Church Of Scotland 2013 General Assembly — “Affirm the Church’s historic and current doctrine and practice… nonetheless permit…”

“Affirm the Church’s historic and current doctrine and practice in
relation to human sexuality nonetheless permit those Kirk sessions who
wish to depart from that doctrine and practice to do so.”

Yesterday was a long day for the commissioners of General Assembly 2013 of the Church of Scotland as they heard and debated the report of the Theological Commission on Same-sex Relationships and the Ministry. I had to chuckle as the Moderator made a comment about keeping remarks brief or they would be there until midnight as it brought back memories of late nights at PC(USA) GA’s.

The final outcome of the debate was an action that tried to find a middle way. It was reportedly worked out over lunch in the middle of the debate and moved by the immediate past Moderator the Very Reverend Albert Bogle.

The full actions of the Assembly on this report are now available from the Kirk web site but the closely watched portion now says:

3. (i). Affirm the Church’s historic and current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality nonetheless permit those Kirk sessions who wish to depart from that doctrine and practice to do so.

(ii) Instruct the Legal Questions Committee to bring an Overture to the General Assembly of 2014 which the following principles of 3. (i) above:

Principles of the Overture:

  1. Would not require the Church to abandon its traditional position.
  2. But would allow individual congregations – by decisions of their Kirk Sessions – to depart from the Church’s traditional position.
  3. Would allow ministers and deacons (current and prospective) who are in civil partnerships to be selected for training and to be trained. Would also allow them to be ordained/inducted into a charge the Kirk Session of which had decided to depart from the Church’s traditional position.
  4. Would cover inducted ministers and ministers and deacons working in other roles in congregations.
  5. Would not enable one congregation to depart from traditional position where others in a linking do not wish to do so.
  6. Would enable a Kirk Session to change its mind. But a minister or deacon who had been appointed to a congregation whose Kirk Session had decided to depart from the traditional position would not be prejudiced by a change of mind by the Kirk Session.
  7. Would preserve liberty of opinion and responsible expression. Would not permit harassing or bullying.
  8. Preserves right of members of presbyteries – whatever views – to engage or not in ordinations/inductions.

(iii) Instruct the Theological Forum to explore the relevant ecclesiological issues informing the principles of the “mixed economy” as set out in the Report of the Theological Commission and report to the General Assembly of 2014.

(iv) Instruct all Courts, Councils and Committees of the Church not to make decisions in accordance with section 3.(i) above until the position in relation to the proposed Overture has been finally determined by a future General Assembly.

What this means is that the Church of Scotland has effectively adopted the local option in determining suitability for ordination and service in a particular church and for recognizing and blessing same-sex civil partnerships. [Note: I use the term “local option” throughout this post but that is not an official term being used elsewhere in this discussion. It is a convenient term for me as this discussion and action parallels similar situations where the term is used.]

As I mentioned above, this particular motion — which was amended on the floor — was developed during the day of debate. As such one of its deficiencies is that it could not contain any changes to Kirk policies that are sweeping enough to have to be sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act. Hence, the Overture based on the principles listed in the motion must be brought to next year’s Assembly and would not go into effect until 2015 if the presbyteries concur. This also leaves the action of this Assembly vulnerable to modification by next year’s Assembly when it will have to give approval to that Overture.

This motion was promoted as the middle ground to try to keep the Kirk together, a compromise where each side had to give a little in order to get something. And it had well-known members of the Kirk from across the theological spectrum speaking for it.

During the debate it was clear that this motion was a work in progress and that was bothersome to a number of the commissioners who spoke. There were points that the Principal Clerk had to try to interpret what the implications of the language would be. And it is clear going forward that the legal minds on the Legal Questions Committee will have a lot to do with what is ultimately brought back to the Assembly next year.

The debate was reasoned and well conducted with just a few points of frustration and raised voices. As with any debate of this complexity, with the multiple options and amendments flying, there were several points where commissioners were confused about what was happening. But overall the Moderator, The Right Rev Lorna Hood, did a very good job of keeping order and the process moving.

At the end of the day the commissioners had three options before them — this one and the two from the Theological Commission report I discussed in the preview. The other possible option, what was referred to as 2C, of which notice was given, was withdrawn on the floor. What was ultimately the prevailing motion was introduced as 2D.

