The Church has been riven with internal divisions since its decision to set up a special commission on same-sex relationship in the ministry in 2009.
An internal report by Glasgow Presbytery described how in one church – St George’s Tron in Glasgow – the “general disquiet and sadness about the Church of Scotland’s decision to set up a special commission on this matter had been a contributory factor in several members directing their sacrificial giving and tithing towards the congregation’s evangelical ministry and outreach, rather than the central funds of the Church of Scotland”.
Over the next few years, it is believed a rising number of church members across the evangelical churches will also begin withholding donations. One minister, the Rev David Randall of Loudon Church, Newmilns, has long objected to the proposal. He said he believed there would be a “considerable campaign of non-co-operation – basically, not giving money”.
This threat adds to the wider one that many of the ministers and congregations may split from the Kirk. A Church of Scotland secret ballot revealed one in five ministers is considering leaving. The Kirk faces a potentially crippling multi-million-pound dispute over ownership of its churches, should this happen.
Kirk leaders fear a “land grab” by evangelical parishes, with hardline ministers taking their congregations and buildings with them.
The Rev Roddy Macrae has already announced his decision to resign over the issue, and a question was raised at the General Assembly over whether congregations would be able to keep their buildings should they go. Many of the congregations likely to leave are the so-called “fund-raising churches”, which give vital support to others.
Liberal minister, the Rev David McLachlan, of Langside Church and Glasgow Presbytery, notes: “There are some other churches in Glasgow reputedly thinking of following the Tron approach to funds.
“One I know of has ministers who have threated to leave and take their congregation with them.”
The Rev Ian Watson of evangelical group Forward Together said that this was a matter, for both sides, of principle, “not blackmail or hijacking”.
When Reverend Lindsay Biddle makes a public point on the issue of gay clergy, she likes to sport a jacket she created herself – written across the pale linen in bright colours are the names of 40 ministers and elders of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, churchmen and women, who were openly gay and happy to declare it.
Biddle is an American minister from the Presbyterian Church of the USA (PCUSA) minister who is currently working as a locum at Anderston and Kelvingrove Church of Scotland in Glasgow.
Her jacket, she says, talking over breakfast one morning, prior to a day at the General Assembly, “lets people known that there are ordained lesbian and gay people who are ministers, elders and deacons.” She recalls being asked if Scott Rennie, the man at the heart of the Kirk’s schism, was the “only gay minister” in Scotland.
“He’s the only one who’s out,” she replied, “but he is not the only gay minister.” In wearing her jacket, she is pointing out a future path for the Church of Scotland, drawing attention to the fact that just last year the PCUSA made its own shift to accepting gay clergy. Unlike those gay ministers in the Church of Scotland, her American colleagues could happily give their names without fear of recrimination. On the back of the jacket, just below the collar, was another message too, “Is anyone out there gay?”. These words, she says, were written on a sign which was held up by a minister in 1973 at a General Assembly in the United States.
For the Kirk – and for all Christians who accept the Bible as the written word of God – there are a few things about Biddle that are much more startling than her jacket; for one, there’s her idea that homosexuality as a sin does not appear in the Bible.
That seems to gloss over Leviticus 20:13 which fundamentalists fall back on as proof of God’s antipathy to gays: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
However, Biddle says: “I’m not disagreeing with the scripture. I’m just saying it’s not in scripture to begin with.”
Biddle, who is also serving as chaplain for Affirmation Scotland, a pro-gay group within the Kirk, is not a lesbian, though she says people often assume she is. She is happily married to a Church of Scotland minister. Mostly, when it comes to sexuality, she says, she chooses not to clarify. “In my role as a minister I’m a woman who often has to dress like a man. I’m happy being a transgender heterosexual, sometimes identified as a lesbian, woman.”
