Crisis of Faith in the Kirk; A Powerful Dispatch Asking a Question That Will Trouble People of All Faiths and None: Is the Schism over Gay Ministers the Least of the Church of Scotland's Woes? SATURDAY Essay

Daily Mail (London), May 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

Crisis of Faith in the Kirk; A Powerful Dispatch Asking a Question That Will Trouble People of All Faiths and None: Is the Schism over Gay Ministers the Least of the Church of Scotland's Woes? SATURDAY Essay


Byline: by Andy Collier

JESUS, the Bible colourfully informs us, was an expert at healing. His miracles included bringing Lazarus back from the dead, cleansing a leper and curing the Centurion's servant. He even sorted out Peter's mother-in-law.

There are many who believe his power of miraculous intervention remains alive on Earth today. If that's true, then he might like to give a thought this weekend to laying his healing hands on the Church of Scotland.

It is not that long -- a couple of generations, perhaps -- since the Kirk was the unrivalled spiritual and moral conscience of the nation. Slowly but inexorably since then, its authority and influence have unwound. Last week's General Assembly saw it at its lowest point in more than 150 years, with some observers now seriously questioning if it can survive at all.

The Kirk has been brought to the edge of a damaging split by that thorniest of modern issues, gay ordination. To be fair, this is a tricky subject for all the mainstream churches, and few have managed to survive the debate with their dignity intact. But the Kirk has handled the discussion with such muddle-headedness that it has turned itself into an object of near-ridicule.

This particular debate was triggered two years ago when Scott Rennie, an openly gay minister, was appointed to Queen's Cross Church in Aberdeen. That year's General Assembly -- the Kirk's yearly rule-making council -- was asked to endorse the appointment.

Faced with a difficult but vital decision for the church, it rushed to find the nearest fence to sit on, endorsing Mr Rennie but imposing a ban on any other congregation doing the same thing. Kirk leaders pushed the whole matter out to a commission, demanding monastic vows of public silence from all those involved while they pontificated.

Last week, the issue returned to the General Assembly. It decided two things. Firstly, that it would accept gay clergy as long as they were ordained before 2009 and had already declared their sexual orientation.

Secondly, that it would delay its final verdict on whether gay clergy will enjoy equal rights for another two years. In the meantime, the requirement for silence will continue.

You don't have to be a theologian of the stature of Martin Luther or St Thomas Aquinas to work out that this merely amounts to a shuffling of posteriors on the fence. It satisfies no one, and leaves the Kirk in a position where it is humiliating itself by its own prevarication.

There is no satisfaction for gay people in this acceptance-by-stealth approach. A position in ordained ministry is not a job but a calling and gay candidates deserve a clear and unequivocal answer as to whether they will or will not be accepted, rather than a constant hoofing of the issue into the long grass.

THE flipside of this persistent equivocation is that it does not satisfy opponents of gay clergy either. Traditionalists are furious that the matter has not been settled in their favour. One Highland minister, the Rev Roddy MacRae, has said he will now leave, and claims some 40 of his colleagues will abandon the Kirk along with him.

If that was the total extent of the dissent, many church leaders would probably be quietly relieved. There have been suggestions that 100,000 people -- a fifth of active members -- could walk out over the issue, although Mr MacRae's predicted rebellion would involve less than 5 per cent of the Kirk's current complement of 939 ministers.

Yet even if the rebellion is contained, the damage will be hideous. Any sort of church split is a painful spectacle, with congregations often rent apart and legal challenges over issues such as ownership of manses and church buildings.

To a society increasingly receptive to secularism and humanism, squabbles such as this degrade the church and make it less relevant than ever. It all looks like a gaggle of bald clerics fighting over a comb. …

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