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Article No. 176

Disputes in churches - the Church of Scotland

The Church of Scotland now has a priceless opportunity. Not only has it the chance to show the Christian world how Christians deal with disagreement within their own ranks, it also has the chance to demonstrate to the world that by not dividing from each they are acting out the  essential character of Christianity. Separating from one another into two separate and disagreeing groups is exactly what Christians should not do when they hit an obstacle to agreement - even on such a serious subject as sexuality.

Last Saturday there was a vote in the Assembly of the Church of Scotland to decide whether a complaint against the invitation of an openly gay minister should be upheld. The facts are relatively simple. The minister in question was already a popular and ‘successful’ minister in another Church of Scotland and was invited to become the minister at the Church of Scotland Queen’s Cross, Aberdeen. In due course the Presbytery of that Church considered whether or not they should go ahead and call Rev Rennie to their Church. He had provided a biographical document that clearly stated that he now shared a loving relationship with his Christian partner, David.  

The Presbytery decided that he should be called to their Church and issued the Call. Two hundred and forty six members of the church had voted for the Call with another thirteen people concurring.   His becoming the minister of that church was therefore set to go ahead, despite the fact that he was openly gay and lived with his partner.

An appeal was issued by other members of the Church of Scotland (I believe that they were largely other ministers of the Church of Scotland) to the Assembly on the basis that it was against scripture and the practice of the Church of Scotland to have ministers who were openly gay.

The Presbytery of Aberdeen presented their reply to the substance of arguments made in the Appeal, and the case has gone to the top authority in the Church - the Assembly.  The Assembly has decided to dismiss the Appeal - and that enables the Church of Scotland, Queen’s Cross, Aberdeen to have the Minister they wish to have and for whom many of their number had voted.

It is perhaps worthwhile to note some of the reasons that church gave for rejecting the Appeal by those who wanted to stop the appointment of Rev Rennie.

In giving their response to the allegation that homosexuality was contrary to the bible, the Presbytery stated that the Church of Scotland adhered to the Scottish Reformation and receives the Word of God which is contained in the Scripture of the Old and New Testaments as its supreme rule of faith and life. Thus in the historical tradition of the church of Scotland it is the ‘Word of God’ which is identified as being the supreme rule of faith and of life. The ‘Word of God’ is not synonymous with the Scriptures, they said, but it can in part be discerned from the Scriptures through prayer and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. At the same time they gave reasons why their action was not against the internal rules of their Church.

However there are more battles to come as there is a motion to be debated in the Assembly which requires all Ministers of the Church to be either single and celibate or married to someone of the opposite sex. This has yet to be debated and it will be interesting to see what transpires. And it is at precisely this point that I want to suggest to the parties involved that they have a unique opportunity to demonstrate how Christians should proceed when they are in serious disagreement.

Whichever way the decision goes on  the broader issue coming before the Assembly, it seems likely that one side or the other will be disappointed with the result. Both sides feel strongly about the issue and I expect that neither side is prepared to just lie down and forget the matter in the event that they lose the battle at this Assembly.

It is precisely at this point that the Church of Scotland has a great opportunity to demonstrate how Christians should act in matters like this when feelings run high. Obviously just accepting the decision is not on the cards for either side. They feel too strongly for that. But what are they to do?

The example of the African Churches in a similar situation  is to be avoided at all costs. In that case there was deep disagreement between the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with some of the other Archbishops, and the African group of Archbishops along with some other Archbishops - occasioned by the same subject of homosexuality. What happened is that the African group withdrew from fellowship and refused to join the others at a service of Holy Communion. The refusal of some archbishops to join their fellow Archbishops at the Communion Table, despite the deep differences, struck many as deeply unchristian.

The last thing that Christians who disagree with each other should do is withdraw from fellowship - to separate. On no account should they break fellowship with their fellow Christians. Once the bond of affection and fellowship is broken it takes a great deal of work and probably several generations to repair it. And that is already becoming apparent in the Anglican Communion.

The end of that road is schism. And schism is always a tragic failure of the Christians concerned. The better course is always to carry on talking, to carry on praying, to carry on in fellowship, in  the hope that eventually the Holy Spirit will make clear to all the parties involved what the right way forward is - a way  on which both can agree wholeheartedly.

This is why the Church of Scotland has a unique opportunity to show the rest of the world the way forward in this difficult situation.

It may take a long time - possibly years. But eventually we must believe that if Christians are opening themselves to the Holy Spirit to lead and guide, then there will be agreement and a way forward will eventually be found that is acceptable to all parties.   

My newspaper also mentions that the ministers of some of the more evangelical churches in the Church of Scotland are already beginning to warn that they may refuse to provide money to the central authority. It was thirty years ago that I first heard the suggestion that evangelical churches might refuse to send funds to the centre if they did not get their way. The idea struck me then and it strikes me now as completely wrong. Apart from being a reversal of its obligations, such an approach stems from a ‘dog in the manger’ attitude. Ultimately it  is an attitude of - ‘if you don’t play the game the way we want we are going, and we will take our ball with us.’ Not only is such an attitude infantile - it is downright unchristian. It might even be labelled a form of blackmail by some people!

But that is the sort of thing that happens when passions run high! And if either side (or both sides!) fall into a ’fight to the death’ mode, then anything may result!

So the Church of Scotland now has a unique opportunity to model what the right Christian way forward should be. Of course those with strong convictions should not forego what they believe to be right. Of course they should continue to pray, to argue and seek to persuade. But to break away? Never! That would be a denial of the power of Christ, and a downward step.  

We Christians sometimes forget that the world is watching carefully all that we do. When we come up against a radical difference of views the world rubs its hands and says - “oh!  a fight!  Good - lets see who wins.”  The world cannot understand what makes Christians able to stay together when they disagree. In the world when you disagree strongly like this you just depart and set up on your own. The history of Christianity, alas, shows that this is exactly what Christians have done all too readily down the centuries.  

We have to remember that our Lord prayed that we would be one even as he and the Father were one. It is therefore laid on each Christian to live an attitude of love and unity with other Christians even when they disagree radically. That is not easy to do. Especially when the subject of disagreement is such an emotive issue as homosexuality. Yet this is the test that God has allowed into our lives in this day and age. It has fallen  to our generation to reconsider the whole question of sexuality in the light of the new scientific knowledge.

In the light of fresh understanding Christians always have to apply the gospel to the lives of their generation. Past generations of Christians had to rethink their whole attitude to slavery. There had to be major rethinking about evolution. For us, however, it is the question of homosexuality. And there is still a long way to go before we reach the end of this particular road. But lets travel that road together!

Tony Cross
May 2009

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