Her calling to bring about a gay-friendly church is one that comes not from her own sexuality, but from the American civil rights movement. Brought up in the segregated Deep South of America, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who served at a church in Mississippi, in her early years she attended an all-white, segregated school. When, finally, it was desegregated, she was seven years old, and the elders of the church grouped together and offered to pay for the minister’s children to go to a private all-white school. Her father refused, and the congregation voted him out. He was given a severance pay of $8000, which Biddle notes, divided out over the year amounted to a monthly pay of $666, “the number of the beast”.
She recalls that as a child, she viewed gay people in a way that she now believes was dehumanising, talking about “sissies” and “tom-girls”. But when, in 1985, the Greek professor at her seminary, died and it came out that he died from an Aids-related illness and had lived a secret closeted life as a homosexual, she says, “our community was blown apart”.
“At the time, the Aids crisis was blowing doors off churches and institutions and private lives. And that’s where I had to come to terms with my homophobia and my anti-gay upbringing.” It wasn’t long before she found herself training at a church in Washington DC, which defined itself as a gay-friendly and being “baptised into the gay rights movement”.
There are two approaches taken by liberals within the church towards homosexuality: one is the “that was then, this is now” approach, which declares that we live in a very different society where we can leave behind old principles and attitudes; and the other is the one Biddle takes, which is that the Bible does not say homosexuality is a sin.
Biddle came to this, when she decided to study the Bible and its translations to see what it really said about the issue of homosexuality. One of her main points is that in the new translations produced in the middle of the last century, a new word was used as translation for a wide range of Greek and Hebrew words: that word was the relatively newly-invented clinical term, homosexual.
She has various different interpretations for the words which range from “gentle” to “holy temple worker”. She also adds it is necessary to understand their context. “A man shouldn’t sleep with a man, is one sentence in a string of sentences about what a man should not sleep with. A man should not sleep with animals, a wife when she is menstruating, a man should basically not ejaculate, other than when the seed can produce a child in a legitimate woman. It’s all about men wasting their seed.”
Biddle believes there are many similarities between the ways that gays are viewed by the church, and the way women were once treated. She points out that arguments that were given against the ordination of women in the Church of Scotland were similar to those now given against gays. There, is however, a difference in how she views the two issues. “The homosexuality issue is not analogous to women or slavery, because we did not insert women into the Bible, we didn’t insert slavery into the Bible. Scripture does talk about these things – and in terrible ways.”
One of the reasons that the move to allow the ordination of gay ministers in the Presbyterian Church of the USA was passed, was because the evangelical wing left the church over the issue. “They left,” says Biddle, “and took their votes with them.” She is keen to emphasise that she is not interested in driving out conservatives in Scotland, or forcing them to change. “They are free to stay and do ministry as conservatives. But they keep repeating these threats to leave. Nobody goes after them or chastises them for having an exclusive patriarchal theology. They are perfectly welcome to remain, but they keep crying wolf. Quite honestly, I don’t know why they don’t leave anyway. Especially people who don’t like the ordination of women.”
In any case, she points out, gays do not want conservative people to leave. “Many gay people used to be conservative or evangelical or both. They haven’t given up being conservative evangelical. All that gay, bisexual and transgender people want is a seat at the table.”
Reverend Ian Watson is not yet about to lead his flock away from the Church of Scotland, though he has heard the news of Reverend Roddy Macrae’s intention to resign. He is a member of Forward Together, a fundamentalist evangelical groupwhich opposes civil partnerships, same-sex blessings and stem cell research. The group believes the church is under the sway of a “left-wing liberal agenda”.
“We respect Mr Macrae’s views,” says Watson. “We understand why he feels the way he does, but my own view is that my own people, my own flock are very distressed, and that it wouldn’t be right for me to desert them at the moment. I would hope as a congregation together we could come to a decision for how we want to proceed.”
Watson says he is troubled by the continuing slow movement towards allowing gay clergy. “There are a lot of people,” he says, “who are really upset by this – who just didn’t believe it would come to this ... The traditional view has been the view of the church always and [there is] no appetite in the wider church for any radical change. But I think because the General Assembly is denominated by a liberal elite – they’ve chosen to ignore that.
