Church 'issues' are about people, not abstract ideas

By Simon Barrow
May 21, 2013

Ask anyone reporting or commenting on the 2013 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and they will tell you that proceedings this year are being dominated by two 'issues': the reception, or otherwise, of same-sex persons in the life and ministry of the Kirk; and later this week 'The inheritance of Abraham: A report on the promised land' (which has provoked a substantial preemptive assault by the pro-Israeli government lobby, on account of its advocacy of justice for Palestinians and Jews alike).

Undoubtedly, these are the concerns where most internal and external heat is likely to be felt, and where media interest will focus. But they are far from the only important questions the Assembly, the Kirk's governing body, is discussing. And, as ever, it will be far too easy for those seeking to negotiate, or make capital out of, the 'issues' to do so without adequately embracing the people involved - most particularly those whose lives are in question or on the line.

If 'being church' means anything (and for those attempting to follow Jesus Christ communally as well as personally in a confused, divided and unequal world, it must do), then it ought to mean putting people and planet first as interrelated gifts of God. Frequently, however, churchly and worldly politics is not like this. We struggle to win points, to defend abstract principles, and to prove that our rightness must involve someone's wrongness.

Now of course I'm not saying that examples, principles and truths are unimportant. Far from it. But they are important because they are a chance to affirm, support, defend and encourage persons-in-relation and the environment we all need to flourish, recognising these as gifts of God to be cherished rather than assets to be disposed. At least, this is how we will be disposed if our theology and humanity are in anyway intertwined; if 'hearts of stone' are truly giving way to 'hearts of flesh', to quote a famous biblical aphorism.

In the gospels, it is "the least of these, my brothers and sisters" who Jesus identifies as the litmus test for the integrity of our claims to love God and neighbour. It is they who are the means of judgement on nations and religions. Not ideas, doctrines or concepts alone, but real people: those living and dying in the most difficult circumstances; the victims and perpetrators of wrongs; glorious but flawed human beings.

In Christianity we learn that before the Word (the compassionate reason and purpose of God) comes to us through text and formulation, it meets us "in the flesh". There remains something awkwardly particular and compellingly scandalous about the claim that the life of God flows in and through (not over and against) the life we experience in human and earthly terms; and that this is decisively demonstrated in the very particular narrative, history, words, deeds, death and restoration to unconstrained life that belong to Jesus the Christ.

To take this as the story we inhabit is to do no less than to take persons with compelling seriousness, and most especially hurting and wounded persons - which includes all of us at some juncture, but is particularly at stake among those bruised, battered, assaulted, excluded and killed by those (whatever religious or non-religious label they employ) who are prepared to use power to assert themselves and their tribal interests above all.

There will be all kinds of debates and contentions at a Church assembly. The Kirk, though unique in its particularity, is no different to any other in that respect. But we all, as Christians, face the same judgement: has what we have said and done fulfilled God's will be enabling more people to live more fully, to love more widely and to act more justly? If not, there is something theologically and biblically wrong going on -- irrespective of (or perhaps because of) the verses and doctrines that get misapplied to argue something else.

At a surface level, yesterday's Church of Scotland debate (20 May 2013) around resolutions arising from the Kirk's Theological Report on Same Sex Relationships and the Ministry was civil and polite. But there were still some arguments for supposed 'traditionalism' that almost wholly denied the truth of other persons, that took no account of the holy lives lived by LGBT people, that by unavoidable implication rejected as inauthentic and inexpressible the deep love felt, developed and offered to the church by those in same-sex partnerships.

People unable to accept the witness and ministry of LGBT persons in faithful and lifelong unions speak of immutable biblical authority, of the unchangeable will of God, of divine holiness, of unbreakable tradition and of being commanded by the truth. I do not doubt their sincerity for one moment, and nor would the church be true to itself as a community called by graceful adoption (rather than tribal affiliation) if it excluded them.

But inclusion does not mean unconditional acceptance of all we say and do. Excluders are welcome, but not their exclusion, you might say! For the truth is that whatever our gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, class or background, we have something to share and something to learn; something to offer and something to repent of. All (not just some, or 'that lot') have fallen short of the glory of God and need to be nurtured back to fullness of life.

Suggesting that God has no purpose or place for a group of people because of one of these characteristics (or any other) is fundamentally heretical, however much it waves the Bible or claims godlike truth for its assertions. Heresy is dividing the complex and often paradoxical whole for the ease or comfort of a part, and most especially denying the truth that God comes to us in truly vulnerable flesh, history and text, not impenetrable ideological entrapments of these things.

To be a Christian, in other words, is to be "for people" in the way that God is for people in the story that finds its dynamic, conclusion and vital interpretative key [for it needs all three] in the still-unfolding life of Jesus... who turns the tables of the money-changers; challenges religiously based exclusions; calls together a community of the last, the least and the lost; is killed by the collusion of faith and empire, and is vindicated by an act of sheer life-giving that we call resurrection - not by death and destruction.

'Biblical people', as Rowan Williams once observed, are those who discover in the words this living Word, not people who use the Bible as a weapon to justify people like themselves and refuse 'the other' who is likely to point us all most endearingly to the Other who is God.

Well, perhaps a church assembly isn't the most natural place for doing this kind of mystical theology (by which I mean exploring what it means to live in this world, but in the presence of the loving and transforming mystery we call God). But surely that, for the sake of persons-in-relation made in the divine image, is what we should nevertheless be striving to do as we resolve, report and revolve.

Finally, to rest this early morning reflection on an example of which it speaks, people: special greetings to the Rev Scott Rennie, minister of Queen's Cross Church, Aberdeen, and his partner, Dr David Smith, a teacher and Biblical Studies scholar. The debate on same-sex partnerships and ministry was not and is not about them alone (of course), but without them it might not have taken place. It is people such as they who help offer the church a transformed, rather than a stuck, future. Without them, and many like them, it would be a poorer place and less open to the love of God than it needs to be.

(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.


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:

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