The Church of Scotland General Assembly: A Commissioner’s View

What the news articles on the Church of Scotland General Assembly didn’t report

The Theological Forum presented a report and a motion to extend the same status to same sex couples that had participated in a gay marriage rather than a civil partnership ceremony. Although the Theological Forum viewed their motion as simply an extension of the act passed on Saturday, and tried to frame their argument in terms of a legal, equality, and justice framework; those opposed to the motion saw it as a de facto attempt to redefine marriage without debating the issue.

 

At first glance, one could easily assume that the Church of Scotland (CofS) had completely fallen off the rails after its Saturday, May 16, vote to accept gay ministers in a civil partnership. In one sense that’s obviously true, and while someone in the public gallery interrupted the Saturday afternoon session screaming “repent” at the top of his lungs and decrying everyone present as “an abomination,” neither that, nor the BBC’s short article reported in The Aquila Report present an accurate picture of this issue.

When this same issue was raised and passed at last year’s General Assembly, it was then sent to the presbyteries for review and an up or down vote. Although an overwhelming number of presbyteries approved the overture to allow individual parishes to opt out of a traditional understanding of marriage, the actual delegate vote was much closer: 1,381 For vs. 1,161 Against. Additionally, when the final ballot was taken on Saturday, May 16th, only 492 out of 734 commissioners voted on the measure. Meaning 242 commissioners abstained for some unknown reason.

At the same time, what was noticeable, was that the vote was founded on a sincere, but misguided pastoral ethic of caring for the least protected, rather than looking at it as a doctrinal-sin issue. This was especially true among the Youth Delegates (those under 25). Although the word “love” was used as a foundation, by supporters of the measure, no one ever defined “love” in the context of conditional obedience found in John 15. Instead, supporters pointed to the passage in 1 Corinthians 13; which means the vote was more emotional than reasoned.

Beyond that, there is no clear indication that all the congregations whose elders and ministers voted in support of this overture will actually call a gay minister. For the most part, they just want the congregations that might call a gay minister to have that option. Additionally, based on the experience of the PCUSA, there’s no evidence that this measure will increase church attendance or seminary enrollment in the hopes of alleviating the Kirk’s declining attendance and current ministerial shortage. Essentially what we’re seeing is a divided church.

That means at this point, the Church of Scotland constitutionally holds a traditionalist view of marriage, but allows individual congregations – not presbyteries – to opt out. However, there is a strong likelihood that most of the church’s congregations will be inclusive to a point, but not opt to call a gay minister.

This relative sense of conservatism was brought forward on Thursday, May 21, when the Theological Forum presented a report and a motion to extend the same status to same sex couples that had participated in a gay marriage rather than a civil partnership ceremony. Although the Theological Forum viewed their motion as simply an extension of the act passed on Saturday, and tried to frame their argument in terms of a legal, equality, and justice framework; those opposed to the motion saw it as a de facto attempt to redefine marriage without debating the issue. This resulted in an intense 3-hour argument from the floor. Eventually a motion was made, and passed (215 to 195) to send the Forum’s recommendation to the presbyteries for review because it was considered a theological innovation and a constitutional issue. Additionally, the Theological Forum was directed to study the issue of same sex marriage, and to report to the Assembly in 2017. At the same time current ecclesiastical legislation, remains in force, and states that a CofS minister may not officiate, bless, or participate in a same sex wedding.

How this will impact the church is unknown, but it presents traditionalists such as me with an opportunity to live out and present the gospel both inside and outside of the church. It also means I’ll have friends and colleagues on both sides of the spectrum, and everywhere in between. It also doesn’t mean the church is going to cease ministering to people, or that there’s any reason to panic or be overwhelmed by anger. It simply means we continue to trust God and see where things fall out, and how we minister the Gospel in those situations.

Terry Burns is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is serving as pastor of Nicosia Community Church in Nicosia, Cyprus. He holds a Certificates of Eligibility and Practice with the Church of Scotland and was a Commissioner to the 2015 Church of Scotland General Assembly from the Presbytery of Europe.