Reflections on a Sunny Sad Historic Afternoon at The Church of Scotland General Assembly
Today I spent over three hours sitting and listening to a very important ‘debate’ in the Church of Scotland Assembly. I am still recovering. I have gone through a host of emotions and thoughts. Without giving a blow-by-blow account I just share with you an edited version of the notes I took as I sat for over three hours in a boiling hot public gallery with the sun beating down on me through the roof window.
As I sit in the back row of the public gallery of the Assembly, there are some things that strike me. Firstly how impressive it is – at least compared with the Free Church Assembly –in terms of size and grandeur. I haven’t seen anyone with wigs at ours! Secondly the demographic is surprizing – my impression is that the Assembly is predominantly elderly with a significant proportion female – around 50%. Thirdly as I spoke to some C of S friends at the door there is an air of resignation amongst the conservative evangelicals. It is sad to hear the sorrow and despair in their voices.
The first couple of hours are strangely flat and dull given the importance of the issues. The report of the legal question committee is presented by Rev Alan Hamilton, the convenor, who given the hopelessness of his remit does a good job. But I am still astounded to hear the claim that God wants a ‘mixed economy’. In the jargon this means that the Church of Scotland believes that God wants them to affirm the traditional biblical understanding of His Word, and then to allow its congregations and ministers to depart from that. I wonder if this is only to apply to ministers in civil partnerships, or whether it would also apply to baptism, Presbyterianism, having women elders and sending money to 121! The plea is for peace and unity – at any cost.
Now we have just heard a stunning admission. The proposed mix economy means that the Church of Scotland cannot guarantee that any of its ministers would not be subject to a successful civil suit on the issue.
And another one. In response it becomes clear that whilst the Church of Scotland would allow homosexual civil partnerships, if the partners got married they would be subject to Church discipline!
And now the amendments:
1) Dr Finlay MacDonald – proposes an amendment on a technical matter of the KS giving four Sundays notice not two and not having a second meeting of the KS. Ministers in civil partnerships will find it difficult to secure appointments because of the complicated and protracted process. Welcome the green lights but fear that amber could become red.
“2009, 2011, and 2013 all voted to move towards departure” (so much for those who kept assuring us that no decision had been made!). He did not want a KS which was departing from the doctrine and practice of the Church to suffer ‘discrimination’.
The amendment lost 206 to 351
2) Rev Dr Paul Middleton – Wanted to shift decision time not to the time of a vacancy but at any time. “People outside the Church who think that this is strange to continue to discuss this” We owe a great deal to the conservative colleagues who should have a place and voice in the Church – I came out of that. It was my introduction to the church. Asked evangelicals to compromise. Secretary to the British NT Society. In danger of creating two class of ministers. Ministers come in all shapes and sizes, conservative, liberal etc. and they may or may not be in civil partnerships.
There were several other speakers and then the Convenor Rev Alan Hamilton responded.
For 165 Against 411.
3) Amendment from Rev Catherine Buchan – wanted the overture only to apply to congregations where they want to appoint a minister in a civil partnership. The legality of this was questioned by the clerk. She was allowed to speak to it.
The convenor responded. What weighs against the amendment is uncertainty and confusion – (which seems to me to sum up the whole issue – its what happens when you ignore the Word of God!)
The amendment was overwhelmingly defeated
. At this point I am struggling with the heat and boredom. It seems to me as though these amendments are relatively trivial and also political. The political purpose is to see several relatively meaningless amendments from the liberals defeated, so that the main issue then gets passed and the church can claim it is in the middle compromised ground. I also wonder about the waste of time – this means that the substantive counter motion was reduced to a fairly minimal discussion.
Jeremy Middleton – Counter Motion – Putting forward a Declaratory Act which declares the scriptural position (“the Church’s historic and current position is that, according to God’s revealed will in Scripture, marriage between one man and one woman is the only right and proper context for sexual relations”), and asks that no-one be allowed to go against the doctrine and practice of the Church. Albert Bogle’s motion was sprung on the Assembly – it appeared attractive. However the overture should be rejected because:
1) Its risky – The overture is fraught with risk. Legislation which is permissive will fall foul of discrimination legislation – if I am setting out on to the sea I want the boat I am sailing in to be watertight.
2) It’s ragged – There are a considerable number of loose ends. He gives one or two examples. Example – Assessors may not reject a candidate because they are in a civil partnership even if they are doing so because they are affirming the doctrine of the church!
3) Its wrong. Because it’s illogical for us to affirm that conduct is wrong but then at the same time allow that conduct. It is unbiblical which is the most important thing. The Assembly has acknowledged is that the teaching of Scripture is fairly clear. Its not about generosity of spirit – those who affirm the doctrine of the Church are bound to affirm a sin to be repented of contrary to what others may regard as something to be celebrated.
