IF the Church of Scotland is to be a national church, it needs to be a broad church.
In the past it has been weakened by schisms. The Disruption of 1843, when 450 ministers broke away to form the Free Church of Scotland, proved so traumatic and divisive that it is still referred to as if it were a recent event. That rift was only partially healed by the reunion of 1929.
The Kirk managed to avoid another schism over the issue of the ordination of women in 1968. Today that is no longer a bone of contention, even though there are still parishes that are unlikely to call a woman as their minister. Church members have learned to live with their differences.
Today the General Assembly debates the profoundly divisive issue of the ordination of openly gay clergy. Ever since the Rev Scott Rennie was appointed to Queen's Cross Church in Aberdeen in 2009, the revisionist and traditionalist sides of the Kirk have been slugging it out, both sides armed with cherry-picked Bible quotations. A theological commission on the issue, whose own members were divided, failed to come down on one side or the other.
It has been predicted that if the church votes to accept gay ordination today, up to 60 ministers may walk away, with or without their congregations. Six ministers and two congregations have left already.
The last thing the Church of Scotland needs is another schism. There are many lively and thriving parish churches but the Kirk is already dealing with a recruitment crisis, black holes in its budget and pension scheme and a vast estate of often-crumbling buildings, supported by dwindling congregations. The church is about so much more than this debacle, which risks obscuring and undermining the good work it does (often unsung) on a daily basis: holding the hands of the elderly, the sick, the dying and the distressed; bringing love and reconciliation where there is hatred and discord; challenging consciences on poverty, fair trade and fair tax.
Today the church needs to come to a conclusion that accommodates the deeply-held convictions of evangelicals and conservatives but allows congregations to call a minister who is in a civil partnership if they wish to.
Homosexuality is not what most people, include most Kirk members, think about much. The very rapid change in public attitudes towards gay relationships and the apparent obsession with it by some in the Kirk risks leaving it looking irrelevant and out-of-touch in a modern, largely secular Scotland. Indeed, many younger Christians must wonder what all the fuss is about. If the presbyteries and kirk sessions that are hostile to change had given gay Christians a hearing, perhaps they would have come to different conclusions. After all, some prominent traditionalists and evangelicals around the world have changed sides on the issue.
Liberals too must listen with respect and leave room for their detractors. An inclusive church, prepared to meet people where they are, is best placed for a revival.
The Kirk remains an important force in Scottish society. It has more important matters to agonise over than this.
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