Watson has a reputation for strong views. In a firebrand sermon he once “compared an increasingly determined campaign against gay clergymen to the war against the Nazis”. For years he was secretary of Forward Together, the go-to man for a quote, his voice often pitted against gay minister Scott Rennie. But today, at his Kirkmuirhill manse, in south Lanarkshire, he seems all smiles, tea and biscuits, warmth and caring.
As far as he is aware there are no gay members of his congregation. If anyone did come to him, saying they were homosexual, would he accept them? “If they were actively homosexual, I would say you’re welcome to come, but you can’t be a member. If you’re becoming a member you’re declaring your faith in the Lord Jesus and desire to live a Christian life. And to be actively homosexual is inconsistent with that, as would be lovers just living together.”
In fact, the issue for Watson, and for traditional Christianity as a whole, is not just homosexuality, but a bigger one about permissiveness, including sex outside marriage between a man and a woman. Watson himself was celibate until he married, at the age of 25, a fellow celibate churchgoer, Kim, with whom he now has two teenage children. He is, he says, always trying to persuade people to marry.
Watson says he considers that Scott Rennie “pulled a fast one on the church because he came in as a minister as a married man, then he declared he was homosexual”. Ministers, he points out, are required either to be married or celibate. “If he was living in the manse with his girlfriend, he would have been subject to church discipline. How is it all right for him to be living in the manse with his boyfriend?”
Adulterers, for him, are as steeped in sin as homosexuals. “If I found out that there was a member of our church having sex outside of marriage, what we would say to them is, look, you are welcome to come, but your membership would be suspended.”
In this unpleasant cultural war within the church there have even been allegations thrown around – albeit off the record – that some fundamentalist ministers in Forward Together have had extramarital affairs. Watson says he’s never heard of such claims.
“I’m not on the steering group of Forward Together any more and when I was secretary there were 600 members, so I wouldn’t have a clue about all their lives. I would be very sorry to hear that.” If any minister did have an affair, what would his view be? “I would be asking the presbytery to investigate and to discipline them. Because as a Christian leader you’re supposed to set an example.”
For Watson “the real disease” in the church “is a lack of respect for holy scripture or an unwillingness to conform our lives to what it teaches”. He is familiar with the arguments from the other side – the position of opponents like Biddle – which he says are “fairly old hat”.
“The liberals,” he says, “think that by going along with what society is doing, they’ll make the church more popular and seem more relevant.”
He challenges, for instance, Biddle’s assertion that homosexuality is not defined as a sin in the Bible, saying: “You know how Humpty Dumpty says, a word means whatever I want it to mean, in Alice Through The Looking Glass? Well, that’s what she’s doing. Basically, what we’re saying is that it’s not just about sexuality, but that God’s purpose for human beings is a man and a woman in a committed convenanted relationship. That’s where sex belongs. You’re married, go for it. Go forth and multiply.”
But what of other difficult aspects of the Bible? Why choose some elements and disregard the others? How can you accept the word of God on one issue and not another? Does he therefore approve of stoning women for adultery?
“No. That’s part of a criminal code,” he says. “The Bible has different genres within it, it’s got its legal code, it’s got its poetry, it’s got its history, it’s got its narratives. The stoning for adultery was the law for the Israelites, so we don’t need to apply it to our society. Personally I’m against capital punishment anyway.”
Watson’s father was a Pentecostal minister, but, he says, he found a “home in the Church of Scotland.”
Ironically, he worked as a divorce lawyer before he felt the calling. He felt the impact of infidelity, he says. “I think it’s one of the saddest things in our society that a wee bit on the side, serial promiscuity, is shown in the media as being really glamorous and people buy that lie.”
So, why does he cling onto the Church of Scotland, given all these changes? He says he still loves the formality of worship. Watson notes, however, that evangelicals in the Church of Scotland have more in common today with evangelicals in other denominations than they do the Church of Scotland.
“Someone,” he says, “said to me recently, ‘I’m in the wrong church.’ I know a lot of people are feeling like that.”