I want to bring a measure of clarity. The central issue is not about sexuality but about sexual relationships. The gospel is for us not about us. It is about our honouring God through the conduct we engage in – and that conduct is laid down for us in the Scriptures.
Surely our practice is bound to follow our conviction? We are called to be consistent. We need to make clear to our people, our land and nation what it is our church believes and why we behave in the way we do. That is why we need a declaratory act. (As I listen to this I am filled with admiration and thankfulness for Jeremy – his manner, tone, directness and clear adherence to the bible is wonderful. I am deeply moved and my heart tells me – surely any Christian will see what he says is biblical and will vote for it. My mind has doubts..We will see)
Donald Michael McInnes – Can we take it as a given that scripture is against this? Or are we going to start arguing against it? The moderator responds by saying that there are differences in the interpretation of scripture. Today we are trying to avoid a matter of deep discussion on our constitution and just deal with the overture.
John Kennedy – youth delegate seconded. Spoke of his love for evangelism. A number of his friends have left the church. Even stopped going to any church – because of the abuse they have suffered for holding to the scriptures. Many are young people who have considered ministry but have left. We should reverse the way we have been moving the past few years.
Sandra Black – spoke against the counter-motion.
David Easton – Methodist. Against. Need to take the whole of the Scripture; things are not quite as clear-cut. There is not in scripture one pattern of marriage. Clarity is not at the heart of Scripture…it is the Spirit rather than a fixed position. Now we see through a glass darkly but then we shall see face to face. (I find it surprising how often liberals use The Spirit as their justification and amazing how often the Holy Spirit seems to hold their views!).
Bryan Kerr – counter motion troubled him greatly. The committee’s motion was the best chance for peace and unity in the church and to let us spread the good news of Jesus Christ. God calls all sorts of people into ministry. God accepts that LGBT people can bring great blessing to our church. Gives us the best chance to stay together.
Neil J Dougall – attracted by a church where risk has been removed. Risk is part of the life of faith. This was a way of managing the diversity within the church. We want to remain a diverse church. (What stuns me about this is that Neil, is or was, an evangelical).
Jenny Adams – spoke against. To speak against the overture is a big shift against the historical position of the church. (Amazing how within one year, Albert Bogles innovative motion has become ‘the historic position of the church’!)
Dr Stewart Gillan- takes me back to my childhood (Jeremy’s position)…..I have changed my view. United Church of Canada. Spoke of their decision in 1988 to allow practicing homosexual ministers. (Apart from the rather patronising ‘I used to believe what Jeremy believes but now I have grown up’ attitude what surprises me here is that Dr Stewart does not tell us what happened in the United Church, how there were splits and there has been continued decline. It might be helpful to delegates if he were a little more honest!).
Stephen Reid – spoke in favour of counter motion. This is about the Word of God. Even the revisionist section of the report last year acknowledged that most if not all scriptures spoke against homosexuality – but they say we have to have 21st century opinion. We have liberty of opinion on matters which don’t enter into the substance of faith but only where it is agreeable to the Word of God. We are going on human opinion rather than on what God says. You nullify the Word of God if you don’t adopt the counter motion.
Mark Malcolm – we are in danger of asking for a church of what we ask for – of our own making. The trajectory we have been on has not led to unity. We are in danger of moving from constrained differences to institutionalised divisions. I have friends who have same sex attraction who will be devastated if the overture is passed. Why should we tear ourselves apart and move from our Presbyterian unity and descend into the worst kind of congregationalism. In the counter motion you are not being asked to do something new – just to uphold the scriptural principles you all vowed to uphold! We are asked to be faithful to what God has already commanded. (Again this was a superb speech – witty, biblical, logical, and clear….)
Hector Morrison – spoke in favour of counter motion.
David Scott – spoke in favour of counter motion. Jesus did not redefine marriage. Out of loyalty to Jesus Christ he will support Jeremy’s motion. (My heart really goes out to David who seems visibly shaken – and little wonder. God have mercy…and protect your people).
