Scotland the confused: Did Presbyterians back gay clergy?

Scotland the confused: Did Presbyterians back gay clergy? May 23, 2013

Something happened on Monday at the General Assembly the Church of Scotland — they appear to have become Anglicans. No — they didn’t change from a Presbyterian to Episcopal form of church government. They did something more Anglican than combining bishops with Calvinism.  They’ve accepted the sacred “yes/but”  Anglican doctrine of deliberate confusion,  and have adopted a policy on gay clergy that no one quite seems to understand.

Let’s compare headlines and ledes from the Guardian, the Press Association and the Associated Press to see what they think happened.

The Guardian saw Monday’s vote as a victory for the liberal faction in the church that is seeking to change church teaching on homosexuality. Under the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers” it reported: (seems I’ve heard that before — but don’t let me distract you.)

The Church of Scotland, the country’s largest Protestant church, has narrowly voted to admit gay and lesbian ministers after traditionalists agreed to compromise after four years of division.  The church’s ruling general assembly voted to allow congregations to admit gay ministers but only if they specifically elect to do so, in a radical departure from more than 450 years of orthodoxy set in train by the protestant reformer John Knox.

The Press Association was less sanguine. It took a “two steps forward one step back” approach to the story. The headline used by the Huffington Post with the PA story gave the liberals the win —  “Church of Scotland votes for openly gay ministers” — but the lede did not back it up:

The Church of Scotland has voted in favour of allowing openly gay men and women to become ministers – whilst maintaining a traditionalist standpoint. The General Assembly backed a motion affirming the Church’s “current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality”, but permitting liberal congregations to depart from that approach if they wish to do so.

The Associated Press report was even more cautious than the PA and filed a “yes, but” story implying the decision was a draw. The headline that topped the AP story as printed on the FOXNews website stated: “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers, but only if congregations choose to do so”.

Senior members of the Church of Scotland have voted to let some congregations have openly gay ministers, a compromise first step that could lead to the church allowing gay clergy. The church’s General Assembly backed a motion affirming a traditional conservative view on homosexuality, but permitted liberal congregations to “opt out” if they wish to ordain gay men or women. The assembly vote would require the approval of next year’s General Assembly as well as votes by the church’s regional presbyteries to become law. The process is expected to take at least two years.

You can see this diversity of interpretation in the British press as well as and blogs that follow church issues. So what did happen on Monday?

The always excellent Law & Religion UK blog summarized the day as follows:

Yesterday the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted in principle to allow men and women in civil partnerships to be ordained to the ministry and/or inducted as parish ministers. There were various options before the Assembly:

  • the Revisionist option, which would allow ministers in civil partnerships to be appointed to churches and gay couples in civil partnerships to be allowed to have their partnerships blessed – but would allow individual kirk sessions to opt out of the arrangement;
  • the Traditionalist option, under which no new minister in a civil partnership could be ordained or inducted; and
  • a countermotion to section 2 of the proposed Deliverance by the immediate past Moderator of the Assembly, The Very Revd Albert Bogle, which reaffirmed the Kirk’s traditional view  on the issue but would allow an individual Kirk Session to choose to call a minister in a civil partnership if it so wished.

In short, the Kirk voted for the compromise resolution which affirmed the church’s traditional theological stance against  gay clergy, but nevertheless allowed  individual congregations to opt out and engage gay clergy — an outcome the British delight in calling a “fudge”.

Each of the newspapers reported that there will be no immediate change as the bill must now go to a legal committee to be submitted to the 2014 General Assembly.  If adopted, it  will be sent to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act 1697 because the issue touches upon “doctrine or worship or discipline”. Only if a majority of presbyteries approved the bill and the General Assembly confirms it in 2015, will it become law.

None of the articles I’ve cited above are incorrect. But they are lacking in historical context and failed to tell the full story. This is actually a defeat for the liberals. The 2011 General Assembly was presented with two options: affirm the traditionalist position and keep the ban in place on gay clergy, or endorse the progressive position which asked the assembly to consider lifting the ban on clergy in same-sex relationships and to instruct the church’s theological commission to prepare a report for the 2013 General Assembly on the relevant issues.

The 2011 assembly backed the progressive option and the theological commission released its report last month that summarized the revisionist and traditionalist arguments for and against same-sex relationships. But the commission was unable to reach an agreement over which one it should recommend to the General Assembly for adoption. This week’s vote represented a setback for the left in that the trajectory of the Church of Scotland had been that conservatives would be allowed to “opt out” on gay clergy. The bill passed on Monday instead offered an “opt in” for liberals on gay clergy.

In its 2011 report on the General Assembly the Guardian used the same headline as it did on Monday. “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers” its article of 23 May 2011. The lede that day was:

Scotland’s largest protestant church has voted to allow gay men and lesbians to become ministers.

It is a bit awkward for the Guardian to publish the same story on the same issue two years apart.

The second bit of context that would’ve helped was the report in the theological commissions paper that stated that only 35% of members of presbyteries supported the ordination of persons in a same-sex relationships. For the the bill to pass in 2015 the liberals must move support for gay clergy from 35% to 51%.

These press reports would give the casual reader the impression the Church of Scotland is shifting its stance on gay clergy. A shift has taken place but it occurred not on Monday but over the past quarter-century. The problem with these Church of Scotland articles is that the reporters assigned to these stories bring only a limited amount of knowledge to their reporting on the topics they are assigned to cover.  Would a reporter who knew this topic make the mistake the Guardian did, proclaiming in 2011 and again in 2013 the Church of Scotland has voted to allow gay clergy?

The market is responding by supporting specialty websites and publications. There are a number of fine Presbyterian publications and websites where you can find these issues debated and discussed in full. You just won’t find it in the newspaper on your front doorstep any more.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.



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