Sexuality, ordination and the Church of Scotland: thoughts about the “solution”

ga2013At the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly the debate about the ordination of homosexual people ended by rejection both the alternatives presented in the Theological Commission’s report which was good given how deeply flawed both sub-reports were (I’ve commented on the deeply flawed nature of both sub-reports here and here). The nature of the “compromise” that was presented remains very unclear however and offers an opportunity to think through the issues in a new and different way.

This compromise, essentially, asserts that the Kirk is and remains of the view that homosexual practice excludes any individual from the ordained ministry but explicitly empowers Kirk Sessions (the governing bodies of parish churches) to depart from that view. It further states that this implies that people who are in civil partnerships to be selected for training with a view to ordination on call to a church whose Session has decided to take advantage of the opt-out.

In effect it says that the Church of Scotland as a whole is opposed to such ordination but that it recognises the legitimacy of the opposite view and will support (through the denominational training structures) those acting on that dissenting opinion.

The most immediate reaction was that the issues this raises for the Kirk are ecclesiological and the Theological Forum was instructed to examine the “mixed economy” created from this angle. The granting of an explicit license to decide locally against the view of the denomination as a whole or of its Presbyteries has been seen as compromising the polity of the Kirk in a “congregationalist” direction. I would suggest, though, that another and better approach to thinking through the meaning of this decision is available.

This would involve (and I would argue is implicitly already at work in the act of General Assembly in passing the compromise position) deciding that this question is not one of fundamental principle at all. The decision about whether or not to call people in homosexual partnerships as ministers is one about which the denomination does not need to have a view. It is expressing a view only because some people (wrongly) think it should while making clear that this view is not one about which it cares deeply (by saying to those that disagree with the view expressed that they need not feel bound by it).

In that respect it is like the decision to publish a hymn book. When Church Hymnary 4 was produced there was no compulsion on anybody to accept it. Churches could buy and use it or not as they felt fit. It was something the Church did but not something it felt the need to enforce. I’m not a Church of Scotland minister and I don’t understand the place that Common Order (the book of service orders) plays in its life but I’m sure it isn’t a prescriptive in the way that Anglican service books are. It is available for use but not, on the whole, strictly enforced as rules.

The Kirk seems to me to have said, with its decision to reject the Theological Commission’s alternatives and to go for something that does not impose a uniform view or practice, to have put sexuality into this sort of category. The denomination as a whole has expressed a preference against homosexual practice among its ministers but also said that it doesn’t care all that much.

This is a position of which I more or less approve (except that I would, as it were, reverse things by saying I think that the Church should affirm the calls of homosexual people but that I understand some believe that the Biblical prohibitions on same-sex relationships prevent this and would allow them to act on that belief). This implies the Church (or more properly denomination) as a whole deciding that this particular matter of sexual ethics is one that is not a fundamental question.

The proper topic for further theological reflection is thus not so much the matter of polity (ecclesiology) but that of the status of sexual ethics in the Christian life. The progress the Kirk has made (and despite my general aversion to the word “progress” I feel moved to used it here) is in the direction of a more Biblical appreciation of the place of ethics in our theology, a decentring of ethical codes. This will only be a good thing, though, if this decentring leads to a new focus on the figure of Christ and through him on God. If, instead, it leads to a more typically “progressive” focus on another kind of ethics it will be an opportunity lost.

  1. Roberta R said:

    I’m intrigued by your analysis, Nick! I’ll look forward to what others have to say in response.

  2. Elliot Vernon said:

    As a word by the side – the compromising ‘congregationalist’ position you state is not totally incompatible with one strand of classical Presbyterian theory (called the ‘ascending’ theory by Thomas Goodwin in The Constitution, Right Order, and Government of the Churches of Christ) that sees church power as primarily located in the congregation/kirk session and the powers of higher councils to be based on the collective delegations of that authority. That the alternative ‘descending’ theory, which tends to see the congregation as ‘not quite a fully complete churches unless under the supervision of a presbytery’ won out in seventeenth century Kirk politics and most other post Westminster Assembly presbyterian churches should not detract from the fact that allowing individual congregations a liberty to follow their own understanding is not essentially a ‘congregationalist’ position that compromises a presbyterian church system.

    • Thanks Elliot – that’s interesting and could be a historically useful point of reference both for the Kirk and for us. I think that Presbyterianism and Congregationalism are, in abstract, different ecclesiological doctrines but concretely every polity will mix them (and probably Episcopalianism too).

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