After the arguments in favor of each of the three options a vote was taken on all three with 2A – the original revisionist option – receiving 270 votes, 2B – the original traditionalist option – receiving 163 votes and 2D getting 191 votes. With 2B voted off the island eliminated the final vote was 282 for 2A and 340 for 2D. (My thoughts on the voting shifts may come at another time.)

If the traffic on Twitter and the mainstream headlines are an indication this is being seen as a win for the revisionist side. (And I should add that several speakers expressed their disapproval of the revisionist/traditionalist labels the report used.) Many tweets repeat the BBC headline “Church of Scotland General Assembly votes to allow gay ministers.” Traditionalist are saying things like “How can you vote to affirm standards while allowing exceptions to them” as well as indications of individuals seriously considering leaving the church. And there are responses from members of the Free Church of Scotland as well. It is however interesting that the other issue in the report, that of same-sex civil unions, has seemed to get no play in the press or social media.

A few of the blog responses that appeared shortly after the decision include one by Chris Hoskins on his blog Endure Fort who reflects on his trying to figure out what he thinks of the compromise. More decided is John McLuckie in his blog JustLuckie who critiques how Scripture was used in the traditionalist argument. And an Anglican priest who followed the debate discussed first the debate and then a second post on Where Does the Church of Scotland Stand? UPDATE: I would add to the responses a long and thoughtful Open Letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2013 from Louis Kinsey.

In addition there are official reports from the Kirk and it’s official publication Life and Work.

But what is the bottom line here? Yes, the General Assembly has adopted an action that provides a path for ordination and blessing of civil unions for those in same-sex partnerships. It has also adopted an action that affirms traditional doctrine. But it appears to me that while a compromise agreement has been achieved that may avoid a major departure right away, the real result is that any actual polity change has been pushed out another year to 2015. And despite what the media is focusing on this is regarding both ordinations/training and civil unions. As point 3(iv) indicates, the moratorium is still in place. Under this action the traditional doctrine has been affirmed so in the discussion in the civil arena about same-sex marriage in Scotland the Kirk remains opposed to the proposed action of the Scottish Parliament.

This has also opened up a discussion on what allowing individual sessions to set their own standards means. Has the Church of Scotland taken a step towards congregationalism or, as one quote said, a “federation of congregations”?

The questions about this action are numerous: Will the 2014 General Assembly somehow undo this? Will this compromise hold the Kirk together, at least for the moment?  Is this system even workable if it is implemented? Would the proposed resolution be agreed to by the presbyteries under the Barrier Act? Could the local option be extended to other issues of human sexuality or even other issues in general?

What we see in this whole debate and action are two important Presbyterian values embedded in this debate and compromise. The first is the importance of process and doing things decently and in order. While this is a frustration to many who would like to see quicker change, we gather as community to discern together where God is leading. The second is the tension in which we hold doctrine and individual conscience. We are constantly seeking the line where individual views can be held but in the context of the community must be subjugated to the discernment of the community of which we are a part.

We will see how this action affects the future of the Kirk. Stay tuned…

3 thoughts on “Church Of Scotland 2013 General Assembly — “Affirm the Church’s historic and current doctrine and practice… nonetheless permit…”

  1. Gary Ware

    How would you like to part of the rules committee vetting the legalities of the projected overture?
    ‘We affirm our current rules, while invoking a rule that allows the relevant rules to be disregarded; while ignoring the general principle that rules not contradict each other and not creating any sort of general precedent or principle that encourages anyone to start disregarding all our other rules.’
    Talk about waking up with Leah…

  2. Steve Salyards

    It will certainly be an interesting exercise. I am expecting some statement regarding corporate conscience while traditionally Presbyterians have only recognized individual conscience. And then only in belief and not practice.

  3. Matt

    Fundamentally this is a move to either congregationalism or non subscription. Both positions have been problematic for Presbyterians before and based on evidence Presbyterians can’t and don’t do congregationalism and even congregationalists find it difficult. Ultimately the church can’t mix the “spirit of the age” with the “teaching of the bible” and remain clear and consistent so fudge it is, with confusion by the shovel full and ultimately the church ends up standing for nothing.


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