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What it takes for the Kirk to be a broad church

The church whose founding father railed against the "monstrous regimen of women" has made significant progress on sexual equality in recent years, but there is still more to be done.

It is 50 years since women were first ordained in the Church of Scotland but there are still pockets where women are unable to progress. It remains a fact, a shocking fact, that in some parts of Scotland long-serving, members of the church community will never be allowed on a Kirk Session simply because they are women.

Of course, one of the greatest signs of progress has been the post of moderator itself, which has been held several times by women, although the first of those, Alison Elliot, was appointed in the face of strong resistance. The most recent moderator, the Right Reverend Lorna Hood, the third woman to hold the post, has said there are many women in her church who are not able to fulfil their potential, particularly in regard to the eldership. Indeed, Mrs Hood was a victim of discrimination herself when she was told she would not be welcome in some parishes in the Lochcarron and Skye presbytery.

Shocking though that is in 2014, it should be put in some context. Not only has the Church allowed female elders since 1964 and women ministers since 1968, there are more female elders than male in the Kirk. This places the Kirk at least 50 years ahead of the Catholic Church on an important issue of equality but, more importantly, it means many thousands of women are playing an equal role in the work and direction of the Kirk.

However, resistance remains, with around 20 to 30 congregations having no female elders. When pressed, the official explanation is that no women have been proposed but another former moderator, the Very Rev David Lacy (someone who has always been a strong critic of sexism), can see through that one. What is really to blame, he says, is antiquarian gangsterism in some congregations.

The question now is how this gangsterism should be tackled and some progress has been made this week, with Mr Lacy urging women who believe they have been discriminated against to come forward. Obviously, this may not be an easy thing to do, which makes it important that women can nominate someone to approach the authorities on their behalf but it is the first step in the assembly addressing the issue of sexism.

The reasons for doing so, as well as the risks, are clear. The Kirk faces a recruitment crisis and must remove as many barriers to new recruits as possible. However, its leaders will also be aware, just days after one of its biggest congregations joined the Free Church in protest over gay clergy, that resistance to change remains and risks widening divisions.

However, a national church, even in the age of falling congregations, must be a broad church which means that, if victims of sexism do respond to Mr Lacy's call, swift and firm action must be taken. Knox's view of female leaders as an abomination may be ancient history but there is still more work to be done in making every woman feel welcome in the church he helped create.

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