Times Newspapers Ltd
Last updated at 12:01AM, May 22 2014
An historic proposal has been passed by the highest court of the Church of Scotland paving the way for the ordination of gay ministers.
Commissioners at the General Assembly in Edinburgh voted by 369 to 189 to approve what has become known as a “mixed economy” in the church, enabling individual congregations to appoint a minister who is in a civil partnership, and opt out of traditional church teaching which is opposed to same-sex relationships. The vote, the fourth in the last six years, showed a widening gap between hard-line traditionalists opposed to same-sex relationships, and the more tolerant body of the kirk. The Right Rev John Chalmers, the Moderator, said the trend showed a growing desire for unity.
“It is clear that the way in which this compromise is framed that it is agree-able to more evangelicals now,” said Mr Chalmers. “I think this time evangelicals have become part of the group who are looking for peace and unity in the church, setting this matter aside for long enough for us to focus on other important issues.” So far 13 congregations have left the Church of Scotland over the issue of the ordination of gay ministers. Senior figures in the church believe another six may leave before the turn of the year, with perhaps a further 20 ministers quitting the church.
These relatively low numbers, should they come to pass, would represent a victory for those who have fought for unity in the church. Under the terms of the Barrier Act, which comes into play when changes of fundamental doctrine are proposed, the legislation must be ratified over the next year by a majority of 46 presbyteries before it is put to final vote at the 2015 assembly.
A compromise could still cause problems, the General Assembly was told. Under the Equality Act of 2010 it could face a challenge in the civil courts if an individual in a same-sex relationship was not inducted as a minister or deacon and claimed that he or she had suffered discrimination.
The church’s legal questions committee reported: “So far, neither the European nor the UK courts have had to consider whether a church operating a mixed economy is discriminating illegally. Until the law develops further, we cannot be certain what the outcome of a challenge would be. The level of risk is sufficiently low that it should not deter the church from coming to its decision on theological grounds.”
It was an issue picked up by the Rev Jeremy Middleton, the evangelical minister of Davidson’s Mains, who proposed a counter motion.
“If I am setting out on the sea, I want to know the boat is watertight,” he said. “A piece of [church] legislation that is essentially permissive could well be trumped by discrimination legislation.”
However, the core of Mr Middleton’s argument and of the succession of evangelical speakers who followed him, was the passionate belief that same-sex relationships are “unbiblical”.
The Rev Steven Reid said: “Scripture ceased to be supreme if you give in to 21st-century opinion.”
In an emotional intervention, the Rev Hector Morrison said he had witnessed Stornoway High Church’s recent departure from the kirk because of opposition to the induction of gay ministers. “The Bible speaks with only one voice,” he said. “It says ‘no’ [to same-sex relationships].”
These views were opposed with equal passion.
“God accepts that LGBT people are bringing blessings to our church,” said the Rev Bryan Kerr.
The Rev David Easton, a Methodist commissioner, doubted that Mr Middleton could see the truth of scripture with the level of clarity he had claimed.
“I wonder if clarity is at the heart of scripture. It says in scripture, ‘Now we see through a glass darkly’. We have to live with dark glasses, with provisionality. It is at the heart of scripture, at the heart of what it means to be a human being, made in the image of God.”
Earlier, Roseanna Cunningham, the minister for community safety and legal affairs, responded to the Rt Rev Lorna Hood, the 2013 moderator, who said that the independence white paper contained just a single line about religion and appeared to promote an entirely secular constitution.
At the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, Ms Cunningham said the government would engage with faith groups. A constitution would enshrine “fundamental rights, including liberty, the right to a fair trial, freedom of speech and association, conscience and religions”, she said.