Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Of God and the politicians

Yesterday, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland debated the matter of whether it was prepared to accept ministers in same-sex relationships.   According to the Scotsman ,  it "voted to affirm its 'current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality', which stops gay people becoming ministers.  However, under a compromise hammered out during the debate, liberal congregations will be able to opt out of that and appoint gay clergy if they wish."  (The official wording of what the General Assembly agreed is here.)

What happened is interesting, but so is the way it happened.  Initially, the Assembly was presented with two options, set out in a report prepared by a Theological Commission.  One of these options would have had the Church holding to the traditional view, that homosexual activity was, per se, immoral; the other option (described as 'revisionist') would have had the church moving to accept the view that there was nothing wrong with homosexual activity.  The Assembly was given the opportunity to vote on whether it wanted one of these options, or the compromise proposal that was eventually agreed.  According to the Scotsman, 163 people voted for the traditional position, 270 voted for the 'revisionist' position, and 191 voted for the compromise.  Using the mechanism of the alternative vote, the traditional position was eliminated and the Assembly voted again and chose the compromise proposal over the 'revisionist' proposal by 340 votes to 282.

But, perhaps more interesting than what happened, or the way it happened, has been the reaction.  The decision has been described as "theologically incoherent" by Kelvin Holdsworth of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and as "confused and inconsistent" by David Robertson of the Free Church of Scotland.  It seems to me that they are both quite correct.

The official reaction, from the Church of Scotland, is, of course, rather different.   The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Lorna Hood said: “This is a massive vote for the peace and unity of the Church.”    John Chalmers, the Church of Scotland's principal clerk, said:  "This has been one way or another, a massive vote for the peace and unity of the church."   Curious that they both used the same words, isn't it?

What strikes me is that Lorna Hood and John Chalmers sound much like party managers.  The Church of Scotland is, in many ways, like the Conservative Party.  Both have seen sharp declines in membership in recent years, both are much divided over certain issues, both are seeing members defecting to other organisations.   And the Church of Scotland seems to be acting increasingly like a political party.  The all important thing is to maintain unity and keep people who disagree sharply together within one institution - for the good of the institution.

The point is that the church is not supposed to behave like a political party.  It is supposed to be focused on listening to God.  The report of the Theological Commission asked the church to listen to God.  Some of its members (the 'revisionists') suggested that God was a loving God who wanted the church to accept that loving same-sex relationships were good things.  Others of its members (the traditionalists) suggested that God was a God who had spoken and made clear in his word that same-sex relationships were sinful and should not be treated as acceptable in the church.  Whatever their disagreements, the 'revisionists' and the traditionalists on the Theological Commission both agreed that the focus should be on God.

Yesterday, at the General Assembly, the politicians came to the fore.  A political compromise was worked out that said "Yes, God doesn't approve of this - but that doesn't really matter.  We'll allow it anyway."   The politicians won the day.  And politically, it was brilliant.  One felt that Messrs. Cameron, Clegg and Milliband could have learned a thing or two from the sheer political brilliance of the decision.   This was in the league of Mr. Blair - the true master of the art.   Of course, Tony Blair didn't do God.  The politicians of the Church of Scotland do.  But one gets the impression that yesterday, God was largely left out of the decision.


No comments: