THE Church of Scotland has taken a decisive step towards modernity by backing proposals which will permit gay marriages within the Kirk.

By agreeing also to the issuing of an historic apology to those affected by past discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people by the Kirk, it is also doing what it can to right a significant wrong.

The Church of Scotland, according to former moderator and head of its Theological Forum Professor Iain Torrance, has to acknowledge that over its history it has failed to recognise and protect the identity and Christian vocation of gay people.

It is the same forum, convened by Professor Torrance, which has also concluded that marriage cannot be viewed as fixed, but as constantly evolving and that the Church of Scotland can indeed celebrate gay marriages as “religious and truly Christian covenants.”

Giving a detailed account of the forum’s deliberations, Professor Torrance explained to the Kirk’s General Assembly that allowing the ministry of women had been challenged, like gay marriage, on the basis that the direct teaching of scripture was being set aside. Other arguments have also been used, including the “demonisation” of homosexuality for betraying the expectation that marriages involve procreation, he said.

But marriages have never been deficient simply because they do not involve procreation, the forum concluded. And there are positive reasons to celebrate gay marriages, whether the case is made on the basis of human rights, analogy with other issues such as the ordination of women or deeper theological understanding that same-sex unions are as valid and natural as traditional ones, as far as the participants are concerned.

“We are fully aware that not everyone is going to be convinced by this,” Prof Torrance said on behalf of the forum. Indeed the next step will be to reassure conservative ministers who oppose same sex marriage that they will not be forced to officiate if unwilling.

Safeguards for ministers who for “reasons of conscience” decline to participate in same sex marriages are something of a sop, but may be necessary so the church is not left vulnerable to challenge under the European Convention of Human Rights. This will have the unfortunate effect of helping ensure it is some years before such unions can take place in Church.

As for the apology, it will admit a change of heart, and accept that in its attitudes and its teachings the Kirk has discriminated against and marginalised people rather than celebrating their identity and allowing them to flourish.

In wider society, there has been a remarkable change in attitudes to gay marriage, with few people now having any strong objection to it, unless on religious grounds.

But the general assembly has now been convinced that there is no adequate religious ground, no sound theological reason why ministers should not be allowed to officiate at same sex weddings.

Overall, these decisions are greatly to be welcomed. They will ultimately enshrine attitudes within the Kirk which are more modern, and more fair, and above all, more Christian.