As I try to do in the years when I am not a commissioner to the Church of Scotland's General Assembly, when working at the computer (this past week doing a lot of editing of Spill the Beans with an issue I must get out of the door before heading to Malawi in five weeks or so), I had the live stream of the coverage open in a window on one of the computer monitors so I could follow what was being said as I worked. Mostly, as with many who had connected to the live stream during the week, my focus was on two particular debates.
The first of these was the return of the Ministers and Deacons in Civil Partnerships Overture after it had been approved both at the 2014 General Assembly, and by a majority of presbyteries (31 approving, 13 disapproving) under the Barrier Act which seeks the input from presbyteries to a decision of the General Assembly in order to provide a check and balance against a single General Assembly making an innovative decision that would impact the church. I missed the start of that debate, but caught much of it. Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, the General Assembly voted 309 in favour and 182 against making this overture a Standing Law of the church (the image above being the vote results as shown on the big screens in the Assembly Hall).
What does this mean? It means that Kirk Sessions can decide (through a particularly convuluted process) to instruct the Nominating Committee during a vacancy that they can (the default being that they cannot) consider someone living in a civil partnership as a candidate. This allows congregations who wish to depart from the "historic and current doctrine and practice of the Church" (i.e. no gays in relationships allowed) to do so under certain circumstances: which has been labelled "constrained difference". This mixed economy approach gives space for the variety of different views within the church and recognises that the church is not of one mind over this issue.
Now that this piece of church law is in place anyone who is in a civil partnership can be considered for selection as a candidate for ministry (either as a minister or deacon) and enter training for the same, it also means that congregations can appoint a minister provided they have gone through the required process. So far, so good, and while, personally, I think the resultant law is something of a mess, it is so because it was the result of a desperate desire to seek a compromise led by Rt Rev Albert Bogle and Rev Alan Hamilton at a previous General Assembly in order to maintain some peace within the Kirk. I suppose it did so, by annoying everyone equally. Nonetheless, for those of us who have long sought to see the Kirk reform itself in a further step towards greater inclusion (Acts 10-11), this was an important and historic step forward.
Then came Thursday's Joint Report of the Theological Forum and the Legal Questions Committee to the Committee on Returns to Overtures (GA14 LQC DEL 6) - I promise I did not make that up. And as the afternoon unfolded I could not shake a Whitesnake song from my mind, the song begins:
I don't know where I'm goin'
But I sure know where I've been
Hanging on the promises in songs of yesterday
An' I've made up my mind, I ain't wasting no more time
Here I go again
Here I go again
For it felt somewhat like Groundhog Day, the same arguments that had been aired at huge length last year starting to be rehearsed again. What was the issue? While the church had been deliberating whether to allow people living in civil partnerships whether they could play a full part in the life of the Kirk, the country in which we serve had moved on to allow marriage both of people of opposite sex and of the same sex. The church law approved on Saturday was thus immediately out-of-date and the church was left in the very awkward position of saying that people living in a civil partnership could become ministers (or deacons) but that those who had either converted their civil partnership to a marriage or who had sought to commit themselves through a same sex marriage are not. Thus leading to a discrimination between those in civil partnerships and those who have married.
The ammendment to the new law brought to the General Assembly sought to remedy this anomaly by adding where required in the new law "or a same sex marriage" where it previously just said civil partnership. The purpose of this ammendment was thus to clean-up the new legislation, affording the same benefits of status to someone living in a same sex marriage as the church had already agreed for those living in a civil partnership. Rt Rev Dr Iain Torrance explained this with great grace and patience during his report and in the questions and debate that followed. However, the use of the term "same sex marriage", as used by the State to signify the Scottish legal institution of marriage of people of same sex, provided a red flag to many who felt that this legislation was saying that the Kirk affirms same sex marriages. This was not what was happening, and Iain Torrance repeatedly confirmed that the Theological Commission was going to be preparing a report on Same Sex Marriage for a future General Assembly, however this red herring was what many opposed to expanding full rights of inclusion to the lgbt community within the Kirk eagerly grasped.
They were assisted by an utterly confusing countermotion in the name of Rt Rev Albert Bogle, the self-professed "simple parish minister" who also happens to be an ex-Moderator and one of the most persuasive speakers within the Kirk's ranks, someone I have worked with on various projects in the past and greatly appeciate. From what I have heard, the providence of this countermotion was the result of some, no doubt, well-meaning but misguided hand-wringing from a few progressives and evangelicals at the General Assembly who wanted to provide the General Assembly with a further opportunity to procrastinate for fear of the General Assembly either saying yes or no (depending on their position) to the ammendment. The countermotion, which was so hastily put together that it did not even appear in the Daily Papers, proposed that the General Assembly remit the matter of Same Sex Marriage to the Theological Forum and report back in 2017. This was ammended by the clerks to add that the Joint Report's motion should be parked until the Theological Forum had reported, otherwise the original ammendment proposed in the Joint Report would have been left completely stranded in the process.
