500 years after the birth of John Knox, the church he founded is still part of the fabric of Scottish life.
Before this year’s General Assembly (May 17–23), however, newspapers reported that membership of the Church of Scotland is under 400,000 compared with 1.32 million in 1956. There is a shortage of 107 ministers and this deficit is likely to rise to 220 by 2022 with retirements. There are presently only two ministers below the age of 30.
Kirk in denial
The Kirk denied that this decline has anything to do with the ongoing controversy about same sex relationships; claiming just 1% of its 1,389 congregations have seen their minister and a proportion of their members leave the denomination for this reason. This controversy concerned an openly gay minister who was inducted to a church in Aberdeen in 2009. His call was upheld by the General Assembly and further debates followed in 2011 and 2013.
The church’s theological commission prepared a detailed report on sexuality and offered two trajectories to the assembly of 2013. The traditionalist view would not permit ministers in same sex relationships from ministering while the revisionist view would. However, at the last minute a third option was introduced: that the church would uphold its traditional teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman but also allow individual Kirk sessions to depart from this doctrine and practice if they wished. This compromise was quickly hailed as a victory for the peace and unity of the church. Two further groups were instructed to look into matters and report to this year’s Assembly.
A Theological Forum explored the question of ‘mixed economies’. They argued that we already live with a ‘mixed economy’ on questions such as baptism, communion, and the re-marriage of divorced persons. The church, then, should allow space for ‘constrained difference’ on the issue of same sex relationships. During the debate it was highlighted that each of the existing differences has at least some support in Scripture, whereas, as the theological commission of 2013 recognised, every single reference to homosexual practice in the Bible was ‘negative and condemnatory’. Despite this the report was voted on and accepted.
The Legal Questions Committee then presented their proposals as to how the compromise motion of 2013 could be implemented. They acknowledged that there was a ‘low’ risk that a mixed economy may leave the church vulnerable to claims of discrimination under the Equality Act. During this debate the Revd Jerry Middleton graciously and eloquently proposed a counter-motion. He asked the Assembly to affirm its belief that Scripture teaches marriage to be between one man and one woman and to recognise its pastoral responsibility in helping those experiencing same sex attraction to live and serve in the context of a celibate life. This counter-motion was voted against 369 to 189. The legal framework supporting the ‘compromise’ motion will now be voted upon by presbyter-ies before returning to next year’s Assembly for debate and final approval.
Where does this leave us?
Firstly, as the denomination becomes smaller it is also becoming broader. Indeed ‘breadth’ is now seen as a virtue. In his closing address the Moderator, John Chalmers, said that he personally would like to challenge the Theological Forum to reframe, ‘our doctrinal standards’ [i.e. the Westminster Confession] in line with ‘the theological pluralism which is the Church of Scotland’. It appears that the peace and unity of the Kirk are being valued above faithfulness to Scripture, as this move would allow individual congregations to make up their own minds about a controversial issue.
Secondly, conservative evangelicals are increasingly seen as the ‘odd ones out’. Earlier in the Assembly, a previous moderator railed against ‘sexism’ in the church and described those who do not permit women to serve as elders or ministers as ⎯ among other things ⎯ ‘oddities at the extremities’. It seems there is no question of a ‘constrained difference’ for the complementarians on this matter!
Thirdly, there is a great deal of soul-searching. A number of evangelical ministers, elders and members have resigned in the past five years, feeling they can no longer submit to a General Assembly and work for the peace and unity of a church which ignores what Scripture has to say. The leadership of some fellowships have been sufficiently united to exit the denomination. In almost every case the majority of the congregation have followed.
Despite this, the Kirk has, with one exception, retained the church buildings and bank accounts for its own continuing purposes. There is a cost – financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually – to leaving to begin new fellowships.
Other evangelicals are persuaded of the need to stay in, to work for the reform and renewal of the national church. They have no small battle ahead of them. Please pray that all who seek to uphold the authority of Scripture and the integrity of the gospel – within or without the Church of Scotland – may love one another.
Euan Dodds – evangelist at Holyrood Abbey Church, Edinburgh.