The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland last night voted for a compromise resolution that could permit an individual Kirk Session to call a minister in a civil partnership if it chooses to do so - while maintaining as official policy a doctrine in relation to human sexuality that theoretically excludes partnered lesbian and gay people from ministry.
The Legal Questions Committee and the Theological Forum will bring reports to next year’s General Assembly about how this unusual balancing act will be achieved. In the meantime courts and committees of the General Assembly will maintain the status quo.
The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Kirk, the Rt Rev Lorna Hood hailed the development as “a massive vote for the peace and unity of the Church.”
Those supporting the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life, ministry and witness of Scotland's largest Protestant denomination, which is Presbyterian in its constitution, believe that the move is an important step forward.
One commissioner told Ekklesia: "The Kirk may not yet be ready to change its position officially, but by moving to allow local congregations to act differently it is opening a door to gay and lesbian people which will not be easily closed. The vote is a historic moment and a significant breakthrough for a Gospel of love gradually overcoming a culture of suspicion and fear."
Conservative members of the Kirk are likely to see things differently. However, Ms Hood told a press conference after the vote that she would be "disappointed" if any congregations left over the decision, given the overall affirmation of what was described as a 'traditionalist' rather than a 'revisionist' position.
The debate was based on 'deliverances' (resolutions) following a Report of the Church of Scotland Theological Commission published in April 2013 as the culmination of two years of theological reflection and discussion.
The report described and set out the breadth of theological opinion which exists within the Church of Scotland on whether it should ordain ministers who are in same-sex relationships.
On this basis, the General Assembly was offered a choice of either legislating to allow for such ordinations where those concerned are in a Civil Partnership or of reaffirming the inherited understanding that it is inappropriate to ordain ministers who are in same-sex relationships.
The Report did not offer a recommendation of one option over the other, but rather was written in such a way as to leave the outcome open for the General Assembly to decide.
Former moderator the Very Rev Albert Bogle, in the course of the debate, proposed a third motion (strictly speaking, a counter-motion) which, he argued, enabled traditionalist and revisionist supporters to move closer.
Ekklesia understands that a similar idea had been mooted at the resolutions committee producing official recommendations for the debate, but that it was withdrawn. It was then re-presented without notice from the floor, though possibly in a way that some conservatives had known about or pre-planned.
Such a procedure, many in the Kirk would argue, is against the intentions of the process the Church of Scotland adopts for its annual Assembly, which is designed to ensure that there is in depth consideration to what is finally voted on. Backers of the work of the long, painstaking Theological Commission are also said to feel some disappointment that this route was used.
The Report itself was presented to the Assembly by the Commission’s Convener, the Rev John L McPake, but the text was not examined closely, despite its considerable length and the detail it contained.
Earlier exchanges from the floor were preoccupied with procedral and legal issues, amendments, and two motions: the one put forward by Mr Bogle, and another that would have outlawed any change or development in the inherited position, save temporary tolerance of the small number of partnered gay people already in ministry in the Kirk - notably the highly respected Rev Scott Rennie, minister of Queen's Cross Church, Aberdeen.
Some conservative commissioners (delegates) indicated that they could never accept or recognise the biblical and theological legitimacy of same-sex relationships. Others acknowledged the need for some accommodation and for recognising the process of change the Church of Scotland was faced with. No-one explicitly sought to de-church those of a different persuasion.
The deliverance which would have fully affirmed the calling of ministers in partnered same-sex relationships recognised through civil partnerships, but would also have allowed for those objecting on conscience grounds, was finally defeated by a counter-motion in which the Church affirmed its inherited and current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality, while nonetheless permitting Kirk Sessions who wish to depart from the Church’s traditional position to do so.
Mrs Hood declared: “This was a major breakthrough for the Church but we are conscious that some people remain pained, anxious, worried and hurt. We continue to pray for the peace and unity of the Church.”
At the 2014 General Assembly, a measure to enact this week’s deliverance within Church law will be voted on. If passed it will need to be approved by a majority of presbyteries. So further objections remain possible. But it will be exceptionally difficult for the Kirk to pull back from the commitment it made yesterday, permitting the calling and confirming of gay and lesbian people in ministry.
Further reaction, both from Church of Scotland members and in the media, is likely to follow over the next few days.
* Kirk opens a door it will be very difficult to close again, Simon Barrow (Scotsman newspaper) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18409
The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is meeting in Edinburgh from 18-24 May 2013. Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow and consultant Carla J Roth are there all week, reporting, liaising and commenting.
* Ekklesia reports and commentary from the 2013 Kirk General Assembly, plus those from 2012 and 2011: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/kirkgeneralassembly