I could not buy into the argument Albert Bogle made: that church members would get confused about what the General Assembly was doing if it approved the ammendment, because us "simple parish ministers" (a phrase repeated during the afternoon almost comically - remember that most ministers have two degrees and are trained in theology to degree standard) would not be able to explain adequately to our church members what had taken place at the General Assembly. I found the argument pretty insulting, if I am honest. To my mind, the countermotion actually exacerbated the false equivalence between using a phrase of the Scottish State's, i.e. "same sex marriage" as it is used by the state to denote people who have entered into marriage with someone of the same sex (a current reality), with a Christian understanding of same sex marriage from the Kirk, which is work still to be done.
Some of the comments made in the debate that followed were nakedly threatening towards the Kirk, particularly from the commissioner representing the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, others were filled with emotion speaking of the hurt and pain that Saturday's decision had already brought with an appeal not to make that hurt and pain worse. Whenever I hear those words, I think of the gay and lesbian people I know who have felt the hurt and pain of the church's stance over the years and my compassion finds an equilibrium between those hurt because of having to accomodate people who have different theologies and those hurt because the church has rejected them. Actually, that is not true, I want to scream, "are you kidding me?"
After a lengthy debate, the motion and countermotion were placed to a vote. It was very close, but the motion passed by 213 votes to 205. This meant that the words "and same sex marriage" would be added to the new legislation where required. However, that was still not the end... for then it was proposed that this change should go down to presbyteries under the Barrier Act so that it would all have to be rehearsed again within each presbytery and then again at next year's General Assembly before the ammendment would be finalised (or rejected). Can you see why the song "here I go again" was rattling through my noggin? We have just done this, and we are about to do it again, in order to tidy up the legislation to fit the new reality within Scottish society. There is nothing innovative about this, it is just making an addition to what is now an existing piece of church law, something that is done all the time at each General Assembly without recourse to the Barrier Act.
It seemed completely overkill to send this down to presbyteries once more, and indeed likely to cause more disunity within the church than unity to my mind, though I think that for many that was an important consideration. Having spoken so well to support the ammendment, and stating frequently that this was but a matter of extending the benefits already existing with the enactment of the new law to people in same sex marriages, Iain Torrance appeared to capitulate and accepted that the Barrier Act should be used. When the moderator then suggested that the proposal go ahead without debate as the Convener agreed to it there were cries from the floor of the Assembly from those who could not see why this change had to go down to presbyteries again. I must admit, I was flabberghasted by Iain Torrance's decision not to reject the motion. It forces the church into another year of confusion and a year in which to be in a same sex marriage is to be in a position where you cannot serve in the church whereas it is fine if you are in a civil partnership. However, 215 votes to 195 the motion to send the legislation down to presbyteries was carried.
Realising that this left the church in a right pickle because we already have a number of ministers serving who have entered same sex marriage, a hasty further motion sought to protect those already in positions within the church. Oh my, two steps forward, one step back.
We'll get there, I have no doubt. But the path sure is convoluted.
A take-away comment from Iain Torrance during one of his responses to a question that I found very helpful was to say to those of us who have very different positions and understandings over whether or not gay people in committed relationships should find full inclusion within the Kirk was that this was a debate "amongst those who love the Scriptures" (my paraphrase), it was not a debate between those who love the Scriptures and those who reject the Scrptures. This is very important for us all to remember.
For a bit of light entertainment when the business at the Church of Scotland's General Assembly was quieter, I switched to the live stream from the Free Church of Scotland's Assembly. What struck me most about one of the sessions I watched there was how often the issue of homosexuality was mentioned by different speakers, led this year by a Moderator who takes every opportunity to speak out in the press against the inclusion of gay people iwithin the church and to knock the Church of Scotland, indeed he is quoted in today's Press & Journal as finding it "astonishing" that a serving minister is in a same sex marriage, and that the General Assembly has been "hoodwinked". What struck me about the repeated mentions of homosexuality by different speakers (and this was not in a session where the focus was on sexuality) is that it is used in the Free Kirk as a declaration of one's faithfulness, it appears to be a matter of the "substance of faith" to Free Kirkers, in other words that you have to believe a certain way about homosexuality in order to be acceptable within that faith community. Indeed, this is confirmed from those whom I know who have experience of being gay within the Free Kirk, and what happens to you when the Free Kirk finds out. In the Church of Scotland we have explicitly said that one's particular position with regard to the acceptability to God of same sex relationships or civil partnerships is not of the "substance of faith".
For me this is one of the great strengths and mysteries of this denomination of which I am a part, this broad church where we recognise that we collectively are faithful yet seeking understanding each and every day. A church of Pentecost, in other words: a church in which the Spirit of God is moving. And I offer my thanks to God for that.
Now, if you have got all the way to the bottom of this, I salute you, dear reader.