Farquhar Forbes – training to be a minister. Spoke for the counter motion. He mentions his experience in California, in a church which welcomed homosexuals but asked them, like everyone else to live by Scripture. We can show grace, compassion and understanding, whilst standing for the truth. (At this point I can’t help but hope that these excellent speeches will sway the Assembly to see sense. And then it hits me. Where are the liberals? What is going on? Why is there so little real debate? Its obvious – they don’t care. They know they have won and there is no chance of it being reversed. All they have to do is sit quiet, fold their arms, assure everyone that everything is done ‘graciously’ and they have all they want. Exactly as they planned from 2009 when they set out on this ‘trajectory’. Speaking of graciously I am astonished how easily we are fooled – we seem to think gracious means nice. To me it means full of the grace of Christ – I don’t think the liberals are being gracious at all. They know they have won and they expect evangelicals to keep their own house in order and make sure that as few as possible leave, and that those who do leave are ostracised and punished. If someone stabs me in the back, it is of little relevance to me whether they do it ‘graciously’ and with a smile or with a scowl! How do you tell God his word is wrong, with grace?!)
John C Christie – another former moderator. Spoke against the counter motion. This is polarising. Lets go back to Albert Bogle – the Holy Spirit was speaking to us and he still is….I too operate under the authority of Scripture. Blessed are the peacemakers. We have to recognise our differences, and learn to work together. The Church of Scotland is diminished when people have to leave. Pains me when their call to ministry is not being honoured. Go on in Albert Bogles spirit.
Jeremy – summing up – Moderator said declaratory act is retrospective.
1) The counter motion is simple. We have made ourselves very complicated. The overture is complicated. The counter motion is simple.
2) The counter motion is clear. We are in a confused, uncertain and awkward situation.
3) The counter motion is about integrity – we start with what the Scriptures teach and what our confessional statements affirm. The Declaratory Act just affirms what the Scripture teaches. This should not be contentious even though it is not comfortable. We do not dialogue with God – we listen to what he said and we do it. Think very carefully about which button you press – the risk is not that of legal action or costs – it is of stepping outside of the will of God and turning away from his word. Isaiah 11 was read – my people are determined to turn away from me. With a heavy heart I urge you to hear that Word.
(If anything this is even better than his opening speech. It is so devastatingly clear. And the warning at the end was so so solemn. I feel like I have been listening to the voice of God speaking through a prophet. Surely, surely, surely the Church will not close its ears? If they refuse this then I cannot see any hope….)
The Convenor replies – Takes Jeremy to task for the illogicality of not making his proposed act retrospective because that means he will have introduced a mixed economy. He admits it is new and unfamiliar. This overture offers new ways, for new challenges in uncertain times.
The Moderator prayed.
Vote: For Overture = 369
For Counter Motion = 189
I sit stunned. I can’t believe it. Really. The Church of Scotland has just voted 2:1 directly to refuse the teaching of the Bible and to deliberately and self-consciously go against it. How is that possible? How do intelligent men and women believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding them to go against His own Word? I really feel for Hector, David, Jeremy, Andrew and many other friends who must really hurt. What do they do? Surely, if they can stand the pain, they have to stay and fight within Presbyteries to try and get this overturned through the Barrier Act. We must pray earnestly for them. But now they only have until December. I have friends who genuinely believe that this does not really change anything – they accept that they were ordained into a biblically compromised denomination and that is where they feel called to remain. Although they have surely to ask the question, can we do so without being ourselves compromised? I have other friends who genuinely believe that renewal and reformation is just around the corner. They think there are more and more evangelicals who will eventually take over a declining church and reverse the trends. I would so love that to be true. But the evidence of this afternoon suggests that the gap in favour of the liberals is growing and that the battle is lost. I have yet other friends who see what is going on, who refuse to bow the knee to Baal, and who will continue to fight, feeling a genuine responsibility and calling to their own local flocks. May God bless them all. But the warning salvo from the Establishment at the heart of the Church yesterday about ‘gangsters’, who oppose the ordination of women, is a clear indication that their days are numbered. Whichever way one looks it seems as though there are difficult questions and difficult days ahead.
Sometimes we fill inclined to say ‘father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing’. I suspect that the Assembly knew exactly what it was doing. They have no excuse. I do not believe it is possible to be more clear, gracious, logical and biblical than Jeremy Middleton was. I am so thankful that there are still men and women like him in the Church of Scotland. But the Church has decided not to listen. I am genuinely shocked and stunned. Ichabod.
I got up. Moved out onto the Royal Mile where I was bathed in beautiful sunshine. And wept…..
May 21st 2014
Footnote: My reading that night was Psalm 74 and Isaiah 22. Both seemed very apposite. This from Ps 74:
18 Remember how the enemy has mocked you, O LORD,
how foolish people have reviled your name.
19 Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts;
do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever.
20 Have regard for your covenant,
because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land.
21 Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace;
may the poor and needy praise your name.
22 Rise up, O God, and defend your cause;
remember how fools mock you all day long.
23 Do not ignore the clamor of your adversaries,
the uproar of your enemies, which rises continually.
The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 74:18–23). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.