Friday, 22 May 2009

Kirk plunges into the great gay debate

It took only one hour for the issue that could split the Church of Scotland to surface. After the pomp of the General Assembly's opening ceremony had died down and once the tea cups were put away after the morning break, the first intervention came. Not surprisingly, it came from the hard-liners.

No one doubts that this weekend will be epoch-making for the Kirk. Whether it accepts the appointment of the Rev Scott Rennie - an openly gay minister and divorced father of one - has become its defining issue. Such are the passions aroused that many believe that the Kirk is on the brink of its first schism since the Disruption of 1843, which led to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland.

The debate about gay ministers has rumbled on since January, when Mr Rennie's opponents succeeded in referring his appointment to this Assembly for judgment. It has earned acres of newspaper print, provoked passionate radio phone-in debates and kept blogging ministers glued to their computers. The result was, as the Rev Derek Browning told a packed Assembly Hall in Edinburgh: “The eyes of the Church, the eyes of the country and the eyes of the wider world are upon us at this time.”

In the event it was the evangelicals who suffered the first defeat, failing to win a procedural motion that they thought would ensure Mr Rennie's appointment was rescinded. Led by the Presbytery of Lochcarron and Skye, they had hoped to define Church policy on homosexuality by winning an overture (motion) on sexual morality tomorrow evening, before the Assembly, the highest court in the Church, was due to decide Mr Rennie's case.

“There is a danger that we will make a decision [about homosexuality] based on the prevailing culture of our time,” said the Rev Peter B.Park, who moved the procedural amendment. He was defeated, but while some saw the two-thirds majority as an omen of the decisive defeat they hope to inflict on the evangelicals tomorrow, others insisted that the coming vote was far from cut and dried.

Members of Aberdeen's Queen's Cross Church had voted overwhelmingly to appoint Mr Rennie, who lives with his partner at Brechin Cathedral, with Aberdeen Presbytery endorsing their appointment.

The case against his appointment has been led by the evangelical organisation Forward Together. While it is easy to suggest that their anti-gay support is predominantly drawn from far-flung parishes in the north and the Western Isles, and the Orange Order heartlands of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, its theological position - that the Bible does not permit the appointment of a gay minister - has a much broader base.

Edinburgh parish ministers spoke on both sides of the debate, illustrating the depth of the divide. One, the Rev Jerry Middleton, from Davidsons Mains, said that the overture would “affirm and clarify the principles underlying basic Christian morality”. Mr Browning, from Morningside, disagreed, saying: “It is not right to depart from what is right, what is fair and what is just.”

From the anti-gay grouping, there is a sense that the Church authorities had deliberately timed the debate to sit in a “graveyard slot” so they could quietly approve Mr Rennie's appointment. No one now expects the debate to be quiet or brief.

Some who support the evangelicals' theological position have been appalled by the personal attacks on Mr Rennie. Forward Together has already issued a pubic apology to the minister over false claims about his personal life. No sooner had that apology been issued than the Rev Ian Watson, the secretary of the organisation, published a 3,500-word sermon comparing the fight against homosexuality with the fight against the Nazis, which was condemned by many of his peers.

A month ago, the debate was stirred again when Life and Work, the Kirk's house magazine, published a piece in support of Mr Rennie by Muriel Armstrong, its outgoing editor. She said that yesterday's vote did not mean that the evangelicals would be defeated. “I do think there is a moderate majority in the middle. The Church is defined by its moderate majority but whether that moderate majority is represented here I don't know,” she said.

Should the evangelicals be defeated, allies in other churches are ready to reach out to them. The Monthly Record, the magazine of the Free Church of Scotland, appealed to evangelicals to join them in a new united British Presbyterian Church.

Ministers opposed to Mr Rennie said that they would not walk away from the Church, and at all times in the debate they remained respectful to the Moderator. “Wait till Saturday night,” said one commissioner, “then you'll see the fire in their eyes.”

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