legal Questions Committee. A counter-motion which called on commissioners to affirm the Church’s historic and current position that sexual acts outside heterosexual marriage are contrary to God’s revealed will in Scripture was presented. The vote was in favour of the Overture by 369 to 189 votes. Another opportunity has gone for the GA to uphold the clear teaching of Scripture. This legislation was then approved by a majority of Presbyteries (31 for, 14 against) under the terms of the Barrier Act. The General Assembly 2015 On Saturday 16 May, the GA 2015 voted in favour of permitting people in civil partnerships to serve as ministers and deacons within the Church of Scotland, by 309 votes to 182. On Thursday 21 May, the GA debated whether to extend the provision covering ministers and deacons in civil partnerships to those who are in a same sex marriage. After a long debate, commissioners voted by 213 votes to 205 against deferring a decision on this until the denomination’s Theological Forum had presented a report on the subject of same-sex marriage. However, commissioners then voted, by 215 votes to 195, to defer the final decision until Presbyteries had been consulted under the terms of the Barrier Act. The result of the Presbyteries vote was 26 Presbyteries approving of minister in same-sex marriages and 19 disapproving. Another opportunity gone to uphold the clear teaching of God’s Word. The General Assembly 2016 On Saturday 21 May 2016 the GA decided by 339 votes to 215 to allow ministers in same-sex marriages. Bizarrely, at the same time the CofS maintained that this decision did not compromise their traditional view of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. They also affirmed that, while ministers can now be in same sex marriages, they are not allowed to conduct same sex marriages for members. In all the confusion over these issues the CofS awaits a report by the Theological Commission for the GA 2017. This was another rejection of the authority of Scripture by yet again permitting a practice the Bible teaches as sinful. Conclusion In outlining the facts of the GA decisions and amidst all the ambiguously worded language, the outcome is that the CofS has chosen to depart from the clear teaching of the Bible on human sexuality in principle and in practice. Decisions made at consecutive GAs where this issue has been discussed have resulted in more ground being lost for the biblical position on this matter. The voting at each GA (consistently showing the evangelical position in the minority) highlights that the Church of Scotland has, over time, moved away from the gospel we find in our Bibles and the historic and orthodox Christianity of the worldwide Church. Over the past seven years in particular many evangelicals have invested much time and energy in preparation for these assemblies to do as much as has been possible to stop the CofS departing from the authority of the Scriptures. Time and time again, evangelicals have been defeated, outmanoeuvred and divided, yet have continued to support the CofS in terms of membership and money with the hope that the situation could be reversed. With little or no organisation from evangelicals to contend for the faith now, as there had been in the past, does not look good for the future. It is hard to express the sadness and regret that at the highest level the Church of Scotland has chosen to vote for departure from the clear teaching of the Bible. Some may still argue against the odds that this in not a defeat for Biblical Christianity within the CofS by clutching at straws to claim the denomination still affirms the ‘traditional doctrine and practice of the Church’. Yet, as the Principal Clerk has said, a Rubicon has been crossed and we should accept this. The GA of the CofS has been given the opportunity to submit to the authority of the Word of God but has chosen not to. Officially, it was stated at the GA that ‘only’ 3% of ministers (25) had left the denomination over this issue. In reality thousands have have left over this, including 40 ministers and the majority of members in 21 congregations. Many have run out of patience in playing a political game and are tired of vague, disingenuous, even deceitful language. Many more will likely leave, voting with their feet and continuing to take their money and their gifts with them. The big question for evangelicals still within the denomination is: ‘What to do now?’ Whilst we do need to act, let’s not forget the pastoral implications for us all. We are all sinners in need of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. The great hope we have is that, through the gospel, we find forgiveness and help to live in faithfulness to God as we seek to obey His Word. At Sandyford, we seek to support one another as we do this together.
Your minister and friend Jonathan de GrootView All Letters